I followed the rules.
They weren’t written, of course. They weren’t even said, at least not explicitly. But they were there.
Find a nice man. Wait to sleep with him until you’re sure he won’t run out the door the next morning. Make sure he knows you are in the relationship for something serious. Get engaged while you’re still young, and married within a year after the proposal.
Buy a house as soon as you can afford it. Don’t go to Starbucks every day if it means you’ll get to buy that new couch at the end of the year. Don’t drink too much or do any drugs, and call home to check on your family.
Work hard at your career in your 20s. You’ll have time for kids and fun trips later, now is the time to focus. Stay up late finishing grad school papers and invest in getting more letters after your name.
Have kids, but not until you’re able to afford a bouncer and a crib and nanny’s salary. Breastfeed for a year and feed your baby organic food after that. Give your kid a sibling or two. Save for college. Wait to go to Disneyland when the kids are old enough – maybe 9 or 10? Don’t waste too much money on date nights.
Devote yourself to your children. Save time and money whenever you can. Exercise. Watch what you eat. Smile at strangers in the supermarket. Give a tip to the mailman at Christmas. Go to the doctor, get every mole checked out.
Make sure to check all the boxes. Do not leave anything to chance.
There were more rules, of course, but these were some of them. Follow these rules, they say, and you will live a happy life. Don’t deviate from them too much, because if you do, things may start to fall apart. You don’t want that, you know. You want a happy life, and a happy life means following the rules.
And so I did.
They weren’t all bad rules. I had a good life for a long time, and maybe some of that was from following such advice. But under all of these unwritten rules was this message: do this, and you will live a happy life.
It didn’t really matter in the end, did it? I followed the rules. I played nice. I checked all the boxes.
But I didn’t get the end result I wanted. My husband still died right when I was supposed to be reaping all the rewards the “rules” said I would get.
When I see someone else living the life I’d imagined, there is a part of me that cannot believe that things turned out the way they did for me. I look at other people, I see their long marriage and relaxed weekends and new cars and I think: that is supposed to be me.
Sometimes, in my darkest moments, I think to myself, “what did I do wrong?”
Of course, I didn’t do anything wrong. I know that. Bad luck is bad luck, and honestly, I had a lot of good luck in my life too.
And yet. I had years and years of conditioning – by society, by school, by the media. Over and over again, I heard the same thing. Make good choices and you will be rewarded.
Maybe it’s true in some ways. I have a great job, a loving community, and three awesome kids.
But at night, when I crawl into bed and see the empty pillow next to me, I sometimes still feel confused about how it all turned out. I wonder how it is that my life looks like it does when I always got the car inspected and was on time for my dental check-ups and used only organic soap.
“But no!” I think in those moments, “it can’t be! I followed the rules.”
Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.