“I’ve come to understand that it is possible, completely okay even, to feel both. The loss of the un-lived life in one hand, and the gratitude and happiness of my actual life in the other.”
I recently celebrated my 28th Birthday. It was a gorgeous day, filled with love, cake, and all my favourite people. Two of them being my children.
I am a 28 year old, mother of two. My daughter is 7, my son is 10 months and they are the sunshine of my life. Happy, healthy and wonderful, I am eternally grateful.
I’ve always wanted to be a Mum, no question, so you could say I’ve achieved one of my biggest dreams rather early on in adult life.
You could also say that in some respects, I have failed abysmally at my twenties.
As I look around at my closest twenty-something female friends, I notice one thing (besides their brilliance); they are all still childless. They’re building careers, buying homes, travelling the world, but one thing they’re not doing, is procreating.
Seventy years ago, my life circumstances might have been the norm, but nowadays I am in the minority. Women are postponing motherhood until their thirties, freezing their eggs, focusing on their careers and choosing freedom and independence over responsibility. Quite frankly I don’t blame them. Being a young mother has its limitless pros (conceiving was a piece of cake, I had two straightforward pregnancies and as exhausted as I am, I like to think I have plenty of energy for them both) but it’s not without its downsides. For one, my career has taken a hit. Well I never actually had one to begin with, and still don’t.
I had my daughter at the tender age of 20, after one year of University. I did not realise at the time, how young I was or the enormity of what I was giving up when I paused my education to stay home and raise her. Millions of girls worldwide are being denied an education and there I was, giving mine up.
It didn’t feel like a sacrifice, it felt necessary, and in every way, right. I didn’t feel like I was going “off-course” but instead that the landscape was changing in a good way, an amazing way. I didn’t foresee that I might feel behind in years to come, I trusted that things would work out. I’d always worked hard at school, and I wasn’t going to let becoming a mother hold me back. If anything, I knew it would spur me on.
It was always part of the plan to return to University and finish my degree, or at least finish a degree, even if it wasn’t the one I started. I attended open days for degrees I was more passionate about, volunteered and did short courses and various internships, but never actually took the plunge to commit to a more long-term full-time higher education. I was never quite sure of what to pursue and wanted to be around as much as possible for my little girl.
I re-discovered a love of performing and for a while considered drama school. I auditioned for a couple of courses but it always felt like I was going against the current of my life. As I soon learnt, I couldn’t parent my daughter and live on trains back and forth from London, let alone live there away from her to study. The life of an actor does not complement parenthood. So I put acting into a little box in my mind and promised myself I’d revisit it at a later point, when I’m not drowning in nappies.
But now, with 30 just around the corner, after bursts of exploring what I might want to pursue as a career, I cannot help but feel frustrated that I have not yet found my way. I long for certainty and of course the nature of life is uncertainty.
At some point you have to just pick something, dive in and hope for the best. But what if you loathe it? How many times is one allowed to pivot? And what does this all look like when you have children?
I’ve worked in local journalism, spent 15 months in a law firm behind a photocopier and even had a very short stint at a pub (with a questionable employer who’d encourage me to “have a drink!” before I left. I did not feel at home, I don’t even like alcohol.)
I’ve travelled whenever the opportunity arose, bought a house with my partner and maintained a blog and a column in the local paper, yet these joys and big-life-goals are overshadowed by the constant niggle of “But what are you going to do? When are you going to make money? What about the work part of the puzzle? Who even are you without a profession?”.
Before having my son Leo last year, I was writing articles for a local newspaper, interviewing and telling stories. Aside from acting, it was probably the closest I’ve come to figuring out what I might want to pursue. I love writing, and for the most part I love people, so journalism is up there. I am very much still exploring.
I spend a great deal of time, whilst doing the laundry or cleaning up my baby’s post-meal-time-tornadoes, wondering if I could have played the game of life a little better in my twenties. Spending what are meant to be your “selfish years” raising children is not what I’d want for my own daughter, and now I wonder if I should have been more committed to my education and more open to leaving Maia in childcare at a younger age. I can’t go back in time and change anything and I know deep down I wouldn’t want to. I loved being at home with my little girl and cherish those happy memories, even if it did leave me degree-less.
Staying at home with my son is a privilege, and I am well aware how fortunate I am to be in a position to do this. I embrace our day to day life full of baby classes and play dates, but it can be monotonous. There are moments I feel simultaneously overwhelmed and bored, there’s a restlessness that I sometimes struggle to ignore, a desire to use my brain and creativity more. Am I wasting my intelligence? Probably, but my children won’t be young forever so I choose not to see it that way.
Then there are moments I wouldn’t have it any other way. He is asleep in my arms, time stands still for a few seconds and my heart is smiling. My world feels full of purpose and meaning.
I wrestle with many thoughts and feelings, but one I struggle with regularly is a natural longing to be financially independent, something I often berate myself for not being anymore. Despite taking care of our son whilst my partner works, something we’d otherwise have to outsource if I was working, I do still feel a sense of shame that I’m no longer contributing to the household income. My partner assures me it doesn’t bother him, that he wouldn’t have it any other way and loves having us around so much, but it’s not something I’ll ever feel great about.
(There is a general theme here, a pit of self-criticism that I regularly have to yank myself out of..) I class myself a “bad feminist” for not working, despite feminism being about choice, our right and freedom as women to carve our own paths, be that working, raising children or both. I am not “Leaning In” as Sheryl Sandberg put it, nor am I smashing any glass ceilings. But I am doing what’s right for me and what works for the family. The ceilings can wait.
I am frustrated at myself for not finishing a degree or obtaining any substantial qualifications, but I’m also incredibly proud of and grateful for my two beautiful children. I envy friends’ thriving careers whilst simultaneously enjoying being in a completely different stage of life myself.
I’ve come to understand that it is possible, completely okay even, to feel both. The loss of the un-lived life in one hand, and the gratitude and happiness of my actual life in the other. It’s okay to feel sadness, frustration, mournful even at “what could have been”. No one knows how things could have turned out, for better or worse, had decisions been made differently.
If you’ve read Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library you’ll know that those other lives do exist, somewhere in the multiverse. But the only life that is really worth focusing on, is the one happening right here right now.
There is no such thing as a perfect life. No such thing as “perfect decision making”. We can do all the “right” things and life still throws a spanner in the works. It is about making the best of the decisions we have made, whilst learning from the ones that might not have gone so well. There is only living and learning. Sometimes we bear the burden of an unhelpful narrative we have created for ourselves, completely unnecessarily. I tell myself I’ve “gone wrong” by being 28 and not having any concrete qualifications, but by whose standards have I “gone wrong”? And what does it mean to “do life right?”. Because I look at my children and feel anything but wrong. I look at my children and life feels very very right.
Society expects women to have careers and raise children. I see those that do and I think they are f****** phenomenal. I am not one of those women, yet, but I am a damn good mother. And I have hopes and dreams and goals for my career too.
Because as I keep being reminded, I am lucky enough to have many years ahead of me, to live out these dreams of mine. With no deadlines or age limits.
Having my daughter so young was one of the best things that could have happened to me. It forced me to grow up, boosted my confidence and gave me a purpose. I sometimes think of that period of time as my awakening. I’d never felt more alive. I wanted to do absolutely everything, life was suddenly a thousand times more exciting. My best friend once said I’d become my “true self” and I’d never seemed happier. Suddenly it was crystal clear what mattered and what didn’t and all that mattered was her.
Becoming Maia’s mother compelled me to do the inner-work, learn to love and accept myself, and then consider what I wanted to be and do in this world. Questions I’d only half-heartedly asked myself before that.
My relationship with my daughter has made my twenties. I am immensely proud of the wonderful human she is becoming. She, and my gorgeous son, are my life’s work so far.
To society I may have failed miserably, but to me, to my heart, soul and inner guidance system, I have succeeded beyond measure. And in my father’s words: “Bugger society.”