As my children grow older, I’m coming to the realization that I have some regrets. Due to being rather busy, frazzled, and absent-minded for the better part of an entire decade, I haven’t had much time to think about decisions left in the past that could have taken me down any number of different roads. More recently, as these small windows of reflection begin to resurface, I am finding that certain regrets are starting to bubble up in my mind that I had buried a long time ago. In fact, I didn’t always consider them regrets because they had previously been simply dreams left uncultivated.
One of these regrets is that I never finished college. Instead of tending to my post high school education right after graduation, I wanted to break away from my hometown for a while, so I moved to Utah and California. Being responsible for a younger sibling for the majority of my teenage years, I just needed to breathe for a bit and be responsible for only myself. Somehow, I couldn’t manage to do this traveling the same streets and facing the same options over and over again. I needed to see what was out there beyond the well-travelled path between my hometown in Kentucky, and Florida, the only place we ever vacationed when I was a kid.
To say that I was introduced to new things during my post high school adventures would be an understatement. I was lucky enough – probably due in large part to the fact that my devout Christian grandparents prayed for me by the hour – to find a roommate in California who took me under his wing. He was from out east as well and we both came from large, close-knit families. We stuck together, becoming the best of friends; although, later we became romantically involved a little more than we should have been. Once he took at job in the Middle East and moved, I decided I had had enough of the bigger world.
Among the things I learned on my self-imposed sabbatical was that people could be really messed up in ways I had never imagined: parents supporting their kid’s drug habits, bosses addicted to cocaine, and cruel people who do whatever is necessary to get ahead in the world at the expense of others. Eventually, I decided that it was time to go home where I had a mom and a dad, grandparents, siblings, cousins, and love all in one small town that I thought I would never want to return to. I remember telling a friend of mine at the time that once I got home, I wanted to reconnect with a friend from my past whom I had always turned down when he approached me. I had no intentions of anything more than a friendship, but just wanted the companionship of a true friend – someone who valued me for who I was. I had no idea then that I would not only connect with that boy, but we would later marry and have children.
By the time I started college I was nearly 21 years old, and by then I was so confused as to what I wanted to do that I changed majors over and over again. My husband graduated from school, I switched colleges, and when I was 25 we welcomed our first daughter. There was no question about it, I would decide to drop out and take care of our family full-time. While I have since not only taken college courses here and there, getting myself a little closer each time to graduation, I have also had two more daughters. To say that I have put myself on the back burner is an understatement. In fact, I have been lucky enough to even take a shower every day.
Lately, as my youngest daughter is preparing to enter kindergarten and my oldest is on the brink of being a teenager, I have been taking myself back to those decisions I made so long ago. There is a part of me that wishes I had finished college before getting married and having children. Nevertheless, the decisions I made are the fabric of what I have become, and there is no part of me that wishes my life to be any different than it is now. So, what is it exactly that I regret? Am I contradicting myself by saying that I regret what I have chosen, but that I wouldn’t want my life to be any different than it is now? I know. I’m just as confused.
See, it’s just that I’m only 36-years-old, but I feel like I’m approaching retirement, as if I’m already an old woman. Life just seems to be hanging in the balance right now. There’s nothing particularly interesting going on and nothing I particularly look forward to. I suppose that wouldn’t be the case if I lived through my children, but I have never been that type of mother. I like my own space and my own life aside from theirs. I’m completely okay dropping them off here and there, encouraging them as their biggest cheerleader, but never being so invested that I can’t separate them from myself. The problem is, I haven’t had much time to focus on what it is exactly that I need as a woman, and the sad part is, I can’t really figure out how to actually make something happen. Going back to school isn’t so much of an option anymore. The fact is, we are considered an upper middle class family, meaning that I don’t qualify for grants and our family contribution is much higher than what reality will allow. Raising three children isn’t cheap. Taking money from the budget for myself means them going without in some way, and the truth is, I had my time. It’s their time now. I brought them into the world and they are my responsibility to take care of. I have a choice to make and not everything is an option; although, I distinctly remember growing up learning otherwise. It was something about being anything we wanted to be as women – this idea that we could have it all. It was a sham.
I feel that we have been lied to as women. We have been told that we can have it all. We can have a career and a family, equal opportunities in the workforce, and be president of the PTO. We can be there for our children and our bosses. We can go back to school and still be able to get to ballet, theater, the library, help someone with math and reading, make sure our family has a nutritious homemade meal on the table, and that the laundry is getting done. We have been lied to that we can do all of that and still have an ounce of sanity to live by. It simply isn’t true.
The cold, hard fact is this: WE CAN’T POSSIBLY DO IT ALL! We have to chose something – what is most important or most necessary for our particular family – and leave the regret of our decisions in the past. The truth of the matter is, if a woman choses to work, there is something at home that they will miss: a baby’s first steps, her first words, reading books to her at nap time, and being present during her most productive part of the day. If we stay at home, we don’t miss out on those things, but we miss out on personal growth aside from being a parent.
As I sit here and deal with this festering ounce of regret for choices I have made that have limited my personal growth, I know that I have to eventually bury these regrets for good, realizing and being okay with the fact that I was never able to do it all. I had to decide what was most important and what worked best for our family at the time. I have to be truly grateful that I even had that choice to begin with. Many women don’t. For us, my husband’s earning potential and growth in the workforce was properly balanced with me staying at home. He has grown in leaps and bounds working for fortune 500 companies. His ability from this point forward will propel him into positions he would be so much further away from had I not made the decision to be a stay-at-home parent. His income solely has been able to grow and care for us in ways that two incomes wouldn’t have allowed. While I’m truly grateful for this and never once take it for granted, I have to be honest when I say that there is a small part of me that is jealous over his personal growth in his career and where it has taken him.
Yesterday we took our little girls to see Paddington Bear. As Paddington sits at the attic window looking out over London, my husband leans over and says, “I’ve been over that bridge.”
“Oh, yeah. Well, I go up and down our stairs like 400 times a day and I go to Target at least once a week. So there!” We both laughed.
“I would rather be at home with you than in London,” he replied.
Jokingly, but with a slight tinge of honesty I said, “You’re ridiculous. I would rather be alone on that bridge in London than at home any day.” And the truth of the matter is, that is exactly how I feel. I would love to just for a little while take a business trip to Chicago or London. I would love to be around grown-ups all day and make decisions that go beyond turkey sandwiches and peanut butter. I would rather drive to work listening to NPR than listening to people argue in the backseat over being ten minutes late to swim class. However, this is just…life. It is what it is in all of its imperfect glory. It’s the culmination of decisions I have made and the path I have chosen. I can’t regret any of it. There’s no turning back.
Surely many people now will say, “Go for it! Finish school! It’s never too late. You can do it!” Guess what? I have already swallowed the hard pill. I know for sure that I simply cannot do it all. I have to make a decision, I have to be grateful for that fact that I have that decision to make in the first place, and I know that the decision to put the needs of our family first will always be what I will chose. I need to make sure our bills are paid on time, our kids are being cared for, and that our house is livable and comfortable. For us, it means one person in the workforce and the other taking care of matters at home. Financially, it makes the most sense with my husband carrying his briefcase out of the door each day while I clean drops of concreted oatmeal off of the countertop.
Right now I find myself in a bit of a funk. I read and study often, never willing to let myself stop growing in any way, shape, or form. I take care of my health, stay up to date on what is nutritionally best for not only myself, but also my family. I know my children, guide them, and work in unison with my husband to make the best decisions based on our specific needs. I have to be okay with the fact that I am an intelligent, capable woman who on paper has less markable skills than Napoleon Dynamite. I have to be okay with the fact that going up and down the stairs with a basket of laundry instead of a briefcase holds more meaning and purpose for my life than my selfish side wants to admit to. When it comes down to it, when I decided to bring people into the world, my time to invest fully in myself was over. I had my time and now it’s theirs, and by the time they grow up and leave home, I’ll be well into my life, so much so that it wouldn’t make much sense to invest in college and work for a short number of years before my husband retires and we seek opportunities together.
For now, I’ll wait. Some day in the far, far future, maybe I’ll get to walk over the London Bridge. It may be when I’m in my 60’s, it definitely won’t be on a business trip, and I will probably – if the good Lord allows – be there with my husband who will have been there several times before me, but nevertheless, I will enjoy it all the same. I can’t have it all, but I can appreciate that compromise is the gift that getting by day to day hinges upon. Life isn’t about having it all; it’s about making choices. It’s about being okay with where we are and trying our hardest along the way not to let our regrets get the best of us.