Ten years ago, I sat in an amphitheater-style lecture hall. It was day one of a three-day law school orientation. I felt awkward in my borrowed suit—skirt and blazer, black with white trim—and the North Carolina humidity hadn’t been kind to my hair (my school ID photo made sure no one would ever forget).
I side-eyed the 30 people I would see more than my family throughout the next three years and felt a little queasy. Law school seemed like a good choice, a pat answer to the daunting, “so what do you want to do with your life?” query leveled at every human under 22. It made sense, given who I was and what I valued: I made the choice because it was the sensible thing to do.
That’s the kind of person I was–I did the sensible thing. I surely wouldn’t dream of doing the thing I actually wanted to do.
But sitting in that stuffy lecture hall that smelled a little like feet, I felt a nagging deep in my chest. I’d made a colossal commitment of time and money. It felt momentous, but not quite in the way I hoped it would. It was like I was standing on a dock watching a boat pull away, full of people waving and calling out to me. Though everything inside me screamed to jump, swim, and grab a hand, my feet were cemented to the ground.
And then the boat got smaller and smaller and eventually disappeared over the horizon, and I was left on the dock alone, wondering what I’d missed.
I’ve never known a time when I didn’t want to be a writer. Writing is the common thread that took me through five moves in just over a decade, a transition from public school to homeschooling to private school to public school again. Through my early twenties and newlywed years, through motherhood once, then twice. Through a scary diagnosis, a high-risk pregnancy, and two NICU stays. Through colic and nursing and weaning, potty training, and preschool registrations.
I went to law school because I thought it was a practical choice for someone who longed to be a writer. Lawyers write a lot, I heard. The best lawyers are great writers, they told me. Surely, if you have a creative heart, you can find a place in the law, someone else said as I nodded over coffee and suddenly found myself wondering what life would be like if I never had to buy another pair of pantyhose.
Maybe these wise people were right. Maybe that’s true for some. Some writers thrive in the law, as clerks or non-partner-track associates at big law firms who spend most of their time hammering out briefs in their fancy offices. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that none of those options appealed to me at all. I chalked it up to millennial privilege and shamed myself for being so whiny. Was I just lazy? Avoiding the inevitable fact that one day I needed to trade my yoga pants and backpack for a blazer and briefcase and get a real J-O-B?
“You leave the house before 7 AM every single day,” my dad said one day. “I’ve never seen someone work so hard.”
There went my hypothesis.
Maybe I wasn’t lazy or entitled at all. Maybe I just didn’t want to be a lawyer. And maybe, just maybe, I thought as I drove my 2002 Honda to school one morning in the breaking dawn, that’s ok.
Maybe I would’ve realized that a long time ago if I hadn’t worked so hard to convince myself otherwise.
The historic small-town courthouse was sweltering, though it was only early April. It had been a long week of trial and the jury was finally deliberating, leaving us with hours of spare time in the gallery. While other young attorneys would have practically jumped out of their skins at the opportunity to participate in a jury trial just one year into their careers, I spent the week alternately swigging black coffee and Pepto.
While I’d had my doubts about my career path, nothing solidifies a choice like spending a full ten days immersed in an aggressively adversarial legal battle. Though this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a baby lawyer, it was the last nail in the coffin of my litigation career. There’s nothing like a very long and stressful trial to convince an unhappy lawyer that maybe there’s another way to use this degree that the ambiguous “they” kept saying was so flexible, so versatile.
Sitting there sweating in the courtroom, I made up my heat-exhausted mind that I would find that other way–whatever it may be.
My colleagues went to lunch while the jury deliberated. I hung back. Pulling my phone and my day-old flattened PBJ out of my purse, I lost myself in research, looking up the question that had been burning in my mind for five years. Yes, you can actually make a career as a writer. Find your niche, and you can make real money. Better yet, you can do what you love, for a living.
The list of opportunities stretched on as I scrolled, chewed, and wiped the sweat off my brow. If law school had taught me anything, it’s that things that look shiny in a certain light can be dark and tarnished in another. But after the gauntlet that was my first two years as a litigation associate, I couldn’t deny that it was time for a different challenge, a different brand of “hard.”
I whipped out my phone and tapped a message to my husband, the words flowing like that first comforting cup of hot coffee in the morning:
“I’ve made up my mind. I’m going to be a freelance writer.”
Seconds after the “whoosh” of my sent message, his three dots appeared. They bounced a bit, then disappeared while my heart jackhammered under my pit-stained blouse.
Then they appeared again, and with them, his response, a balm to my anxious soul:
“That sounds great, love. Let’s chat tonight.”
I’m watching my toddler at the breakfast table trying to spear a slippery piece of cut fruit with his yellow plastic construction fork. The fruit keeps evading the tines and frustrated, he shrieks and flings the fork across the table. I take a break from spooning pureed veggies into the baby’s mouth to calm him. James, it’s okay. It’s okay to be frustrated but we don’t throw things. Do you need help? All you need to do is ask me for help, buddy. I’m here for you.
I pick up his fork, spear a fresh piece of strawberry, and hand it to him. He pops the fruit into his mouth and grins, then spears another piece.
It’s all too easy for me to roll my eyes because the kid is bashing his head against a wall trying again and again to use his clumsy toddler fork. But what I don’t see is that he’s a mirror.
This is me: a toddler poking at the same piece of food over and over and over with a clumsy plastic fork.
How often have I failed to see that two feet across the table from me, there’s someone there to throw me a lifeline, in the form of a lesson on how to use a fork, or a firm hand ready to confiscate it before I jab my eye out? Someone there to feed me when clearly, I’m hangry and frustrated and the more I insist on stabbing away at the same elusive strawberry, meanwhile, I’m starving myself?
Sometimes we just need to do the work, to stab the fruit, or maybe switch utensils, or even switch to fingers so we can give ourselves the sustenance we need. Sometimes, we need to just let ourselves be hungry for a bit while we fumble around with the fork and figure out how to use it.
But sometimes we don’t.
Alexandra Davis is a wife, mother, and writer who shares her take on issues at the intersection of faith, culture, and family life. She also writes essays reflecting on all that is good, true, and beautiful in everyday life. Most recently, her work has been published in Verily Magazine, Coffee + Crumbs, Public Discourse, FemCatholic, and Everyday Mamas. By day, she runs Davis Legal Media, a ghostwriting and content strategy service for lawyers and law firms, and in the margins, you can find her wheeling her double stroller through vintage furniture stores, hoarding her favorite (easy) recipes, or writing in coffee shops. You can connect with Alex on Instagram at @alexandraedavis or by joining her monthly newsletter, where she encourages women and working moms in the trenches.