When Claire Monkhouse quit her career she didn’t realise how much of her identity was bound up in it.
It’s one thing trotting off on a travel adventure, leaving the house and bills in the capable hands of my lovely friend while my husband and I jaunt around Europe drinking beer and discovering so many new and exciting places it is impossible to pick a favourite. It’s quite another to return to normal life and the realities of a leaking roof and regular enquiries from my mum about whether I have found a job yet.
As someone who has had some sort of job since being a Saturday girl in a small Cumbrian bookshop at 16, unemployment, albeit self-enforced, has been a strange and surprisingly emotional experience for me.
I hadn’t appreciated, until I no longer had a job, how much my sense of identity was woven into my work; that what I did between nine and five on a weekday shaped how I saw myself and being part of a ‘profession’ made me feel valid and included.
Yet when I voluntarily chose to leave my neatly paved career path, in favour of an off-road adventure to an unknown destination, I saw that my sense of self (and self-worth) had largely come from my job; having a role, a regular income and a feeling that I was useful.
Being without a job – or an easily identifiable label to replace it with (in spite of my mother-in-law’s less than subtle suggestions that we should ‘get on with it’ on the grandchildren front) – is an unsettling process.
I realised that, without having work as the reason to set my alarm and get up in the morning, my day lacked structure. I no longer had the same sense of purpose or an easy answer to the ‘What do you do?’ question when meeting new people. Within a month of returning home, once the excitement of catching up with much-missed friends and family had subsided, the days were dark and cold and my bed was comfortingly warm and safe.
“I did not experience an epiphany while meditating on a mountain in the middle of nowhere, so did not return home with grand plans about leaving the rat race, joining a commune or doing daily yoga sessions as the sun comes up over my organic vegetable patch.”
I wouldn’t describe myself as religious (especially since we tried to hide when the scary nuns from school used to come on home visits to try to recruit me and my sister for confirmation classes) but the sense of ‘Catholic guilt’ was alive, well and thriving on my feelings of inadequacy, uncertainty and self-doubt.
A particularly memorable low point was when someone tipped me off about the local shopping centre recruiting ‘Santa’s Helpers’ for Christmas shifts. I had a tearful conversation with a friend about how I felt bad for not having a job but was also struggling to share some people’s obvious amusement at the prospect of my swapping a sensible pinstripe suit for some candystripe tights and a comedy elf hat.
As good friends do, she made me tea, fed me chocolate and told me how ridiculous I was. She went on to give me a pep talk about being being kind to myself, reassuring me that there was no need to panic and it was perfectly OK for me to take some time to consider my options. She also gave me a Paddington Bear Hard Stare and told me that if she saw me anywhere near Santa’s Grotto she would stage an intervention.
I resolved that staying in my pyjamas and eating my own bodyweight in biscuits was not the best life plan and if I was not getting up to go to work, I could at least drag my backside out of bed and do some exercise.
I have also been busying myself with the mundane tasks that I simply did not have chance to deal with when working full time – and getting a strange sense of enjoyment from it. I have sorted through wardrobes full of unworn or unflattering clothes, shelves of books that will never be read again and miscellaneous boxes of ‘stuff’ that now stock the shelves of my local Samaritans shop.
My husband has teased me about the anally retentive way in which I have been making meal plans and writing to-do lists but, aside from it being a marvellous excuse to use some of the beautiful notebooks I had accumulated in my stationery porn stash, I have taken pleasure in the Marie Kondo-esque organisation of my life. Because, in the process of decluttering my house, I think I have also cleared space in my head.
For a while, I fought with a sense of failure that I did not ‘find myself’ on our trip. I did not experience an epiphany while meditating on a mountain in the middle of nowhere, so did not return home with grand plans about leaving the rat race, joining a commune or doing daily yoga sessions as the sun comes up over my organic vegetable patch.
Travelling was actually an opportunity to lose myself; a temporary hiatus from my life and its routine, rules and some long-held but ultimately limiting beliefs.
My career need not define my sense of self – but I had completely lost sight of the fact that who I am is about way more than what I do for a living.
Since coming home, I am, slowly but surely, realising that the mould I thought I had to fit into exists only in my mind (with the recent exception of my car insurance company, whose computer system refuses to let me finish the form because my name and title do not ‘match’ the fact that I am now married – but I digress).
My identity isn’t something that has to be clearly defined, or as neatly organised as the nice new shelves in our spare room. It is a disparate mix of the work I do, the hobbies I have and the friends and family I surround myself with. I am starting to see that there is value in what I have to offer, outside of the job I am paid for – and it is worth more than I ever realised.
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Claire Monkhouse is a lawyer, the owner of a large collection of impractical but beautiful shoes and a fan of cake-making, gin-drinking and befriending random cats.