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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
May all your surprises be good ones!