few years ago I was rifling through some of my old Fitness magazines, pulling out workouts and copying recipes for later use. I’ve long since stopped subscribing to Fitness since, after a year or two, the articles became redundant – there are only so many times I can handle advice on how to achieve a “flat belly.” Fitness, which has since merged with it’s more trite cousin Shape, used to have a regular section where they featured women who had lost significant amounts of weight, recounting how and why they had done it. The article also included some tidbits about the woman – whether she was married, how many kids she had, what her career and title was, how many triathlons she had completed, etc. As I sat on the floor, surrounded by piles of glossy pages, I was struck by a peculiar sadness. No one could write an article like that about me. They would have nothing to say.
After that thought passed through my mind I knew, immediately, that it wasn’t true. I had graduated from a pretentious and difficult college with two majors at the age of 20. Several years later I completed a master’s degree in English literature while working full-time. I was a volunteer for adult basic education and literacy. I had even lost – and kept off – 25 extra pounds. But because I did not have a “fulfilling career,” I felt like none of that mattered. I frequently have anxiety when meeting new people because I always dread being asked, “What do you do?” I know that being gainfully employed, being able to pay my bills, having health insurance – these are all important things and I am very thankful to be blessed with them. But to the extent that what I “do” reflects who I feel I “am” – I have never felt the tiniest bit of pride.
This magazine review prompted an emergency text to my best friend, wherein I laid out my woes for not having done anything laudatory.
“First, I have to pull best friend duty and tell you that I think everything you’ve done is amazing and awesome,” he said. A moment later he sent another text: “But to be honest, I know exactly how you feel.”
Recently I was discussing Julia Child’s memoir My Life in France with a group. I crowed that what I got out of it, more than the luscious descriptions of food or the cute stories about a loving marriage, was that Julia was the exact opposite of what we call an overnight success. She didn’t discover her love of cooking until her mid-thirties. It took her and her partners eight years to write Mastering the Art of French Cooking and, when it was finished, it was rejected. She was 49 when it was finally published and 51 when she started appearing on TV. So much for having it all figured out by 25, right?
Truthfully, I don’t know anyone who has it all figured out. As my friends and I move toward our mid-thirties and beyond, I don’t know that any of us are where we imagined we might be. Perhaps it’s that we’ve been told we could “have it all” and we’re realizing now, as adults, that was simply a lie. Or, rather, we remain under the enchantment of someone else’s idea of what “all” is. That we should graduate from prestigious schools and be immediately hired by companies offering competitive salaries and benefits. That we should sell our startup corporations for millions of dollars. That we should create apps that change technology. That we should toil in some bohemian wonderland for our art.
“I can’t even say I have a husband or a kid,” I wailed over text to my bestie. We’ve been friends long enough for him to know that those were things I did not typically fret over wanting. That is not my “all.” So my distress over my single, childless life was grossly misplaced. It’s not the husband or the kid or the marathon I will never run, but the idea that I have not checked off any of those boxes on the road to “success.” I am, by those standards of measurement, not succeeding at all.
I remind myself that we tend only to look at the end result and assume that a person has always known they would get there. We assume there was no struggle and the path was clear. This helps the logical person in me, but it does little to assuage the wallowing mess who still, on numerous occasions, feels like an utter failure.
The hard truth is that I don’t know when, by anyone’s standards, I will feel that I have started to check off those boxes. Honestly, until someone offers to pay me to read, write, watch movies and TV, and cook wonderful things, I don’t know that I’ll ever feel fulfilled by the job that allows me to pay rent and see a doctor on an annual basis. I’ve come to accept that sometimes passions and jobs don’t intersect, that while both are equally important, not everyone is fortunate for them to be one and the same. In a way that feels like settling. In another way, though, it’s freeing. For while I’m so lucky to be able to pay for my basic needs and to not have to support a partner or a child, I have the luxury of pursuing what I want outside of those daily eight hours. That time belongs to me and in those hours I hope I’m writing the story that will someday be told about me. I’m not sure yet what it will look like, but I pray I still have time to get myself there.