Once upon a time, I worked at a magazine, reporting to a white woman who, early in our working relationship, told me that she didn’t consider me a threat because “a black woman will never have this job.”
She then proceeded to use every one of my ideas to completely redesign the magazine we worked for. It was the end of a moment in publishing when such a thing as a “big magazine job” still existed. I hung on because I really wanted to be an editor-in-chief one day and knew that quitting would take me out of the game.
One Labor Day weekend, my husband and I went away for a last gasp of family beach time. On the following Tuesday, our young daughter was scheduled to start kindergarten at a school that I had dreamed of getting her into for over a year, and I would return to work.
But I just could not leave the beach. It was Monday. We had splurged and gotten a cabana to enjoy. Lying on the beautiful beach that weekend, I knew that if I did not decide, right there, it would be another year before I could find the courage to quit that job.
I stayed on that beach collecting courage. At 3 p.m. we checked out of our room and stored the bags. At 5 we were still on the beach, and home was now, with traffic, a 5 1/2-hour drive away. My husband, who is a saint, said, “Take all the time you need.”
By 6, I had decided to quit. I changed my child into pajamas. I fed her In-N-Out at a rest stop on the freeway. She was asleep in the back seat by 8.
None of it was what I had planned for the night before her first day of school. But at least for the both of us, the day ahead meant new chapters. The next morning, I dropped her off at school bleary eyed and a little worse for wear. Then I walked into my office and quit.
I grew up with that Olivia Pope mentality that as someone with my race and gender, you have to work twice as hard to get half as far. I think that also meant that I had to work twice as hard to gather half the courage it took to quit a workplace that did not deserve my talents but still benefited from my excellence. It was hard to walk away from what looked, at least on paper, like a very good job.
I’m a woman of color and a first-generation American. It is practically encoded in my DNA to put up with inordinate amounts of microaggression, if not outright aggression. I talk about this with my girlfriends who share that DNA, a lot. For us, quitting requires more than the “take this job and shove it” swagger that sometimes presents when people of a different hue and class do it.
But the woman I worked for refused to take my resignation. She refused to allow me to quit for three weeks. It was a move I hadn’t expected, but so her — she never accepted what wasn’t convenient for her. She kept saying, “I’ll accept this resignation when we’ve explored all of our options.”
When she finally gave in, she insisted that I give her four weeks notice or she would blackball me. (A little irony there, since I’m black and she treated me like the help.)
Finally, eight weeks later, I walked out of that office, a free woman.
What came next was that I wrote four New York Times bestsellers. I won two James Beard awards. I had a novel optioned by a producer I had long admired. I taught at Stanford University and Smith College. I was able to carve out an extraordinary amount of time to spend with my poor daughter who had started kindergarten sleep deprived and with a slight bellyache from me shoving fries down her throat in a moving car and calling it dinner.
I didn’t want to just quit my job, I wanted to make a better life for myself. That came with a lot of hard work, and even overworking myself, but I did it for myself and on my own terms.
The topper of it all was the summer I rented an apartment in Madrid and enrolled my daughter in a camp at a museum there, just because I damn well felt like it. Me — who in the years before had never taken off more than five days in a row.
When you’re constantly shown to the back of the career bus, quitting what looks like a good job can be a vital moment of reclaiming the self-esteem that unlocks a world of possibility. At least it was for me.