No one asks me anymore what I want to be when I grow up, but the question—and its answer—still resonates with me today as a thirtysomething woman. After leaving my position as a teacher to stay home with my children, I’ve taken a hard look at the dreams that have since my childhood been deferred. Or were they?
The great American poet Langston Hughes wrote about this very phenomenon. He wondered if the dream deferred “just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?” Perhaps both, depending on the moment, be it gloomy or agitated. But what happens when a dream is curtailed?
When I find it difficult to enjoy my children or be patient with them, I can usually trace it back to anger I feel toward myself. In this case, anger masks an all-consuming emptiness. Swirling in that space, are thoughts that begin with Should have, Could have, and Had I. And if from fear I avoid confronting this existential angst, I find that emptiness morphing into resentment, a feeling that can permeate my entire being when left unchecked.
You see, since I can remember, my dream was to be a journalist. I imagined myself trekking across the globe, asking important people hard questions. I wanted to get to the bottom of all the world’s problems and write about them in news columns, magazines, and books. The amount of influence and notoriety I imagined for myself would have taken most of my twenties and thirties to build, with hours upon hours of traveling and writing. I dreamed big and had the ambitions to match.
“But how can you fit that on-the-go lifestyle into a marriage with children?” my parents asked, repeatedly.
I wanted to marry someday, but my mother warned me that no man would marry a woman absorbed by her writing career. I wanted a family, but my father said it wouldn’t be possible unless I traded in my vision of typing manuscripts for one of domesticity. Even when I turned on the TV, Pamela Anderson seemed to say that my ambitions shouldn’t be larger than my breasts. Everywhere I turned, all signs pointed to “Follow your dreams at your own risk.”
By the time I hit puberty, I became terribly depressed. I believed that I could only either live for my future family or live for myself. I couldn’t articulate it as such, but the weight of that choice tore me apart nonetheless. It was at that point that I began to fear I might never find a partner if I didn’t subjugate myself to children, home, and spouse.
Fear of unfound love became my driving force, and so the story of a dream curtailed begins. At only fourteen years of age, I convinced myself that pursuing a family comes first. Of course—I was insecure and petrified of being alone. And I didn’t think finding a man who’d want to raise my children was an option. There were no examples in my youth of homemaking fathers. If I wanted a family, my only choice was to internalize the “feminine” priorities my parents and society crammed down my throat. This meant I had to come up with a new career path that diminished the quirky, creative me and accentuated the voluptuous me that was taking shape.
Teaching was perfect, I thought. Teachers seemed unassuming and their schedules wide open. I would automatically become marriage material with built-in summers off. Plus, I figured I could be satisfied “writing” curriculum. After all, teaching was a job that could afford me time to care for my future children and maintain my future household. I also made sure this job would not interfere with my future partner’s career plans. These were my new priorities.
But something happens to a child who suddenly crosses a dream off her life’s to-do list. She grows into an adult she doesn’t recognize. She becomes a woman divided by her longing to live authentically and her longing to belong in society.
Upon entering my twenties, I had completely shifted my ambitions from writing to dating. Though I hungered for independence born from a successful writing career, the immense pressure I felt to be socially accepted prevailed. The world instilled a fear of loneliness in my soul that grew as I did. It told me I shouldn’t waste my youth building a career, lest my beauty wither away before I acquired a man—or more accurately, before I was given the patriarchal stamp of approval. So little has changed.
Operating under that threat of loneliness, I sifted my dreams down to a manageable, future-family-friendly size. I did this believing I truly couldn’t have a demanding career and a family. Then how do men do it? When it is assumed that women should take full responsibility of their children and home, we take away their ability to follow their dreams.
I write from experience. As a young adult, I threw myself into becoming a “likable” woman, someone “attractive” to a future mate. After which, I threw myself into my husband when he “found me.” Then I threw myself into my children, which included giving up my job as a teacher so I could devote even more of myself to them. By the time I was thirty-one years old, I wanted to throw myself out of a ten-story window. Depression settled in like it had when I was a teen. I don’t believe it ever lifted.
I was in the midst of a mid-life crisis. I found that negating my first love of writing had left me empty. I felt foolish for having exchanged my search for a place in the newsroom with the search for a teaching position, just to be “marriage material.” Curtailing my dreams turned me into a woman who no longer knew nor loved herself. It wasn’t until I revisited my original goal that I emerged from that inner turmoil.
But before I could finally do what I love most, I had to build my self-esteem upon the delicate scaffold of budding self-love. The acts of accepting the choice I made to prioritize marriage, facing the consequences of regret and depression, and owning my fear of becoming a writer were an exercise in worthiness. Though I find it challenging at times, I must also acknowledge my strengths and potential. Wanting to set a positive example for my daughters has given me the courage to follow my dreams.
Though pursuing a writing career now is so much harder with two small children, it is the only way I have been successful at easing the pain of a dream curtailed. In picking up where I left off over twenty years ago, I am showing my daughters what they need to see. That anything is possible. And it’s okay to live for yourself. And you can’t let the mounting obstacles in your way deter you from chasing your dreams.