For the past twelve years of my life I’ve been an aerospace engineer. Even after more than a decade of sitting at a desk in front of endless spreadsheets I am still surprised that I ended up as an engineer. I never had any desire or intention to become one. It just sort of happened. How did it happen?
When I was a little girl all I wanted to be was an astronaut. This wasn’t some sort of fantasy for me, but throughout my childhood and through high school I fully expected that one day I would be riding aboard a space shuttle. Everything in my life centered around my grand plan. I learned to fly an airplane at age 14. I got perfect grades. I won international science competitions. I got into the best college in the country and planned to major in physics. And then I actually got to college. While, on paper, I looked like the perfect candidate to attend the university I went to, in reality, I was woefully unprepared. I was at the top of my class in a small rural high school in the Midwest, but I didn’t realize that it was a problem that my high school didn’t even offer one AP class. I think I was the only student to take the SATs my senior year. I got to college and began to fail from the first day of school. It was a horrible feeling and I didn’t know what to do; I was drowning. I flew to my parents house (not home – they had moved to a different state right after I graduated high school) for winter break. I slept for over 24 hours straight once I got there – passed out on an old twin bed in tiny room that was more like a hallway; I didn’t have a room at the house they had purchased. I woke up and the mail arrived with my grades and I was so stunned and at a loss as to what to do I didn’t even cry. I had failed three classes my first term at college: physics, chemistry, and math; you know THE IMPORTANT ONES. I am not sure anyone but Husband knows that – it’s not something I am proud of, but it is the cold, hard, truth. I didn’t tell my parents exactly what had happened, but my dad said not to worry – I could just move “home” seemingly forgetting that I knew absolutely knew no one in the crappy little town that they had moved to and I had no room in the house to even live in. That wasn’t going to happen.
So I went back to school and did everything I could to stay afloat. I was allowed retake a different version of the chemistry final and passed after studying it. I got a deal of “if you pass pass in the second term, we will change your first term grade to a pass”. I would retake Physics 1 next year at the same time as Physics 2. Looking back on everything I know that what I probably should have done was to quit school and re-apply to other schools as a freshman; to simply start over. I had no one to help me through that process and no financial support if I wasn’t in school, however (I was dependent on student loans), so I just stayed the course. I kissed my dreams of becoming an astronaut goodbye, switched from a physics to a planetary science major (an easier major) and just focused on surviving. Husband (then Boyfriend) helped immensely, with moral support, chemistry tutoring, and if he hadn’t paid our rent and bought our groceries and took me out to eat I have no idea how I actually would have finished college. I managed to get through school in four years with a decent, but not stellar GPA. I remember people being happy at graduation but all I can remember is being exhausted and relived. I was also hopped up on Vicodin due to infected wisdom teeth. I slept through most of my own graduation party. When it was all over I can’t remember having a single career desire or dream left. I had an unstable childhood (short version: we moved 12 times in 18 years), college had been a depression filled haze, and all I wanted was stability; to get married, buy a house, and have babies. I wanted stability so badly that I threw every other one of my interests and desires under the bus just so I could get it. Husband, understandably, wasn’t ready for children just yet; he was in graduate school and so I decided to be the one who earned the money and worked. I heard that a local big aerospace giant was looking for smart people and was hired easily. We got married when I was 22, bought our house when I was 24. At work I was the model of a devoted employee, staying late, traveling, willing to take on new work. Everyone thought I loved my job; I was good at it and I am a very good actress I had nothing else that I had passion for and my husband was slaving away a grad school so why not work late? And then we had a baby. I had found passion.
Returning to a job that I didn’t like after having a baby was awful. I still did a good job, but internally I felt that I wasting my life. The funny thing was, I didn’t want to be home with my kids full-time, but I realized that if I was going to be away from them it needed to be for something that I was passionate about. A few years ago, after Husband finished grad school and started making real money I started to take steps to change careers. Baby steps doing thing things I should have done in college; exploring my interests. I went to pastry school in the evenings, I interned part-time for a group focused on sustainable farming and food, I volunteered for a breastfeeding policy organization, I started taking evening classes at the local community college. I thought I would keep working as an aerospace engineer for a few more years; perhaps until Baby went to kindergarten when suddenly I was hit with discrimination at work. The very short story is that I complained about it; was retaliated against, and have been on a leave of absence for the past six months. Now I find myself at age 35, about to be officially unemployed. I never thought it would end this way and it’s been a truly horrible experience to deal with discrimination and its aftermath but I am also so happy not to be going to that job anymore. I could go out and find another job as an aerospace engineer but I DON’T WANT TO. The girl who worked at that job, was a sad shell of the person that I can be. I am done with it.
So now what – live a life of “leisurely” stay-at-home motherhood? For this school year yes, sort of; right now I am a mother by day and student by night. But that’s isn’t financially sustainable for us and even if it were I can’t keep having babies just to make myself happy. I want to work. So what then? I am not quite ready to tell just yet. But I do know that the word “engineer” will be nowhere in the title; that’s just something I used to do.