Let’s back up for context here and set the stage a little bit around who I am and where I’m at in my life.
I wasn’t one of those kids who had a lot of intentional direction about what my place in the world should or did look like. I don’t remember having dreams about being the president or a doctor or a wife with 2.5 kids, a husband, and a dog. Like a lot of people – men and women – who grew up in privilege in the generational gap between Gen-X and Millennials, I bought into the idea that the only thing I needed to focus on was doing ‘whatever makes me happy’ and everything in time would work out just fine. This was before getting into and paying for college was a nightmare and majoring in English or Dance or Humanities was post-recession career suicide.
So that’s what I did. I made massive life decisions one after another – as you do in your twenties and thirties – without a lot of thought about why or what direction that was going to send me hurling towards. And honestly, I don’t regret any of them. Because of those choices I ended up living in Bolivia, San Francisco, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Malawi (Africa), Sonoma County, Oakland, Menlo Park, and now Mendocino over the course of the last 15 years. I got a master’s degree. I traveled to more than a dozen other countries. I made the best decision of my life and got a tiny rescue dog. I spent countless weekends with my grandmother in the years before she passed away. I crawled my way up the career ladder to the best-paying job of my life. I bought a condo. I had a million crazy adventures with friends who I am closer to than most of my family. I had boyfriends and relationships and a lot of fun because that’s what it felt like I was supposed to do.
But in between all of those bigger life choices it’s been the smaller day-to-day decisions…maybe more like intentions, which I didn’t realize were slowly accumulating into these snowdrifts that were starting to quietly shape the road of my life. I’m trying to figure out how to explain this in a way that doesn’t sound like I’m beating up on myself because really that’s not what I’m out to do. What I mean to say, and I’ll probably come back and edit this later, is that while I was good at making big life choices, I wasn’t that great at being good to or doing good things for myself. I partied a lot. I drank too much. I dated people who weren’t right for me. I allowed people – dates, friends, supervisors – to treat me badly and convinced myself I was strong enough to tolerate it. I poured my psychic and emotional energy into helping other people and actively avoided helping myself. I stayed in jobs that were toxic and draining because I was making good money and I had a big fancy title. I thought the formula for happiness meant that I was supposed to accept these tiny realities as the price I had to pay in order to get to the part where the rainbow comes over the ridge and everything finally turns rosy and pink.
And you know what happened? Nothing. There was no rainbow. There was no rosy ending. I had big turning point mile marker birthdays into my thirties, then late thirties and still the world wasn’t returning to me what I thought I was owed: happiness. In my case, happiness looked like a soulmate relationship, leading to marriage and a family. I remember carrying these feelings of anger and incredulousness that I had put in all this time and suffering into my life and for what?
Until recently, and still sometimes in moments of deep scary fear, I felt like I had nothing to show for it. It felt like my life – this incredible, wild life that I have had the privilege to live – was worthless. Because I was waiting for all of these external factors and expectations to validate my experiences; I was waiting for the editorial “we” to hand me a medal and tell me I’d done a good job and now here was the happiness reward I’d been waiting for. I was waiting for the big pay off – which in my case was marriage and a baby – that never showed up.
Spoiler alert: This is not how life works. It took me walking away from a job, booze, and a relationship I thought was the one to realize that this is an unwinnable calculation that I had used to judge the “success” of my life for years. I am reminded of one of my former coworkers, a fierce-willed, red-headed database manager named Paula who takes shit from no one and used to remind me that “garbage in, means garbage out”: If your data was bad going in, you’d never be able to generate the reports you needed to make bigger decisions down the line. Those are words for life.
So, here I am at age 38. Recently split from my boyfriend of nearly four years. Unemployed for the past 8 months because I thought I was going to be pregnant by now, or at the very least engaged to be married. Living in a tiny cabin in the woods in Mendocino, drinking coffee and hanging out with Cleo the dog, and documenting my life to no one in particular.
I’m not on the other side of this and some days are filled with more gratitude and self-forgiveness than others. But I’m understanding more every day how and why I ended up in this place both proverbially and geographically speaking. And I’m learning to be kind to myself and to realize that life can be scary and sad but it doesn’t mean that I’ve failed.
In practical terms, the thing that I having the hardest time with is the grief around not having a baby and the realization that biologically, I may have missed my opportunity. That longing is something so deep and personal, and so primal…unless you’ve felt that unfulfilled pull there is really no way other way to understand it. My personal experience has also been that there isn’t a lot of space to talk about what this feels like in our culture. Even among friends, the kneejerk reaction when I get emotional or the grief starts pricking at the corner of my eyes is to offer misplaced, unintentionally patronizing advice when really I think what most of us just want to hear is “I’m so sorry you’re going through this.”
If you’re not a mom, or a wife, if you’re not a career woman who is driven by the desire to achieve power or to make money, what does that mean for your life? If you find yourself unintentionally in this place where the things you thought you were supposed to do didn’t work out, and the things you know you want are currently illusive, how do you create a roadmap for a future that at the moment feels pretty obscure? How do you forgive yourself for the choices you’ve made in your life that got you here? How do you embrace this intense grief you feel for something you didn’t realize you wanted so badly until you maybe couldn’t have it anymore? How do you love yourself not in spite of this, but because these life decisions have led you to a place where you can finally see yourself for who you are?
Honestly, I have no idea. But I’m finally listening.