A Tale of Two Personality Types: Coming Full Circle

I was in the later years of high school when I first learned about ‘Type A’ and ‘Type B’ personalities. This theory about personality types was actually developed by two cardiologists, Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman, in the 1950s, and it purported that a person who exhibited a certain set of psychological characteristics was at a higher risk of developing coronary heart disease. This set of characteristics was labelled ‘Type A’ and included being competitive, highly organised, a perfectionist, anxious, status conscious, and always busy. Type As also tended towards hostility and aggression. Type Bs, on the other hand, were characterised basically as the opposite of As — steadier, less stressed, less focused on achievement, more creative and more reflective.

The theory is simplistic and has been somewhat discredited by scientists over time, partially due to some dubious links to the tobacco industry, but it remains part of our cultural lexicon. For me at age 16, however, it was like a light bulb going off over my head. Now there was a real, scientific explanation for why my mum and I were so different!

Minus the hostility and aggression, my mum is the epitome of Type A. I remember numerous times in primary school having to redo my homework as the handwriting was deemed too messy, even though I was a nerdy kid with impeccable penmanship. When I was younger I just kind of put up with this constant push for perfection as I didn’t really have much basis for comparison, but as I blundered through my teenage years I started to believe there was actually something wrong with me because I didn’t want to buy into it. Why did I want to go to concerts and learn about French New Wave cinema instead of participating in student government and Model United Nations? Why was I motivated to work like crazy in the subjects that interested me, but not to care at all about those that didn’t (umm, math), rather than enrolling in as many Advanced Placement classes as possible and striving to become valedictorian, as my mum (of course) had been? Now all of a sudden there was an answer – I was Type B! This was nearly as revelatory as when I discovered there was such a thing as a sociable introvert – another post for another day – in that it gave me the validation to be who I already was.

Life went on, I Type B’d my way through university, making good grades but doing my fair share of partying, graduating with a broad-sounding arts degree that did not transfer into any reliable career path. I went travelling, I met my husband, I worked some random jobs, and then bang! I had a massive quarter life crisis.

When I turned 25 I was bar tending in a pub where most of my regular customers were of pensionable age, living in a town of 200 people and scraping by paycheck to paycheck. (I was actually paid cash in an envelope, but you get the idea). Most of my high school and uni friends, on the other hand, were living in New York or Washington DC, either in full time post-graduate study or with lucrative consulting jobs. For the first time I started to feel like a failure, and it stung. So I made a mistake I think many people (and political parties) do when things aren’t quite working out – I went full throttle in the opposite direction.

Within months I was lucky enough to get an entry level job in public service despite having no relevant experience and I quickly enrolled in a post-graduate course in a field that was interesting but also practical. It paid well, at the time it was a highly sought-after profession, and it was something I could do anywhere. I transitioned into consulting in my new field and was obsessed with working hard and progressing in my career, having a ‘work car’, buying a house, buying enough furniture to fill up said house, wearing more expensive clothes, essentially becoming the typical Type A version of success. Then we tried to have a baby, and it didn’t work out, and then I finally got pregnant, and had a miscarriage, and I started to reevaluate what I wanted the rest of my life to look like, especially if it wasn’t going to include children.

My husband and I made some big changes. We moved to the tropical paradise we now call home, I went back to the public sector after I realised that the private sector was killing my soul, and I started reclaiming some of my old Type B ways. But my foray into the world of Type A (and, to be honest, my mother’s voice in the back of my head), made an impression I was unable to fully shake. I still tried to project the image that I had it all together, I still felt that I needed to have An Impressive Career regardless if I was particularly passionate about it, and I still was hesitant to let most people see the real me.

Then I became the Urban Legend infertiles love to hate but secretly hope to become – the woman who ‘stops trying’ and gets pregnant. As time went by and it became more and more likely that this pregnancy was going to end in a baby, I felt a subtle shift inside me, a small voice telling me to let all the bullshit go, to be authentic, to embrace my version of happiness regardless of how it is perceived by others.

So here I sit, 12 weeks into this parenting gig, and for now I am comfortable just being, which I suppose is kind of the essence of Type B. I don’t have any schedule other than a few fixed points in the week – mum’s group, coffee dates, occasional appointments – and the routines I loosely try to implement for my daughter. I sometimes spend all day in shorts and a nursing bra. But if someone asked me if I was getting bored I would answer, honestly, not at all.

I can imagine why staying at home with an infant (which, let’s be honest, is sometimes a challenge for even the most zen earth-mother among us), could seem like torture for a Type A. The rhythm of the day is slow and cyclical. There’s no crossing off items on the to-do list. You change a dirty nappy, and an hour later there’s another one. You feel like a champion because she went down for a nap with no fuss, but she wakes up 20 minutes later and you do it all over again. And even though there is a ‘cult of motherhood’ in popular culture it’s very much deified in the abstract only, as the day-to-day business of child rearing is generally viewed as banal and less worthy than a ‘real’ job. But to me, the fact that I am keeping someone alive seems far more important, and more useful, than sitting in hours of mindless meetings.

I asked my husband the other day, ‘does this mean I really love being a mum, or really dislike my job?’ And honestly, I don’t have the answer to this yet, if there can even be one clear answer. But these reflections feel particularly pertinent given the fact that if I had remained in my country of origin, the United States, I would be preparing to return to work now.

Such a concept feels incredibly alien to me. In Australia, women who have worked longer than 12 months in one job are entitled to a year of unpaid maternity leave. The Commonwealth government offers 18 weeks of leave paid at the national minimum wage, in addition to any other leave entitlements offered by one’s employer. My job doesn’t offer paid maternity leave, but we do receive generous annual leave entitlements, one of the perks of living in a remote location and having an enterprise bargaining agreement. Between the government pay, the annual leave I was able to save up (and use at half salary) and our savings I am fortunate enough to take the full year off without undue financial stress. I realise that I am lucky, and many people in my country have to return earlier, but in comparison to my friends in the US even the minimum 18 weeks of payments seems like bliss.

I don’t want to pass judgement on other mums’ choices, as there is already far too much cattiness and negativity out there. I realise some people are not cut out for staying at home with small children, some people love their jobs with a fiery passion and some people have intricate networks of partner, family, and community support, and for these mums going back to work at 3 months makes sense. But for me, the thought of  leaving my girl, at this age, with someone else all day (likely a stranger, as we have no family nearby) makes my stomach turn. And it makes me seethe with anger that there are women out there who feel the same way as I do, but are backed into a corner as they fear losing their jobs (and health insurance, a double whammy in a country without universal health care) if they do not return. People often ask me if I would ever move back to the US, and I always say no, because of health care and (lack of) leave, maternity or otherwise.

We live in a Type A society, and the US is probably the paragon of this, so it’s not surprising that the prevailing sentiment is that there is nothing wrong with minimum maternity leave and that mums will either suck it up and juggle both work and parenting (good, they’ll be busy!), or quit the workforce. Even the ‘quit the workforce’ option is predicated on a Type A assumption, that the woman in question will have a high earning, go-getting partner to support her. (Pull yourself up by your bootstraps! No handouts!) Again, some people will choose, and enjoy, either of these options, but it should be a genuine choice rather than a mandate. The idea that one of two binary options is suitable for everyone is as foreign to me as the concept that I should suffer through a year of AP Calculus because it will make me look more appealing to universities. Maybe that’s because I am a Type B. But somehow I think there’s more to it than that.

I’ve spent years at least paying lip-service to the cult of busy-ness and the idea that your bank balance and the title on your email signature is a relevant benchmark of your success, and you know what? I’m done. There is another way to live. And I don’t believe that wanting to find that way and advocating for it along the journey means I am lazy or unambitious – criticisms I have probably begrudgingly accepted in the past. My ambition is to live a full life in a way that feels right to me, and to all the rest of us for whom the status quo doesn’t quite fit.

Now I’m going to go cuddle my daughter in my pyjamas and I will enjoy every second, because I know how lucky I am to be able to do it.

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10 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Personality Types: Coming Full Circle

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    1. Thanks T! I never knew you had a blog- definitely following now and whoa, are our headers similar or what? You know what they say about great minds!

  1. Enjoying your ruminations, Monica. I too have realized later in life that I am more of a Type B. But with lingering Type A qualities — America expects no less than Type A of it’s best and brightest, but it’s not really all of our callings and those forced into it will burn out.

    1. Thanks Jenn! I definitely have lingering Type A qualities too – I don’t think we could have done so well in school if we didn’t have them. But the Type A lifestyle / mentality definitely doesn’t work for me, and it is sad that it is what is expected, particularly for the ‘bright’ kids.

  2. “My ambition is to live a full life in a way that feels right to me”

    Amen, sister! I was the quintessential Type A all through high school and got into my dream college. Then around mid-freshman year (when I was deciding my major), I looked at all the units required to graduate in engineering (the field everyone told me to go into — so lucrative!) and felt myself dying inside. I felt like I could do it, but it would mean doing NOTHING ELSE. And there were so many fascinating things to explore!

    The physics major had weirdly few requirements, I suppose the assumption being that physics nerds would take lots more elective physics classes to get ahead and prep for grad school, but I just did the bare minimum and took EVERYTHING else I wanted to take, in every field imaginable, from anthropology to Improv to field geology to backpacking. (Yes, there was a backpacking class — this was California, after all.) I even studied abroad in Moscow, which no other physics majors did because there were no physics classes abroad. (And I was a year behind everyone else when I got back.)

    Then suddenly it was time to graduate and… crap! What does a half-ass physics major do? Turns out… out of nowhere… I wanted to travel and write. Made no damn sense. But there it was. I saved up some money and did what I felt like doing and…

    Now I hate the thought of going to reunions, LOL! All those other Type As are doctors and lawyers humble bragging to each other, and I’m just writing a novel and editing other people’s novels and trying to have a baby. I’m not the kind of grad the Alumni Association brags about.

    But guess how much I care? A lot less than I enjoy long sunset walks every evening by the river next to our humble abode.

    1. Yes!!! I love your philosophy behind selecting classes. My major was actually called ‘Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities’ which was basically ‘take whatever you want and tie it all together in your thesis.’ It ended up being mostly history, cinema and media studies with a dash of sociology, but there definitely random classes in there. I even took a couple semesters of Russian as a boyfriend was in the class and I thought it sounded cool, but I never made it to Moscow, alas.

      Strangely enough, never once did I consider what I would do once I graduated, although my parents asked me regularly, LOL. I was so much in the university bubble that I assumed I would figure it out in grad school, which I guess I did…sort of.

      While I’m not an engineer, the field I ultimately went into has close ties to engineering. I can understand it if I need to, but it is so not ME, hence the angst in the post.

      And I totally know what you mean about reunions / alumni newsletter. Good thing I’m too far away to attend!

  3. I agree with this! Type B’s need to get more credit. Living in Germany I love how work-life balance is prioritized here. People have hobbies and personal lives and don’t want to spend their lives slogging in the office non stop. We have good health care and get paternity leave that you can share among both parents (hopefully we’ll get to avail of that one day). Your job is important but it’s not the only thing. No one will be wishing they spent more hours at work once they are on their deathbeds. Quality time with loved ones is more important 🙂

    1. Fully agree Dubliner! People who work in end of life care consistently say that one of people’s most common regrets is putting work before spending time with loved ones. Australia is not as bad as the US but we’re getting there. Despite getting a comparatively large amount of annual leave, many people don’t use it amd work stupid hours and people always talk about how much they and people they know get paid. (I find this weird and uncomfortable.) Thanks so much for stopping by, I’ve got some posts brewing about expat life that you might be able to relate to. 😀

  4. Ah, I so feel this! I’m pretty much an archetypal Type A career woman who’s been shocked by how much I adore motherhood. I wish I could take the year off but it’s not feasible for us as we live in London (super expensive) and I need to keep my job… and we can’t really afford to live that long on a single salary. We aren’t extravagant in the least – we just live in a really expensive city and have a mortgage to pay. I am dreading the day I go back to work! And the thing is… I really enjoy working and I enjoy doing well and I’m pretty competitive. But I just want to stop and savour this time of my baby’s life. I feel sad I can’t do that. The whole thing has been so mind bending it makes me want to give it all up and be a SAHM… It’s crazy, but it’s not realistic for us right now. 😦

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