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Embracing Joy in the Midst of Uncertainty

And finding my answer to a dreaded question...
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This kind of grey January day feels like a segue, a song that dips and shifts, without a pause in between. It’s lunchtime, though the clouds obscure any sense of passing hours. I’m standing by the stove, frying yet another egg while my daughter makes Valentine’s cards at the kitchen table. She’s singing a song about a royal detective.

I hum along with her, but I’ve only got eyes for my egg. I love the brittle lace of the albumen, the way it circles the yolk like a Sherpa throw. An egg is an easy symbol of new beginnings, but instead, I see it as a representation of my own stasis. Not birth, but purgatory, that moment just before. The bright jiggle of yolk, soon to be broken by little toast soldiers, feels tremulous, like my own psychic state. It contains the uncertainty I’m so desperate to hide from the world.

Once, not so long ago, I had a Google Calendar full of neat little boxes. Thao x Someone Else x Someone Who Probably Could Have Been Looped in on an Email. My to-do list ran down the page, like the map of a perfectly linear rail system. I got relentless satisfaction from filling in my neat circles. I was a woman with a plan.

I own three day planners, but, now, I have no plans at all.

Recently, I left a job that had been a dream in so many ways. I was incredibly privileged to have had the choice to leave, and the safety net of savings as well as my partner’s income, during a time of financial crisis for so many. Even now, it feels difficult to articulate why I made the decision to be my daughter’s full-time caregiver. I wanted more time with her, much more than I was getting. I wanted to write a book, to write more in general. Maybe I would sew or paint. To be honest, I don’t know what I wanted, only that I felt an inner pivot, like a twist of gravity, a force that jarred me with its insistence. I felt shell-shocked after I put in my notice, like someone else had stepped into my body to do the deed.

Soon, I’m home full-time with my Wonder Girl. We sink into a new kind of routine, if a shapeless sort. After breakfast, she crawls into my lap for stories, dangling her long legs over mine. She’s already far too tall for my liking. We read for what feels like hours and she asks questions that stack on one another.

“Why did Anne smack her slate over Gilbert’s head?” she wonders, fingers tracing the red braids in her board book.

“He said a mean thing to her. But you shouldn’t break things over people’s heads.”

She nods, a sage wrapped in her pink mermaid blanket. “Yeah. I don’t want to have to get a new slate.”

For our online yoga class, we plant our legs into Warrior’s Pose, arms outstretched like awnings. We hold hands during Savasana, her fingers flicking the inside of my palm. Then we hunker down for “school,” which, at her age, really means scribbling in workbook pages with ladybugs and puffy alphabet letters. I fry my egg for lunch. The days go on, one hour linked to the next, an unbroken trail.

When I was young, I knew exactly the answer to the question of what I would be when I grew up, though admittedly that answer changed frequently. Like any good Asian kid, I said I wanted to be a doctor for a time—a surgeon, to be exact. In high school, my parents sent me to medical camp where I toured a formaldehyde-soaked room with a greying cadaver. I promptly lost interest in a medical career. Then I wanted to be a professor and got two Master’s degrees in writing. Next, a designer. I learned to code. Who knows—a part of me wants to become a marriage counselor in my golden years.

The poet Mary Oliver asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” I long to live a thousand lives inside the little one I’m given.

When I was in graduate school, my husband was already established in his job as a marketing manager. He worked with wealthier clients (in the insurance industry, these scions are called “high net worth”) and we attended a number of charity galas. His company paid for our seat at the table, literally. I donned the same A-line little black dress I always wore to these functions and put my hair in my approximation of a French twist. I felt like I was playing a part. My husband did too. We didn’t really fit in with these suited, moneyed people.

His well-meaning clients and supervisors asked me what I did for a living. It was their first question, and it always filled me with anxiety.

“I’m in graduate school. I’m a writer. And a designer,” I’d ramble.

“Oh,” they’d reply politely.

A few asked if I wrote books like Dean Koontz or Jodi Picoult. I said I wished I could one day achieve that degree of success, but, no. I wrote for little-known literary magazines that never paid, and also I had no idea how I would pay back my student loans, or what I’d do after I earned my degree. I saw their eyes start roaming as I talked, already turning toward the tray of tiny crab cakes, jiggling their legs in barely contained impatience.

And, like a conveyor belt of beautiful, bored people in front of me, the next person would shake my hand and ask, “What do you do?”

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In time, I came to hate that question, and I did everything I could to avoid it. I shimmied to the open bar more times than I can count during those charity dinners.

I’m not sure what makes me so uncomfortable about the question. It often feels like a kind of performance where some hidden evaluation is happening between the lines. As a recovering overachiever, I find myself consumed with an internal monologue of self-consciousness and doubt. I wonder if I’m impressive enough. Then I wonder if I’m bragging too much and should just shut up. Then I consider that maybe I’m overthinking the whole thing and no one cares, so I should just shut up.

I know this: What you do in your office life is not always that which gives you passion or meaning. I don’t know how we can be expected to express the multitude of ourselves through a simple job title. Yet, I still feel the need to sell myself, to offer some kind of elevator pitch that places me in the world. Years of capitalism and family expectation brought me to this place of associating value with where I happened to be in my career.

I’m told that asking about one’s career is a very American thing to do. In other countries, acquaintances ask about all sorts of things: what one is reading, the impressions on the latest political scandal, how one’s family fares. Some feel that asking about work is impolite. My own family hardly asks me about my work. As long as I’m not starving in the streets or trying to move into their spare bedrooms, they figure that I’m doing okay. Yet I feel the need to seek their approval anyway. I wish they would ask.

This tension leads me to believe something I’ve suspected all along: my identity—and yes, my ego—is desperately wrapped up in what I do for a living. I get a contradictory thrill when I change my LinkedIn description to whatever promotion I’ve earned, though I hate talking about it aloud. Even still, I find a way to work it into conversations with my mother, fishing for approval.

“Aren’t you proud of me?” I beg silently. “Am I worth all those years of sacrifice?”

For an immigrant, living up to the promise of America is often the loftiest aspiration—and, in my case, one of the most toxic ones. All my life, I’ve had recurring nightmares about work, and work-related insomnia. Once, when I didn’t get a job I interviewed for, my grandmother cried for an hour from sheer disappointment, tears piling inside her thick reading glasses. Later that night, I dreamed that she literally died of shame.

I worried that each career misstep meant that I was failing someone else, though I rarely asked if I was failing myself. Don’t get me wrong: I wanted to be happy in my job, but I also felt guilty for choosing joy over stability, especially when so few could claim that joy (or stability) for themselves, including my own family, who worked long hours in places they never would have called “dream jobs.” I’ve been conditioned to think that I must give up a thousand other worthy things if I chose to gamble on fleeting happiness. Joy was a privilege.

Since leaving my job, I now see Wonder Girl more than I once did, and I notice things I haven’t before. How her hair tangles quickly and easily, the fine strands escaping bows perched on her head. Her way of intoning “literally” like a Valley Girl from the ‘90s. How much crap she hoards in a given day: ribbons, Post-Its, words. She’s a trove of new ideas and mannerisms.

During Wonder Girl’s rest time (we chuckle at the notion of a nap time), I write, trying to jot down all the ideas that came to me as we played earlier in the day. I snatch at them, smoke-tendrils on the verge of disappearing. My word count is not impressive. In fact, I write far less than I did at the job I left. But the writing that emerges is the wild, reckless kind that feels as close to revelation as I can get right now. It comes from that new center of gravity, a place that manages yet to be shielded from expectation or ego.

Not all moments are wonderful, of course. Some are disorienting and annoying and a bit boring. It’s hard to be attentive all the time, and it’s tiring to argue over the same things. Any two people spending large swaths of time together likely feel that same tedium. I’m new to this season of life, and the routines may shift in time. What feels constant now could be upturned next week. I’m steadily gathering writing projects and making a semblance of a living. I can’t evaluate how fulfilled I am yet, but I know one thing: I’m letting go of the ego and unlearning the lessons from a society that often values progress over personhood. Uncertainty is a privilege for me. Being able to wait, to consider, to explore myself: those are the marks of my privilege. I hope for a world in which access to space and time is more readily available for those who want it.

The sum of who I am is more than what I do for a living, but if I had to write my own job description, it would include all the linked moments of my unglamorous chosen life. I don’t know what job title that amounts to, and even if I did, I’m certain it wouldn’t be a traditionally impressive one. It might be a joyful one, though.

Before bed one night, Wonder Girl tells me, “I have a job, Mommy.”

“Oh yeah? What is it?”

“I’m an author. And an illustrator. And a princess detective.”

“That’s three jobs, honey.”

She nods. “I can do it all.”

I love her certainty, but that’s not my path. I’m destined to wonder, worry, and probe. Unlike my four-year-old, I won’t know all the answers, or even a quarter of them. But nevertheless, I’ll embrace my uncertainty, because that feels like the real beginning of it all.

“What do you do?” that hypothetical stranger might ask, expression both curious and challenging.

I’m a stay-at-home mother, an amateur yoga practitioner, and an unenthused preschool tutor. I write things sometimes, and I mostly run around my house moving objects from one place to another, hoping that it reads as tidy. I can be a thoughtful partner sometimes, though more often than not, I’m real selfish about my snacks. I’m Wonder Girl’s best friend at this moment in time. I fry a mean egg.

And against all odds, when I confess to my grandmother that I’ve left my job, she tells me what I’ve wanted to hear for decades. “I’m proud of you.” I think I may finally be proud of myself too.

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