All I ever wanted was to be an expert. I dreamed about it when I was little, when the possibilities seemed endless. I could imagine myself in hundreds of futures. I loved music, especially melodies evoking deep feelings about big themes — love, regret, missed opportunities. I could be a dancer or singer or pianist, tapping into that longing, achieving greatness on stage. I loved sports — tennis, soccer, basketball. I could be an athlete, training my body for physical success and my mind for mental toughness. I was fascinated by the sky overhead, the knowledge that we live on one tiny planet, spinning through a seemingly endless galaxy that is just one of many. I could be an astronomer, observing the patterns overhead, discovering new planets, new civilizations. I enjoyed family dinners — the sense of belonging, the flavors of my mom’s cooking. I could be a chef, training at the top schools and winning awards for my creations. Better yet, I could marry a chef so that I wouldn’t have to cook, and could simply enjoy delicious food and good company while preserving time to pursue my real and true profession, the one that would bring me fame and renown.
I attended a liberal arts college to keep my options open, to learn those transferable skills people talk about that would allow me to succeed at anything, once I figured out my path. One of my favorite classes was on 20th century Russian history. My professor was a middle-aged woman of Russian descent who had spent her life studying the intertwining of history and politics in that complicated country. I remember her talking about serving as an advisor to President Ronald Reagan in advance of his first visit with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. It gives me goosebumps still. Imagine it. There you are, a young academic, diligently working away, surrounded by books and papers and research. And then, you get the call. The President of the United States is planning his first summit with the Soviets, and he calls on you. It’s a life changing call, one that makes all your strivings worthwhile, a chance to use your skills and your knowledge to impact the course of history. That’s expertise. That’s what I want.
Studying Russia became important to my professional path. I majored in Russian Area Studies, attended an intense language immersion program, spent a semester abroad, landed a State Department fellowship for a year in-country, and secured several months of work in Ukraine to follow. Upon my return, I found a job in academia managing short educational programs that hosted Russian and American government and military professionals. I got my graduate degree part-time while working. The experience with these amazing programs and the contacts I made led me to apply for the CIA’s Clandestine Service. I made it through the paperwork, the interviews, and the security clearance, only to be rejected because of a strange allergic reaction I had had to an unknown substance several years prior. I was crushed. I saw the professional path I was building crumble in front of me. I was newly married and, as I soon learned, newly pregnant. And thus began the journey of motherhood, one that impacted many future decisions, and a subject for another essay entirely.
Nearly 15 years have passed. I have stayed in the field of higher education, holding a variety of administrative positions that fail to foster the expertise I envisioned for myself. I’ve considered changing course entirely, starting anew. I’ve explored classes and dreamed of career paths in speech language pathology, psychology, music education, journalism. My Russian language skills have faded away. When Russia and Ukraine were in the news daily during portions of the Trump administration, I watched with a mixture of interest and regret. See those experts testifying before Congress? That should have been me.
When the pandemic started raging, my husband and I were fortunate to keep our jobs and work from home. Our three school-aged children were home as well. Time passed in a strange, uneven manner. My husband had started a new job just before shutdown, so I bore the brunt of “home schooling.” Every day felt like a large-scale production. I created elaborate, color-coded schedules for the children, blocking out their time in reasonable increments, sprinkled with class Zoom calls and snack breaks. The days began with breakfast, the Mamma Mia! soundtrack, and Family Scrum, our morning gathering in the kitchen where we reviewed our schedules and assignments for the day. We spread out across the house with our iPads, Chromebooks, and laptops — one in the bedroom, one in the kitchen, one in the living room, one in the basement — but inevitably, all three kids and the dog ended up wherever I happened to be. With jogging pants on the bottom and business casual on the top, I tried my best to participate in conference calls while children leaped and somersaulted just beyond my screen. The days were long and unproductive for all of us. My ten year-old son developed anxiety that presented itself in unpredictable mood swings throughout the day. One poignant moment seared in my memory is of him slamming closed his Chromebook, throwing his notebook across the room, and delivering me a post-it note that read “I Quit!”
And what of that elusive expertise? Could it be there, inside of me, and I just haven’t named it yet? Perhaps my expertise is achieving a healthy balance between my job, my family, and my outside interests. Perhaps it’s feeding and nurturing three children, and preparing them for the world ahead. Perhaps it’s maintaining connections with friends from different periods of my life. Perhaps it’s baking a perfect cranberry-apple pie for Thanksgiving, a point of pride in my family. But if I’m honest, none of these approach the sense of accomplishment I thought I would have at this stage of my life. I’m 45 years old, and still desperate to feel like an expert in something, in anything. Where did the time go? I’m not ready to say “I Quit.” For now, I’ll keep going, searching for moments of inspiration and guidance in between color-coded schedules and snack breaks.