I want to say my very truest things, but I don’t quite know where to start.
I know I don’t owe this to anyone. I don’t have to say any of this out loud, but by my very nature, I am a story teller. I am a person who flings open the doors of my life and lets people walk around in it as though it’s a museum.
True, there are always rooms that I don’t invite anyone into. Walls stripped bare, paint splattered, floors covered by the carnage of old exhibits that are being deconstructed or reconstructed. Those are rooms for the artist, not the public; I’ve learned that the hard way many times over. But the rest of the museum is open for business. Wander the halls, touch the artwork, interact with the environment, ask questions. Walk into the narrative with me. You’re welcome there.
Story is how I process my life and the lives of the people around me. It is how I learn and it is also how I teach. So I live in a perpetual state of saying things I do not have to say, giving pieces of myself away that I do not owe to anyone. I do it because it is who I am.
There’s a secondary reason I want to give language to all this, a reason that is specific to this exact piece of my heart. It is because I am about to say some things that go directly against the grain of the culture I exist in, and I do not believe for a split second that I am the only one who feels this way. I say things we’re not supposed to say as a form of permission slip, as an act of solidarity with the people who feel the same thing and don’t have the language for it.
About a year ago, I was sitting at my desk in a cubicle in an office, and had a thought. I don’t remember exactly what was happening at the time, or what might have triggered it. But it swelled up in my mind and has never gone away.
Are you about done here?
I have a pretty respectable life, by most standards. I get up every morning and go to work, to an office job at a local university, the same one I graduated from. I am married to an unbelievably good man, and we love each other well. We are firmly middle class, we work hard and take care of our own, we have everything we need and most things we want. We have a good life in small town midwestern America.
And also? I’m about done here.
Because I don’t actually want any of this, outside of my marriage. Truthfully, even the inner workings of that are up for reimagining. I don’t think we do anything particularly well when we’re on American autopilot. We sacrifice our time, bodies, hearts, gifts, relationships. We’re not taught to think critically about what we value and how much of our best energy those things are getting. We are instead taught to set about filling in the variables of a formula.
Job + Marriage + House + Children + Grandchildren + Retirement = Life
I’m not here to say that the formula doesn’t work. I’m here to say that the formula doesn’t work for everyone. It’s so sticky, though, because it’s cumulative. There’s always another variable to add, which makes it easy to fall into the perpetual pattern of thinking that maybe happiness lies in the next variable. The whole thing is set up to keep us spinning and spinning, working for the next variable in a life that we didn’t really choose, often left without the tools to start choosing.
It’s here that I have to acknowledge that infertility is maybe the best thing that ever happened to me. Because it fucked up the formula completely. I don’t use that language lightly–it is the honest to God truth of the way infertility danced into our lives and leveled everything we thought we would be and have and do. But truthfully? I am profoundly grateful for it at this point. Infertility meant that in my late twenties, relatively early into my adult life, I was forced to grapple with the validity of the formula. At some point, a question presented itself to me in quiet places.
Can I even have a meaningful life if it doesn’t look exactly like the formula?
I asked that question on a daily basis for a very long time. Until, without my even really noticing it, the question shifted in a way that has been slowly changing my life for a few years now. The foundation beneath the question shifted; rather than growing out of fear, it began to grow out of curiosity.
Can I have an even more meaningful life if it doesn’t look exactly like the formula?
I have been asking this variation on that question for a few years now, and the answer just keeps coming back yes. Yes. I can have a meaningful life without the variable of children. I, personally, can have an even more meaningful life without that. The answer isn’t the same for everyone, but for me? It’s a yes.
These days, as I settle deeper into that reality, the question has begun shifting again. Instead of disappearing, it simply morphs into something new.
I thought for years, the vast majority of my life in fact, that it was not possible for me to be happy without children. When life put me in a position to have to question that assumption, it changed everything. If I can experience meaning and joy without one of the American dream variables, what about the others? If I don’t actually need one of the things I’ve been told is a prerequisite for fulfillment and contribution—
Can I have an even more meaningful life if it doesn’t look anything like the formula?
Yes. Yes, I can.
That is the deepest core of what I know right now. I have no desire for the formula. I understand it and I respect it, but it’s not for me. It’s an ill-fitting costume, binding my organs and chafing my skin. It always has been, and yet I have only ever been comfortable making small tweaks here and there. Taking it to the tailor, making alterations over and over, rather than graciously accepting that it simply does not fit and likely never will.
I understand my reasons for that, more deeply now than ever. It is hard to look in the eyes of people who are deeply rooted in the formula and explain to them that you’re scrapping it. It typically either feels like a criticism to the way they exist or like a concrete confirmation of your own irresponsibility. It’s hard to say, “I’m quitting my job because I want more than selling the hours of my life for $16 a pop,” without coming across as a either a condescending jackass or a thoughtless fool. As someone who has spent most her life caring deeply what people think of her, that’s a risk I find difficult to take.
But more often than you might think, if I look people in the eyes in the split second before their curated response, I see something that looks like longing. As though most of us know, deep down, that we were born to be more than just containers for a pre-determined existence.
I’m not trying to cultivate discontent here. I know there’s much to be said for being content with the life you have. But there seems to be a thin and rather blurry line between contentment and numbness; the contentment that comes with knowing life can be less than ideal while still being beautiful and the numbness that comes with having traded off every last bit of our agency for a checklist of things we “should” do and “should” have and “should” want.
I don’t want to create space for discontent, but honest self-inquiry. Are there pieces of your life that could be served by some reflection, honesty, reimagining? What have you put on autopilot that needs your attention? What have you relegated to the “just the way it has to be” corner of your life?
How is the formula, if you’re living any variable of it, working for you?