A Mormon woman writes about the transition from a full-time career to full-time motherhood.
Surrounded by cardboard boxes turned time capsules, I shifted through the newspaper clippings, pictures, and journals that made up my life so far. I lifted from one of these boxes a green leather journal that held my thoughts from my teenage years; and as I did so, an envelope fell to the floor. It was my life list. When I was 14 years old, my young women instructor handed out slips of paper one Sunday and instructed us girls to list the things we wanted to attain by age 24—a life list. I wrote out my list effortlessly and quickly; I knew what I wanted. I had always known. My list read:
1. Go to college and get a degree.
2. Be married.
3. Have 5 kids.
4. Fly on an airplane for the first time.
We sealed our lists in envelopes, not to be opened for 10 years, and scrawled across their fronts, “Do not open until 1994.” Now, here I was breaking the seal unceremoniously and staring at my life list again more than 10 years later. More than 20 years later. When I wrote that list each item seemed so simple to attain, and I assumed that each of them would come to me effortlessly and exactly when I wanted them to—certainly before I was 24 years old.
Nine years after drafting my life list, my life was loosely following my plan. At age 23 I graduated from college and checked off item 1 from my list. I had my Bachelors degree in one hand, but I did not have my husband in the other. I entered a phase of life that I had never counted on, never even considered. Single life. Corporate life. I began work at a mid-size corporation and met with clients around the country. I quickly crossed off item 4 from my list, but two items still languished on my list. I was on a life detour. This wasn’t the plan I drafted for myself in my young women class. I constantly looked over my shoulder at that life list and at the person I thought I should be.
For the next 10 years I spent my days in a corporate cubicle meeting deadlines and furiously doing my work. In the evening, I luxuriously flopped on my couch in my condominium and ate a cold cereal dinner. At the end of my day I smiled and sprawled in my queen-sized bed. Travel perks. Disposable income. A killer corporate wardrobe. Who could ask for a better unsolicited life? But in its corners and edges, the guilt creeped in of not living up to that life list. Of not becoming the person that 14-year-old girl expected me to be.
I was 33 years old on my wedding day—not the 24 years old I had imagined. My wedding day marked a distinct line in the sand—it marked where my unsolicited life could step off and my planned-for life could step in. But it wasn’t that simple. I had gotten used to my unsolicited life and its self-indulgent ways and wasn’t sure about letting it go. Those feelings surprised me, which caused me more unexpected guilt.
Married life moved fast, and by my fourth wedding anniversary I was the mother of two children. One summer afternoon I pointed my double stroller filled with my 2-year-old son and infant baby daughter toward a nearby walking trail. The trail was popular among the stroller-pushing mom set and with lunch- hour-walking corporate women alike. With my casual clothes and hair pulled into a ponytail, we all knew that I wasn’t a corporate woman. Each time I passed a corporate walker, my guilt told me I was supposed to be out in the corporate world doing something with my degree and making my way. I wanted to appease my guilt and scream at these walkers, “No, you don’t know! I have a degree! I had a career! I had a frequent flyer card! Four years ago I was YOU! I could still be you if I wanted to.” But it’s no use…the stroller and Baby Bjorn are not the corporate uniform. Guilt. So much conflicted guilt. I resented that I felt this way—why did I feel guilt for living the life that I had originally planned for back in that young women class so long ago?
Months passed. An offer to take on a freelance writing job presented itself, and I temporarily delved back into my unsolicited life—my former identity of efficient conversations and conference calls. For weeks I stole time from my usual mothering duties and feverishly worked toward my deadline. On deadline day, I used every last minute and found myself backed up against the last FedEx pickup of the day. In my hurried frenzy to make the pickup time, I left my two kids with my husband and rushed out the door.
As I walked briskly from my car to FedEx’s front door, I realized that this felt familiar. So many times in my corporate life I had sprinted to FedEx to make a deadline. This felt like Corporate Me to be doing this thing… walking fast clutching 300 loose pages stuffed into a FedEx envelop. I looked down and noticed that I was even wearing a jacket I wore back in my corporate days. I thought to myself, “No one looking at me knows I’m a mom. I don’t have a stroller or a Baby Bjorn, and I’m not walking slowly so short, 2- year-old legs can keep up. I look like a regular corporate woman.” I thought I’d play it out. I’d pretend to be the old me for a minute. I walked assertively into FedEx and started the familiar process of sending something Priority Overnight—such a corporate woman thing to do. I put my purse-not-a-diaper-bag on the counter. There, staring back at me was the diaper and wipes I’d shoved in there the day before. My cover was blown. Busted. Betrayed by diaper wipes.
At that moment I stopped and smiled. I dropped my corporate act and felt the conflicted guilt I had carried with me since I abandoned my corporate life suddenly melt away. I was happy to see those diaper wipes, and I was glad they resided in my purse. They reminded me of the two little people waiting for me at home. I am someone’s mom. For me, that is so much more important than proving anything to Corporate America.
I smiled as I looked at that life list, now 26 years later. The shear act of crafting it all those years ago didn’t guarantee me a husband by age 23 and 5 kids by age 40 as I had planned. How well-meaning that life list was. How wise my young women adviser was to suggest that her girls have expectations for themselves and live a purposeful, planned life. But what she failed to mention was that sometimes life doesn’t go as planned. How I wish I could go back—not to change the list, but to change how I reacted to it. How I wish I had had the maturity and wisdom to throw away the guilt when I found myself on a detour and instead embrace the happy and wonderful aspects of any unsolicited phase of life in which I found myself. How I wish I had stopped looking back at the life list, or stopped looking back at my corporate life, and just enjoyed the ride.
“Life is like an old-time rail journey—delays, sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling bursts of speed. The trick is to thank the Lord for letting you have the ride.” (-Jenkin Lloyd Jones, as quoted by President Gordon B. Hinckley)
I have experienced some of those same guilty feelings along the way, too. It is interesting that I sometimes find myself having difficulty embracing that my life did go as I envisioned it. Part of me wants what I didn’t envision–a career, recognition, and accomplishment. Those things are not the hallmarks of motherhood. I love Elder Hollands conference talk that they just created a little video about http://lds.org/conference/talk/display/0,5232,23-1-64-16,00.html. Like that quote says, the trick is to be thankful for the journey you are on now. There will be other journey’s to be thankful for later!!
Gayle, I’m so relieved that someone else felt that way too. And I loved Elder Holland’s talk as well. Great video and message to remember!
This essay is beautiful! You’ve got it all! Thank goodness for detours. You’ve helped me if we only saw what we thought we wanted to see on our “old time rail journey” we would miss a lot of great sights. Incidently, “have a llama farm” is on my list from almost 20 years ago and is still unrealized.
What great insight, Laurel. There’s no greater title than “Mother”. The most rewarding years of my life were spent raising a beautiful family. They are now grown and gone, but we now have 17 wonderful grandchildren who are being raised by great parents.
Continue enjoying this stage of your life. It goes so quickly!
This post actually made me cry. I so know all the feelings you are writing about. I’ve spent the last 10 years feeling guilty for being at home with my children. And, while I still feel longing and a little pang in my heart sometimes for the corporate world, I am finally just enjoying my children. It is going by so fast that I want to inhale every minute with them.
cute narrative, well written. but 5 kids by age 24?? you would have to have married at around age 19, while you were still in college, and had a child each year. did you not think that working towards a degree would conflict with family life? that wasn’t a very practical list.
susan, I think you can read some of that original as being a little tongue in cheek. (Note later in her essay how she talks about the goals she had.)
And I agree with you — the narrative here is cute. I hope you can see there’s more than just cuteness, though. 😉
One last thought, since you brought it up…. I think it’s good to realize that it isn’t impossible to do education and family at the same time. My sister is a great example. She married before she turned 20, and had 4 children in the first six years of marriage (w/ two others a couple of years later). And she graduated with two degrees with her four children in tow at age 27. She tackled her degrees a little at a time. I admire her so much because she made her decisions both with the Spirit of God guiding her with regard to not putting off having a family and with grit and determination to fulfill her goals of getting an education.
That was such a beautiful story, and a wonderful reminder of the need to prioritize what matters most.