Birthdays, while a time of celebration, are also a time for reflection. Reflection on where a person is in life, how she got there, and where she came from. A reexamination of hopes and dreams. An awakening of sorts.
And so let's reflect. I often imagine what life would be like had I chosen a different path. It's amazing how one decision can alter the course of one's existence so profoundly. In the spirit of Fringe, one of my favorite shows, I'll go through this as though there are parallel universes out there and in each, my path, and therefore my life, look quite different.
Likely the most dismal of universes, this universe leaves me stuck in generational poverty with little to no hope of escape. In this universe, I chose to take that joint my mother offered me at thirteen, solidifying a relationship of need and dependency on my mother and creating an everlasting connection between us that would likely lead to my demise.
My demise insomuch as I would have slowly altered my views and beliefs to align more closely with my mother's. I likely would've foregone college in exchange of a husband twelve years older than me and a baby on the way. I would've become stuck in a small town and constantly felt the need to defend my choices and my actions as my uneducated husband and I navigated through kid after kid, drug after drug, and trailer after trailer.
By 34, my skin showed deep signs of the hard life I had chosen. I would smoke two packs of cigarettes a day, adding a hoarseness to my voice that may have been considered sexy if not accompanied by phlegm-producing coughs every five minutes. I'd have five kids and would've decided to get "fixed" after the last one. I'd be on my third husband after barely surviving the split from the first. His possessiveness and need to "control" me would've almost led to my real demise, either through death or insanity. I'd be working at the "Dollar Tree" making minimum wage and spending most of it on cigarettes, booze and weed, not worried about feeding my kids. After all, that's what welfare and WIC are for, right?
I would've become a statistic. A product of my environment.
This one is a little trickier. My first year of college, my long-time boyfriend (okay, so we were engaged briefly. Very briefly) and I broke up. I was introduced to this fantastic world of college and "college kids," and I wanted the opportunity to explore. And, we just weren't going to work out. He was my "opposite." I started dating him after getting out of an abusive relationship. He was the opposite of that, as he bought me flowers daily, opened all my doors, and slathered me with so much love and affection, I felt like I was soaking in a vat of honey.
One very cloudy, very cold day, I was standing at the "public phone" talking to my grandmother. I explained that I was moving out. And she explained that they were in the process of buying my aunt (she's my age) a condo to live in while attending college. She said it would be great if I moved out there and roomed with my aunt. After six months, I'd be eligible to start "junior" college for free! It's California, after all, and "junior" college is free!
In that moment, I didn't give a clear answer, but I considered taking the leap. In Universe 2, I took the leap. I moved to California, leaving behind friends and family while knowing I wasn't quite close enough to care that much. I had nothing tying me down. I had no reason not to go. And my hang-up over "junior" college was non-existent in Universe 2, because honestly, that's part of the reason I chose to stay in the "real" universe.
I got a job at the same restaurant as my aunt, and after work, we'd sit around and smoke "bongs" while talking about our customers. Over time, we argued daily until eventually, we couldn't stand to live together anymore and I moved out with my boyfriend. I eventually signed up for "junior" college and navigated my way through that into a four-year university. Likely the same one my aunt attended: Sonoma State. Instead of studying English and creative writing, I likely would've followed my original path and stayed the course: Psychology.
Things from there get dicey. I mean, on one hand, I could've stopped with the BA. On the other, I could've pursued an MA and eventually a Doctorate, becoming a nationally renowned child and adolescent psychologist or just working in a youth group home. Either way, kids would have been my central focus, and eventually, I would've understood that my need to give back to them was driven by the idea that I didn't deserve all that I'd accomplished.
At 34, my skin would show signs of "sun" aging, as I would've moved to Southern California with my husband to create the perfect life on the perfect coast. We'd have two blonde-haired little beach babies that had California glows. I'd drink wine from Napa and spend time with family and friends. I'd be involved in the school system and have a lot to offer with my psychology background. I'd wear fancy California suits and be bronzed 365 days of the year.
I'd be happy. I'd be near my family (the family out there). I wouldn't even consider what's going on in the "real" universe.
The "Real" Universe
This is the universe I currently occupy. I've always been pretty open about where I come from. And while I had many life-altering decisions and choices to make as I grew up, the two I highlighted could've have major impacts on where I am today. Had I chosen to take my mom up on her offer to smoke "pot" with her while sitting in a dimly lit room watching some action film, I have no doubt that it would've clouded so many of the decisions I made and beliefs I acquired through my teenage years. I have no doubt that my perception of the woman who birthed me would've been different.
Taking that step with my mother would've led me down a very dark, very similar road. Her willingness to allow me to date people almost twice as old as myself was astounding, and while I eventually figured that out on my own, it's quite likely that I could've ended up pregnant and married at a mere eighteen. I would've been dependent on welfare, WIC and other forms of government assistance. College likely would've never happened. I would've never had the courage to do something so bold and to alienate myself from my family by "bettering" myself. And the boyfriend likely would've been so possessive and jealous that going to college wouldn't have been "allowed."
The other decision may not have left me living from paycheck to paycheck waiting for food stamps to come through every month, but it would've definitely changed the course of my life. I would've created an adult life thousands of miles away from where I am now. I would've married someone different. I would've had different kids. I would've become a different person. I don't know and certainly can't say if that would've been a good or bad thing. I just know it would've been different.
And so with all the decisions I've made, I find myself here. And at 34, here's what I see when I look at where I am, where I was, and how I got here.
- I have spent so many years in counseling to learn how to cope, accept, or rid myself of the things that happened to me in childhood. I have grown in my understanding that I was a victim in most circumstances and that no matter how far I run, I will never be able to hide from the awful things that happened to me. And so I've learned that I have to face them head on. I have to be strong. And I have finally learned how to stand up for what I believe to be right. I have learned to face my fears and to never make decisions based on fear. Doing so has given me a wealth of confidence and strength that I don't feel I possessed before.
- I have really grown in the management of my abandonment issues. I have learned to forgive my grandmother for her role in those issues, yet still am learning how to forgive my mother and my father for their roles.
- I have learned that success is not measured by the amount of money in my bank account, but that the number that resides there will always be important to me....after all, I know what it means to be poor and it's not a very nice place. But I have also learned that success means more than the career I have, and that sometimes it's okay to slow down for a little while to enjoy things that matter, such as young children who will only be young once.
- I have gained strong friendships, but not many of them, and would like to have more. However, I find that the older one becomes the harder it is to make friends.
- I have made peace with my own religious and spiritual beliefs. I have accepted that while I believe, I do not subscribe to Christianity and the idea of a church makes me nauseous.
- I have learned that how one dresses is not a measure of their stature. I always envisioned that to be success meant wearing suits daily and other "classy" clothes. I have learned that I'm still most comfortable in a pair of comfy jeans and a t-shirt.
- Being a mother is quite possibly the greatest gift of my life. I am so blessed to be a part of my children's lives. And I struggle so much to be a great mother for them. Without the guidance or example from my own life, I navigate these waters feeling almost blind and often, so very often, alone. And yet I refuse to give up the fight to provide the best environment with the best lessons for my kids. The balance between work and home becomes ever more precarious....
At 34, I once envisioned myself wearing suits and working for "the man" with no kids. But what I have instead is so much better than what I could've ever dreamed up in years past. I am so blessed to be where I'm at in my life. I am so thankful that I had the fortitude, the ambition, and the all-out drive it took to step outside of my comfort zone to become a person I can respect and believe in. I have a wonderful husband, two wonderful children, a nice house, a working car, a stable career, and a whole of host of other things I never had and couldn't fathom when I was a kid.
So, today, at 34, I thank myself for being who I am, standing tall, and sticking my convictions.