I read the other day that you do most of your living in the first 20 years of your existence and the rest of it is just trying to process that living. I don’t know yet if this is the most depressing thing I have ever heard, ever, or if it’s a giant relief, but I am pretty sure it’s horse shit. Regardless, it gave me pause because what I do know is that there is this very real turning point, right about where I am now in my 30s, where a life is no longer about the planning for and moving towards and reaching for and is, instead, about the right now.
And maybe it didn’t turn out the way you wanted it to. It’s hard to even say that, isn’t it? Because I do believe that the way it turned out — is turning out — is exactly the way it was supposed to turn out, but that doesn’t mean it turned out the way I had dreamed it would when it was all out in front of me, and I was 6 years old and my mom gave me a copy of the Constitution, and I read the whole thing while on the toilet and got so excited when I saw that nowhere in that whole thing did it say I couldn’t be president just because I had a vagina that I ran out to tell her the news without even remembering to pull my pants up.
But it’s been eons since then and so many of my very own best choices — like the one to marry young and start a family and the one to have all the babies that my heart cried out for — mean other things just don’t fit, not the way my mother’s dogeared copies of Ms. magazine made me feel like they would when I thumbed through them and made plans that the unceasing march of time has pulled from me so slowly and sneakily that I couldn’t see it happening even if I tried. I will no longer be a professional dancer. I won’t be a surgeon. I will probably never be a homebirth midwife.
And it’s not even all career stuff either, I don’t know how to garden, even, and animals mostly hate me. I’ve wanted to learn how to cook Mexican food for a decade, and I haven’t evolved past melting a whole mess of Mexican blend shredded cheese on something and yelling out “ole.” It’s pathetic.
But I’ve done the big milestone things of growing up. I graduated from high school, and then from college. I had my babies, I married my marriage, I bought my house. I have a career that I love, and I have a hobby I love even more. The work of the getting is starting to be behind me, and I’m (mostly) ready to do the work of the having.
And you would think this would be the easy part, except in many ways it’s not.
Who knew? Why would this, the part of life where we can settle into the choices we’ve made and stop agonizing over what the next big step needs to be, be the hardest yet? All that looking forward should have been hard, and it was, but it was that exquisite kind of hard that’s wrought with expectation and promise. This is, well, what it is. And maybe what happens is that the looking forward becomes the looking inward, and we notice that even with all of the joy and all of the chaos and all of the living we are busy doing, the longing is still there.
So yes, I’m going to say it. There were dreams bigger than this, bigger dreams than standing here knee-deep in laundry with a saggy tummy and early-onset wrinkle-face and the dull but un-silenceable voice inside that too remembers what it felt like to run yelling through the upstairs hallway bare-butted and waving that faux parchment around like it was my flag. And in some ways I traded them away, in what was admittedly a deal so stacked in my favor that I would do it again so fast that it would make your head spin if ever given the chance.
I’m not complaining. I’m not. All I’m saying is that it’s not fair that we keep perpetuating this myth that we can have it all. It’s not fair, and it’s not true. We can’t have it all, not really. No one can. We can have incredible, beautiful, amazing things. We can have big huge (satisfying, even) pieces of lots of things. If you’re way luckier than you deserve to be, like I was, you might even have a mother-in-law who is the physical embodiment of grace and watches your children while you carve yourself a career that still feels mostly fulfilling most of the time. But a piece of me never even left them, not once, the whole workday, which means I wasn’t fully present at work. And back at home, on-call with my smartphone next to me, I wasn’t fully present for the wiping or the feeding or the story reading either.
We do that, don’t we? We consciously split ourselves in half or thirds or further, into teeny little pieces that we sprinkle over the parts of our life like fairy dust and pray that it will be enough to keep everyone, including us, satiated.
And is it? Here’s the thing: I think so. I really do. It has to be. I also think it’s okay to grieve the loss of some of those old dreams. Life with littles is hard. It’s a tightrope walk. We choose the things that we can carry, and we try to accept the things that we can’t, and we sweat and crawl and grip to stay on that rope and balance it all, and the truth is, it isn’t easy and it isn’t very glamorous either.
So as much as I would love to be, I’m not Gloria Steinem, gorgeous, breaking down barriers. I’m a bedraggled mother to four babies, half in and half out, who still sometimes takes them the doctor and wonders how I would have looked in the white lab coat.
But there’s one more thing to remember, and it’s the biggest thing: We’re not done. In what is both a heartbreaking and thrilling development, these babies will not always be babies. They will grow and change — and so will we — and life is nothing if not full of surprises. And none of us should stop dreaming, not for one second. Sorry, person who told me we only truly live for 20 years, but I have a lot more living planned to do.
The dreams are different now, sure. You couldn’t pay me enough to be president, vagina or no. My dreams are more along the line of achieving enlightenment or at least that elusive arm balance pose in yoga. And that’s just today’s edition. Yesterday’s dream was to get out of bed in the morning, and this weekend’s was to watch a whole movie with my husband without having to get up once.
Tomorrow maybe I will finally figure out what a tamale is, or save the world, depending on how much coffee I can stomach in the morning. And maybe what the dream is, exactly, is less important than the fact that we have them at all to fall back on in the moments when the everyday minutiae of our beautiful lives feels a little too unbalanced — because none of us could possibly know yet where our tightropes lead. But I, for one, am so excited to find out that I can barely remember to pull up my pants.