January 11, 2013 by lucieromarin
If you’ve read sufficient conservative literature during your formative years, had the right teachers, and mixed with the right friends, you know that if an adult woman is supporting herself, it’s because she is either a spinster or a career-woman, and both are bad. If she teaches, nurses or works in administration for an overtly Catholic institution, then she’s a spinster – respectable and not morally suspect, but still sad, because it means either that she never discerned her vocation properly, or that she did, and nobody wanted her. If she appears to have chosen a brighter career for its own sake, and doesn’t seem to feel bad about being unmarried, then she’s a feminist and a three-horned beast. Either way, it’s a problem you’ll never have to face, because you know that vocation is the main thing, and you’ve been to all the retreats, so you know it’s going to happen, so you don’t need a career. Right?
Right. If you’re a Catholic woman in your thirties or forties only just realising that this isn’t true, and still inwardly reeling from the shock of it, there are some points worth bearing in mind, so that you don’t end up adding self-loathing to the mix, and so you can remind yourself of your own worth when other people say to you, “You have to understand that it’s hard for me to take you seriously when you speak, because I’m a lecturer at Cambridge and you haven’t really done anything with your life.”
1) You’re not in the same category as people who are in your situation because of immaturity, or fear of commitment, or laziness, or any of the other real vices that can get in the way of supporting oneself. You were plenty committed – you could not have known that your teachers and celebrity Catholics were distorting the truth.
2) When well-meaning people say to you, “Well, what do you like?” or “What are you good at?” and your only answer is a numb, bewildered “I don’t know,” this is not a sign of immaturity, either.
2a) ‘What do you like?’ If you’ve been deeply committed to any particular conservative community or spiritual programme for a decade or so, you’ve spent a lot of time detaching yourself from your personal preferences. Regular mortification of the palate, regularly choosing the opposite of what you want, keeping silent when you disagree with your religious superiors, keeping silent when other people hurt or irritate you, subordinating your recreational choices to a particular moral code – all of this trains you out of knowing or expressing what you want or like. (I don’t argue against any of this training, by the way; it’s excellent. The problem only arises when this training is yoked to the vocation-or-nothing attitude.)
2b) ‘What are you good at?’ You don’t know, not because you are dull-minded, but because 95% of your training is about your faults. Your nightly examination of conscience is about your faults; your bi-weekly confession is about your faults; your Lent and Advent discipline is about targeting your weaknesses – and so on. The 5% that acknowledges talent sees it only with reference to apostolate. ‘What am I good at?’ means ‘What can I do for the Church/parish/my local Catholic group/Father McGillicuddy?’ rather than ‘What abilities do I have that might provide me with a stable income until my death?’ You have been taught to speak as little about yourself as possible, to articulate as few preferences as possible, and never, ever to praise yourself. This is excellent training for a future Cistercian nun. This is ghastly when applied to job applications.
3) No one wakes up one day, says, “Goodness! No vocation for me!” and then opens a door to find a career sitting on the doorstep. The discovery is more of a dawning horror than a flash of illumination, and it was natural for you to resist it for as long as possible. It’s like a wife who begins to suspect that there might be another woman in the picture or that her husband has kept some other truth from her; you’re not going to embrace it all at once, because it’s horrible; because you’d prefer to close your eyes and hope that what you first believed could still be true.
Well, God doesn’t make mistakes. You have talents and you have preferences and you can and will make a new life for yourself. You just need to go easy on yourself in terms of discovering those talents and preferences. You have to forgive the people who spent fifteen years of your life telling you not to look for them, and, most importantly, forgive the friends who disparage your circumstances without admitting either the part they played in establishing them or in sustaining them by keeping your self-esteem down.
(Don’t forget, even married conservatives can be painfully aware that their vocation is inferior to that of the priesthood, and putting you down is just their way of making sure they can feel better than somebody else!)