In today’s installment of Schoolin’ Life, we chat with writer and business analyst Jen Breach.
Give us a quick bio: who are you, what are you into, and how do you spend your days?
I‘m a 35 year-old Australian living in Brooklyn. I’m a writer – picture books and graphic novels – and have a day job as a business analyst for systems implementation projects at Barnard College.
When you were in your 20s…
What expectations did you have for yourself over the coming decade?
Oof. So many. I truly thought that by 30, I would have a PhD in archaeology and my first novel published. I was raised with very unhealthy ideas about achievement and perfection. When I did get to 30, I had an abandoned master’s program and I’d not even finished, let alone pitched or published a book. Although I understood intellectually that it was okay not have met those unrealistic expectations, I still felt like a failure.
In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?
I completely internalized the idea that young women should be pretty, quiet and compliant. How destructive is that? Those were expectations I could meet, though. For all the world, I seemed at ease but my own skin grated against me like sandpaper. Oh, to cause a ruckus.
What was your first job like?
I’ve always worked. I can’t even remember what the first one was. Cleaning houses with my brother? Or ironing business shirts for a neighbor? It was certainly shitty and poorly paid ☺
What was your first apartment like?
Apartments aren’t common in Australia. Most students and young people will live in a standalone multi-bedroom family home, sharing with other students. The first place I lived out of my parents’ house was a cute-as-a-button pale yellow weatherboard cottage in a Greek-and-Italian neighborhood in Melbourne. The whole bit: rose garden out the front, concrete back yard with a huge old nectarine tree that the nonna next door would precariously climb the fence to steal from. I shared the house with an alcoholic, a narcissist and a film student bodhran player. The arrangement fell apart is a spectacular way after two years but when I think back on it, the sun is shining on that house and the yellow looks lovely against a bright blue sky.
The first true apartment I had was in the East Village when I moved to NYC at 30. It was a third floor walk up, the smallest space I have ever occupied and completely awesome.
How did your relationships with your family change?
At 19, I came out as bisexual to my parents. Their response was a quoted bible passage and then we didn’t speak for six years. It was catastrophic. When we did speak again we didn’t have a single conversation about the estrangement. It took me another nine years for me to talk about it with them and to understand that while ideally a parent will love their child, it’s not always true.
The change, in all its big and tiny ways, was understanding and accepting that the fantasy that mine could be a close, loving, nurturing family was impossible.
In what ways do you feel your identity changed?
I grew up in rural Australia in the 80s. While Australia is a wealthy, educated Western country, attitudes are still very provincial, especially out of the cities. I did not even entertain the idea that I was attracted to women until I moved to the city for college at 18. Understanding that I was bi was like wearing a bespoke suit after two decades of ill-fitting hand-me-downs. When my parents saw my new suit and disowned me, I was really lost. In some ways I am oddly grateful for that catastrophe – it galvanized the way I saw myself. if I’d paid that enormous, painful price to understand and live my sexual identity, it didn’t make sense to be half assed about it.
The other change in identity came much later in my 20s when I shifted perspective from “I want to be a writer” to “I am a writer”. I went to the Emerging Writer’s Festival in Melbourne one sunny cold early winter day and had my idea of what it means to be a writer turned completely on its head. I had thought that it meant you had to be published, you had to make a living off it, you had to be a bestseller – you had to have soaring achievement that proves your “claim”. None of that is true. You’re a writer if you say so. I can’t remember the first time I actually said it out loud, but in my imagination I am timidly squeaking with a grimace and an apology. In the States I see people way more comfortable with calling themselves a writer, or illustrator, or designer or game maker – which is right. There’s a greater acceptance here of creative pursuit and activity, that you’re a professional if you say so regardless of how you pay your bills. In Australia creative pursuit is a hobby, not a career, especially in comics. It’s not true though – if you write, you’re a writer.
Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?
I don’t go in for regret. Aren’t we all just doing the best we can with what we’ve got in front of us? So how can a choice be wrong? There are always reasons – good or otherwise – for our choices, actions, or lack there of. Of course, some choices are bad and we misconstrue some reasons as excuses. But unless we know we are acting intentionally cruelly or unreasonably or evilly, then we could all stand to be a little kinder to ourselves about our choices and cut ourselves a break.
There’s such a disconnect between what we think a thing is and what it actually turns out to be. We make decisions based on what we know, what we feel and what we can imagine, not on the actual, real future outcome of a choice. How can we? If it turns out to be a bad choice then we have more information to work on to make new choices – either with forward momentum or backwards reflection to make amends for past wrongdoing.
Regret is an inability to see the threads of one’s life and an inability to act without shame or ego in the face of our own less-than-ideal choices. Conscious action of this kind is the hardest thing in the world to do, but it’s a better place to put energy than in regret.