I recently read Amy Poehler’s book, Yes Please, and it got me thinking about the definition of personal failure. Yes Please was not a failure–it was actually smart, inspiring and hilarious, confirming that spending the past several years lady-crushing on Amy has not been a mistake for me–but something she said about failure in the book really hit home.
As a woman in my 30s, far enough along on my path that several irreversible life decisions have been made and consequently scrutinized by myself and the world at large, I’ve spent a fair amount of time contemplating what failure really means. There have been times when I have wondered if I have failed or will fail, and all I can do is close my eyes and hold on tight, cross all of my fingers and toes and hope I’m doing the right thing. There is no going back in time; adult decisions have adult repercussions. That’s a lot of pressure.
In Yes Please, Amy explained that she didn’t view the dissolution of her marriage to Will Arnett a failure. Instead, she saw the positives. She saw a 10-year marriage that made her a mother and then ended, but it ended with mutual respect and a commitment to co-parenting—quite the opposite of a failure. She considered the marriage a success. She knew that their divorce royally sucked for all involved to be sure, and of course, it wasn’t what she had in mind when she said “I do,” but she accepts the outcome for what it is. Instead of feeling like a marital loser, she looks at her kids, their family in its new form and the memories of their time together, and she calls it good even when many wouldn’t. I like that.
I related to Amy’s struggle navigating life’s unexpected twists and turns. I completely understand what it feels like to expect things to play out one way and then have them go in an entirely different direction. My own hang-up has come from wondering if I’ve failed because I chose to put the breaks on my career aspirations and stay home when my son was born six and a half years ago.
During the time I spent at home with my children, there were times I felt labeled as a failure by society because I was a parent who wasn’t working outside of the home. I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve witnessed disappointment register in the eyes of those who discovered I was staying home when they had expected me to go on to do other things. It seemed like the world expected me to do everything all at once or else I was copping out.
There were even times people would blatantly ask me why I wasn’t “using” my master’s degree or tell me that they could never do what I do because they would “get too bored.” I never knew how to respond to that line of questioning. It always felt patronizing, out-of-line and insulting, but at the same time, it also caused me to question myself. The more logical side of me knew that I should take other people’s opinions with a grain of salt. But doubt crept in on occasion. And though I cherish the time I’ve been able to spend with my children, it certainly hasn’t been easy elbowing my way back into the workforce. There are moments I feel like crumbling, when I feel like banging on all of the doors that now seem closed to me and ugly-crying over what could have been.
I thought about applying Amy’s philosophy about failure to the choice I made prioritizing motherhood over some of my personal ambitions. My career (or lack thereof) is certainly not what I thought it would be at this point in my life, but I think I am a pretty kick-ass mom, and I’m proud of that. I spent every day with my children for a long time, and while that comes with its own set of difficulties, it has also been a beautiful time in my life. I still have time to do other things; my life is just following a completely different timeline than I expected it would. Amy’s forgiving take on failure left me relieved. She was actually nice to herself about the “failure” she’s experienced.
I’ve decided to be more forgiving with myself too. Not everyone will agree with my choices, and I’m not going to care anymore. I know that I make all of my decisions in life with careful thought and consideration, so I’m going to trust that I did the right thing. I’m going to feel confident that this delay of professional gain will show its greater purpose over time, as things often do. I’m going to believe that for every great setback we experience—for every slighted dream and broken heart—that some integral part of our future is being lined up for us that would otherwise not have been able to happen. Someday, at the end of it all, I know I’m going to view every thing that I once worried was a failure as a truly necessary part of my story.
Just like Amy did.
“Sticking up for ourselves in the same way we would one of our friends is a hard but satisfying thing to do. Sometimes it works.” −Amy Poehler, Yes Please