Years ago as I was finishing up my master’s program, I applied to a clinical psychology Ph.D. program. There is a very long story that goes with this, but what it came down to was there was a single spot open working with the professor I wanted, with an extremely slim chance I would be chosen. After months of the application process and multiple interviews, I was informed that I was chosen as the alternate to the spot, meaning it was offered to an individual who was entertaining an offer from another school and had not yet committed to attending this university. I was asked to have my decision ready on if I would take the position, should the original candidate reject the offer. In short, I needed to make my decision before I knew if it was even necessary.
To my surprise, I wasn’t elated. In fact, I felt a sinking sensation in my stomach. Getting my doctorate in clinical psych had been a dream of mine for years. I had imagined how this moment would feel, how I would tell everyone the news, how I would be on this amazing adventure for the next half a decade.
So I was holding my cell phone in one hand, standing alone in the hallway of the high school counseling office I was interning at, with this great news. Instead of a rush of excitement I felt a nagging pull at my heart and tears stinging the back of my eyes. Why? Because saying yes would mean I may have to leave Will. Not just once, but multiple times over a period of years and miles and uncertainties.
I know. I know someone is reading this and saying, “seriously?” She questioned giving up her dream because she didn’t want to be away from her man for five years? –OR- Why couldn’t he just join her? Or maybe that is just me, thinking that is what other people are thinking. Because that is the struggle of this story, and the lesson I had to learn through all of this. And one of my lessons is – I don’t have to explain my personal decisions to anyone. BUT, I am inviting you into my very personal experiences by asking you to read my posts, so I think you deserve to know the journey I went on in making this decision.
The entire week I struggled with making the decision. I struggled sharing it with anyone, because I was ashamed. It was another instance where people probably wondered how to handle me. Because they knew on the outside this was a dream of mine, so why wasn’t I over the moon excited? I didn’t want anyone to know I was struggling with the decision. I didn’t want anyone to know I was second guessing an opportunity to further myself professionally. Because I was (and still am!) a feminist! Didn’t that mean that career comes first? Didn’t that mean that it was setting my gender back years of progress if I chose a man over a better economic and professional future for myself? I felt people would think I was taking the easy way out. I instinctively resist change. Was I just scared of all the changes that would happen if I said yes?
I was afraid people were judging me for putting the desire to be with my boyfriend (because at that time he wasn’t even my fiancé or my husband or the father of my baby) over the rare chance at an incredible educational opportunity. I didn’t want people judging Will for not instantly saying he would drop everything in his own life to follow me on my journey. And there are a lot of things I could say about the conversations he and I had that week, but I will leave it at the fact that we had hours of long, difficult talks. And in the end no decision was ultimately made on the “yes, I will follow” or “no, I’m staying” topic.
Instead, I realized I had to make my decision independently from what he would ultimately decide. Because, people are HUMAN. And that may mean that one day he was committed to go with, and the next day it was terrifying. Who was to say that the day I packed my car to leave he wouldn’t decide to change his mind – to join or to stay behind? Or that two years into the journey he would have yet another change of heart? I couldn’t make this decision based on what he picked. I couldn’t live with thinking I guilted him in to coming with or with resenting him as the reason I said no. I knew that my decision had to be made independent of all the “what-ifs?” and permutations of all possible outcomes. The decision had to be mine, and mine alone.
Finally, just a day before I was supposed to have my decision made, I had a breakdown. I was trying desperately to keep my composure and be level-headed and practical about my decision. In clinical supervision at my internship, the clinical supervisor looked at me from across the table, in front of all of the other counselors, and said “Are you ok?” I said yes, but my voice wavered. She asked again, this time already knowing the answer. So, I burst into tears in front of them all and told them what was going on. And the clinical supervisor asked me, with absolutely not an ounce of judgment in her voice, “Ashley, what do you really want to do?” And I knew.
What did I know? That I wanted to say no to this amazing opportunity? Not exactly. I knew I wanted to say “yes” to listening to my gut, and my heart. And that even though I really really thought that getting into this program would make me deliriously happy, in reality it just didn’t. I knew on a very deep and certain level that there was nothing in my professional life that was ever going to come close to replicating the feeling I get from being with Will. That signing Ph.D. after my name, earning a bigger salary, and having more employment options wasn’t ever going to make me as happy as I was coming home to him every night. I could happily live with a mediocre job if I was with Will. I could not happily live with a great job but not him.
I know I am not supposed to say I couldn’t be happy without him. I guess I should clarify. I can be happy as a human being, at least strive for that, even despite situational circumstances (thank you, yoga). But, what I am trying to say, is for me, the happiness I derive from my occupation is no match for the happiness I derive from being with Will. Even on the bad days.
And for a long time, even though I didn’t regret my decision for one single second, I felt the need to defend it. Because I didn’t understand, until very recently, how fighting for a woman’s right to choose her own future, however that may look, is the whole point of feminism.
I didn’t understand then that sometimes, the things you think will make you the most happy just don’t. That sometimes we think we know who we are and then realize there is more to our story than just a few defining words and titles. And that sometimes making the decisions that make the least sense on paper are the exact decisions you need to make to learn something about yourself. My lesson? To trust myself. To let go of being obsessed with how other people will judge my decisions. Because somehow, deep inside, I think we all know what we need to do, and ignoring that can make us miserable, even if people are praising our choices on the outside.
So I followed my heart, my gut, my intuition. And I slept damn good the night I made that decision, and all of the nights after that. Because for me, it was 100% the right decision.
And guess what? The candidate accepted the position. When the professor called me with the news, a grin slowly stretched across my face and I felt like the sun was shining directly on me. The universe was winking at me, whispering in my other ear “good choice.”