Friday, August 3, 2012

Transitions: How Do You Know Your Life is Forever Changed

Today is my last day at work. I've been in this job for three and a half years. It was my first full-time, "real" job. It was a great atmosphere where I was given a lot of responsibility and room to grow. I worked with amazing students, and I felt like I was making a difference.

I'm leaving because the experience I've gained there taught me that I belong in the classroom. I feel most alive when I'm interacting with students, and I want to move into a role that will allow me to do that as my primary focus. I had the opportunity to apply for a job doing exactly that, and I start next week. I am thrilled.

But things don't really seem real yet, either.

I've been moving my stuff from my office in small loads over the past week.

My Books
And by "stuff" I mean boxes and boxes of books. Can't I have a lighter addiction?
So the shelves are empty, the papers are sorted, and the desk is cleared. And today I'll walk out the door and say "see you later" to my co-workers without really knowing when "later" will be. 

That's weird. 

And you'd think it'd bring a certain degree of closure, represent an almost tangible moment of change. Today I came into this office, and Monday I will report to a completely different place. 

But it doesn't really feel that way. 

See, I'll still be coming to this campus multiple times a week. I'm still taking PhD classes here, so my role as a graduate student will continue on uninterrupted. I'll still pass my students in the library. I'll still meet up with my co-workers for a chat. Things will be different, undoubtedly, but the transition is gradual. I'll move away from this space and into another one over time. I'll trade in some of my roles for others, but some roles will remain exactly the same. 

And that got me thinking: all of my major life transitions have worked this way--except one. 

High School to College

This is the quintessential transformation from child to adult (I base my understanding of reality off of slice-of-life teen comedies). 

Life lessons abound. 
Walking across that stage is the moment that everything falls into place. You no longer have curfews, but you have responsibilities. It's time to decide who you'll be and start being it. You know the drill.

But it didn't really work that way. I graduated, then I spent a whole summer living in the same house I'd lived in my whole life. I slept in the same bed and kept working at the same fast food restaurant. 

So, sure, maybe moving into my dorm room was the big your-life-is-changing-forever moment. It's got the ingredients: change of location, new expectations, unfamiliar social scene. 

Except, at least for me, it still wasn't. I moved back to my mom's house the summer between freshmen and sophomore years, and I even went back to work at the same fast food restaurant. I slept in the same bed. 

I'm not saying that going to college didn't radically change my life. It did; it just did it over a long period of time. 

Moving in with My Boyfriend

My now-husband and I have been living together for a long time. I can't tell you exactly how long because I don't know when it happened. 

We lived across the hall from each other our freshman year. I mean this literally. I could look out my dorm room door and see his. I could probably have stretched out in the hallway and had my hands in my room and my feet in his. 

So, sometimes, he stayed in my room. Then sometimes became often. But he still had his own dorm room. 

The next year, I had a dorm room, he had an apartment. Sometimes he slept over, and sometimes I did. We were generally together every night, but we had separate spaces. 

The next year, I got an apartment with two of our mutual friends. He got an apartment with some friends of his. Then he never stayed there. We went over there one night, and they had filled his room with storage boxes because it had been so long since he'd been there. He was still paying rent and he had a place of his own to go to, but how much of his own was it if none of his things were there? 

 My work space and my bedroom (!) ~ 1 of 6 photos
Slight dramatization
When another one of his friends needed a place to stay, he gave up his place in the apartment and "officially" moved in with me, paying rent and all. 

The next year, we got an apartment of our own. 

So, I moved in with my boyfriend. Isn't that supposed to be some kind of major relationship milestone? Because I don't have any idea when it happened. 

Going from College to Graduate School

Going from college to graduate school definitely had an abruptness that moving to college lacked. There was no going back to my old apartment. One day we were packing a U-Haul, and the next day we were moving that stuff into a city we'd never lived in. I didn't see any of my old professors wondering around town. This was something completely different.

Except, really, it still wasn't.

I graduated from undergrad and then, again, had a whole summer to burn before I could make major life changes. In the meantime, I lived in the same apartment, worked at the same job, and generally kept things the same.

Even after the move, many of my roles stayed exactly the same. As I mentioned, my husband and I were together for five years before we got married, and we moved together to go to graduate school. My role in that relationship stayed stable throughout, and it was (is) a big part of my life.

Which brings me to . . .

Getting Married

Now, don't get me wrong. I love being married. I love my husband (probably in that gushy way that people get sick of hearing about). I love being his wife. I love our life together. 

But I can't say that walking down that aisle really made much of a difference. We'd been living together for a long time. We were already on our third (or fourth, or fifth, depending on how you count it) place together. We'd adopted cats together. We'd fought and made up and met each other's families and generally lived like we were married before. 

We woke up the day after our wedding and went right back to our tiny apartment. We didn't have the money or the time for a honeymoon, so we went right back to work and school. Life just kept on going. 

So, what's the one thing that happened all at once?

Having a Baby

Of course, it didn't literally happen all at once. I was not oblivious to the fact that I had grown to the size and shape of an overinflated beach ball. I had definitely noticed. And I knew very well--everyone is so happy to tell you, you know--that my life as I knew it was about to end. 

There's a stage in labor that is literally called "transition." Maybe that's when it happens. Maybe that's when everything changes. 

All I know is that giving birth to a child is the only event that radically changed my life from one moment to the next. One minute I was telling a doctor "You keep saying that ('You're almost there'), but are you lying?" and the next I had a baby. 

From then, literally every other role I inhabit changed. My daughter changed (for the better) the bond that I have with my husband. We created a life together. My role as a student changed. Suddenly I couldn't take classes at just any haphazardly scheduled time. I had to plan around nursing and pumping and daycare. And--even though I hate to admit it--my focus on my research wasn't always as intense as it was before. I had more things to juggle, and that meant that getting lost in a book for hours upon hours was out of the question most days. My work changed (again with the nursing, pumping, daycare thing). Everything changed

And it was fantastic. 

Sometimes I wish that all major life transitions could feel so crisp and clean-cut. Sometimes I really crave the simplicity of then to now. If I could wake up Monday morning and say, "Okay. You're faculty now. Go teach." I'd have a little extra bounce in my step and confidence in my mind. 

But it's not going to happen that way. It's going to be--like most transitions--slow. It's going to take some time to feel comfortable in this new role and to feel willing to let go of some of the other role. 

And that's okay, too. 


  1. From one teacher to another, congratulations and good luck!

  2. Interesting piece. I'm not sure my experience has been entirely the same, but I'm only 20 so I've yet to reach most of those milestones. I do think that this feeling of "my life has changed, why do I feel like the same person" is the reason that I tend to get a radically different hairstyle or colour everytime I get a new job or get dumped or change apartments