You are not your money — really!

I was an ambitious young thing twenty-five years ago. I was working hard to make all the right moves so I could have a successful, and therefore well-paying, career. I dreamed of being a photographer, but I didn’t see how that was going to make any money, so I floundered around looking for plan B.

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It was early fall when I arrived at Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York to perform a week of due diligence; after all, in my mind, choosing a school and a major was a VERY IMPORTANT DECISION! My first stop was the school of fine arts; I asked them what kind of jobs their photography students were doing. Whatever the answer was, I wasn’t impressed.

So I then went next door to the imaging science program, I was good at math and liked working on computers too, so this seemed logical. I asked them what their graduates were doing and they showed me a chart of starting salaries for their students. I was impressed.

However, nothing could have prepared me for Rochester winters (there’s a reason the buildings are all connected by tunnels) or sophomore year when my professor handed us each a blank piece of paper. “Please derive for me the equation that describes light traveling as a wave from point “a" to point “b", with its defining vector spiraling clockwise around the x-axis.” Ugh. It was not my idea of a good time!

I escaped at the first opportunity and transferred to Northeastern University in Boston. But I was once again faced with the decision of choosing a major. I was somewhat interested in systems thinking, and I had most of the credits I needed to be a third year Industrial Engineering student. Sure, why not?

I thought back to a Society of Women Engineers program that I'd attended in high school. We were shown a video and there was a female engineer wearing a very expensive looking sheepskin coat. Ah ha, here was another way I could make good money!

In the end, I graduated and was quickly hired. I think I was even the highest-paid graduate of my class, so it felt like I'd done it. I’d made “the right” moves and landed a good job. I had painted my version of success.

Three years later, I left that job to become a stay-at-home mom. I had no idea how lost I would feel. No idea how much I had connected my self-worth to my earnings; and no idea how much of my identity I’d rooted on my success.

One night I went out for cocktails and my friends introduced me to some people they knew. The standard round of small-talk began. I started chatting with a vibrant, petite woman who was in her mid-twenties, about my age, “So what do you do?” She asked. My chest tightened as if she'd punched me. My mind raced. Do? I don’t “do” anything. I clean up diapers, go for playdates, and if I’m really lucky I have time for a shower. A completely useless member of society. It was as if I had jumped off a magnificent cruise ship and was now free falling into the depths of a dark abyss with no hope of rescue. I used to do, I used to earn, I used to be someone. Now I was just a dependent, a nothing. “I have a six-month old son; I stay home and take care of him.” I said with the best smile I could muster.

In the past 16 years, I’ve see this smile on others. People who have lost their jobs, experienced a business failure, or been forced into early retirement. It’s so easy to think that we are what we earn.

But three years ago I saw something that shattered my cage. I was in a class and we were talking about how we’re born without any preconceived ideas, a blank slate so to speak. My thoughts wandered from the teacher’s words and I closed my eyes for a second. In my mind’s eye I could see my son as he had been just seconds after being born: his curled up pink body, a few white wisps of hair on his head, and his exquisite, teeny hands curled in tight fists.

I had literally just pulled him from my body and as I brought him to my chest, his blueberry eyes met mine and in that instant I knew what it was to love someone enough to gladly die for them. To say unconditional love flowed through my veins would be like calling Niagara Falls a sweet little stream. Every cell in my body erupted like a mini nebula with warmth, tenderness, and undying devotion at the core.

The creak of someone’s chair brought me back to the lecture room I was in and I opened my eyes; but the feeling of that love still cloaked me. Wrapped in its embrace it occurred to me, I never asked my son to do or accomplish anything, or to be something specific in order to earn my affection. I gave it to him freely and happily, simply because he existed in the world. I had seen his intrinsic worth.

A small grateful tear escaped my eyelashes as a sudden jolt of understanding leapt up my spine. It was as if there was a mirror reflecting everything right back at me and in that moment I touched my own intrinsic worth. Every muscle in my body relaxed and relief washed over me in waves as I realized that there is nothing that I have to do, accomplish, earn, or become in order to be worthwhile: I already am. It’s built in. It existed on day one and it can’t be taken away.

And numbers on a pay stub can’t even come close to touching it!

So now, when someone asks, “What do you do?” Out loud I answer the question according to cultural expectations, but in my head I smile, and say “I spend my time being me. Thank you for asking."