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.