Over the past year or two, one theme has emerged in both my own life and the lives of women I've spoken to, and that theme can be summed up in a phrase so oft repeated as to be cliche -
Is this all there is?
Recently, I was having one of those deep, mother-daughter conversations which I treasure so much and which define my relationship with my mom. Sometimes those chats are political; sometimes they are about educational theory, redistricting, early childhood; sometimes I talk about parts of my own childhood she did not witness; and sometimes I just get the opportunity to vent. On that day, I was sharing how confused I've been feeling about the direction of my life.
It's no secret that I've been through a lot, professionally and personally. I've given teaching a try, more than once, and realized it wasn't for me. And I've lived through mania, depression, eating disorders, trauma, alcohol use and sobriety. I've fallen in love young, married at twenty-five - I've been a daughter to a variety of parents and a big sister to the best young woman I've ever known. I've experienced the illnesses and deaths of family members. In other words, I lived through my twenties.
And there I was, then, talking with my mother, thirty-two years old, and that question - is this all there is - was right there, smacking me in the face with its existential banality. Oh, how common.
By your early thirties, you might have had a lot of the experiences which solidify your identity as an adult. You might have picked up and dropped a career or two. You might have found a life partner or partners. You may have children. People you love have probably passed. All milestones, many choices or events which can seem irreversible.
You might be making peace with the things which broke you. Maybe you have to forgive people, or learn how not to forgive. Maybe you have to learn to forgive yourself.
With the often unfair division of labor in a straight-presenting relationship, women may feel the burden of invisible responsibilities, too. You might be the person who knows just how to sort the laundry, or what each child needs in their lunchbox, while at the same time feeling pressured to kick butt at work. You may be more adept with emotions and helping your partner articulate them, because one of the ways that our society fails men is by denying them the essential human need to express and understand their feelings.
These milestones and demands pile up. You find a way to navigate them in your twenties, a way to make it all work. But what happens, then, when the pile is balanced, and you have an identity which is informed by your responsibilities and history? What happens when you reach (what I have sickeningly described as, poor poet that I am) the full bloom of your womanhood?
You find yourself asking, what the hell, what's next?
There's a line in one of my favorite shows in which the protagonist describes herself as cookie dough - not cookies yet. Not finished. And that's where I find myself, and I think a lot of my peers feel the same way. There's such immense pressure to get all that stuff done, the job, the relationship, the kids, and then there's a void because you've fulfilled what society has demanded of you. Where do you go from there? Especially if the consequences of those demands continue, professionally and inter-personally. Kids need to get fed. Partner needs your support. Job sucks up your time and energy.
Where do we, our true and secret selves, fit in?
I am fortunate that I have some awesome female role models in my life. My mom, who just started a new job and is an empty-nester for the first time in over thirty years. My mother in law, who has pursued dreams and desires with vigor while raising two children and helping to care for three grandchildren. My grandmere, who is just now learning how to paint (and is stunningly good at it) - and my grandma, who has been teaching and performing and living full tilt for as long as I've known her. I know, intellectually, that as I get older I will have opportunities to continue exploring my identity.
But I just don't know how to get from here, to there.
Is it being directionless? Is it coping with the choices I've already made? Is it the fears which held me back before I was old enough to make informed choices at all? For me, I gave up theatre - actually performing myself - due to stage fright and intense fear of the starving artist routine (which I had already experienced quite enough, thank you very much). I chose to stay near family - which was the right thing to do - but never got to take a year in Ireland on my trusty motor bike, picking up odd jobs (a favorite teenage fantasy; what a dreamer was I!). I gave up on the idea of hosting salons with music and poetry readings because I'm too scared to make new friends. I mean, my God, what would eighteen year old Alice think?
Thirty-two year old Alice is aware that we are all basically cookie dough until we are dead. It's that simple, and that complex. I'd better be learning a new art form in my nineties, I'll tell you that! But right now, I think there's this... there's a liminal space. So many things achieved and so many things still missing. A gap. A hole. A sense of waiting for something we can't define.
And what happens when we stop waiting - what happens to the job and the kids and the partner, the laundry, the papers to grade, the meals to plan, the things we decided on when we were, after all, still so very young? When we are still so young? Do we blow it off and blow it up? Do we set fire to our world and dance on the ashes?
My talk with my mom was good, as they always are, and it was another confirmation that these years in our early thirties are almost universally confusing. She'd been there, her own friends and family had been there. At least if we are directionless, we are not alone.
But man, it's hard. I like having the answers to problems and right now, I've got nothing. Nothing other than to keep on living, which sometimes doesn't feel like much. And it's hard to say, to know, my life is beautiful, and still feel like I'm not really living it. I'm here, but who am I?
Right now I'm a cliche, because I just keep asking -
Is this all there is?