The Loosening of Ambition

I have a horrible memory, but I remember Ryan asking me to move to DC. Sitting next to each other knee to knee, looking away, biting my inner cheek while he explained why his company needed to relocate. I waited, re-forming his words in my brain while he talked, and then, he wants me to come with him, doesn’t think he can do it without me.

I remember Thank You. Relief. Finally. (And hooray big city!) Thank you for taking me away, letting me play big, taking me with you. 

The move, four years ago now, was supposed to be temporary. But it was also supposed to be permanent; you keep up a facade for the sake of transition. Uprooting it all is easier when you think you can come back. I moved to get out of the Midwest where I had lived my entire life, to do the next big thing, and to serve my ambition. Basically, I moved for me. But I also moved for love and for Ryan, more so than I knew at the time.

My job in Madison let me work remotely, which seemed like a good idea then. Who doesn’t want to work from home, especially in a place like DC? I imagined myself traipsing around the city, diving into museums, opening my laptop and leaning back, legs elongated and crossed at the ankles, surveying the people, twirling a pen between my fingers. But I didn’t do those things. And working from home sucked.

I spent most days in a dark apartment we found after viewing twelve places in twelve hours; it was the best out of a dozen, and we signed the lease to have an address for our U-Haul. After we moved in, we realized the windows faced a brick wall. The irony should have alerted me then. In Madison, I thought I was a big fish in a small pond (as much as a young twenty-something could be a big fish). In DC, I wasn’t a small fish in a big pond, it was more like I didn’t exist.

I didn’t get out and meet anyone as I was still tricking myself into thinking we might move back. There was no urgency for me to build a network as I still had my job. And I continued to hold onto the supposed heaven of working from home. Meanwhile, Ryan, whose company situation was precarious before the move (part of the “why” of relocation), was flourishing. You’re not supposed to be jealous of your partner but I was jealous. All of a sudden, everyone knew who he was and all about his company. But no one had heard of the startup I worked for. As time went on, I became increasingly isolated.

Life started to revolve around Ryan in ways I didn’t expect. He passed on speaking engagements he couldn’t or didn’t want to do. Told me about consulting opps from his network. A new job opening from someone he knew. What little career I strung together, I did under his wing. I never imagined myself as the girl who follows her boyfriend across the country, but that’s what I did. I never imagined myself defeated, not knowing what to do next, finding it difficult to get out of the house, intimidated and riddled with anxiety, but that’s what I was.

Sometimes our relationship felt like two bricks tied to my ankles, drowning me in a sea of opportunities. I kept this quiet of course; it wasn’t true, but the weight of my own responsibility was weighted even more with depression. I had the ability to create my future, my present, but chose not to day after day. I oscillated between stuffing down feelings of worthlessness to day-dreaming about starting over on my own alone.

One time I had a job opportunity in New York, something I was really excited about, and got to the final round of interviews. They said I didn’t get the job because the plan to work remotely and travel in between didn’t work. I offered to move to New York temporarily, say for three months, even six, but it didn’t work. And I couldn’t lie and say I would move there for real; we live in DC. And we live here for Ryan’s company.

After, when I told Ryan that I offered to move to New York, he was taken aback. You wouldn’t have really moved, would you? he asked. In my mind: YES. Then I shrugged. Maybe. In my mind: Maybe not.

My choice was largely unconscious over time, but I did prioritize the role of supportive girlfriend, fiancé, and now wife over ambition. And this is what women do. We have careers, we have ambitions, and then love, society, and a lack of vigilance gets in the way.

The ability to have it all, let alone do it all, rests on the supposition that we know what it “all” is, and succeeding in the idea presupposes that we have a choice in the matter, which we often don’t. A modern patriarchy leaves women subtle cues and not-so-subtle mixed messages that layer on top of each other to form a confused haze. We’re left fighting for personal clarity, for the knowledge of what one wants over expectations and transitions, for independence in the midst of love, for careers in the midst of relationships.

I am lucky to have a partner who, when I realized the tiny box I was in and of my own making, allowing myself to be pulled along by the gentle machinations of society, didn’t insist on professions of contentedness or ask, “Why aren’t you/can’t you be happy?” but rather opened up the world and said, this is for you. There is time.

But it’s hard to support your partner and take your own path. Especially when the path isn’t obvious or bumps up against invisible rules or biological clocks (shout-out to love, marriage and the baby carriage!). Unconditional love and support means the ability to fly and be rooted, to gamble and be protected. You get both freedom and security. And while ambition can be amplified in a relationship, a careful watch for its loosening and slipping, then settling, must be kept. Keep a lookout for your mind, worth just as much as his. Vow allegiance to love and independence. Guard your decisions with intention. The world needs the depths and dreams of a woman.