Friday, August 30, 2013

Failure and success

I never feel ‘successful’, whatever that means; instead, a vague sense of failure dogs me. It’s my own doing. Over and again, I have made choices to do what felt like the right thing, and which almost invariably moved me further away from conventional definitions of success. I’ve stayed home with kids for almost a decade; I’ve studied for love not employment; I’ve puttered around on blogs with no ambition or marketing plan; I’ve submitted writing to other outlets only occasionally and have barely tried to get published; I’ve never written a book or something ‘proper’; and now, when my youngest is almost ready to start school, I’m still not looking for a real job. Instead I’m studying again, this time for a higher degree in a field which I find fascinating but in which I see no prospect of further work.

Meanwhile, when I’m not studying, writing, cooking, or hanging out at the playground with a little one, I’m usually to be found in a classroom reading with kids. I’m not a trained reading recovery aide, just one of the countless mums who help out. Or I’m chopping veggies in the school canteen, or writing materials for my church community, or gardening, or doing something else for free.

As the feminist daughter of a professional woman, boy am I a failure. Despite my class, education and training, I’ve joined the great invisible unpaid workforce that keeps the world going. I don’t doubt that this is good work, but I am regularly assailed by the thought that I should have Achieved Something by now. Surely, to be a ‘successful’ person I should be earning a solid income, have results to show for my efforts, have a professional name. And I don’t. This idea of being ‘successful’ plagues me. Time and again I grapple with it, and time and again I reject it. But the rejection is never complete; slowly, the hunger builds once more, and I have to face up to it again. But why?

Perhaps the answer is found in religion. Garry Deverell, a brilliant thinker and theologian, has observed that we live in a deeply religious society. He isn’t talking about ‘Christianity’ or ‘Islam’ or ‘secular humanism’ or any of the other major faith-based observances. Instead, he understands religion to be the upholding of the cultural myths and assumptions that shape our values and our lives. In our society, one of those myths is ‘success’. More precisely, it is to be more successful – more highly educated, better paid, living in a bigger house with more stuff and a nicer car – than one’s parents; and this is what so many of us strive for.

My husband’s family is a classic example. Papa was a milkman who left school at 14 to accompany his dad on the milk run. His wife, Nana, worked as a tea lady to put their girls through high school and Dorothy, my husband’s mum, continued training to become a teacher. She married, and both my husband’s parents worked to put their boys through private school. My husband went straight to university, climbed another rung on the professional ladder, and became a lawyer. By most standards, this is a story of a successful family; and the story has, in fact, suited my husband well.

But when one lives differently, through choice or otherwise, the powers that be try to force you into conformity. Sometimes they attack from the outside, through the snide, diminishing comments of others; through the admonitions to get on board from conservative politicians and pulpits; though the social pressure of a particular milieu. Other times, they work from inside; the dominant powers become internalized, and they can do their most powerful work from within.

And this is, I think, what happens to me. Both my parents had postgraduate degrees. Moreover, my mum was a feminist trailblazer; and I must have been told a thousand times what a brilliant, incredible, gifted, prophetic woman she was. Then she died young: a life cut short, a tragic loss, God’s gift taken away too soon, blah blah blah.

I can’t possibly live up to her standards, let alone exceed them. To step out of her shadow I’d need to have written half a dozen bestselling books by now and have a fan club of thousands, and that sure ain’t happening! So I haven’t tried. I have deferred a career, if indeed I ever develop one, and instead I have tried to become a whole person, ‘living my prayer and praying my life’ as we say in our weekly church service.

It is, I think, a good way to live, but it comes at a cost: the cost of feeling like a failure; the cost of having to face up to that feeling again and again and tell it where to go; the cost of being criticized by others for not being a paid up participant in the workforce; the cost to my self-esteem (a sense of failure can be corrosive even when I understand how and why I feel this way); the cost of negotiating power and responsibilities in our marriage when my husband is very busy very important very paid and I’m not; and, of course, the cost of less household income.

These costs are the consequences of my choice to live in a way that is not improving on my parents’ lot and is not based on acquisition or wealth. I’m hardly a radical hippie, but even my small step off the hamster wheel has its price. A failure? In our society, with my background, how could I feel like anything else?

Yet life is full of paradoxes. The other day I studied for a few hours. I had ordered a book through an inter-library loan; surprisingly, it turned up as microfilm. So I had to re-teach myself how to use a microfilm reader, which was fun. Then I read like a mongrel. Book gutted, I headed to the shops and bought a swag of groceries; then I collected my youngest from kinder and we went home for lunch. Some good ideas swirled round my head as we hung out the washing and she chatted. We picked up her sisters from school, came home again, fooled around, cooked dinner, read stories, and went to bed.

As I lay there, I reflected that this smaller, less successful life suits me well. I move so sweet and fast that I often feel like I am dancing; even as I type, my hands float over the keyboard in swift and skilful play. According to my own lights and that of the world, I may be a bit of a failure; even so, I am surprisingly, even ridiculously, happy.


  1. I guess it is the 'marching to a different drum' thing? Not that I think marching' is the right word for our movement through life. I do agree that even being clear about rejecting pervasive ideas about individual success, economic growth etc doesn't mean it isn't hard to withstand, to challenge, to subvert or whatever we find ourselves doing. I think my parents took a line much more like you and your husband have, and I and my brothers are immensely grateful to them. I think we find ourselves trying to follow their ways of parenting and being. Jean

    1. I prefer the idea of 'dancing' to a different drum! - yes, I think that even when we can articulate exactly what we are doing and why, it can be very difficult to retain faith in oneself and one's choices in the face of other, very dominant, social norms. I am grateful for parents who modelled a different way of making decisions - even if I didn't always agree with their conclusions!


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