the one thing you think gives your life meaning

I sang at a bar mitzvah recently. The boy was very nervous, but he did well, and it was all the more victorious after because he’d been so nervous. Everyone was cheering for him. When he finished his Torah reading the whole congregation let out a collective sigh, half laugh, of relief and support. He was pleased, but he wasn’t thrilled. Towards the end of the service, he leaned over and whispered to me, “I was really hoping my friend would come, but I don’t see her.”

There was a certain girl.

He’d mentioned her at the beginning too, assuring me that she’d be there to witness his passage into Jewish adulthood. But hours later, after the bulk of the Hebrew had been chanted, she was still missing. “I’m a little disheartened,” he told me, during the mourners kaddish. “I don’t see her here.” I didn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry,” I said. “But you’re doing an amazing job.”


(it’s really hard to read Torah. source)

Sometimes you are doing fine but the one thing you most want to happen doesn’t happen so it doesn’t feel like enough. It doesn’t feel finished.

There have been a bunch of pieces recently, and since I became an adult, about my generation and whether or not we are spoiled and entitled and obnoxious or just totally screwed. Or maybe we’re delightfully free-spirited? I remember when Yahoo started publishing those lists of college majors that would result in homelessness and starvation. My major tended to be on those lists, or wasn’t even important enough to make them.

Next came the articles about how it didn’t matter what our majors were—we were never going to catch up.

Then there were the articles about how we were never going to catch up but instead we were going to sit around complaining about how we deserved to be famous and stuff. Because we had inflated egos and we’d all been given a trophy and now we all thought we all should win.

Now they’re saying we’re all looking for meaning.

I don’t know. I think it’s really hard to describe a whole generation, because of all the individuals in it. Because of all the legitimately different situations.

But here’s me:


It’s true. I am looking for meaning. I’m a stereotype. I got a lot of trophies as a kid, and I was homeschooled, so you can tell that they were really handing out trophies to everyone. I grew up wanting one thing. I mean, after I got over wanting to be a prima ballerina and stuff when I was five because of the tutu my aunt got me for Chanukah. I wanted to hold my published novel in my hands. It would have my name on the cover. It would be in Barnes & Noble, and I’d pull it off the shelf and grin to myself. Possibly, I’d grin at myself, in the author photo on the back, where I would look very dreamy and clear-skinned and casually cool.


(Like everyone else, I am a little in love with her. source)

This desire is boringly common, I learned later on, but I desired away, undeterred. And I also worked.

I can do this, I’ve thought

I need to do this, I’ve thought.

And sometimes, maybe many times, I’ve thought, I deserve this.

For nine months (except for a few when I was very sick), while I grew Eden, I worked on a book proposal at the same time. I also wrote the essays about pregnancy that turned into my e-book. I felt like I had to write as much as possible before she was born, in case I never wrote again. In case I was a totally different person on the other side. In case I never got to the one thing that was supposed to make my life meaningful and instead I just ended up with a screaming kid and a meaningless life. Or some slightly less harsh version of that, but close enough.

After I had Eden, for the first three months, I was so busy being surprised to find myself being a mom that I almost forgot about everything else. She was screaming her head off, but it was almost blissful, in a way, because she had somehow drowned out the ravenously ambitious voice in my head that is always yelling at me to work harder and become more obviously successful. This is pretty good, I thought. I made a whole person. Not bad for nine months’ work.

I pitched the book proposal to a handful of agents who I knew I’d be thrilled to work with. The first response was a rejection. It felt like more than a regular rejection. It felt symbolic and huge—a rejection of all my effort to make something of myself. So I fell apart.

I wrote:

I don’t want to be a writer anymore.

I mean, I do, of course I do, but I’m so tired of it. It’s frivolous, I know it is. There are a million, bajillion of us out there. I wrote an essay about being a mom that a couple thousand people liked, and I felt special for a second. And then I read an essay about being a mom that a couple tens of thousands of people liked, and I remembered that I am yet another woman on the internet, writing about being a mom. Or writing about being a woman. And so many of us are wickedly clever, huggably self-deprecating, deliciously irreverent, and excellent with words.

I had a nightmare that I was reading Amazon reviews of my little book of pregnancy essays, and they were like, “This is not even well thought out! What a disappointment.” Some of them were even meaner. In my dreams, I am preoccupied with what people think about my writing. I am exhausted by my dreams.

What is exhausting is only wanting one thing.

What is exhausting is secretly believing I deserve it.

Last night, one of my classical flutist brothers was telling me that he had an epiphany while practicing. He said he had always tried to hurry through the tough runs without obviously messing up. The goal was always at the end: the relief of successful completion. And then suddenly he realized that he wanted to savor the individual notes, because each run represented weeks and even months of hard work. In a sense, each run represented all of the time he’d ever spent practicing. He wanted to celebrate the most intimidating parts of the piece, because that was where he’d poured the most of himself.

I like the image of my handsome brother with his wild hair, standing alone in a recital hall and playing to the empty seats (he told me that’s where he was at the time of the epiphany), and realizing that actually this—this thing that is already happening—is where the meaning is. The meaning is already here. Also there was snow falling outside. So that makes it even better.

I can’t stop being a writer. I know that now, after becoming a mother. It’s wrapped around my heart and my blood flows through it. In my happiest dreams, Bill Bryson  (I don’t know why him, but always him) is telling me, “I’ll recommend you to my publisher! You deserve it!”


(show me the world, Bill Bryson! source)

Sometimes now, in my happiest dreams, I’m just playing with Eden. I’m just being with Bear. Apparently, there is room in my head for more than one kind of happiness. What d’ya know.

And dream Bill Bryson is wrong: I don’t deserve it. I’m not owed anything. I just want it.

And I am also wrong to think of it in these terms at all.

Deserving has nothing to do with it. It is awesome to be able to do something I love, every day. Something a little frivolous. Something full of hope and fun and passion and earnestness.

I didn’t go to the party after that bar mitzvah, but I heard later that the girl showed up after all. The girl the bar mitzvah boy had been looking for during the whole service. It’s too bad that she didn’t get to see him chant Torah, because he was truly excellent. But still—she came.

Some of the agents liked my book proposal. But by the time I heard from them, I felt fine anyway.

*  *  *

What do you want, more than anything else? Do you already have it?

Unroast: Today I love the way Eden and I look together when we’re just hanging out. Here we are when we just woke up, rocking messy hair:



Kate on December 11th 2013 in being sad, fear, motherhood, work, writing

16 Responses to “the one thing you think gives your life meaning”

  1. janine stein responded on 11 Dec 2013 at 1:10 pm #

    On good days, I feel grateful to be alive in the Internet age so I can be read by a handful of people, whenever I feel like it.
    On good days, I love knowing I can help just one person feel better by something I wrote.
    On bad days, I’m just a hack without the balls to try for a publishing deal.

  2. San D responded on 11 Dec 2013 at 1:25 pm #

    Deserve is such a weird word and concept in the light of how life works.

  3. Estey responded on 11 Dec 2013 at 1:28 pm #

    Thanks so much for writing this, Kate – it completely resonated with me, as a new mom and writer. Much love along this journey of life, sister!

  4. Mandy responded on 11 Dec 2013 at 1:58 pm #

    “It is awesome to be able to do something I love, every day. Something a little frivolous. Something full of hope and fun and passion and earnestness.”

    Ambition is such a heavy thing. I’m glad you’re learning you don’t have to tote it with you everywhere.
    And there is absolutely nothing wrong with a little frivolity!

  5. teegan responded on 11 Dec 2013 at 2:28 pm #

    I just read an essay that talked about this (from Ann Patchett’s new book, if you’re curious). And I know she’s right. And I know you’re right. I know it.
    But I’m also that kid. Who won all the awards and had the highest GPA and was going to Do Something. And for the first few months of Thomas’s life, I had that bliss, of feeling like enough, of knowing I had made and was making a person and that that was AWESOME. But now he’s almost 15 months old and I am going batshit crazy wanting to do something with my life.
    Except I don’t have the brain space to think about writing when I spend nearly every waking moment of my day trying to keep that darling boy from pulling on the Christmas tree or grabbing the record player or getting into the dog food or digging through a trash can or climbing the stairs unattended or eating ash that blew out of the fireplace.
    And I don’t have the time to work much of a real job with my husband gone until 4:30 or 5 and exhausted when he comes home – it wouldn’t be fair to our family, to our relationship, to get a job that took me away during the evenings. And I can’t afford daycare with a part-time job, but I don’t really want to be away from my kid 40+ hours a week.

    I love my kid. He is clever and verbal and strong and sweet and friendly and most everything I could wish for, and at least a little part of that is because of how we spend our days together. And I know I should love my life. But days like today, when we were awake from 4:30 to 6 am, when he has napped half an hour since 7 am, when my period has returned this morning, and when I feel like all I’ve done today is wash dishes we’ll soon get dirty and clean up rooms that will soon be disaster areas, I really really want more. Like a book deal. Or even the brain space + time to work on a book. Or the time to read a book. Or any feeling of permanent accomplishment.

    I helped Mark grade papers last night. He felt terrible about me helping until I told him it was the best feeling I’d had pretty much all day.


    I’m really glad you’re in that place right now, though! And you two are super cute, as always.

  6. Kate responded on 11 Dec 2013 at 2:32 pm #

    Heavy is a good word for it!

  7. Kate responded on 11 Dec 2013 at 2:37 pm #

    I hear you! I really, really hear you. I hope you are able to find time to read and write, as well as be an amazing mother. I have a fantasy of my life where I am always doing both. Right now I’m reminding myself that even when I can’t do anything except care for Eden, there will be another time when I can, maybe soon.

    Anyway, i hate that pressure to love life all the time. I mean, I want to love life all the time, because life is short and it’s better to love it, and sometimes people get hit by trucks, and I know I’m incredibly lucky. But still: sometimes you’re really NOT fulfilled yet, and it’s OK to acknowledge that and to work towards doing things that make you actually love life. And it’s also OK to vacillate on loving/being frustrated with life.

    You’re an awesome, gorgeous writer. I know you’ll find a way to write.

  8. camelshoes responded on 12 Dec 2013 at 4:35 am #

    Thank you for this post. It really resonated with me.

    All I ever wanted to be was a veterinarian. I worked very hard in school, and after 9 years of university I graduated a qualified veterinarian… only to find that that I didn’t like being a veterinarian, even though I was good at it.

    I knew it wasn’t right for me before I finished my degree but I forced myself to continue because I liked how proud my family was, and how other people seemed impressed when they found out what I did, I worried that the stress of vet school was distorting my perception, and I like to finish things I start.

    So, yes, I got what I wanted, but it turns out that what I wanted was not what I thought it would be. I really wanted to like it, and I was disappointed when I didn’t. It wasn’t supposed to go like that! It was actually pretty devastating – almost like mourning after a break up!

    Now I work in a bookshop. I am a lot happier but I struggle sometimes with what *I* think other people think of me – do they look down on me? do they think I’m wasting my skill/talent/life?!

    I know I am good at my current job, but I also know I am capable of more. I just don’t know what I want to do instead. And does there need to be an instead? My husband just says “Why don’t you do this (bookshop) until you don’t want to do it anymore.” But I think it can be difficult for ‘smart’ people to not do what society perceives as a ‘smart’ career (e.g. Doctor, lawyer etc.).

    So I don’t know what to do, but I am trying to let myself just ‘be’ and not worry as much about what I ‘should’ be doing or where my ‘career’ is going, and especially trying really really hard to stop comparing myself to others…it’s always a work in progress!

  9. kelitomlin responded on 12 Dec 2013 at 11:22 am #

    “What is exhausting is only wanting one thing.

    What is exhausting is secretly believing I deserve it.”

    THIS! Definitely, totally this!

    If I could let go of my outdated ideas of entitlement (that don’t come from me being spoon-fed or promised anything, but simply from dreaming a certain life for myself) I think I’d be much happier. The pressure to achieve what we think we ‘deserve’ can suck all the joy out of the joyful things we already have in life and looking for the future can mean we miss moment of happiness in the here and now.

    Knowing this doesn’t make not doing it any easier, but it is so heartening to hear others talk about it and know I’m not alone feeling this.

  10. Accepting Normal | Walk The Wheel responded on 12 Dec 2013 at 12:48 pm #

    [...] post was inspired by another post over at Eat The Damn Cake and the rather wonderful quote from author [...]

  11. Florence responded on 14 Dec 2013 at 8:10 pm #

    Wow, could I relate to this post. Not only has it also been my dream to publish a book, but it’s that sneaky feeling that I deserve success, deserve to be recognized for doing something I think I’m good at. Where does that come from? Maybe it is a generational thing, but as you said, how can we possibly discuss our whole generation? I think you have a wonderful point that we should just be…do what we love, relinquishing the desire for the fireworks at the end and instead experiencing the small sparks that are occurring all the time; they may not be grand, but they are honest. It comes back to doing things for their own intrinsic worth, instead of some external goal that we assume we’ll find validation in. Especially with something as personal and expressive and creative as writing, it’s about enjoying the process even if no one else ever gives a damn about it.

  12. anonymous commenter responded on 16 Dec 2013 at 9:35 am #

    I can relate to this in more ways than one.

    @ camelshoes, are you describing my life there? I have two degrees, was on the way to get another, when I became thoroughly disillusioned with academia, dropped out and started working at a bar (which is way less classy than working at a bookshop :) ). I’m good at it & I’m having the time of my life, yet I sometimes feel I’m wasting my time on something frivolous and should at the very least be working towards something more ‘serious’… I really like what your husband said though.

    All the best to all the fellow future-figure-out-ers out there!

  13. Holly responded on 17 Dec 2013 at 12:18 pm #

    Hi Kate – did you see the article today in the NYT about post-partum sex and intimacy? It’s not directly related to this post, rather more relevant for your previous post about feeling sexy as a mom, but it made me think of you. I am not linking since sometimes that flags comments, but it’s on the NYT homepage and is called “Sex after the baby” under the Science section. Enjoy!

  14. R responded on 18 Dec 2013 at 11:00 am #

    One of the things that irritated me about science, when I was doing science, was the way that the government was taking away funding from people whose experimental program is “I just wanna do this because I’m curious about what will happen” and giving it to people whose program is “this work will incrementally help this small subset of people be slightly better off for this weakly related reason”. I felt that the government misunderstands how science works. It’s not usually the case that someone has a great idea about how to cure cancer and then follows through on that idea and cures cancer. The reality of the work is that you try different things because you’re curious and you don’t know what will happen and then one day maybe you think, “Oh, hey, that thing that I just did could be applied to cure cancer!” It seems to me that is how most of our greatest scientific advances have happened–people do the work for love and curiosity and with little thought to whether their particular small thing will one day affect millions. Sometimes it does, but researchers are seldom sure in advance that it will.

    I think that literature is similar. You can never know whether your work will touch millions. You can never know whether your work will touch one person who in turn will touch millions, inspired by what you said. All you can do is pay attention to your own happiness, to the happiness of those directly around you, and trust that you are one of the rain drops that makes up the ocean. Clichéd as that sounds.

    You’re doing good work here. Just keep plugging and let the details work themselves out. :)

  15. Kate responded on 18 Dec 2013 at 11:22 am #

    i didn’t! i’ll look for it now. thank you!!

  16. Kate responded on 18 Dec 2013 at 11:23 am #

    So well said, about science funding

    and thank you