You know, it’s funny where life takes you. I have a degree in English. I went to graduate school. I have a husband and two kids and one more on the way. I’ve done everything pretty much the “right” way (you know, the way they tell you to do it the whole time you’re growing up), and here I am, waiting tables at 33.
Food serving was my college job. By the time I quit in favor of a “real job” at 26, I’d put in almost eight years of food service, not including the three years I spent working fast food. The day I finally traded in my apron and non-slip shoes for a job that allowed me to sit at a desk all day and actually get waited on during my lunch hour was a happy one.
I had arrived.
I mean, this is what we all work for, right? We go to college so we can get a job so we can finally make a stable income, and if we’re lucky, the job will involve doing something meaningful. We’ll get married, have kids, buy a house, go to work every day, retire, bug the kids about having grandkids, and die. It’s a very simple recipe for how to have a happy and fulfilled life.
Except it didn’t quite work that way for me.
I didn’t like the “real job.” I’d go so far as to say it sucked. Now, I didn’t miss waiting tables. Remember, I’d spent almost eight years doing that, and I was completely burned out by the time I quit. But the “real job” and everything it entailed threw me into a existential crisis that lasted me pretty much the entire three years I worked there. What did it mean that I couldn’t find meaning doing this particular job? What was I going to do with myself? It was all very dramatic. Lots of tears and ranting and … well, more tears. A three year existential crisis of epic proportions.
I quit after Charlie was born. Now THAT was a great day. And we did the one income thing for almost three years, and I stayed home with the kids, and then I finally had to bite the bullet and make a very quick return to being employed, because we were very, very broke at that time.
I got hired back very quickly with the company that I gave six years to, and before long I was bringing in money again, and we could breathe. Returning back to waiting tables after a six year break, during which I’d gotten married, entered my 30s, had two kids, and finally admitted to myself what I wanted to be doing with my life career-wise (writing) has been pretty damn interesting. For one, I’m one of the older food servers. While everyone else seems to be dealing with relationship drama and balancing college classes and partying, I’m waking up at 6 with the kids and spending all day with them, changing diapers, going to the park, watching cartoons, doing artwork. I like most of my co-workers very much, but we have very different lives and priorities.
And something else: the job doesn’t get to me the way it used to. If someone doesn’t tip me (or tips badly), I’m able to shrug it off pretty easily. I did, however, once cry because one of my tables didn’t tip me on a large bill, but it was at the end of the night and I was in enormous (pregnancy-related) pain in my pelvis and had been all night. I have a different perspective on things now, and that perspective is: you win some, you lose some. To be quite honest, I don’t have the energy to really think too hard about why a customer may have tipped me badly. If I know I did my best, then there’s not much to be done about it.
However, waiting tables again has triggered another existential crisis in me. I guess I just didn’t envision myself waiting tables at 33. I thought I’d be all settled in a fulfilling career at this point, with a family and at least a little more financial breathing room. Instead we are still living hand to mouth and probably will be for the foreseeable future. I have no real idea what the “real job” options are in this area for someone with my education and experience, and I’m not even sure I want a “real job.” This job, though the nights can be late and I can find myself working holidays, offers me extreme flexibility and the ability to stay at home with the kids, which is very important to me. And I actually like it. I’m good at it, I love talking to all different kinds of people, I love having a break from being so child-centered. I miss the intellectual stimulation of my college days, though, and find myself longing for deep conversations about ideas and feelings and all those other abstract things. I have those types of conversations with Roy all the time, but it’d be nice to have a job that challenges me on an intellectual level.
So, I don’t guess I’ve arrived after all. Or maybe I have. Maybe having arrived in your own life has less to do with the job you have and more to do with actual success, you know? I’m pretty proud of the things I’ve managed to do, of the family that Roy and I have created, of the person that I’m learning to be, of the people I have in my life.
I guess this is real life. It’s not unfolding the way I thought it would. It’s pretty hard. It’s pretty back-breaking, soul-crushing, and heart-aching at times. But it’s also pretty sweet. Pretty damn sweet indeed. (Let’s face it, the tips definitely help.)