Thursday, December 18, 2014

You'll Like It When You Get There

by Annabeth Leong

I remember being 27, married, with the sort of job that could have become a career, going up in the ranks of a volunteer organization I participated in, publishing stories here and there. I thought I could see where this was going. It was time to think about buying a house, having a kid, getting a promotion, taking on more responsibility at that organization, and writing more and better. I believed in goals. If I wrote 1,000 words a day, the following year I wanted to write 1,250 words a day.

Two years later, most of that was gone. I had walked away from the marriage, the job, even the city I'd been living in. I no longer participated in that organization. I still wrote, but not under the name I used to use.

I basically hit the red button on my life. Under that other name, I used to have social media accounts and some growing reputation as an expert about certain things. I had invested in various pursuits, and was reaping the respect that came from that.

The events that led to those changes, combined with everything that's happened since then, have made me a little skeptical about goals.

Here's the question I never asked myself back then: All that more, where does it lead? Do I write 1,250 words, then 1,500, then on and on, until I'm someday writing 400,000 a day? (haha) Obviously, one can be smarter than that about setting one's goals, but for a long time, my only sense about goals was that they were supposed to be "more" and "higher."

I remember calling my mom when I signed my first contract for a book that would go into print. "Great," she said. "Are you going to try to get published somewhere better next time?"

And, philosophical person that I am, I wonder what "better" means.

The only possible answer to that is what's better to me, but that's so hard for me to answer. Going back to that life I used to have: did I want any of those things I thought I was supposed to do?

Years later, with another person, I started trying to have a baby. I'd been told that's what all women want. When I raised doubts about my maternal instincts (I have held a child exactly once in my life, and have to restrain myself from referring to babies with pronouns reserved for inanimate objects), I heard that hormones would fix all that. If I had a baby, I would want it. I would like it. People seemed extremely invested in convincing me that I wanted this even when I didn't think I did. More than that, they seemed extremely invested in issuing dire warnings about how deeply I would regret it if I didn't have a baby. I would wind up old and ugly and alone and very, very sorry. I would see my selfishness and wish I'd had a purpose in my life besides myself.

Anyway, once I started trying to have a baby, I found myself avoiding sex at any cost. And when I thought about that, I began to uncover the key piece of buried information: I absolutely did not want a baby. Believing that I actually wanted one when I didn't think I did was crazymaking — that stuff I'd been told basically asked me to assume I was insane, that I didn't know shit about my actual personality and wants and feelings. The fact that I'd been trying to believe it anyway for years — well, that had done some damage to my ability to know what the hell was going on with me.

Even now, it's hard for me to say that having a baby is not a goal for me. I was hanging out with an otherwise awesome woman not that long ago, but when she asked about children and I told her I didn't want one, she began insisting that I must freeze my eggs for the inevitability that I will regret this decision in a few years. I'm scared of writing what I'm writing now. All I can do is promise that I've given it a lot of thought and I'm sure about what I feel and what I know about the sort of person I am and the things I want to do with my life.

Goals — real goals that are true to me — are hard because it's hard for me to know what's true to me. A lot of things fell along with the baby goal, most notably my sense of my sexuality (A painful discussion that I've been revealing here in bits. What I'll say about it now is that it's another place where people seemed to feel free to tell me what my sexuality ought to be. I listened to them too much and for too long.).

I'm a bit ashamed of saying I'm so susceptible to what I've been told. When I identify a true goal of my own, it often seems unworthy, impractical, too rebellious — various definitions of wrong.

So the big goal, which is probably too vague to be praised by the experts in such things, is to figure out what I actually want and do that. To care about what I actually want. Corollaries: authenticity, honesty, courage.

I know I am supposed to make goals measurable. I am supposed to assess whether I am progressing toward them. I need to make sure they're achievable and realistic. I used to make personal five-year plans. But I don't have the heart for that anymore. I can't look at my heart and ask if it's realistic. Sometimes, I can't look at my heart and make any sense of it at all.

So I write it down. Not because it's a goal, but because that's what I do.

14 comments:

  1. Annabeth:
    I have always felt bad about the pressure women feel about having babies, the worst of it comes from mothers. The fear of 'missing out' is powerful and a poor motivation for doing anything. If you think of it, any decision you make that has life long consequences can be a cause of regret. Abortion is the worst of those. The right to life people tell women they will feel better if they have the child and give it up for adoption. If you've ever know a woman who did that, they invariably feel profound regret for the decision at some point.
    I don't know about the sexuality thing. I can only imagine how much unwanted 'counseling' you've received for that admission.

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    1. Yeah, women policing women is a huge issue. What I finally figured out is that it just doesn't work to be told you'll feel differently at a certain point. If you can't use your own inner compass, you've got nothing left. So if a person feels they need an abortion, it can't possibly help to tell them to feel differently, or that they will feel differently later.

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  2. Annabeth, I admire you so much for your integrity, your courage, your self-awareness, and your refusal to accept easy answers that ultimately ring false. I know that can make for a rocky road.

    I can relate to a lot of what you describe—my story is so different from yours, and yet some of the same key issues were central, especially around the time I was choosing not to follow the path everyone expected me to follow.

    My wife and I are childless by choice. We both knew not having kids was the right choice for us from very early on. I don't have to tell you that we heard the "you'll change your minds" routine. Nuh-uh. With every passing year, we've only added to the list of reasons why it turned out to be so right a decision for us. And, without of course knocking anyone's choice to raise children—for one thing, there's a pretty strong evolutionary impulse there, felt by the majority of people, I suppose, nor do I doubt for a moment the incomparable fulfillment it can bring to the right people under the right circumstances—it seems to me the idea of raising a child for the sake of having a "purpose" to one's life only goes so far. Yes, that can give purpose to someone's life, but so can lots of other things—I certainly don't think it makes sense for someone fundamentally disinclined toward having kids to go do it anyway out of a quest for purpose. That seems like a bad idea, for so many reasons.

    And I also can't help feeling that the idea of people living their lives simply so as to raise kids, so that they can live their lives simply so as to raise kids, and so on, is as existentially daunting as it is evolutionarily compelling. To take an upper-middle-class example, I always think of the people who orient everything toward their kids being able to attend their dream colleges... so that those kids can then go out into the world and qualify for jobs they hate that will finance their kids' ability to attend their dream colleges... Does each generation believe, on some level, that the next generation will parlay "dream college" into something that transcends this? I'm not saying people who want kids shouldn't have kids, of course (and put them through college); but, wow, I sure hope it's in an atmosphere of enjoyment, and not just a joyless species-perpetuation cycle. (Because it's not like underpopulation is exactly a problem, you know.)

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    1. Jeremy, thank you so much. I'm always so happy to see your icon (or to see you and your wife in person!) I really appreciate what you've said here, too. You're both awesome, and I admire how you've found your own way.

      I completely agree that many of the reasons people try to bully other people into having children seem really wrong-headed. They're terrible motivations to do anything. And, as you said, there are plenty of people who sincerely want children, and we're far from underpopulated.

      Standing up to that sort of pressure is really challenging for me, and I've gotten progressively more educated in the nature of that predicament as time goes on. My 30s have in many ways felt like a second adolescence. I'm a rebellious teenager all over again.

      It's so, so great to hear that the certainty you and your wife shared has increased over the years. I'm glad that's the way it's worked out.

      When I was deciding I didn't want children, I thought about the possibility that I might regret it long and seriously, since many people seem so worried about that. What I eventually concluded was that I felt pretty sure I could handle that regret if it came about. I've felt regret and I know myself and I know how that looks for me. I actually felt way more uncertain about what I would do if I had children and regretted it (you can't send them back...). It's nice to know that it doesn't have to end in regret, though. That's a more positive possible outcome. :)

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    2. Next time we see you, perhaps we can share in more detail all the additional reasons we were glad we'd made the choice we did, the reasons that accrued over the years, the reasons we didn't even think of way back when. (:v>

      Also, we've found it a relief that after a certain point, people stopped giving us grief over the kids issue. Kibitzers will always find something to kibitz about, but I think adults in their twenties and even their thirties are widely treated as people who are fair game for extreme kibitzing—and, of course, they're at an age when a lot of big decisions (and decisions that are rightly or wrongly perceived by others as momentous or irreversible) might be on the table. Some young adults want a lot of advice from their elders, and of course that's fine, but I think the elders as a group are to some extent socially conditioned to feel it's their place to advise and, regrettably, even pressure, whether it's desired or not.

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    3. I would love to have that discussion, definitely. Also, I think you're totally right that being in one's twenties and thirties makes one fair game for kibitzers. Because I look young, I expect it to continue longer than that, too...

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  3. From the earliest ages, we're told what we want, what we need. In high school, they told us that by the time we're a Junior, we should know what we want to do with our lives. Now, of course, I realize this was simple a euphemism to "Are you going to college".

    When I was , what was it , 16 or 17, most kids can't make themselves a soup from scratch let alone big decisions. Yes, kids did and still do go out on their own, but often without the best of decision-making processes. Sure, if you were at the head of your class or Student Council, you may have more of what it takes. But not for everybody. Nowadays, the ones who describe such things say that adolescence continues well into out twenties. Not the best decision-makers.

    Momma and I got married at 18 and 20 respectively, so we may be the exception. But I also think it may be a sign of the times. A hundred years ago, people were considered adult as soon as they were able to work. The idea of 'teenage' as we know the term today was just coined in the forties and fifties, depending where you lived.

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    1. Thanks for the comment! That bit of trivia about the word 'teenage' is really interesting to know. So much of how I see things is colored by that term. It's hard to imagine how I might read, say, Romeo and Juliet without thinking, "They're a couple of teenagers."

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  4. Annabeth, several things you wrote really called to me. First, this: "I remember calling my mom when I signed my first contract for a book that would go into print. 'Great,' she said. 'Are you going to try to get published somewhere better next time?'"

    When I started my law practice, I went with my mom to Costco to buy supplies. On the way to my newly rented office, she began to laugh. When I asked her what was so funny, she said, "I was wondering when you'd become a judge."

    I said, "Moo-om! I'm just starting out!"

    "I know. That's why it's funny."

    So at least she had a sense of humor about that.

    And as for children--they're great, but babies scare me. And childbirth?!?!? (shudder) People still DIE during childbirth. And the whole notion is kind of icky. Reminds me of the scene in "Alien" when the baby monster bursts out of the guy's chest. ICK.

    You have this parasite inside of you, stealing your nourishment and strength and swelling your body grotesquely? ICK and double ICK.

    Not for me, either.

    But I do like kids. Kids are great. Other people's kids--even better.


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    1. Hi! I'm glad your mom had a sense of humor about it!

      And, yes, childbirth terrifies me. I like other people's kids as long as I don't have to hold them.

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  5. Full disclosure (and no secret)--I'm a grandmother. Having a grandchild was a goal i'd pretty much given up on. I had certainly never put any pressure on my son and daughter-in-law, and any sense of the ticking of my daughter-in-law's biological clock I kept strictly to myself, but I'm overwhelmingly glad of my granddaughter. She's almost nine now, and will probably be taller than I am in a couple of years.

    My life would have been different without kids. I might well have accomplished other goals that I never will now, or then again, I might not. I stumbled into parenthood the first time, although I had been seeing it as a "probably sometime" thing.

    They talk about alternate universes, and even alternate lives, our other selves existing in a limitless number of realities in which other roads were taken, other decisions made, other breezes wafting from butterfly wings causing minute but significant changes. But so what? We work with what we are, where we are, and figuring out what life is best for each of us and how to live it is the greatest thing we can do, however hard it is. Most of the time we do stumble into things, but times of decision like yours, Annabeth, are achievements many other people envy.

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    1. I'll have to satisfy myself with the alternate universe where I imagine having kids, I think. And you're so right about how we have to live. There's not really another option that I've been able to find. Thanks, as always, for the comment and perspective.

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  6. "So the big goal, which is probably too vague to be praised by the experts in such things, is to figure out what I actually want and do that. To care about what I actually want.."

    I doubt that the so-called "experts" are any clearer about their own life and goals than you are. I suspect your personal intuition will be a far more reliable guide.

    I too am childless by choice (and now past the age where I can change that). My husband most definitely did not want children. Meanwhile, I worried that I'd overprotect and smother my own child the way my mom did me. To be honest, I've never really felt grown up or emotionally stable enough to be a mother. Even now, when I'm over sixty, I still feel like a kid.

    I admire your relentless self-inspection and your drive toward authenticity. It's rare.

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    1. Hi Lisabet! It's amazing how hard it is for me to really feel okay about trusting my personal intuition.

      I can definitely sympathize with the reasons you discuss for being childless by choice. A big concern for me is my own tendency toward anxiety. I can see myself handing that without kids, but with kids, I can envision some pretty bad scenarios.

      Thanks so much for the kind words. I don't know what it is about the grip that brings that out in me, but I love it.

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