Christina Allred is a full-time substitute teacher and the mother of twin eight year-old daughters on the autism spectrum. When she is not busy teaching or chasing her girls, Christina can usually be found writing about her parenting adventures on her blog Riding the Crazy Train: Diary of a Delirious Mom. Her blogging goal is to raise autism awareness in a plain-spoken and humorous way, one story at a time.
If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times. It’s the old one-two kiss-of-death combo that used to destroy my self-confidence. A friend or acquaintance, thinking that she is paying me the highest of compliments, will say something like:
“It is such a waste that you don’t have your teaching certificate/ haven’t gone to grad school/ haven’t gone to law school/ blah blah blah (pick one or all). You could be doing so much more!
And there it is.
The remark starts off sounding like a compliment… but then its implications crash down around me like a rogue wave. I have to face the fact that this person thinks: 1.) I have a big brain (yay, me!), and 2.) it’s gathering dust. Ouch. Funny how something that I assume was intended as a compliment– I refuse to believe otherwise– ends up making me feel completely invalidated. Or at least, it used to.
It’s hard not to dissect a remark like that. You just have to know why someone you love, or anyone for that matter, would feel compelled to tell you, basically, that you aren’t reaching your potential. You worry that they may be right, that you really could be doing more or better things! Am I really selling myself short?, you wonder. What does my life look like to other people that would warrant that remark?!
And then one day it hit me… Although I do care about how my friends perceive me (I’d be lying if I said I didn’t), it doesn’t really matter how my life looks to others, because I would still choose the same life! Yes, the comment on waste still stings a little, but in the grand scheme of things, they are just words. Not only are they just words, but they are words uttered by someone who can’t possibly know what it’s like to be me! They can’t possibly understand all the tiny little details of my life that led me to where I am today.
Sure, there are many things I could have chosen to do differently in my life. The same is true for anyone.
I could have chosen to return to work after my girls were born. Instead, I opted to stay home with my daughters until they started to school. Making this choice never for a moment felt like a waste to me. Staying at home afforded me the opportunity to watch my girls grow. It gave me an endless cache of memories that I can never put a price on. Staying home allowed me to determine early on that my daughters have autism, and has allowed me to learn how to be the kind of parent they need. Being with my daughters was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up, so I chose to put my career on hold. I would do it the same way if I had it to do again. For me, it was the right choice.
I could have chosen to go to graduate school while focusing on my teaching career. Instead, I chose to do neither. I felt the need to gain life experience and work experience, and I am so glad that I did! I never felt like I was wasting my college education by choosing to do work outside of teaching. My college degree and my teaching skills were and continue to be extremely valuable and useful in every role I take on. Not only that, I have loved the work I have done, even if most of it is lacking in glamor or prestige. I am especially grateful for my work experience now that I have kids! The experience I gained working with people, and the lessons that work taught me about behavior, consequences, and human interaction are far more valuable to me as a mom than a Masters degree or Ph.D. For me, skipping grad school when I was younger and opting to try different roles was the right choice.
I could have chosen to use my skills and talents for my family’s financial gain. Instead, I chose to use these skills to benefit my family in other ways. My training as an educator, negotiator, counsellor, manager, chemist and salesperson were the best training I could ever hope for as a mom, and I felt extremely prepared for motherhood because of it. Now that my girls are in school, I choose to work as a substitute teacher and volunteer, so that I can be involved in the my kids’ educations directly and daily at school. I choose now to use my research and communication skills to be an advocate and public relations agent for my daughters. I choose to use my time and effort to go to bat for my girls at school, and elsewhere, to assure their equal and fair treatment as kids on the spectrum. In addition, I choose to write my blog in hopes of raising community awareness and understanding about autism– for my daughters and others like them. Although my paycheck doesn’t reflect it, my skill set is being used to its fullest extent, and I couldn’t be happier with my choices.
It really all comes down to the choices we make. Although my life may look different than I envisioned it in my youth, and my successes seem small compared to the expectations others have of me, I don’t feel I’ve wasted a thing. My life choices– to focus on my children, to stay at home with my kids for seven years, to not go to grad school or law school, to be the devoted wife, to be happy as a substitute teacher instead of being a “real teacher”, to be an advocate for my girls– were not made with resignation! My choices were calculated, tolled and tormented over, and made knowing that no one else could do these things for my family better than I could. I made these choices with difficulty, but also with pride. So did many other mothers I know. We all choose what is right for our families. My choices have made all the difference to my family, and to me, that is all the success I need.
Everyone’s life is a series of choices. We all start our journey in different places, with different opportunities and obstacles along the way. Each choice we make on our journey leads us to new opportunities and more choices. Because we are all different, no two people will ever take the same journey, and that is okay. Where we go wrong is when we judge one another’s choices, rather than respecting them. We all need to realize that living a life full of documented achievement is not the only way to live a life of importance. An important life is one spent doing the things that make you feel successful and that positively impacts the people you encounter, no matter how small the impact may seem. Your life, your time, your energy, your mind– they are all to be used as you choose, and you have to trust yourself to make the right decisions for yourself. Since we only completely know our own life journey, the only success any of us can judge is our own.
After that, the best we can do is respect and support the decisions those around us make for themselves, and assume that they too, would never choose to live wastefully.