The only person who has to be happy with your life is… you!


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.

  1. Loved reading this, San. You are so right, we are the only ones who have to be content with what we do and where we are – and we are the only ones who can do something about it if we aren’t.
    Societal expectations can be daunting – people do have this pattern laid out of how things are supposed to go for everyone, because that’s just how it’s supposed to be, right?
    Not. Everyone has to make their own decisions and it’s never too late to change them!
    You are on your path and it’s the right one!
    Happy Valentines! xxx

  2. Thanks for putting into words a few things that are going on in my mind too at the moment.
    Did I expect not to be sure what I want anymore and doubting most of my previous decisions in life at the age of 36, with two kids and while renovating a house together with the man I thought I would spend the rest of my life with?? Definitely NOT!
    Did I think I would wonder if I made a wrong decision and chose the wrong path when I was 20? Another NO.
    Most people I know tell me that I should try and focus on saving what I have, instead of dreaming about something that is unrealistic and uncertain. Which makes me feel insecure because somehow I feel guilty for wanting something that I feel will make me happy even though it is “against the norm”.
    I know, in the end it is my own decision, or your own decision but staying true to yourself and saying “f**k them, it is my life” is hard when you are constanly presented with arguments why doing it differently would be so much better (in their opinion!)
    Sending a hug and lots of courage to you!

  3. So beautiful and so touching. <3

  4. Time sure flys, huh?! I totally agree with your concept of stereotypical, societal family views (married with kids in a suburbian house) that get ingrained into us as we grow up. And then you realize life isn’t all ponies and tea parties but you have to deal with reality and all the other options life gives you that don’t include picket fences. There is so much women’s empowerment and so many modern families these days that I think makes life a lot easier for us now. You just have to be happy with the life you are living or set a pathway to getting to the life you want to live.

  5. So wise. :) And a beautiful post – you really hit the core of it all. There are these societal norms that we grew up with, but I think the more people setting off to do “their own thing” will show future generations (even if they aren’t our own children) that there isn’t a norm anymore, and that finding one’s way can involve so many more options.

  6. We can only be who we are, and do what feels right for us. I’ve known for a long while you were the same age as my own daughter. But you look marvelous! Yes indeed! Good German Genes!
    Love you!

  7. I admire your courage San. And I hope you continue to walk your own path, your way. My only piece of advise, if it serves any purpose, is to not wait for what you want. Don’t settle. Don’t wait. Go for it.

  8. Live this post. It is so true and I am just so glad I am not the only one, like you said.
    Yes, I have a husband and a house and yes I always wanted to have a house and get married. So that part came true.
    I always wanted to have a cat and a dog and a horse and that came true too.
    The funny thing is, once you have everything you always wanted you ask yourself what’s next.

    I recognized that I am goal-driven. I always had my goals and now that they are achieved I asked myself: what now?
    What do I want out of my life?
    Will all the days to come be the same from now on?

    The getting kid’s thing is hard for me. I really struggle with the expectations from everybody around us. I am 33 and I know that is not too old to get kids, but it is on the older side. I never wanted kids when I was younger but that changed and I do want at least one.
    But like you said, circumstances prevented it so far. And who knows? I might not get pregnant after all. Nobody has a guaranty.

    I am always happy to reads I am not the only one out there.

    Thanks for writing that post!

  9. Again: I can totally relate. And it feels good to know, that you are not the only one :)!

  10. Lovely post, San, and thank you for linking to mine! I really appreciate your perspective, as you know this stuff has been on my mind lately. I think you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned that even setting the goals and knowing what you want can be difficult. That’s where I’m at, particularly surrounding kids and careers, and when I’m not sure what I want is when I tend to fall prey to comparisons and worrying about societal expectations. The next step for me is figuring out the best way to really listen to and trust myself.

  11. yes to all of this. You so succinctly put words to what I have been feeling lately as I ushered in a new year of life. It’s tough to let go of expectations of when things will happen to you, especially when others around you seem to be hitting milestones right and left. I am very happy with my life, it looks different than what I pictured but in many ways it’s better than what I pictured. I do wish I had more friends whose lives were a bit more similar to mine as sometimes I just feel like I am so behind where they are and I may never catch up. But I try to remind myself that it’s ok for my life to look different than others in their mid-30s and that I have to do what is best for me.

  12. Thank you San, for this wonderful post.
    I went through all of these thoughts myself at one point. Now at age (almost) 45 the kids question needs no answer anymore and the house…. we’ll see. I never thought or imagine my life the way it is …. but hey, if you choose a path you better embrace the journey!
    At the end it only matters that you liked what you did/decided on and not what could have been different or even better…..

  13. I love this! Mostly because I am trying to forge my own path and do things that tend to be against the “norm.” Do what feels right, what makes us happy. Not what makes others happy. We just have to be happy and satisfied for where we are now. I think that’s the key. We are where we are meant to be, and though we should make changes to grow and try new things, we should also find happiness in the right now.

  14. Beautifully written! Reading between the lines, I can somewhat see your frustration in constantly having to justify yourself and your life to certain people when, in fact, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the paths you have chosen and paved for yourself. Societal expectations are just that–expectations. Milestones, however, differ for every person. There are not set and shouldn’t be set by society but rather by each and everyone individually. Yes, while some people envision their next accomplishment to be purchasing a house or finding a better job, others may work towards overcoming a personal struggle, returning from a personal setback, or making do with life circumstances that cannot be changed. The key is to make things work and continue to be happy regardless of what life keeps throwing at you!

  15. Ah so so true. I know I married & bought a house so quickly because I was so worried about keeping in line with the plan I thought my life should take. What a joke it all turned out to be. Now, after a divorce and my Dad’s death, I realize that life really is what happens in the everyday, not in the huge plans we make. Sure, it’s fine to make a plan to go on a vacation or to pay down debts, but things inevitably come up that come in the way of that. There’s that John Lennon song that has the line “life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” I don’t know where the next year will take me, but I will enjoy it and do what I can with it, seeing what happens.

  16. Absolutely love this post San. I love your honesty and your openness and just, love this so much. Heart you friend xo

  17. I love this post so much. Everything in it is absolutely true. When 20-somethings still get nervous at turning 30 I still point and laugh at them. They don’t understand that really nothing snaps into place or changes just because they turned a year older. Life moves slowly and sometimes quickly, but never the same for everyone. Humans set up societal rules and expectations, which have changes throughout human history. And I’m sure will continue to change. Well said San.

    As for that person who asked you the question…wow you were very polite. I would not have been.

  18. Oh, yes. Yes, yes, yes. You really did such a wonderful job with this post. It was so raw, honest, and well writing.
    We all need to live our own lives…period.
    Miss you friend.

  19. I really, really love this. The comparison “game” is so easy to play, but we can only decide what we want or don’t want. Also, we don’t owe an explanation to anyone except ourselves. As long as we try to be honest with ourselves and what we want, that’s the best we can do.

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