When I was sixteen years old, I knew I was going to ‘have it all.’ How did I know? Because I had a plan. And, as I am sure you are all well aware, sixteen year olds know absolutely everything there is to know about life. In fact, it might be the only time in the entirety of our lives where we actually have the power to know everything.
My plan was very simple, really. I was going to graduate from University, where I would promptly move to Los Angeles and casually jump into the film market. I’d star in a few movies here and there and buy a not-too-ostentatious bungalow in the Hollywood Hills (with an open air courtyard), and I would throw fabulous parties with my fabulous and famous friends. Then, I would decide that I had enough of the Hollywood lifestyle, and I would move somewhere along the coast where I would promptly meet my future husband: a vintage pick up truck driving surgeon/carpenter/novelist. We would have three gorgeous children and two dogs. Eventually, I’d be asked to run a television network, a job I would gratefully accept. I’d spend my days reading scripts and producing pilots, yet always be home in time for the children to return from school and prepare a delicious home-cooked meal for dinner.
At some point, I started to wise up and realize that maybe, just maybe, life might not go according to my plan. I had not accounted for curve balls. I had not accounted for, well, life.
The truth is- I did manage to follow some of my plan. I did graduate from University and move to LA. I met my husband when he was living on a coast. He wasn’t a surgeon/carpenter/novelist, but he is a Marine who enjoys writing and fixing things-and he sure can stick on a mean band-aid.
I am now on the cusp of my thirty-first birthday, and though I find many aspects of my sixteen-year old plan sweet and unrealistic, I can’t help but wonder: do we ever fully give up the ghost of our teenage dreams? And how much do we let them haunt our current lives?
Though I have deviated from my ‘plan’ hundreds of times, I have no regrets; content those departures have made my life much more interesting than the cookie cutter vision of youth.
And yet, I am still haunted by something.
I’m not the pefect, mistake-free mother my plan demanded and I ashamed to admit that I am sometimes not OK with that.
No one in my life has insisted that I strive for perfection. No one has held a gun to my head, suggested withdrawing affection if I occasionally fail, no one has entered me into a Miss. American Mother contest.
I am not battling against anyone…except the ghost of whom I thought I’d be.
Why is it that we are so accepting of plans diverged by uncontrolled circumstances- flexible enough to take a different twine of a proverbial fork in the road, but at the same time so critical of our inner and outer self? How many of us compare ourselves to fictional versions and unrealistic stereotypes?
And in the root of that insecurity, are we impossibly hard on other parents? Does society, in fact, unconsciously require perfection of us? Are we perpetrating it?
Lately, it seems a growing fad in our culture-we’ve written and read books about it-each with various levels of advice, each purporting to be right–do we ‘lean in’ as parents? Or do we lean out? It’s everywhere: on television, on talk shows, in the glossy print of magazines—promises that if we feed our family a steady diet of X or vacation in spot Y or make the perfect craft or manage to balance every little aspect of our life—only then do we truly have it all. The underlying message being: you are imperfect but in ten easy steps….
Though I have a supportive group of dear friends, I am witness to a constant ‘Mommy War,’ subtle and occasionally outright declarations that their style of parenting is better…no theirs is. It seems impossible to escape the mommy guilt so prevalent in our generation.
It seems that we are a parenting generation of questions without answers. ‘Do I work too much so that I’m not spending quality time with my children?’ ‘Do I work too little and am therefore not providing an example to my children?’ ‘Do I not make enough home made meals?’ Even the stereotypical ‘perfect’ cookie cutter parent (whatever unrealistic vision of someone we have or know) is likely looking at himself or herself and worrying that he or she is actually doing…enough.
Deep down, who are we really fighting against?
In our community, where we military spouses often experience challenges and a unique lifestyle-are we more at risk of running ourselves ragged in comparison both to the ghosts of our past and the individuals of our present? Are we occasionally too independent, afraid to ask for help in fear of being seen as weak? And are we right in our fears of admitting that life isn’t always perfect, we’re not always sure we ‘have it all,’ and that sometimes we struggle? In fact, it does seem that there’s always someone out there haunted by their own ghosts choosing to fight against them by belittling others.
As our spouses get up to work in the morning and put on their uniform, are we also rising and putting on one of our own? That smile plastered across our face that says, ‘everything is fine, and everything is perfect.’
How many of us do that?
Perhaps I will always be haunted by my teenage dreams; maybe there will always be some part of me that tries to measure up to the cookie cutter idea of me as perfect mom. I will and have made mistakes, I don’t have the type of job that might afford me the cover of Vogue and sometimes I let my daughter have cookies for breakfast because I’m too busy to make an omelet. At the end of the day, sometimes I have more questions than answers.
I was once told that the secret to overcoming your fears is to face them head on. I’ve spent the past few years of my life trying to ‘have it all’ as defined by my sixteen year old self and that self is pushing me to accept the ghosts of others who perpetrate unrealistic expectations.
The truth is, ‘having it all,’ has nothing to do with a fabulous bungalow, the perfect job or the ability to balance every single aspect of your life with finesse. In fact, I’m starting to think of redefining ‘having it all’ to mean achieving a level of self-acceptance and cultivating the courage and vulnerability not just to offer help- but ask for it. Maybe the answer really is that simple.
In doing so, we may start to shed the insecurity and guilt so prevalent today and we won’t judge nor assert the choices we’ve made as any better or any less.
Maybe then and only then, I will-we will-give up the ghost and start a kinder, more compassionate conversation in the present.
After all, teenage dreams are sweet, but they don’t usually look the way we’ve planned them to look—even if they do come true.