But it sounds so glamorous, right? Like the kind of thing you dream about when you’re sitting in your gray, windowless cubicle pounding on your crappy keyboard and the highlight of your day is the burrito you’re going to eat for lunch.
I was one of those people for a couple years. I worked in the public relations department of a Fortune 500 company right out of college and quickly learned office politics and personal development and syncing Outlook to my iPhone and checking my work email on Saturday mornings and “downloading” people on missed meetings and “following up” and “action items” and all that other bullshit that takes over your life and is never taught in college.
I think most middle class kids who graduate from college these days have an unjustified sense of entitlement and an all too starry-eyed vision of their future (or at least I did). In school we are told the world is our oyster and that if we work hard enough, we will get the editorial assistant job at The New Yorker or the junior copywriter job at sexy ad agencies like Weiden + Kennedy. And some of us do happen to meet the right people at the right time and live these so-called glamorous lives. But most of us don’t. We have to take the first job that pays us enough money to get out of our parent’s house and we take our seat at a glowing box every morning and wait for the glorious future of success and money to come and it never does.
So after two years of spending my weekends traveling for work with married colleagues and missing friend’s birthdays, I walked into my boss’s office, laid down a letter of resignation, and promptly burst into tears. In hindsight, it was probably one of the best jobs I would ever get and one of the most understanding managers I’d ever report to.
But unfortunately, I believed that I was a free spirit and needed to be sipping un café in a cafe somewhere on the Left Bank looking like a much sexier version of Gertrude Stein. A friend of a friend of a friend recommended I take over her au pair position in a month–so off to Paris I went. What could be hard about taking care of two adorable little French children, living in the maid’s quarters, cooking delicious cassoulets and ratatouille every night, and basically being a really badass Mary Poppins? A lot, actually. A lot could be hard.
Frankly, I was too old to be an au pair. Most of the other American girls I met doing the same thing were 18, fresh off the farm in Iowa, and experiencing their first time away from parental restrictions and sexual inhibitions. They looked at Paris with clear, un-jaded eyes and embraced the dirty streets, the expensive macaroons, even the men leering in the streets. When you’re 18 and in Europe for the first time, everything is romantic, even the man masturbating outside your apartment on a Friday night. (Yup, that happened my second night in the city of lights.)
I was a terrible au pair. I had barely babysat in my youth, and the kids were bratty and uncontrollable. I would lose myself in books while they threw sand in each other’s eyes on the playground, and would desperately watch the clock for when the parents would come home and relieve me of this hell.
Sometimes I would catch myself in a self-pity Cinderella sob while I was sweeping their floors after dinner. “What am I doing with my life?” I would wonder as I threw their poopy underwear in the washing machine. I had a college degree! Two months ago I was traveling to conferences and giving presentations on Twitter! I used to make car payments and go out to nice dinners! Goddammit, I used to be somebody!
And now…I was a second-class citizen. I vowed when I made it back to America, I would look every nanny and housekeeper and janitor in the eye and give them the respect I never had before. Living in a foreign country and working as “the help” was deeply humbling. My French family would lock their kitchen when they went out of town–I guess to ensure that I wouldn’t eat their stale Camembert or guzzle their Lillet Blanc. (And, let’s be honest, I was so poor I probably would have.)
After five months I quit and caught a plane back to the United States. I came back dejected, embarrassed, and broke. My biggest fear was that people would laugh at me. I had tried to do the romantic Lost Generation thing and failed–miserably. There was no novel out of this experience, no French lovers, no Julie Delpy best friend–just an extra twenty pounds around my fat American waist because I ate my feelings in croissants every morning.
It took months of living at home and hating myself and applying for menial jobs to realize that there is no magic answer for your twenties. Envying your successful friends in New York or aspiring to be your noble friend in the Peace Corps or lusting after the attractive vice president at your company gets you nowhere. The quickest way to feel like shit is to compare yourself to others.
I don’t regret quitting my job. I was burned out and I needed to leave before I started setting things on fire. I don’t regret going to Paris. It took away the gauzy veil of Europe’s romanticism and made me realize I’m far more American (and Texan) than I thought I was. But I do regret taking people and stability and love for granted during that time in my life. And cashing in my 401(k) in a moment of panicky fuck-it attitude. That was pretty stupid.
But as I begin to rebuild my life back in my hometown, I try to focus my energy on being a good daughter, a good friend, a good coworker, and (hopefully one day) a good girlfriend. You don’t have to have everything figured out by the time you’re 25. Or 35. Or 45. You just need to appreciate the hour that you’re living and figure out what you really love and then find or create a job doing that and then somehow not fall into the self-pity trap that so many of us create. Get off the Internet. Go for a walk. Read a book. Watch the world news and realize how stupid lucky you are. You don’t have to go to Paris to find yourself. Or maybe you do. But seriously, don’t cash in that 401(k). That’s just dumb.