Sorry, You’re Not Good Enough…
On Thursday afternoon, I received an email. It popped innocuously into my inbox when I wasn’t looking and I only discovered it later whilst sitting in a car, killing time, checking my phone, waiting outside the school gates for a child who needed an emergency braces repair. No-one ever tells you that once you get past the night feeds, the nappies, the settling-in-days, the phonics, the transfer tests and the hormones, that you will spend most of the rest of your teenage parenting years in the reception at the orthodontists.
The subject line told me it was about my recent application. I’d been feeling that Autumn chill, the shrinking that comes with middle-age, the confines of motherhood, an increasing anxiety that I’d never been truly successful even though I had no concept of what that would look like. Age was a constant feature in my dreams. I was attracted to the idea of not shrivelling round the edges, of leaving the house on a regular basis, of being an expert on something, of taking on the challenge of a bigger project that I needed to stay alive to finish. Perhaps it would be my swan song, my last chance to achieve some academic kudos. It would even give me a title. “Dr Deborah,” my husband joked. “It’s the biggest thing you will ever do,” someone told me. Those who had done it carried their battle scars as a badge of honour, they’d made it through the viva. There was a sense of having survived 80,000 words. They had a thesis in a repository. I didn’t know if it was bigger than taking on four children, elderly parents, various relatives, a menagerie of friends and the constant internal wrestling that comes from writing your life on a page for all the world to see. There are days when that feels really big. But, I was craving a bit more intellectual stimulation and I had romantic notions about returning to my first love, English literature, hanging out round libraries, reading books, lunching in the quad, meeting professors. On reflection, it smacks of an existential crisis, a temporary madness.
The email had the potential to ruin my day but I opened it anyway and scanned its five short lines. The grammar left a lot to be desired. “My proposal was underdeveloped,” it said. I wouldn’t be invited to interview. It was a highly competitive field. As my daughter jumped in the passenger seat and asked me to check if there was any chicken stuck in her teeth, I could feel the tears starting. I set aside my heartbreak. I told her she should carry a toothbrush in her bag for occasions such as this. I was the only wise mother she had, but it seemed there were others much more capable than me in other areas. “But, sure you said, you’d concluded a PhD wasn’t for you,” my husband would say as he took up the challenge of re-affirming me later, “all that being approved and validated by a system”. “But you don’t understand,” I said, “they said I was underdeveloped”. “Yes, it wasn’t very well worded,” he said.
But of course, one rejection is never just one rejection. As you dwell on it, linger over it, ponder why, it becomes a whole pile-up of all the other rejections, a reunion where they can all get back together. You remember all the other times - the calls that never came, all the shortlists you never made, all the longlists you never made either, the Valentines’ cards that never arrived, the guy who said he used to like you until he got to know you and you were too young to realise that it was him, not you and that someone would eventually like you just the way you are. It reminds you of the pain of not being chosen as Head Girl or senior prefect or captain of anything, of not even being picked for any of the teams, of not getting enough votes, of not getting enough promotions, of never having anything to say you are delighted about on LinkedIn. It makes you question your personality, your looks, your shape and your size as you stand and look in the mirror and wonder why your face looks like a wedding-cake left out in the rain¹ and why you weren’t one of the ‘Yummy Mummies’ deemed glamorous enough to be photographed for the Ulster Tatler. All you were allowed to do was stand and watch. You see one of those Yummy Mummies walking her dog sometimes and wonder was that her greatest success.
And then you think about all that wasted time, and you just get cross about why they needed details about every single qualification, the addresses of all your employers, your marital status, dependents, denomination and the telephone number of your doctor. And isn’t that that what rejections really are, a complete and utter waste of precious time, an investment that comes to nothing, filling in forms, waiting for outcomes, sitting in receptions, eating your nerves, losing sleep.
But soon, the anger becomes shame, the shame of not being good enough and you think you may never get back up again. But you do, because it isn’t the first time and it won’t be the last.
As I read the email again, I spotted the massive s**t sandwich. I wondered who came up with this useless way of delivering negative feedback. “Unfortunately, despite its fascinating premise…” it said. Maybe I could cling on to that. But, I just felt judged so I filed it instead. I was ready to move on. It was November. I watched the John Lewis Christmas advert², I saw the time the foster dad was investing in learning how to skateboard. I listened to Richard E. Grant on ‘Desert Island Discs’³. I heard the crack in his voice, the pause to compose himself at the end of Fields of Gold, as he recalled the length of time, thirty-eight years, he had invested in loving his wife. There was now the grief of dealing with her loss, and even though he had no religious convictions whatsoever, the fantasy of somehow finding that person that you’ve loved again, somewhere. I realised that time invested in the right places will never feel like rejection. It’s about remembering what you are good enough for, the places where you are wanted and loved, where it is simply you that matters, how there are only ever some people who will tell you if you’ve chicken stuck in your teeth.
Today, as I sat down to write this piece, I decided to retrieve the email, confirm what it had said. But, I couldn’t find it anywhere. I instigated a search. Somehow, it had fallen into another folder, not the new ‘PhD’ one but an old one where I keep good news, positive reinforcement, the lovely comments, because someone once told me to keep those things until I needed them. And they were right. Maybe it was divine intervention, to be directed towards all those times where I wasn’t rejected. And, I really wanted to tell Richard E. Grant to believe, that there is somewhere.
 As said by W.H. Auden who had an interesting face…
 https://www.johnlewis.com/content/christmas-advert (external link)
 https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m001dwlk (external link)