If Life Is A Highway, Did I Take The Wrong Offramp Somewhere?

Do you ever look around you and wonder at how different your life is than what you thought it would be when you were younger? It happens to me all the time. For about the first thirty-five years of my life, the image I had in my head of what my life would look like at age 58 was nothing like what that life has turned out to be.

When I was in high school, I took a career aptitude test. The idea was that it would be helpful to us students to learn what professions would take advantage of our natural talents and inclinations before we went off to college to spend four years of our lives (and four years of our parents’ money) preparing for a career for which we were not at all suited. My aptitude test indicated that I should be a priest or marry one. Remember, this was in the seventies and the idea that a woman’s “career” should be to support and advance her husband’s career was still pretty prevalent. At any rate, since I was a Roman Catholic at the time, it didn’t seem that either option was going to work for me. Maybe if I had come to the Episcopal Church sooner, I would have joined the ranks of the clergy by now.

Since my career in the Church was doomed by convention and canon law, I considered other avenues. I kept coming back to the idea that I wanted to be a children’s librarian. I have always loved books. I spent many of my teenage hours volunteering at the local library. Some of those hours involved helping with story hours and summer reading programs for children. In fact, for the bicentennial year, I wrote and starred in a melodrama for our children’s program called Just A Minute, Man. It was so well-received, the county library officials asked us to do an encore performance. They even videotaped it for posterity. I am sure that old videotape is still packed away in some dusty box in the central library headquarters, if it hasn’t burst into flames some time in the last forty plus years. When I majored in English at college, I took a number of courses in children’s and adolescent literature. However, being a librarian requires an advanced degree. When I graduated from college with my Bachelor’s degree, I married almost immediately. My brand-new husband was a graduate student who required brand-new food every brand-new day. I had to get a brand-new job right away, so I pretty much took the first position offered to me.

As I look back on my career, I kind of giggle. I doubt anyone ever grew up aspiring to be a mid-level manager for a government agency. I certainly didn’t. Once I got caught in the revolving door of that government bureaucracy job, I pretty much relied on momentum to propel me on my career path. I never went back to school. The idea of taking a career U-turn seemed inconceivable to me. On the other hand, my career offered me a reasonable salary, the opportunity to do interesting, multi-faceted work that helped people, and the ability to grow my skill and talent. Perhaps most importantly, it offered me the chance to meet wonderful people without whom I can’t imagine my life today. I have several sisters of the soul who walk closely with me on my life’s path who I never would have met had I not taken that “first position offered to me.”

I also expected that I would stay happily married to the same man throughout my life. None of that really worked out. Not the happily part. Not the married part. Not the throughout my life part. When my husband left me after a little less than seven years of marriage, it was probably the best thing he ever did for me. It certainly didn’t feel like it at the time, however. My dreams of what “family” would look like in my life exploded. I got over the divorce years ago, but I’m not sure I ever really got over the beating my vision of my “family” identity took.

On the other hand, I think the experience of my marriage and divorce were fertilizer for my growth into a real, three-dimensional, actualized person. It made me stronger, smarter, more compassionate, and more sensitive. It helped me think about things in bigger, more complex canvasses. Max and I often talk about what would have happened if we had met each other earlier in our lives. The bottom line of all those conversations is that neither one of us were ready for the other until the time we met. I couldn’t be ready for the happiness he and I have shared without the heartbreak of my earlier relationships, including my marriage.

Part of the cracks in my perception of “family” was not just the dissolution of the marriage, but also the related issue of not having any children. When I was young, I always imagined myself as a mother. When I got divorced, making that vision a reality seemed much more challenging. Of course, I realize that getting divorced does not automatically shut down the dream of having children. One can remarry and have children. One can adopt children. One can try alternative processes like surrogate parenting or using a donor for the paternal half of the DNA. I just never made it happen. It isn’t that I ever really decided not to have children. Circumstances just never seemed right. A husband and future father of my children never materialized. I lived in Southern California in a tiny one-bedroom condominium, which I am guessing would not have been well-received by adoption agencies. I worked full time and made decent money, but would have struggled with paying for child care. Also, I always felt that, in a world where we could always have our druthers, a child should have a mom and a dad. Single parents can do an awesome job… some better than some dual parent families. However, to me, the best-case scenario, is to have two awesome parents sharing the burdens and joy of child-rearing. I guess in a way, I did decide to not have children by never arranging my life to have children. Still, if you had told the twenty-two-year-old me that I would not have children, I would have been dumbfounded…. And horrified.

Years later, part of me still feels regrets that the “mother” part of my vision of my future never happened. However, contrary to popular belief, I don’t really think most people can have it all. I am not sure I have it in me to be the mother I would want to be in the circumstances that I ended up facing. I could have been a parent. Without the support of a fully-contributing partner, however, I’m not sure I could do it well. It would have killed me to not do it well.

And there is another side to the coin. Without having children, Max and I can be our own children. We can be selfish with our time, energy, and money. I was able to retire at a fairly young age instead of working to pay college tuition. I have been able to enjoy life in ways that I could not have done if I was supporting children. I can support children’s charities with money that I would have spent raising my own kids.

Yes, my life is very different than what I imagined. On the other hand, it is a pretty good life. I’m not complaining.

What do you think is most surprising about the way your life has turned out? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at terriretirement@gmail.com.

May all your surprises be good ones!

Terri 🙂

10 thoughts on “If Life Is A Highway, Did I Take The Wrong Offramp Somewhere?”

  1. I can relate to this. There have been some family members that asked why I never had kids and have expressed that they were embarrassed that I was divorced. Everything you said rings true for me: love kids and was a camp counselor and double-time babysitter, went to college, wanting to give 100% to anything I did, and eventually landed a government job after several jobs in the private sector. I also never wanted to have children unless the other parent also wanted to be one 150%. I ended up marrying two Peter Pans and they really needed other mothers than wives. In reading this and in retrospect, I took the right off-ramps. Thank you!

    1. Maybe we built our own off ramps, Neki! Just for us. No traffic, just efficient transitions from one phase of life to another? Well, maybe they weren’t always super efficient. Traveling on roads under construction isn’t always smooth or comfortable, but they can take us where we want to go!😘

  2. I’ve thought about “do I regret not having kids” a number of times. I have a wonderful relationship with my mom. I do miss the fact that I won’t have the same relationship with a daughter…. but then I look at my sister and her daughter(s). My sister is estranged from one of her daughters because her daughter sided with her dad in the messy divorce. (And it was messy – he left my sister after 22 years because his high school sweetheart came back to town & he “never really loved you anyway”. And then pushed to keep the family home for himself and move his new wife into it.) So I can never tell what my own mom-daughter relationship might have been like, but it for sure would not have been a duplicate of mom & me.

    There are other decisions I’ve made which in hindsight I might have changed. But then I’ve decided… they were needed at the time because they allowed me to be here and now. And here and now is a pretty amazing place. And then I wonder, if I knew that I’d not be here and now (with foresight) if I changed those decisions… would I really change them? Because as I said, here and now is pretty amazing!

    I’m not sure what I envisioned back in high school. I’m pretty sure it was the graduate college, get married, buy a house, have 2.5 kids. You know – the should, the societal expectation of my generation. Many of my friends picked schools specifically to get the best MRS “degree” they could. I went into engineering. And did not marry my college sweetheart (his decision, not mine). Didn’t marry until my 30’s… to someone who really didn’t want kids (grew up as one of 10). So I certainly did not match the societal expectations at all!

    Am I surprised how it all turned out? Not that much. Decisions along the way were probably the right ones. Might not have felt like that at the time…. but yeah, I am very happy in the here and now!!

    1. I get what you mean about wanting to replicate your relationship with your own mom. Sometimes, I think there are some special challenges mourning the loss of a Mom when you are not a Mom yourself. You not only lose the person, but also the entire mother-child dynamic in your life. But, as you say, you might not have had the same kind of relationship with your daughter, if you had one. Max tells me that all the time!

  3. My life has been a series of fortunate mistakes.
    Who could have predicted the unprecedented way that women have been able to rise on their own accord??? If I had been born twenty years before my life would have been sooooo BORING.
    I cannot redo or undo my past, so I have learned to love where I am planted.
    Isn’t that what an adventure is anyway?
    As far as children go, they can be a blessing or a curse. I wouldn’t give mine back, but my childless sister is doing just fine as well.
    Smile, move forward and enjoy what God gave us!

    1. I love your term “fortunate mistakes.” I had a sign in my office that said, “Bloom where you are planted.” I so believe in the importance of loving the garden you are in! 💐

  4. Terri, I love what you said about “travelling on roads under construction.” And what Pat said about the “here & now is a pretty amazing place.” And then there’s Jan referencing her life as a “series of fortunate mistakes.” Those three phrases seem to summarize my life. I came into myself after some major “construction…and fortunate mistakes.” Now I am grateful everyday for the life that has led me to this place. I can honestly say – no regrets. I didn’t leave everything to the universe but the universe has certainly responded in ways that I could not have foreseen 30 yrs ago. I always thought that I wanted 4 children; the universe answered with one. In retrospect, I realize that one was exactly what I could handle given the “road construction” in my life. The universe also answered with other children; I was named guardian to 7 other children in my lifetime. One of those children said to me recently – when I have kids, you will be one of their grandmas. Again, I feel gratitude for the place I have arrived at.

    1. Aint’t life grand? And isn’t it terrific that we have so many wonderful people (like you!) adding perceptive comments to our blog conversation?

  5. What an interesting life you have had and still have. Each of us have different lives. I went through a marriage that was very bumpy but had one child I adore, who is now nearly 50 years old with a lovely wife and 4 daughters. I never thought I would have granddaughters and am enjoying them so very much. I never remarried and do not plan to marry again. I enjoy my condo and friends who are part of my life. I have a great male friend and enjoy his time with me too. We are care givers and enjoy activities together as well. I never thought I’d be living alone but am happy with my life. With the Lord in my life I enjoy many times with people in my church and Bible study and extracurricular activities such as Art classes too.

    1. I am sure God knows what HE is doing in our lives, even if WE don’t know what we are doing in our lives!

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