A Long-Held Dream

Eighteen years ago I graduated from university. I had been thinking about grad school for years already by then, but looking back I realise I never considered it a real option for me. My parents had been fully supportive of me getting a bachelor’s degree, but as devout, traditional Mormons, their script for their oldest daughter after university continued in a fixed path towards mission, marriage and motherhood. Not all Mormons uniformly believe this way (and some are much more extreme, as Tara Westover recounts in her riveting memoir, Educated), but my parents did, and for them it was core to their faith. I could have rebelled and gone my heathen way to grad school, I suppose, but I wanted to be good; to fulfil God’s plan for me; to keep checking off the boxes in that checklist of a righteous life.

Two months after graduation I was off to Chile on an 18-month mission. And almost as soon as I got home from that, my mother–surreally–sat me down to make a list of all the eligible young men I knew. Six months later I was safely married (in case you’re wondering, NOT to anyone on my mother’s list). A year after that I birthed our first child. Meanwhile I dabbled in writing, read voraciously, and managed to move us halfway across the world on various occasions; but mostly I devoted myself to motherhood. From attachment parenting to homeschooling to healthy eating, I threw myself into the endeavour with all the thwarted enthusiasm of an overactive brain, imagination and work ethic.

Sometimes I did wonder why this motherhood-as-career-and-identity thing didn’t feel as natural and soul-feeding as I’d been taught to believe it should. But my perfectionist soul along with my religious conditioning made it easy to internalise my feeling of discontent as something wrong with me. If I only tried/worked/prayed harder I could fix and remake myself into someone who not only performed this role I’d been born into, but felt complete within its narrow confines.

Spoiler: it didn’t work. I continued to fantasise about grad school, and as I became slowly more feminist and less dogmatically Mormon the fantasy began to feel less forbidden. By then, however, we had two kids, student debt left over from our undergrad days, and–thanks to a recession that devastated the business we started right out of school–a precarious financial situation. Grad school remained a distant dream, now for practical reasons. After a few moves chasing equally elusive dreams and financial stability, our economic situation necessitated me going back to work full-time, Mormon gender proscriptions or no.

I commuted an hour each way to work every day. My job wasn’t particularly fulfilling or inspiring, and I had little in common with my coworkers. But it was more or less in an actual field that made sense as a career move, and was interesting to me. I had my own office and I was getting a real yearly salary. It gave me a lot of confidence. It made me feel like I was capable of doing something other than what my Mormon life script had prepared me for; that it wasn’t too late for me to have a different life.

We moved to Amsterdam, and I got a different job, this time one I really loved. After a few years of both working, we were far enough ahead financially that Tony could think about going back to his dream: starting a business. He asked me to quit my beloved job to help him start it. I did, with many a backward glance, because I love him, and in recognition of the fact that he’s been contributing the lion’s share of our family income for the majority of our marriage, and I wanted him to be able to do something he loves.

A couple of months into that endeavour, I realised that once he got the business up and running he wouldn’t really need me to keep devoting my full professional energy to it. What was I going to do? And from there it wasn’t much of a leap to answer myself with, “well, how about that thing you’ve desperately wanted to do since forever?”

Which was, of course, graduate school.

Fortunately, there are several good universities within striking distance of where I live, and the majority of master’s degrees in the Netherlands are in English. Thanks to my ongoing fantasising/research, I already knew that as the partner of an EU citizen I would pay the unbelievable–to an American–sum of only €2K in tuition per year. All I had left to do was hunt down my ancient diploma (which had somehow literally been built into our basement renovation; there has got to be some metaphorical significance to that) and apply.

I spent the last couple of months of 2018 collecting documents, exploring research topics, and compulsively removing and then re-inserting all the Oxford commas in my personal statement.

And of course to prolong the suspense I ended up applying right before Christmas. I may or may not have logged in to view my application status multiple times per day since then, even though I knew I was supposed to get an email with the decision. There’s nothing like that kind of anxiety to really make you empathise with Schrödinger’s unlucky cat.

But today my (lack of) patience was finally rewarded. I’m officially in! Starting in September, I’ll be doing a History Research MA at Leiden University on Cities, Migration & Global Interdependence. I could say all sorts of wonderful things about Leiden University, which just last week celebrated its 444th anniversary. It is the oldest university in the Netherlands, and really a sort of paradise if history is your thing. And not only is it a great university with a huge history department, but it’s nestled in one of the most darling little towns I’ve ever visited. I’ve been in love with the city of Leiden since I first made its acquaintance a few months after we moved to the Netherlands. It is an easy 24-minute train ride from Amsterdam, and pretty much as picturesque as they come.

I’m still kind of in denial that this is actually happening. In fact, I probably won’t really believe it until I’m in class this fall. To say I am excited would be the understatement of the last 18 years. I am wildly, irrepressibly, over-the-moon ecstatic, and so grateful for the chance to fulfil this long-held dream of mine.

I’m aware that when it comes to impractical degrees, history probably tops the list (although the New Yorker agrees with me that it does serve the arguably practical function of saving civilisation). But hey, I’ve been waiting a long time for this, and life’s too short not to do what you love. I’m also fully aware how much privilege is packed into that last statement. I’m incredibly grateful to have a partner who is supportive in every way, including financially. And I’m lucky to live in a country (and have a passport, or at least a partner with a passport) that ensures I won’t finish a degree like this with crippling debt. Waiting this long does have its perks; having observed several friends navigate grad school with babies and toddlers, I’m pretty sure it will be a lot easier with middle schoolers. We can do homework club together.

Here’s to dreams and holding onto them forever, and leaping after them with all you’ve got when they serendipitously come back into view.

7 thoughts on “A Long-Held Dream

  • Pingback: Grad School at 40 – Casteluzzo

  • February 20, 2019 at 8:57 am

    I read this while smiling ear to ear. Huge, huge congratulations!! I am so, so excited for you!! And reading this has given me the kick-in-the-pants that I needed to finally get on with my transfer application to finish my program. Hooray for grad school!!!

  • February 15, 2019 at 6:25 am

    Congratulations Sarah! I am Dario from a little village of Friuli – NE of ITALY: My English is not the best but I follow your very very interesting blog by some years. Your personal and familiary history is marvelous and your descriptions in perfect english are for me better than a Master….Brava Sarah and have a good life you and your wonderful family. Ciao e arrivederci dario

  • February 14, 2019 at 3:24 pm

    Great news, Sarah! What an amazing research subject! I think Leiden is one of the most appropriate cities to study history. Good luck!

  • February 14, 2019 at 3:03 pm

    This is amazing news!!! Congratulations!

  • February 14, 2019 at 1:56 pm

    Congratulations Sarah! You are amazing and have made an amazing life and family. I too struggle with Mormonism with a husband that was raised as you and can’t unleash himself. Good luck in your new endeavors.


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