This Is Not What I Thought 32 Would Look Like

Married with a master's degree, but still just hanging on

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Back in my twenties, I called a financial institution to discuss my undergraduate school loans. Based on my income, I qualified for a five-year reprieve and agreed to a lower monthly payment in exchange for extra interest tacked onto my principle balance. A banker named Tracy with a lovely southern accent explained that my payments would increase to $105.00 per month after five years. “Tracy,” I said, “I’ll be thirty-two in five years. If I can’t afford a $105 payment by then, we’ve got bigger problems than this loan business.”

Cue: Laughter.

Older is better…right?

I’m not sure what I was imagining my life would look like at thirty-two, but I was positive about this: adults become increasingly responsible, organized, and financially stable as they age. In some ways this is true, if I twist the evidence to work in my favor. Am I more responsible and organized now than I was at age nine? Yes. Age twenty-one? Definitely. (So far, so good!) But I feel discouraged when I think about how much money I made as a waitress in high school, my endless energy and enthusiasm for working and earning, my ability to save wisely and spend frugally. I haven’t been awarded Employee of the Month since I was seventeen.

Of course, I never considered other variables that could and would interrupt my upward mobility. Ahem, rent, for example. Aforementioned loans. Babies, groceries, health insurance, flat tires blah blah blah. You know, life. Not only did I assume my student loans would be no problem, I imagined more children by now, world travels, an art collection, a 401k plan (which means a career, right?). As thirty-two crept closer, I was devastated to realize that my peers had long ago evolved out of their own college jobs and were steadily, actually developing lives that looked much more “grown up” than my own.

My thirty-second birthday came and went a while ago, and my life looks like this now: I’m married, I’m pregnant, I have a master’s degree. From the outside, it looks pretty good. People tell me it looks pretty good. And yet, I’m still comparing my life now to what I imagined it would be all those years ago and feeling stressed and disappointed. There’s still no retirement fund, I have newer, bigger student loans, my daughter spends the summers with her dad three thousand miles away and I miss her like crazy.

But I know this: I can’t measure my life on a hundred degree Monday when I’m seven months pregnant with what I decided, ten years ago, it should look like.

destination: adulthood

One such Monday was two weeks ago in the government sponsored WIC office. WIC is a program that provides money to families who need supplemental assistance in the grocery department. It is similar to food-stamps but not the same as food stamps; the details don’t really matter right now. So I’m sitting in the WIC office, which has mediocre air-conditioning. I am surrounded by teenage mothers. There is a protocol we must all endure which includes repetitive information about nutrition and breastfeeding, and we have to be weighed because obesity is a national epidemic. It was during all of this that I sank into self-pity about how much life “should” look. By the time I left with my checks for milk and cheese, I was almost in tears. If only Tracy could see me now.

Walking in the door, I announced to my husband, “I went to WIC; major adult points for me!” and then I cried. I have a therapist who walks me through moments like this, and as a therapist I walk clients through this all the time: feelings versus facts. With a tad bit of perspective and compassion, I can acknowledge that my life is, in fact, totally fine! It’s my feelings that mess it all up sometimes. After sitting for a moment with this idea, I also told my husband that I probably lost some points for crying. (Or did I gain more points for feeling my feelings…?)

I can have fun with my husband about the false idea that adulthood is a destination to be reached within societal parameters; we have a system of  “adult points,” earned with each small achievement, and lost with silly mistakes and events that I incorrectly assumed didn’t happen after a certain age. When I laugh with my husband and relieve myself of comparisons, my adulthood feels pretty good. Laughing more has been the biggest and most wonderful surprise of my thirties. More than anything else, it’s the laughter that helps me let go of the old ideas and definition of having “it” together. What’s being a grownup, if nothing else, than owning the right to redefine—or abandon altogether—the notion of being an adult in the first place?

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