On: Doing Things in the Right Order.

My mother calls me a malcontent. She, who knows me at least as well as I know myself, claims that I am incapable of residing In The Moment and impossible to please. “You’re always after the next thing,” she often indicts, “and as soon as you get that, it becomes inadequate.”

So it’s no wonder that when I texted her this morning, informing her of the worst pang of motherhood-longing I have ever experienced, I could practically see her eyes rolling as I read her reply, “Think long and hard about this, Stacia. Children are a huge commitment. You know how you are.”

She isn’t wrong, my mother. I do have a bit of the restless wanderer in me. I don’t like to alight for long. But I didn’t just spring forth this way, fully formed. I am a perfect storm of societal suggestions. I am a cautionary tale against Believing the Hype.

My whole life, relatives, church acquaintances, and family friends have impressed upon me the potential advantages of hitting life’s milestones In the Right Order:

“First you finish school, then you make sure you start a career. Then think about getting married and buying a house and having babies.”

This will probably resonate with you, kind post-adolescent, PostBourgie reader, this etched-in-stone Chronology of Accomplishment, this surefire way to acquire lifelong success and the infinite pride (or envy) of folks who bucked this alleged “right” way and chose (or were forced into) another.

Considering the fact that we’re nearing the end of a new millennium’s first decade, I probably don’t have to school you on the near-extinction of the Right Order philosophy, nor do I need to point out the Right Order’s diminishing returns.

Earning a Bachelor’s degree no longer guarantees a job with a salary above the poverty line–especially not within your first year of graduation. And having a child before college or marriage is no longer the supposed impediment to professional or financial success that it was in the era of the Baby Boomer. As we now know, there are far worse things that can transpire than failing to become a homeowner (such as prematurely becoming a homeowner with an unmanageable mortgage and a ridiculous interest rate, practically portending a future of foreclosure and eviction). And I think we’re all over the idea that marriage automatically improves the mental health and welfare of the child–especially if said marriage was: a.) rushed because said child was on the way; b.) an ill-advised union between two incompatible souls; or c.) forced to avoid familial or religious condemnation about shacking up.

Despite my Judeo-Christian leanings and my oft-oversimplifying moral compass, I think I’ve always suspected that Doing Things in the Right Order was more fairy tale than practical aspiration. At my middle school, the entire eighth grade gathered in the gym to pose for a panoramic photograph, commemorating the glorious end of a miserable pubescent era. I sat next to a girl who was about six months pregnant. I was secretly in awe of her. She was the first pregnant girl with whom I’d gone to school (but, of course, she wouldn’t be the last, as my high school teemed with glowing expectant mothers). There was something so serene about her, something so over the petty worries of middle school (e.g. “Is there enough gel in these finger waves? Are my Used jeans too baggy or just baggy enough? Does Nathan with the coke-bottle glasses know I’m alive?”) and, I suspect, she had to learn things at thirteen that I still don’t know, as I approach thirty.

I have always envied people who do things in their own order. When I see an eighteen-year-old strapping a well-groomed, well-behaved toddler into the backseat of her car, en route to their apartment or the daycare provider’s, I’m mystified by her patience and poise and progress. I, who do not own a car or rent an apartment or have children, cannot yet fathom the relentless nature of parenthood–and I’m not confident that having earned a Master’s before marriage and motherhood will make me as competent at raising a child as that teenage girl. I struggle to converse with same-aged friends and family whose children are already pre-teens, because their conversations about soccer teams and Limited Too prices and inter-district busing are as over my head as my conversations about the PhD application process may be over theirs.

Let’s be real. There’s something almost slavish about shackling one’s self to societal expectations, shuffling forward in time with other people who decided to forego their whims and impulses in order to punch a timecard for the Chronology of Accomplishment. It can be a lonely row to hoe, staying single until you’re beyond the entry-level on a fixed career track and planning your pregnancies around rumors of promotion or tenure.

Of course, finishing school, then starting a career, then getting married, buying a home, and having babies is a respectable and time-honored tradition. It’s just that, these days, sticking to that order is just as complicated as skipping it. These days, the older you are before marriage and children, the more likely you are to be someone’s stepparent. The longer you take to rack up enough credentials to qualify for work that pays well enough to afford life, the more likely it is that you’ll look up from your books and find that the courtship pool has shallowed significantly. And if you wait till you’re over 35 to be “ready” for children, it’s possible that your arthritic knees will prevent you from playing running ball with them when they’re 18.

It’s enough to make you a malcontent.

7 thoughts on “On: Doing Things in the Right Order.

  1. shani-o December 5, 2008 at 3:38 pm Reply

    Well, to your last point, my mother had me at 39 (and totally out of order — my parents got married when I was 2). And let me just say, I think that’s part of the reason that a) we’re really out of sync — she doesn’t know me at all and b) she still treats me like a child, while she treats my sister, who she had in her 20s, more like a friend. And I’m not complaining, I actually like our long-distance, still very parent-child relationship.

    My sister also did things in the wrong order — college, kids, job, grad school, still unmarried, but she has that serenity you mention. That’s one of the things I admire about her: she’s an outstanding mother … maybe because she’s overcompensating for the fact that she’s a single parent?

    Question for you, slb: is the motherhood longing a new one? Or have you always wanted a family? The older I get (though I’m only a few years out of college) the more certain I become that kids are not for me. And the more I become ok with that. Of course, everyone likes to tell me “you’ll feel different when you’re older.”

  2. slb December 5, 2008 at 3:49 pm Reply

    shani-o: it’s a *very* new longing. i didn’t want kids or marriage for most of my twenties–especially not kids. because it’s such a new desire (it’s coming up on about a year now, long enough for me to know it isn’t a “passing phase”), i’m really not sure what to do with it.

  3. glory December 5, 2008 at 4:06 pm Reply

    How refreshing to see women talking about these issues without making the assumption that the “Right Order philosophy” is the default desire for a woman! And, great post. I have long subscribed to the Right Order philosophy… but then life started happening, and the order I follow is all up in the air now. At first, I felt guilty, and to some extent I still do, for stepping out of order. Societal expectations do matter to me, as I was always the one everyone expected to “do right,” unlike the others in my neighborhood and family. But with time, I am adjusting to the idea that if my own order is good enough for me, it should be good enough for anyone else.

  4. universeexpanding December 6, 2008 at 4:56 pm Reply

    I know someone who is 3 or 4 months older than me and she has two children, daughters – one is just over 2 and the other is 9 months old. They make my ovaries ache. When I look at her I feel the same sense of envy and awe that you’re talking about. I think “That could be you…could be your life”. Her brother points out that she will probably never have the academic qualifications I do, neither does she have the same professional aspirations, but that’s cold comfort.

    I work with kids and I always used to say that I would be really disappointed if didn’t have any. However the situation I have been seeing with my personal life and that of others makes me rethink things. I don’t want to raise kids on my own and as you say that eligible male pool is shrinking with every degree I acquire. I figure if nothing happens by my mid/late 30’s it may not happen at all. I want to enjoy my kids if I have them, I want to still be energetic and fun while they are kids. I also would like to have a relationship first that makes me feel compelled to procreate. I guess I want too much. Lol.

    I have a goddaughter who just turned 4 this week, but when she was very little (6 mths to 18 mths) I cared for her because her mom was at university that in a neighbouring island. I love her…loved looking after her. There were times I would imagine that she was mine. But when I really stop and think about whether I would want a child now, then answer is no. Definitively. Check me back in 6 or 7 years – maybe the answer would be different then.

  5. B-Rocka December 7, 2008 at 10:02 pm Reply

    I honestly believe that you can have it all in the order that’s right for you. I got married in college, bought a house before starting law school, and had my 1st child during law school. I graduated on time and now I’m an attorney, expecting baby #2. Some would say that I should have finished school before starting a family, but for me, it was a personal decision for my husband and I that required that a lot of thought and prayer. It’s a decision that isn’t always the same for everyone and isn’t scientific. I will say that I give major credit to any single parent out there because I know that I would never have been able to accomplish what I have if I didn’t have my husband’s support. A lot of what we accomplish and the order in which we choose to do is a matter of God’s blessing, hard work, discipline, and faith. I’m in my mid-20s and I can confidently say with my JD in hand that women don’t have to choose between higher education and a family. You can have both…but it will take a lot of planning and work.

  6. robynj December 8, 2008 at 9:49 am Reply

    Dear God. That last paragraph was way more reality than I was prepared for on a cold Monday morning. I’ve always wanted a family — a traditional family. I thought that I’d be married with at least one kid by 25. Now, though I still very much want a family, at 33, I’m beginning to reconcile that that family may look differently than I’d originally imagined.

    And I think that’s OK.

  7. Beauty_ByDesign December 9, 2008 at 1:41 pm Reply

    This is my first time visiting, but this post really spoke to me. I’m on the younger-end of 30-something, and definitely have done things “out of order”. Perhaps it’s to make myself feel better, but I’ll admit that I’ve convinced myself that no matter how out of order society tells me I’ve done things, my steps ARE indeed ordered. I’m sure some would whole heartedly disagree with me, but….I digress.

    Had I not had my child when I did, unmarried & 24, I can’t say that I would be where I am today, with my life being a total 180 for the better. Had things worked out between his father and & I – I can’t say that I’d be where I am today, emotionally and financially stable. If I had not picked up and moved 8 states away from my support system, I can’t say that I’d be where I am today – a business owner, making more money, and my son academically gifted.

    So yeah…I’d like to really believe that there is no such thing as “out of order” when you really get into the Spirit of something. Know what I mean?

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