In the fall of 1982, my classmates set off for college. I got married. I was 18 years old and had wanted to go away to study. I’d gone through the process of applying to schools, and had been accepted to my top three choices.
Eventually, I attended a local school — NYU. I had my first baby at 20, and when I was 24 and pregnant with my second child, I decided to change my major from studio art to elementary education because I couldn’t be around the chemicals in the dark room or the turpentine smell in the art studio.
By the time I was 34, I had five children. It took me six years to complete my undergraduate work, and an additional six to get a graduate degree. At the time, I didn’t totally understand the far-reaching ramifications of my decisions — that with every choice I made, there was something lost and something gained. In my case, raising a large family took precedence over developing a career. I dabbled here and there, but my part-time jobs didn’t translate to a serious profession. I thought there’d be time. I believed I’d get to it one day. But what’s in our future is as imperceptible as the earth spinning on its axis.
The years between thirty and fifty are a blur. My father used to say, where did the time go? I’d roll my eyes, thinking you don’t become that old in the blink of an eye. But I was wrong. It happens fast — super fast. The toughest part is, I never thought it would happen to me. Does anyone? Lately, I’ve been struggling, trying to figure out where all the time went. I’m not sorry about the decisions I made, just curious.
Sometimes people make choices based on what’s easiest. Sometimes people choose out of fear. Sometimes people don’t choose at all, but like the Rush song “Freewill” states, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”
So why is that instead of heading off to college, I bought a wedding dress? Why did I opt to stay home to greet the school bus at the end of each day instead of getting a job in the city where I could meet people, make money and further my career?
In a Ted Talk called How to Make Hard Choices, philosopher Ruth Chang explains that we can uncover our own hidden power and learn something about ourselves in the process of making a hard choice. Who we are, or who we want to be, rests in how we assess certain values such as beauty, kindness, justice, family, education and success.
What I’ve learned about myself recently is that in every hard choice I’ve faced, about this job or that, this life dream or that one, I always, always, always picked the one that included love. Love is what I valued most. That’s why I got married when I did. It’s why I had so many children. It’s why I put so much time and energy into cooking elaborate meals for friends and family. I valued relationships more than career success, and it helps to know my decisions weren’t random. Granted, our choices may be limited, affected by outside factors like money, access or whether you’ve met Mr. or Mrs. Right. (Does anyone even say that anymore?) But given the option, what do you choose when there is no right or wrong, when one choice is not necessarily better than another?
Lately, I’ve been contending with the losses, the things I don’t have due to the choices I made along the way. It’s been a bit daunting to start focusing on my career at fifty, doing what most twenty-year-olds are doing — plus fitting in time for bone scans and colonoscopies.
Our ideals may change as we grow. I’m taking the time now to invest in other things that I value. Since my instinct is to choose the thing that will bring human connection, I work hard to make space for other things of importance to me, like creativity and a fulfilling career.
I’m living by the old adage: It’s never too late. I just have to learn to be okay when the woman I’m working next to can see clearly without reading glasses, and probably didn’t use her mascara wand to cover some grays. But there’s no time to feel bad about my neck, or anything else. I have too much to do. And the clock is ticking.
Collage by Ana Tellez
Originally published on Man Repeller under the title “Why I Chose Family Over Career in My 20s”
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