On Quitting

My daughter quit swim team today. Or rather, I sent the confirmation email to the appropriate people that had her removed from my roster (she swam in my group). It's been a tough four months; she does three different activities before school and was swimming or doing ballet every day after school. We were constantly rushing. It was all things she decided she wanted to do. Over the summer we discussed finding a new or different ballet school, or swimming, or doing both. She chose both.

The rule I used to have growing up (and still largely practice and implement with my own kids) is that once they commit to an activity, they have to see it through until the end of the season. Except, with swimming, the season never stops (and I don't pay a penalty for ending the contract early if she quits now). But what made me realize quitting swimming was the best thing for her is the look on her face when she was up on the stage dancing The Nutcracker last weekend.

She was beaming.

While many of the other girls looked either nervous, terrified, in intense concentration (or a mix of the three), her face never wavered from pure joy. I never saw that look when she was swimming, even when she did a best time or won her heat. It's a look I see on my son's face every time he jumps in the water. It's a look I see on my daughter's face when she's performing.

Why should I force her to do something that doesn't bring her joy?

We make our kids do so much they don't want to do, or that doesn't bring them joy because it's what they have to do, especially in school. And as a parent and an educator, I get that. Math isn't fun sometimes. You'll have to read things in Language Arts that you don't like. Science can be a challenge. Writing can be a challenge. We learn to persevere, we learn to adapt, we learn to work differently.

But one thing we should never learn is to normalize misery in the name of some misplaced idea that the more we suffer, the better we are.

As I think more and more about how we normalize abuse in our society, I'm starting to think more and more about how we fetishize suffering. Biggest critique of Millennials? That they're "soft". We talk about how suffering is good for you. No pain, no gain. We must suffer for our art. But what kind of suffering and pain are we talking about? What if there is no joy to accompany that pain and suffering?

I haven't completely left academia, but I quit the tenure-track rat race, the contingent trap. I have a whole set of tabs open on my browser window dealing with feeling like a failure as an academic (and I would recommend that you read all of Lisa Munro as well as this one andthis one. I'm kinda known for writing about failure so much so that at last year's MLA there was a moment of silence, waiting for me to comment when the question about public failures came up.

If you can't tell, I tend to be self-deprecating, in no small part because I learned early that if I didn't look like the fool, someone else would damn well make sure that I did.

But that's a whole other blog post.

Anyway, now that I think about it, I am almost always ok with failure, particularly the public kind, because it shows that I didn't quit, and I am not quitting because I'm sharing in order to get better, to learn, to improve. No, quitting is by far the bigger failure, because it means I gave up. What is it, quitters never win? Winners never quit? I was a loser - I quit. I let people down, I let myself down, I violated the sacred narrative of success. Clearly, in my mind, quitting was the failure, a failure much worse than not getting the job year after year of applying.

But why can't I see quitting as a success? As a way that I tried and tried and in the face of misery, put my foot down and said, enough! Is it because in so many ways, teaching still brought, still brings me joy, puts that same smile on my face that I see in my daughter when she dances, in my son when he swims?

But that joy came at what cost?

The price I had to pay for that joy, the price too many of us pay to experience that joy, was too high. So I snapped.

And now I'm snapping again.

I look at my kids, and tonight to my daughter I said this:

I am proud of you for telling me you wanted to quit swimming. I know how hard it was for you to tell me. I saw you smile on that stage when you danced, and I see you at swim meet and at practice. You are never as happy as you are when you dance. I never want you to do anything that doesn't bring you joy.

I don't want you to do anything that doesn't bring you joy.

I want my kids to learn the lesson now, a lesson I didn't learn for a long time, that suffering doesn't make you better. That it is ok to quit suffering, it is ok to quit circumstances that don't bring you joy. It doesn't make them weak; it makes them stronger than I ever was.