There will always be people who think they know how you should be living your life. Maybe you SHOULD have a successful career and tirelessly climb the corporate ladder. Maybe you SHOULD have no paid job at all and stay home to raise a family. You SHOULD play the field, or you SHOULD settle down with a nice, sober, responsible man. (I can hear my former therapist's voice in my head now: "Stop SHOULD-ing all over yourself!")
Being female, most of those opinions I've heard centre on me finding a man, having several children and getting a set of matching china. I'm luckier than many of my friends my age -- I didn't have one of those mothers like theirs whose first question always was "So do you have a boyfriend yet?" -- but even without that constant voice in my ear, I still absorbed some of the expectations. This, despite a staunchly independent spirit and decidedly feminist worldview ... such is the power of the feminine mystique.
Growing up Catholic probably had something to do with it too. As a good Catholic girl, I was to save myself for marriage and welcome as many children as God chose to send me. Again, I was lucky in that I had parents with a somewhat more liberal interpretation of what it means to be Catholic -- but an old-school grandmother, among others, that I probably made the happiest I'd ever made her the Christmas I showed up at her house with a boyfriend in tow. (An experience which I never repeated -- oh, of course I had other boyfriends, I just never brought them 'round again!)
Now that I'm 40-something and living in a (mostly) gay neighbourhood, the voices and opinions I hear have changed decidedly. And I'm a lot more comfortable in my own skin than I was when I was, say, 16, and a lot more sure that I get to make up my life to suit myself, not anyone else. But still, occasionally, that niggling little voice whispers in my ear that I need to settle down, find a mate ... in short, get a "real" life.
I have the career thing under control, so I don't ever get bothered by that little voice. I can climb the corporate ladder perfectly well, thank you very much ... I'm just not sure I want to keep doing it any more. (This year off will help me figure that one out.) It's the personal that always gets me, where I'm occasionally beset by doubt that maybe I SHOULD start listening to those voices after all. I was reminded of this when I went to Vancouver recently to visit my sister.
Julie is the sister who's closest in age to me, and the one I have always inevitably been compared to. (Shelley was far enough behind in age that we never had the same rivalry.) I was gifted academically -- well, so was Julie. Some musical talent and a love of writing? Guess what, same for Julie. The one area that I was always, always able to best her was math -- so it may not be a surprise that I ended up doing a mathematics degree. It's the one field I could make entirely my own!
This comparison never came from her, of course -- she's not mean-spirited. It was teachers, relatives, friends ... we generally dealt with most of the same people till we went our separate ways at university. But regardless of the reason, I internalized some of the pressure, and would sometimes compare myself to her and feel that I came up short.
I still do this occasionally. She has a life in Vancouver that obviously makes her very happy -- sweet and loveable husband (who was a friend of mine at university, incidentally), a job that she has wanted to do since she was a little girl and a close-knit circle of friends that she often gathers in her lovely 1940's bungalow. I look at that, or hear her talk about it, and think she seems utterly content ... and then reflect on my own turmoil and uncertainty about where I want to go next, how I want to live, and feel once again that maybe I've come up short. What's wrong with me, that I haven't figured it all out as she has?
But I realized something finally when I visited her in Vancouver recently. Yes, she has a great life, and yes, it's probably perfect for her. But you know what? I wouldn't choose it for myself. This isn't in any way a criticism of the choices that she's made -- just a recognition, finally, that what's right for me will probably not be the same thing.
And I realized that I kind of like not knowing what's coming next ... from high school to university to travelling to work to climbing the corporate ladder, I've always felt like the next direction was obvious. Maybe not everything I've done was the best choice I could have made, but you know what? Every good and bad choice along the way have combined to get me where I am right now, which is pretty good, actually.
I don't know exactly what's next, but that's also exactly what makes it fun. Instead of barrelling along a highway in a pre-determined direction, I'm standing at the crossroads. And whichever fork I pick is up to me -- I can even try out a few if I want, who says it has to be just one? Maybe I'll keep trying out different paths, and never land on a final destination at all.
And I'm going to stop with the SHOULD-ing already.