By Kelley Alison Smith
My usual habit of nearly always whistling in an idle moment – whether meandering tunes, old Methodist hymns, or riffs on pop songs revered and reviled – was gone.
I didn’t notice it right away. In many ways I was falling hard for this new place, with its tiny blue birds that had perfect red circles like bindis on their cheeks; its good-humored people including my staff members, who encouraged my attempts at Swahili and chuckled when I said I was “dog-sitting” for a friend, an unknown concept in their culture. Even the city’s chaotic streets, where being a pedestrian was both a dangerous thrill and a window onto all manner of informal economies, had its own gritty appeal.
Yet only two weeks into my new job, I knew something was very wrong. The honeymoon was already over. Instead of seeing the big picture – were we accomplishing our project’s goals? Were we adhering to the study protocols? – my new boss seemed unduly focused on the minutiae of how the African staff members spent their time. She expected me to hand out disciplinary warnings if people came in ten minutes late and often made comments about the staff that I found racially insensitive. Furthermore, she perceived any challenge to her authority as a threat, particularly when I questioned discrepancies in my contract, upon which she began to micromanage me about my time. Shortly after she returned to the U.S., I sent her an email expressing some of my concerns about my contract and her expectations. I dreaded her response all day. My emails and calls to family and friends back home took on a negative tone.
There are stories you never hear about a workplace when you are investigating a job. I knew that my new boss had a reputation for being “quirky,” but I was unprepared for the experience of actually working for her. The more I witnessed and heard from the staff, and my predecessor, about the stress they all felt trying to please this woman, the more I realized that I wasn’t willing to try. They told me how selective they were in disclosing any information that she might misinterpret, lest they receive a Skype call or email full of cursing and vitriol. I didn’t foresee becoming someone who managed from a place of distrust, which seemed a surefire way to erode staff morale and loyalty. I was already having trouble sleeping. My stomach churned. I began to realize that staying would mean further loss of my overall well-being beyond my happy-go-lucky whistling.
Back in 1980, the #1 country hit “Take This Job and Shove It” became a working man’s anthem about getting back at the boss who wronged him. The phrase itself has endured far longer than either its melody or its singer (Johnny Paycheck). I think that the idea of “sticking it to the man” is appealing for most of us at one time or another, when we feel we’ve been wronged, underpaid, exploited, undermined, or some combination thereof.
The truth is that “sticking it to the man” – or, in this case, the woman – is rarely simple, and there’s a real danger that you will be the one who ends up stuck. (Maybe that’s why it’s more of a fantasy than a reality.) I wanted to leave the job, but didn’t know how. My work ethic told me that quitting was a sign of failure; perhaps if I had a stronger character, I’d find a way to muddle through.
This year – 2014 – was supposed to have been one of great opportunity for me and my family. I was going to work in East Africa managing a health research project. I had gotten bored with my desk job back home and was itching to live overseas again. I had worked in developing country settings before, but was eager to gain more long-term professional experience in the field. The project itself was fascinating, and my family and I were looking forward to weekends filled with hiking, safaris, and trips to the coast. Things were kind of transitional in our lives, as my wife was also planning to change careers, and we viewed my job and this year as a much-needed interlude. All of the wheels were in motion for my wife and daughter to join me soon.
Quitting seemed unthinkable. “I’m not a quitter,” I cried to my father over Skype as things were fast deteriorating.
He reminded me that I had, in fact, quit a job before. “Remember Contempo Casuals at the mall?” he joked.
But that was 1988. And yes, there was the summer job as a housekeeper at an alleged mobster’s Jersey beach house. That gig came to an abrupt – and thankfully mutually agreeable – end when I started breaking out in hives after a couple of months of screening calls and keeping half an eye on the cars not-so-discreetly surveying the house. As an adult, though, I had never quit a job without a plan. In the past, when I had left jobs, it was because there was always another position waiting, a better or more exciting opportunity.
This time, there was no new opportunity on the horizon, but there was the proverbial “last straw” in the form of an email from my boss that implied that I was not trustworthy, something I had never before been told in my professional career. I declined to respond, feeling my blood pressure skyrocket. I went for a run and then spent the evening crafting my resignation letter. Although I believe that she probably cursed me when she first read it, I doubt it really came as a surprise. Her response was cool and surprisingly civil. That night, I celebrated with a friend over drinks and dinner. I felt liberated.
The reality of unemployment set in a few weeks later when I returned home to an oppressive New England winter and began cobbling together some part-time work with my former employer and applying for full-time jobs. It has only been three months since I got back, but there are days when my month in East Africa feels like another lifetime entirely. Spring is such a time of acceleration in the natural world, and it’s been frustrating to feel professionally stalled, wondering if I’ll hear anything back from potential employers, and when I have, waiting for them to schedule interviews, or second interviews, and to decide if I’m the right fit for them (record so far: no, no, maybe, maybe).
I’d love to say I’ve been regularly updating my blog or cleaning out my closets or any other dozen cost-free things that people always swear they’ll do when they have the time, but honestly, I have more often wanted to just go back to bed or watch Netflix. I have indeed been a little stuck. My already limited disposable income was long ago disposed of. And I’m one of the fortunate ones who could afford to leave a bad situation. We haven’t had to worry about not paying the mortgage, although we are past due on our heating bill, and my tenure among the un(der)employed has so far been brief.
One of the things that has most surprised me in the wake of my resignation is how many people have told me that they think I’m brave. Despite the liberation I may have initially felt when I first quit, the intervening months have not been easy. I have felt relief at leaving a bad situation, grief for a lost opportunity and at missing the wonderful staff whom I may never see again, and disheartened by the job search process. But I have not felt brave.
Like many people, I am hardest on myself, since I certainly think that someone who quits abusing drugs or alcohol, kicks a gambling habit, or finally leaves a toxic relationship shows courage and strong character. I’m not sure why I don’t view my resignation in a similar light. Perhaps it’s because I came very late to a real and meaningful career path. Perhaps it’s because I think that for many of us, work is not only where we spend much of our time, but where rewards for our accomplishment are often the most tangible, whether through promotions, accolades from respected colleagues, or internal pride at having done a good job, having made a difference. I don’t think I’ve made much of a difference over the past three months, seeking a job rather than finding fulfillment in one. When I look at the hundreds of photos I took during my African sojourn, I feel heartsick for what might have been.
That said, I also feel free and hopeful. I’ve run into my former boss a few times since my return. We offer each other a cursory “Hi, how are you?” and move on. I’m not sure if she’s happy with my replacement, and I really don’t care. I may be a quitter, but I’m whistling again.
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