This essay originally appeared on Her View From Home in December 2021.
The air conditioning blew strong from the dashboard on our short trip home from elementary school. I learned the details of their day, complete with playground frivolity and social studies discussions. After we reviewed the low likelihood that there will be ice cream in the freezer when we arrive at home, my third grader asks:
“Mom, when you were my age, what did you want to be when you grew up?”
Pausing only for a moment, I responded, “When I was in elementary school, I wanted to be a writer. Sometimes a veterinarian, but usually, either a teacher or a writer.”
I let that answer sit for a few moments, wondering what her response might be. My first grader, whose social tact is still under construction, chimes in, “But you’re none of those things.”
With only a hint of irritation, I flicked my turn signal up for the final stretch home.
“Well, I do teach people how to be a nurse. So, I’m a teacher in that regard. And I write when I’m able, since I find it therapeutic. And two dogs are enough for me.” Smiling at the last sentence, I hoped they would catch on to my humor and not realize the deflection from their original question.
They caught on. “Why didn’t you do what you wanted to do?” They don’t outwardly say that I’m boring or seem disappointed that it might sound like I’ve settled. All those belittling thoughts are reserved for my own head.
I tried not to miss a beat. Attempting to portray confidence, I responded, “Ultimately, I did get to do what I wanted to do. In high school, I realized I wanted to work in health care. I love taking care of people.” I hoped that would be enough. My third grader’s raised eyebrows, reflected in the rearview mirror, indicated my rose-colored statement was, in fact, not enough of an explanation for her.
I went on. “Halfway through college, I knew I wanted to be a nurse. I knew I wanted to be able to spend time with the family I dreamed up in my head, so once you were here, teaching was a wonderful balance of work and family.”
If you want to see young eyes gloss over, bring up work-life balance as a reason for making career decisions. I don’t think I was surprised that slicing oranges for their soccer games after office hours wasn’t glamorous enough for these wild-eyed dreamers. My story is not fancy, but it’s our everyday, and our little slice of life. It’s my dream that came true.
My monologue was too long for their impatient ears. Our conversation returned to the contents of the freezer. If the ice cream was gone, maybe there was a popsicle or two. Unless their big sister, still spending half her time at home, grabbed all the treats during virtual school. Their questions stayed with me in the weeks that followed. Why did it appear, to my children, that I hadn’t done what I wanted to do with my career?
A spring day hints back towards the winter. The trees, full of new leaves, rustle in the wind. Which season are we in? It could be a metaphor between the past and the present. During Zoom office hours this evening, my perplexed student, not sure of her next steps, shared sentiment with the seasons.
“I don’t even know where to start,” she claimed. “Can anyone, even nurses, find a position in a pandemic?”
My exhale sounded more exasperated than I intended. My mind jumped back twelve months, when I assured the 2020 graduates there would be no issue finding jobs. In a global pandemic, there must be a need for nurses. But the fine print reads: We need experienced nurses. Not someone we will have to teach, who will take up space and PPE. Each of my students falls into the latter category, while desperately wanting to make a difference in the former. As resources tighten, the balance between grace and grit is a nurse’s daily struggle.
Her follow up question brings me back to the present day. “I mean, how did you decide what you wanted to do? Did you always want to be a teacher? Isn’t it hard to step back while your colleagues are caring for those that are exceptionally sick?”
I turned my gaze away from the green dot on the laptop camera. The best students always ask the toughest questions.
It’s true, most days, I would love the opportunity to be back on the frontlines, directly caring for patients again. Especially in these moments, when I worry my credibility, my impact, wanes with each year I’m teaching, and not actively someone’s assigned nurse.
I guide this student back to the questions we review on the first day of each course. Why do you want to be a nurse? Do you have a passion for a particular area? Do you want to imitate the excellent care you witnessed for a loved one? Or to search for a cure that could have saved someone dear? Or, is nursing just sensible, practical, and interesting?
As they near graduation, I encourage my students to continually engage in the same reflection: How will their nursing career represent the values and passions they hold dear? How will their work fulfill a sense of purpose for the rest of their life?
Turning the mirror around to myself is not nearly so appealing. I fear this reflection requires the conclusion that my career is making steps down the right path. Being a work in progress is much less comfortable.
The middle school sent us multiple emails the next week, detailing new curricular changes designed to craft conversations on tough topics. For the sixth graders, perhaps the most impressionable of the cohort, the topic is identity. How do you know that you’re the person you’ve always been told you are? Or are you growing into something different?
As I catch my breath, I have to ask my husband: How far do these questions extend into adulthood?
The pandemic upended many career trajectories. I naively assumed mine would remain unaffected. I logically concluded the world would always need more healthcare providers in a pandemic. I didn’t appreciate the nuance that would affect every aspect of my jobs, from the required participation in my daughter’s virtual schooling, to the new staffing ratios and mandatory overtime for clinical practice partners in our health system.
My graduating students draw me back to the gnawing question, reflected in the innocent inquiries of my daughters, “How do you know you’re doing what you’re supposed to do? How do you discern your true vocation?” And what if, years down the road, your career doesn’t look like you thought it would when you first set out? Does that mean you did it wrong?
I offer my students the same advice I hope my living example extends to my daughters one day.
You’ll find your path when you chase down joy with abandon, believing that you were designed with gifts to share with the world. One of the great puzzles of life is to find how those pieces fit together with your surroundings. Your puzzle doesn’t need to look like mine, or your classmates, or anyone else’s.
I’m still searching, still trying to take steps toward the right path. With each fork, each opportunity, I view our next right thing through the lens of my family. Am I showing them an example of how to make their indelible mark on the world?
My favorite students rarely know what they want to do. I can feel the angst through the Zoom screen; I know their hands are wringing outside the confines of the computer picture. The pressure to make the best move in a tense environment can feel crushing. The biggest question looms large, whether you’re a middle schooler, a graduate student, or rapidly approaching middle age: “What if I make the wrong choice?”
I can’t promise that we won’t go astray or offer any sort of guarantee that every decision will be the right one. All I can offer is this: Try it out, see if it fits for you. If it doesn’t, come back and talk to me. I’ll be waiting right here.