My friend Caiti wrote about her struggles with 32 (go read her thoughts here) and I could relate so much to the somewhat terrifying notion that everyone else and their brother seem to have the “big pieces” of life (career, marriage, home, kids) figured out while my life is
a mess a bit messy and less cut-and-dried in so many regards. Only with the tiny difference that I probably struggled with this at 32, but now I am 38 and pretty much none the wiser.
Did you just fall of your chair?
It’s ok. Most people don’t know (or don’t think) that I am 38 (almost 39), which is partly because I apparently look younger (yay, good genes!), but probably also because I don’t have a house and kids (yet). The assumption simply is: because she doesn’t have those things, she must be younger.
Alas, I am not.
A couple of weekends ago, I went to the birthday party of my friend’s 5-year old and I was the only person without kids there. I didn’t feel awkward about it until at the very end one of the other guests introduced himself and asked me “Hi, my name is so-and-so, I am so-and so’s dad. And you’re whose mother?”
Uhm, excuse me?
There was a snarky remark on the tip of my tongue for a split second, but then I simply replied: “Nobody’s. I am nobody’s mom. I am a family friend.”
My friend’s husband was so nice to jump in and add “but the kids love her!”, but the look on that guy’s face was surprise mixed with disbelief and astonishment.
Yes, granted, it was a birthday party for a small kid and the assumption that, if you’re invited, you’re most likely the parent of a kid of the same age, is not that far fetched, but I did find it curious that this guy asked the question the way he did. Like there was no other excuse for being there unless you’re chaperoning a little person.
This made me think about societal expectations and assumptions that we make about other people’s lives.
Obviously, the question we should be asking is: does everybody have to want the same things? The short answer would be: no. The long answer is more complicated. Of course, I have asked myself these questions: do I want a house? Kids? Or more abstractly, What do I want from life? You’d think that at 38, you should know, but honestly, I still kinda don’t. Not with 100% certainty at least. I want to be happy, I want meaningful relationships and make memories that nobody will ever be able to take away from me. But they rest is still a little fuzzy around the edges.
It can be hard to detach yourself from expectations and truly look inside yourself and see what your personal answers to these questions might be.
I think this is my struggle. If I knew for sure what I wanted and didn’t want, I’d be happy to say so. I am not afraid to say “this is my life and it’s exactly the way I want it”. I don’t have time or patience (anymore) to live up to the expectations that other people (strangers even!) have of me. What is right for them, doesn’t have to be right for me. I don’t feel like I have to defend or explain my decisions. But in reality, it’s all a little more complicated than that.
So, you might be wondering, do I want a house?
Sure, that would be nice. I’d love to live in a house (rather than a small apartment), but it’s not always about what you would like. What if circumstances prevent me from making this a reality? Can I be happy in a rented apartment? Why is the expectation that home ownership must be on everybody’s life list, no matter what? (Especially in this country? I can’t count how many times I have been asked not if, but when we were going to buy a house. In Germany, it’s much more common to rent and I am totally ok with renting.)
Do I want kids?
Maybe. Don’t get me wrong, I love kids, but caring for one (or three) takes careful consideration. Not everybody feels a super-strong calling to motherhood and there might be a gazillion different factors why it’s not in the cards for some people (which, on a site note, is really nobody’s business). I know, some people say that you’ll never be ready to have kids if you’re waiting for the right moment, because there will always be some circumstance that could be improved upon, but I personally have reasons that I can’t just disregard or shrug off as minor side nuisances.
Sometimes in life, we are able to solely make decision based on what we want or don’t want, and sometimes circumstances leave us less room for this kind of completely carefree decision-making.
I always thought that you hit a certain age and — boom — you have clarity in your heart and mind about certain things. Like, questions that have plagued you before 30 are magically answered when you hit the big 3-0. For some reason, that hasn’t really happened for me and I suspect that I’m not alone.
Let me entertain you with some wisdom, because I did have two epiphany throughout my thirties:
One, things don’t just magically happen (surprise!) when you reach a certain age. You can’t passively sit around and wait for things to fall into place, because nothing will, unless you actively work towards your goals and make them happen. If there is something that you want, then you have to decide to make the necessary changes to achieve it. However, just setting those goals can be a daunting task sometimes (if you are one of the people who always new exactly what they wanted, more power to you. I am not that lucky.)
Two, however much you think you have a plan for how your life will pan out, you won’t be able to count on it. There are always going to be unexpected obstacles and events (at least for most of us) that will stir us of our chosen path, delay progress and/or force us to think our whole life plan over.
This definitely hits home for me. I never thought I’d be where I am at in my life. I don’t know where I thought I’d be, but I never envisioned my life the way it is now. I never thought I’d move to a different continent (like permanently), leave behind family and friends, change my career path and completely uproot my life. This is not to say that I am unhappy. Quite the opposite, but what I mean is that you can easily find yourself in situations that completely turn your life upside down. I don’t know what I envisioned when I was younger, but I probably thought that I’d become a teacher, that I’d have a kid or two and maybe buy a house and settle down. That’s more or less what everybody expects and you go about these things with a bit of naivety when you’re young. You don’t consider the what if your life journey doesn’t fit into this neat little box that you created for yourself?
I am the first one to admit that even though I am ok with where I am at (most of the time), I still struggle — even if only on occasion — with the fact that I haven’t hit certain milestones at a certain age. I contemplate the ‘what ifs’. I think it’s because it’s somewhat ingrained in our brains that this is how we’re supposed to live. I try to remind myself on a regular basis that everything is a could, nothing is a must and things will work themselves out. They always do.
When things didn’t turn out the way we planned, it can take time to let go and focus our energy on making and working towards new goals. That might very well eat at up a few years of your life and then you find yourself not-so-all-of-a-sudden wondering where the heck the last 5 years went. One thing is for sure, life is continuously changing and we have to adjust and appreciate the day-to-day, the here and now, not measure our worth by how many arbitrary milestones we have hit.
My life doesn’t look like many other’s, but so what? Maybe at some point in the past, I might have thought my life would look like theirs, but that is not my reality now.
Luckily, I know many, wonderful and inspiring women who are in there 30’s and don’t have kids, or a house, or even a partner. And even though I know that some of them want these things, I also want to high five them for their courage, for soldiering on and accepting their journey for what it is. I’ve always been ok with swimming against the tide a little bit, but it definitely is nice to know that there are other fish going the same way. (Did I call you ‘fish’ for the sake of a linguistic metaphor just now? I am sorry. Maybe you’re a Pisces like me and won’t be too offended.)
The truth is: the ‘big pieces’ don’t have to be, and often won’t be, the same for everybody. It’s not like there is one clear-but path that everybody has to – or will inevitably – follow. And that’s ok. I realized that life looks more and more like a maze, which everybody has to navigate on their own choosing the right turns — and sometimes going in circles — to make it through.
At the end of the day, societal expectations are just that – expectations. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be happy and have a fulfilled life if you don’t live up to them. You have to evaluate your given circumstances, and then do what’s right for you. The heck, you can even change your mind a couple of times, if that’s what you have to do. There’s really no use of comparing ourselves to others, because we’re not them and they’re not us. We only get a finite amount of time on this planet; we were at one point placed here and eventually we will be gone, but this time, this in between, is what is uniquely ours and we have to make the best of it.
Unbelievable, I know, but it’s true: the only person who ultimately has to be happy with your life is… you.