I'm not sure how it came up, but yesterday my trainer and I were discussing former jobs from our previous lives. "What's the worst job you've ever had?" he asked as I was doing some battle-roping. I had to think about it, pausing to catch my breath.
It took me a second to recall all the jobs I bumbled through in my 20s, before this hardest, most fulfilling role of Parent. I've had some doozies. Both jobs and bosses. I've suffered through some wretched egoists, insecure power-mongers, and general incompetents. I've celebrated successes with a few lovely bosses who valued their employees and worked hard at building team rapport and acknowledging individual success.
Troy and I swapped stories of jobs gone by as I finished my workout. I thought about them all throughout the day. Remembering with nostalgia, shaking my head at some of the less-than-stellar memories. You're supposed to put in your time in your early 20s, in one shitty job after another, figuring out who you want to be. "Character building," my dad used to call it. How easy it can be to forget how you got where you are, once you’ve changed the direction of your life.
Though I attended a private Christian university, I landed there through the help of grants and scholarships, working throughout college to support myself. I chased after kids in a daycare in downtown Seattle, babysat on the weekends, did transcription for a professor in the philosophy department, worked in the English department office. In the summers I answered phones for an office in my tiny hometown, or worked for my parents in our family shop by the river. It never occurred to me to NOT work, since this had never been an option. I believed that being an English major would open up doors of wonder for me.
My dad became sick the spring of my junior year. Leukemia. I worked for the support Services Department of the Seattle Fire Department that summer, reeling from the news. Answering phones, typing, filing, and being chased by homeless guys through Pioneer Square as I delivered correspondence from the Fire Chief to City Hall. The summer after graduation I temped for a few little Seattle companies, in essence waiting for news from home, dependent upon the whims of his cancer. In August he passed away. At the fragile, hopeful age of 22, my grief changed my life's direction, spiritually, professionally and emotionally.
Drifting, I traveled, partied, camped, escaped. I sold pressed flower arrangements for my mom's business at the Pike Place Market, wearing Doc Martens and flannels and dark brooding lipstick. My siblings would come to visit, my little sisters, lost in their own sadness. I went into caretaker mode knowing that I couldn't shut everything out. Six months into that first terrible stage of grief, I landed a job as a Marketing Communications Assistant for a mid-level telecommunications company. Goodbye laid-back, good-girl hippie; hello to the relatively cut-throat world of corporate America.
I was thrown into a strange in-between division partly involving marketing, sales, and Administrative support. Basically, I collated and filed, wrote blurb-y BS articles for the internal sales newsletter. My boss, a fiery blonde woman with a Napoleon complex, seemed to want to stomp all vestiges of sparkly creativity out of me. The office moved from downtown Seattle to the dreary suburb of Tukwila, and I forged ahead until the company went under, swallowed up by the increasingly global telecom industry. But, I got a severance package. With it I camped every chance I could get, trading in the high heels and suits for Chacos and fleece. I resolved to be done with the corporate world, searching the help wanteds.
But, there wasn't much out there for a BA in English. Especially a laid-back, grief-stalled one. I signed back on with a temp agency, took jobs for employers who loved the cute smile and the degree, but basically viewed my skills as "can make coffee and answer phones." My poor Ego took a hit. I'll put my time in, I told myself. I'll find some passion somewhere. Nice to have a paycheck to fund my weekend adventures, I reasoned.
I landed a long-term temp assignment for a little insurance company working with malpractice claims. Every day, I would do transcription, filing and memo-writing, banter with the sweet office ladies, watching the clock for lunch and then nodding off from the 4-5 hour. Traffic home, back again the next day. I wondered what it would take to get into my "real" field; I started to realize that a BA with a creative degree kind of meant...nothing.
Next came a full-time position at a law firm, as Administrative Assistant to the Office Manager. The main partner and owner however was another Napoleon-complex woman, who barked at her assistants for no real reason, kept everyone guessing all day long, who sent me to get her lunch with barely a nod. What, I started to wonder, was up with these women? I naively expected a little more camaraderie, more gentleness, more setting-up for success than failure. Silly hippie English major.
But this position helped pay for my wedding, so I stuck it through. I married my dream guy - enthusiast, risk-taker, passion-driven traveler. We moved to Hawaii for his schooling, and I stalemated again.
Signed up with another temp agency. Developed a 100 WMP typing prowress. Had a string of mind-numbing office admin jobs. Strangely, ridiculously, I landed a high-profile, high-stress job of Assistant to the Chairperson of Hawaiian Affairs, which was kind of odd for a white girl from the mainland just recently landing on the island. I typed meeting notes from local Hawaiian town hall meetings, fetched lunch, answered to her every whim, even traveled to the Big Island to attend a meeting where half of the constituents wore voluminous muumuus and spoke mostly Hawaiian. It was stressful, exciting and surreal. How did I get here? Another high maintenance female boss in a position of power: another step on the way towards…..where?
I firmly believed women bosses were infinitely worse than men. Then I worked for a high-end, corporate real estate law firm in the highest skyscraper in downtown Honolulu. And I realized that both were guilty as charged, if the right combo of Ego and and power converged.
First a legal assistant and then, when I started graduate school, part-time paralegal, I spent my days wondering how I got here. Knowing it would be temporary, that the highly organized, fast-paced world of corporate law would always leave me with a slight feeling of failure and a dull nausea. Some people have a passion for organizing files, poring over documents, feeling like a valuable piece of the law puzzle. Having no real organizational sense or meticulous attention to detail, I was not one of these people. I just wanted to write, edit, walk the beach and feel inspired. Not cooped up, surrounded by stacks of briefs and filings, always wondering if the eye of the main partner would land on me, through me, and around me.
But, I grew and learned. Evolved, I suppose. Laughed with co-workers, tired hard. Enjoyed that paycheck, even as my Ego slumped daily. School filled me up, left me dreaming and inspired, writing and thinking and presenting and finding that drive again. I began to feel gratitude towards the firm. For a ridiculous IRA-savings plan, for health insurance, for giving a girl with no paralegal experience a chance.
Inspiration started to push Ego to the side. I scored a Graduate Assistantship in the English department. I student taught, graded papers, held conferences. Tutored in the writing center, then worked as an Editing Assistant for a Pacific literary journal. I put myself again out of my element but soaked it all up, for behind the shrinking of my Ego my real passion fired up.
I could have stayed in grad school forever. But, we both graduated and then moved to the mainland. With my MA lauded proudly at the top of my resume, I temped again, feeling that familiar frustration. I found the job with the most potential - professional Copywriter - but the absolute worse boss to date. A short-tempered, egotistical man from South Africa who paid his employees little, read our personal emails and held us all on the shortest leash I ever experienced.
I would come home crying, then go back the next day, determined to do better, find a tougher shell. I did technically gain experience in my field, but the morale was abysmal and office politics capricious. When I got pregnant, they fired me; beaten down but pissed off, I filed for Wrongful Termination and won the suit against his stingy ass. Thank you, state of Arizona, for funding me a year of unemployment.
Looking back on all these jobs, I learned something. They taught me that no matter how horrible the job, how terrible the boss, mind-numbing the work, or dreary the commute, there is value in drifting and trying. It all added to my “Scrappy Woman” resume. Never was I paid a high salary, but the money I did earn kept me and then us afloat. This enabled me to bide my time...allowed me to keep pulling myself up and watching Ego die. In its place, I found inspiration.
I became a mom. Fumbled(ing) through that. I turned to yoga; emblazoned by the practice, I learned how to teach it. And, on a prayer and with no real experience, I again found myself in new, unchartered waters: teaching college. Taught grammar, writing, and literature - finally, my dream, what I had always wanted to do. When I left there, somehow I merged all the skills gained through failure, going through the motions of mind-numbing filing, into what I do now: co-owner of a medical practice, office manager, jack of all trades. I am not the best at it, but I keep learning.
I wouldn't erase any of these terrible jobs from my history, thankful in the end that I was never paid well enough to stick it through up the ladder. My heart always screamed NO to corporate America. I am grateful for the humility I learned, and even the failure complex that I still have to kick to the curb.
All these jobs prepared me for motherhood, in other words. And to be more stubborn, after having been a peon in the corporate world for quite a long time. I'm still not making the big bucks, but that never really mattered to me. I am finding Inspiration again. Writing, teaching, reading. And I find inspiration all the time in navigating through days with patients, employees, kids. Especially kids, the most demanding and loving bosses of all.
Thank you, horrible bosses and terrible jobs, for the chance to grow into myself and realize my worth. To remember the hours logged, the mistakes made, the knowing, in the end, that I had the last laugh. Ego exited the building, sometimes kicking and screaming, to let the best part of me rise.