When I was 16, my mother got me a job at the bank where she worked. Every Saturday and Sunday from 7:30 a.m. until 6:00 p.m., I processed checks for large corporations. It was dull, mind-numbing, paper cut-inducing work… and I loved it.
My first day on the job, the woman training me raved about how quickly and efficiently I’d accomplished each task. I basked in this praise. I liked knowing that others could depend on me, and I wasn’t about to let them down.
By the time I’d reached my thirties, I was living in Los Angeles, working as a fundraiser for large nonprofit arts organizations. I prided myself on being reliable. I relished the rush of submitting work ahead of deadlines. I enjoyed finding strategic ways to work with challenging colleagues. Nothing meant more to me than knowing I was a trustworthy team player.
Over the next decade, I raised millions of dollars and forged important relationships with donors, all while working my way up the ranks. In 2014, I was hired as the Director of Foundation Relations at the American Film Institute — my dream job. I was part of an amazing team, raising money for programs I cared about. I was so happy.
Then, it ended.
In 2016, my husband was offered a too-good-to-pass-up job opportunity in Albany, New York, a city I knew little about. I was nervous but willing to give the move a shot. Albany was closer to our families and would be a better place to raise our child. And after 13 years of sitting in LA traffic, it could be a good change for me too.
AFI arranged to keep me on remotely for 3 months while they searched for my replacement. Though I didn’t say it out loud, I secretly hoped that if I worked hard, raised money, and met deadlines, they’d extend my employment. I envisioned myself acting as East Coast liaison with the organization’s D.C.- and New York-based donors.
I spent so many weeks convincing myself this was the most obvious path that I failed to create a plan B. In my mind, the only option was for AFI to keep me on.
They didn’t. When my 3 months were up, my contract officially expired.
I quickly learned that the arts field is significantly smaller in my new city. I spent hours every day scouring job sites and reaching out to local nonprofit execs to “pick their brains” over coffee.
A few of those execs were up-front, telling me, “Albany is not Los Angeles.” I couldn’t replicate my LA salary, large office with a downtown view, and major Hollywood donors in Albany. The arts organizations here have smaller budgets and less resources. I was clinging to a role that just doesn’t exist.
I didn’t know what to do with myself.
My husband went to work every day, my son went to school, and I fell into a deep depression. Though our new home offered fresh air and peace and quiet, it also had dark, dismal winters that stretched on for months. I’d pad around our suburban house, jobless and alone, while my husband and son thrived.
Rather than cheering on their accomplishments, I found myself resenting them. They’d come home with stories about their day and I’d sit, listening, silently seething and wondering if I’d made a massive mistake. We’d relocated for the betterment of our family, but as they moved forward with their lives, I felt left behind. It was an entirely new experience for me to be without work, with no one to rely on me or validate my contributions.
For so long, I’d worn my professional accomplishments like a badge of honor, as if the bullet points on my resume were a representation of my entire self. Without a job, I was lost. I didn’t know who I was without my career. I didn’t know how to fill my days.
“I miss being around people,” I vented in my journal. “I miss having a say in things. I miss being a part of something bigger.”
One day, on a whim, I wrote a blog post. It served no purpose other than to give me something to do. I published it on Medium and waited for the world to point fingers and laugh me off the internet. Instead, I received compliments. My funny little rant about the difficulties of starting a blog seemed to resonate with others who, like me, wanted to write but weren’t sure where to begin.
Strangers shared my post on social media, and former colleagues — the same ones I’d envied for having gainful employment — told me I’d inspired them.
“I’ve always wanted to write,” I heard more than once. “I’m so sick of my job.”
Over the next few months, I penned essays and blogs while my husband and son were out of the house. Without any real foresight, I pieced together a career as a freelance writer. But instead of allowing it to consume me, I approached this new role with care. I set boundaries. Writing, I decided, is something I do. It is not who I am.
Giving up the mindset that my career is a representation of my entire self has been freeing. Yes, I’m a writer. I’m also a mother. And a wife. And a friend. I’m a TV binge-watcher and a library-loving bibliophile. I’m a baker who hates to cook. I’m an arts lover who can’t draw. I’m so much more than my LinkedIn page.
My happiness no longer depends on validation from my colleagues or the adrenaline of meeting tough deadlines. Now, I find joy in the process. I’m embracing the newness of my career. And the flexibility of freelancing allows me to be present with my family, something I couldn’t do when I was anxious to respond to emails, check voicemail, and be everything to everyone.
I don’t regret any aspect of my professional life. In fact, I’m proud of my accomplishments. I even miss some of my past jobs. But they’re just that — the past.
Now that I understand that work is something one does, not something one is, I’m no longer lost. I’ve finally found myself, and I can’t wait to see what else is in store for me.
Sandra Ebejer’s writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, FLOOD Magazine, Brevity, The Girlfriend, Folks, and Motherfigure. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram or read more on her website.