My Nontraditional Happy Ending Is Still a Happy One

I didn't want to be a swan anyway

See, this is what was not supposed to happen. The exotic Valentine’s Day lilies on the Facebook wall of a size 0 Floridian beauty queen. The man who hyphenated his last name with his wife’s. The gigantic costal house with two and a half curly-headed children playing quietly in the yard. Respectively, these things belong to the jerk who teased me on the school bus in sixth grade, the girl with the best reputation and most perfect teeth in the whole county, and my freshman year crush who would. Not. Even. Look. At. Me. EVER.

Aren’t they supposed to have horrible lives, waitressing at crap bars and living in their parents’ basements? These prom queens and football stars—they had their shot in high school. Real life was supposed to be my turn. I mean, I practically had “duckling now, swan later” written all over me. Glasses and gravity-defying hair, lots of cackling tween girls in my periphery, troubles at home, never-quite-fit-in but persistent as all-get-out, and a depressingly boyfriend-less existence. Woe was me. So I knew what was coming next. All of the romantic comedies said so. Getting out of my hometown meant friends! Fame! Fabulousness! Boys who liked me! Happily ever after!

A lot of that happened. I went to college and found out that some people thought about the world like I did. I dumpster-dove, majored in Saving The World, kissed many boys and girls, and learned how to meditate. I took a year off to live in a Buddhist monastery and unpack all of my emotional baggage—including getting rid of my Facebook account and buzzing off a few feet of hair, as a way to cut off unhealthy attachments. That accomplished, I went back to school for a Master’s and landed a high-power internship, which turned into a career-building job. Now I have an executive-level position and a big enough professional network that I may not even have to apply for the next thing.

However, I do have an executive-level position in a sorta lonely part of the country. When I took it, I knew that it was a stepping-stone. But while I only planned to be here for a few years, having shallow roots gets old. After about a year here, I decided to return to the nourishing roots of decades-old friendships.

Enter Facebook! At first, it felt like I had come back home. Pictures of Hazel’s new house! Status update that Perry is at my old favorite restaurant! Adrian’s little baby toddling around!

Then… everybody’s little baby toddling around.

Then… who are all of these people on my feed? I don’t recognize any of these names…

Oh. So, when, exactly, did everybody from my high school decide to get married?

And—three years into a relationship with more downs than ups of late—when would it be my turn?

Growing up, I glommed on to the stories about the ugly duckling turning into the beautiful swan, slow and steady winning the race, and good things coming to those who wait. The stories for the rest of us, the ones that prophesied redemption from our sorrows. But, returning to my hometown for the first time in six years, the present-day triumphs of my former playmates seem to fly in the face of the promises these stories made to me.

Remember Betty, who graduated with us? She’s now teaching at our old high school, and her husband is a wealthy contractor. Anna NewLastName and her beau live in a neighborhood that didn’t exist five years ago, with two big happy dogs that my quasi-nomadic lifestyle won’t be able to support for the next several years. Wrestling champ Jerry has a sweet little daughter; I experience a moment of cognitive dissonance as this world-class partier lovingly cleans her up after she springs a leak. I see many of my former schoolmates and their new families. Nobody asks me what I’m doing, and all the while I want to scream, “But, I have a career! Here, take a business card! I’m successful, I am!”

There’s a Buddhist saying that goes, “You don’t have to believe everything you think.” I realized I had come to believe that the Happily Ever Afters of my schoolmates somehow detract from the quality of my own life. That there isn’t enough happy to go around. And while I was busy worshiping at that altar, I was blaspheming all of the good fortune that I have been given.

While my classmates were getting married, I was working through the life stuff that would allow me to experience a groundedness and level of interpersonal intimacy I never knew I was missing; whole other layers of myself that make me better at being me. All that other stuff is great for the people who have it, but it was never going to give me myself. As it turns out, life gives us whatever we need to work with, regardless of what we think we want.

So, maybe all the stories were wasted on me. I don’t have the traditional happy ending. This duckling is, in fact, a duckling, and no other bird. But there’s no other bird I’d want to be.

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  • Rachel

    Ducklings can be wily

    • Meg Keene


  • Margi

    I wish I had something to show for the last 5 years of my life! Stuck in the same go nowhere job, just ended my relationship of 6 years and still living in the same studio from grad school. I feel like I’ve failed at adulthood!

    • Sarah

      Oh gosh, me too! My studio is adorable…. for someone in grad school.

    • Bee

      Ha, me too. I’m 31 and have no career, no husband, no kids, nothing. To the original writer – you do have a lot to be proud of!

    • Just piping in to say ending a relationship that isn’t working IS moving forward, and as shitty, shitty, shitty, as it is, it’s going to bring you closer to being/finding/enjoying your Self. Whether or not another partner shows up. Not a failure, not a failure!

      ::steps off soapbox, gives a hug::

  • Lian

    Love it.

  • Sparkles

    Sometimes I worry that I’m the one on the other side. The one posting pictures of weddings and life events on Facebook. I try not to, because I know that it’s not fair to the people watching me. If all you see are the pictures of me finishing school, getting a job, getting married, buying a car, buying a house, having a baby, you don’t see how exhausted I am juggling a brand new job and a tough spot in my marriage because we have a 6 month old. You don’t see the accident I got my car into last week and how it’s going to seriously slow down paying back my student debt to get it fixed.

    People want to show all the best to their Facebook friends, and there’s probably a ton of people on there who aren’t showing anything, because they don’t think they have anything to show. You’re probably an awesome duckling, and it sounds like you’re doing great, but swans can be wily, too.

    • laddibugg

      For the most part, my friends seem pretty even. They post cute pics of the babies, but they also post pics of the auto accident (or when the baby had an ‘accident’.)

    • Alison O

      I disagree about one’s obligation of fairness, so to speak, to people who look at one’s facebook feed. There’s a touch of that thought that reminds me of a past post about a bride whose family kept downplaying her joy and successes because her sister was going through a hard time. I thought that was unfair to everyone.

      These are things you want to share with your community, and they are not inherently offensive things. If you feel like they are, then you can not post them or limit who sees them, but really I think the onus is on your fb friends to understand the “highlight reel” effect of facebook (and similarly with many blogs). Maybe I’ll post the awesome free vintage chair I got, or the funny thing my dog did, or the exciting news that I’m going, going, back, back to Cali, Cali (although I personally actually post very little on fb and instagram in general), but I’m not going to post about the majority of my life, which is stuff like how I made a great baguette this morning but then proceeded to eat basically all of it in one sitting and now feel even more bloated than I already was feeling since I’m PMSing. Or guess what, my allergies are really bad today, just like they are every other freaking day. And my boyfriend and I are still sad about how his mom died last year. You know? Some people have a sort of negative/funny shtick where they post the ‘ugly’ side of life, but I don’t see a lot of people who share so much that it ends up balanced.

      And, I think that’s fine. If people are upset by someone else’s good news, they should be able to put it into perspective of how facebook sharing usually goes, seek help/counseling if they’re experience problems with mental health or other life issues, get off of facebook or not follow particular people if they find it bothersome, etc.

      Sort of like, bottom line, your happiness is not an imposition. That’s not free reign to be boastful and obnoxious, but sometimes no matter how you express your good news, other people will perceive it in their own way and that’s on them.

      • Cleo

        Alison, I wish I could transmit applause through this comment form. “Your happiness is not an imposition.”


      • Natalie

        I agree with this 100%. The majority of the things I post on social media are either A) happy/good news, or B) something I think is funny. I don’t post about the arguments my fiance and I have (unless they’re hilarious, which, sometimes they are – i.e. fighting over who gets the nutella and who gets the remote), or the times that I miss my parents because they live half a world away, or the times that my future inlaws, who of course live in the same town as I do, make me feel small or unwanted. Because if someone wants to know more than the highlights of my life, they’re going to have to invest more into my life than clicking “like” on a status I post. I have the same expectation for my friends as well. I don’t expect them to post anything more than what they’re comfortable sharing with the world. And while I deeply respect a friend of mine who can post (on her blog) about some of the difficulties of her life, I don’t get mad at the people who only post about the good things.

      • I love this comment. I had similar thoughts to Sparkles as I was reading this post (though I don’t not share good news on FB because of it). I think you really nailed why one shouldn’t feel guilty about being happy some of the time (or even the majority of the time).

      • lottie

        I agree, but I view fairness on fb a little differently. It’s a highlight reel, some people post lots, some people post rarely, it’s a snapshot, etc. That said, if you post a lot and post a lot of happy, awesome, exciting, great stuff, then I think the fair thing to do is to congratulate others when they have good news and empathize when they have sad/frustrating news. I don’t know that this imbalance is standard, but I’ve noticed it among a couple of friend-acquaintances, and it bothers me. Happiness is not an imposition, but unwillingness to celebrate and commiserate with others is poor friendship.

      • Rachel

        There’s a quote I love, I think it’s by Steve Furtick, that goes “The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” I find it’s helpful when I fall into the comparison trap.

    • Meg Keene


  • lady brett

    “This duckling is, in fact, a duckling, and no other bird. But there’s no other bird I’d want to be.”
    love this.

  • jashshea

    Oh girl, I hear you on the small town thing. Took me a long while into my life to realize what you say at the end (1) someone else’s big house, baby, or fancy job doesn’t detract from my life in any way and (2) the HS jerk doesn’t always end up with the crappy job and life. #3 on that list is that my good stuff doesn’t detract from anyone else’s good stuff either.

    Separately, I think your life sounds awesome and if you were my high school acquaintance, I’d have tons of questions for you! That’s why, despite the flaws, I still have FB: I LOVE hearing about the good things that happened to the many good people who had bit parts in my life story.

  • Helen S.

    It sounds like you were better off without a facebook. Comparison is the thief of joy and all that.

  • GA

    Oh, man. I feel you. I’ve been living that. But in reverse.

    Where I’m from, your story (the traveling, the career success, the self-discovery) is the thing to aspire to. That was what I aspired to. And somehow… practically overnight (though my wedding was over a year in the making)… I ended up married before thirty. Most of my friends aren’t married yet; they post and Like and Share each other’s Buzzfeed articles with names like, “30 Ways You Know You’re Still Single” and pretend to moan about their singlehood. But last week one of them just got back from a trip to Morocco, so I’m having a hard time commiserating. ;)

    I love my husband, I love being married to him, and I have come to realize that marriage is not the end of adventure. It’s not only an adventure in itself, but it gives me the grounding to feel that I can continue to explore myself and the world without getting too lost. His support is part of what has allowed me to get where I am in my career. And he feels the same way about me. I still plan on going to Morocco… I just haven’t yet. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

    Great article. Very thought provoking, and honestly a message I needed to hear after a very… uh… eventful morning on Facebook. (I really should just get rid of it.)

    • Jacky Speck

      The combination of the author’s story and your comment reminded me that everyone’s “happily ever after” looks different. I needed that reminder… I’ve been feeling a bit insecure about spending money on a wedding, vacations, etc. when all my single friends think the ultimate sign of having “made it” is buying a house.

      And this is like the 4th article I’ve read this week about the negative effects of Facebook. Maybe it’s time for me to unplug, too.

      • I’m trying hard to spend more time unplugged from not only facebook, but the entire internet. Damn its rough sometimes.

  • ruth

    “You don’t have to believe everything you think.” THIS!!!

  • sarah l

    quitting facebook 2 years ago was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I recognize every feeling in your post, and it was so freeing to stop feeling like I was behind everyone else in dating, family, marriage, friendships, career, personal achievements. I got to have the most amazing interaction with an old friend from college I hadn’t talked to in months the other day – he got into med school and assumed I knew because he’d posted it on facebook, but he got to experience my reaction in real time, and I didn’t have to compete for the most personal congratulations on his wall.

  • Brooke

    FWIW, I bet some of those people are jealous of your independence, adventures, and career success.

    As for me, I was bullied in elementary and middle school, and I honestly don’t care what happened to any of those people. They could be happy and successful or lonely and miserable, I don’t give a crap as long as they’re doing those things far away from me. :) And I went to a different school for high school where I had a great experience. I do have lots of high school friends and acquaintances on my facebook and I wish them nothing but the best in their lives. Over a decade after graduating, I’m even marrying one of them!

    There is one person, though. The guy who raped me in grad school. It really bugs me that his life seems to have turned out better than mine. He’s getting his PhD and he’s married to an impossibly beautiful woman–the kind of beautiful, cool woman that he told me he wouldn’t have raped me if I had been like that. And their relationship seems freakin’ perfect, too. I know I should unfriend him so I can’t see the updates anymore, but for some reason I can’t bring myself to do it. Part of it is practical (I want to at least know what city he currently lives in so I know not to go to that city), and part of it is stupid emotional (in a weird way I like flogging myself seeing how perfect his life seems.) And yes, I know that people tend to only show the good stuff on facebook, but I have a gut feeling that their life really is as perfect as they make it seem. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want him to be miserable, because if he were, he would find a way to blame me for it. Or maybe not blame…but if he were bitter about his life in general then it would give him a reason to think about the other things he hates–like me. But does his life have to be so perfect? Can’t it be somewhere in the middle? Happy enough that he focuses on the positive and doesn’t need to think about his hatred for me, but still not 100% perfect?

    • MisterEHolmes

      I’m so, so sorry for your experience. I hope you can find the comfort and feeling of security you need. *hugs across the internet*

    • SarahG

      Ugh, that is *terrible* — I am so sorry for you that you are re-traumatized by seeing such a horrible person on FB all the time. Can *I* hate him and want him to be miserable? Also, I refuse to believe anybody could have a successful sexual/romantic relationship with a rapist. Who knows what is going on inside that mess. Big big hugs to you.

    • All the hugs in all the land.

    • Emily

      Even more hugs. I finally blocked someone and only visited his page occasionally and when I knew I had the inner strength (like to see where he lived now). I agree with SarahG; how could a rapist possibly have a healthy relationship. I hate him too and want him to be miserable.

  • “I realized I had come to believe that the Happily Ever Afters of my schoolmates somehow detract from the quality of my own life. That there isn’t enough happy to go around. ”

    SUCH an important realization! I’ve also caught myself doing this with social media–I would see someone beautiful, and think, “I’m not beautiful enough” or see someone buy a new house or a new car and think “I don’t make enough money.” But that’s the thing, right? Just because someone is beautiful doesn’t mean you’re not. Just because someone (seemingly) makes a lot of money doesn’t mean you need to make more. And even if it’s true that they have more/do more/are better at something doesn’t mean YOU have to be. You can admire something and choose NOT to want that. (I admire my fiance’s ability to run marathons, but I don’t want to put in the weeks of endless training to do that myself.) Admiring without aspiring is sometimes the perfect place to be. :)

    • Price of Tea

      Or, you can admire AND aspire, but still recognize that the other person’s success isn’t an impediment to your own.

    • Alison O

      yes, there is no scarcity of happiness and success and goodness in the world. (i mean in terms of competition for it…. there definitely is a dearth of goodwill in many places/situations)

  • Laura C

    You know, it’s so all in the way you look at people’s lives. Am I behind my grade school and high school friends because they’re married with kids, or ahead because I’ve lived in more different, interesting places and earn more money? In the end how I think about it depends if I’m feeling competitive that day and, even more, how I feel about the person. But I try not to be even Facebook friends with too many people I feel that competition with, and I really appreciate having friends in different places (in the country, in their lives, as far as outlook, professionally) and being able to see where they’re coming from. The grade school friend turned junior high frenemy, who’s a Head Start teacher in our hometown and still friends with all sorts of people I hadn’t seen since I went to a private high school. The high school friend who’s got four kids and a husband who’s a long-haul truck driver and lives in a completely different cultural space than any I’ve inhabited. I dunno, I’m just glad to have this connection with people who aren’t like the people I’d meet in my daily life, but who I do share history with.

  • Jenni

    “Having shallow roots gets old”

    Oof. Right in the heart.

  • Lena and Aggy

    “…having shallow roots gets old.”

    I feel this so hard and thank you for putting it into words that make sense.

  • Kara

    Oof, when I was younger I can’t tell you how much I longed for the “duckling now, swan later” thing to be true–especially in the appearances department. The teasing was merciless at times, and having an awkward decade just seemed to be in my cards. The only things that helped me through it was focusing on my academics, beating my bullies academically, and getting the hell out of my small town.

    I still have insecurities, but I try to focus on all the good things in my life :). I don’t have facebook, and I never will. The people that matter to me are the ones I call, text, email, and visit. The people that don’t matter to me, well, I’m not going to waste my time or energy caring about them.

  • SarahG

    My therapist used to always say: “Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides.” (Apparently this is an AA saying?). This piece reminds me of that.

  • Bets

    “I realized I had come to believe that the Happily Ever Afters of my schoolmates somehow detract from the quality of my own life.”

    THIS, so much. I spend too many hours looking at other people’s triumphs on facebook that it gives me anxiety. Shouldn’t I be doing whatever it is that they’re doing? What is *wrong* with me that I haven’t been able to achieve whatever they’ve achieved? Is it the choices I’ve made about my life? Is there some fundamental flaw in my personality, the same flaw that made me less-than-popular in my teens? Comparing myself to my peers, especially on facebook, inevitably makes me very insecure.

    When I see the prom queens from high school succeed in life, I feel like the world has failed me somehow — that far from being the stereotypical blonde airheads the media tells us they are, these pretty, popular girls continue to be pretty and popular when they grow up. They were smart enough to hide the fact that they had a brain, as my grandmother would say. And then the insecurity comes rolling in: I wasn’t smart/pretty enough then, maybe I’m still not, ten years later? This sort of thinking, I know, is uncharitable, un-feministic: instead of being supportive of other women and happy for what they’re doing, I want reaffirmation that the model-material girl = dumb = got knocked up at 17, so that the opposite can be true: not-drop-dead gorgeous girl = smart = successful in life. And I know that the world really isn’t so black and white: I’ve met women who had teen pregnancies who are some of the most intelligent and inspiring women I know, I have girlfriends with Phds who are both super smart and gorgeous and I’m extremely proud of them. So why do these old stereotypes continue to haunt me? I think it’s because high school was a very black and white, judgmental place, and the feeling of being intimidated that resurfaces is a remnant of my teenage self. I need to remind myself that I don’t live in that narrow high school world, but a much more fulfilling, if unruly reality, where the teenage stereotypes are irrelevant.

    PS. A facebook tip that worked for me: I changed my password to a randomly generated password that’s a long chain of letters and numbers, and wrote it down. The fact that it’s hard to remember and annoying to enter deters me from using facebook unless I really need to, socially or emotionally.

  • Winny the Elephant

    Whenever I get caught up in that Facebook Jones’ shit I just remind myself that “Comparison is the thief of joy”. And I won’t let anything steal my joy

    • mere…

      A print of that quote has actually been my FB cover photo for over a year now. I love having that little attitude check for myself on my profile page.

  • Granola

    Oh my god. BOOM went this post today. “‘You don’t have to believe everything you think.’ I realized I had come to believe that the Happily Ever Afters of my schoolmates somehow detract from the quality of my own life.” I realize too that it’s not the people I’m close to that bother me – I love to see their kids and dogs and houses — but the ones who I don’t really talk to that somehow represent this nebulous “other” of success that I don’t have. Even when I don’t want the things they have!

    • I loved seeing this sentence, too. I remember the total epic mind shift that happened when I learned that thoughts and feelings are not facts.

    • Jess

      I get that way with people I don’t know! The people I’m close to/even the ones I knew in high school don’t bother me at all. But beautiful women I don’t know? People managing their kids well? Brides taking pictures in public parks? Jealousy.

      But yeah, that sentence, yup. I am so working on not believing all my thoughts – and not believing all my feelings. They are there, but they don’t make me who I am at my core.

  • Anon

    I joined facebook after I graduated university because I thought it would help me maintain some sort of social life after a long distance move, after years of swearing I would never go there, and let me tell you…hopping on there when everyone else has been posting about their lives since high school was….not a good feeling. All my old friends and classmates had these shared experiences, evidence of their lives for almost a decade and I was just not present. Even my best friend’s wedding contains no evidence of me, her maid of honor, save one of my back. Since I wasn’t on facebook and therefor didn’t need to be tagged, she just didn’t post them! I guess ignorance was bliss, but after joining I realized that not only was I now envious of everyone’s lives in a way I never felt before, I was also mourning the lack of evidence of my own participation. So I posted away, trying to make up for lost time. All the while, I was haunting other people’s walls looking at their fancy weddings and adorable children and making myself feel so inadequate…it’s honestly embarrassing to admit all this (hence the Anon, ha!) This post is so timely, because I really needed the reminder that my life doesn’t have to exist in the public eye to be valid. To be good. My life is good no matter what.

  • Laetitia

    “As it turns out, life gives us whatever we need to work with, regardless of what we think we want.” Yes and amen.

  • Emily

    It might look on fb that my life is awesome (and in fact someone has commented to me in person just this) but it’s just isn’t appropriate for me to air my dirty laundry. The dirty laundry would usually involve someone else in my life (husband, step-kids) even when it isn’t actually about them (read:it’s about the ex wife). I make no apologies for not posting the shitty life moments.

    • Emily

      This is so true (especially the ex-wife stuff part). From one Emily to another, I can see how my FB page and even my outer life could look great. Still, I’ve cried everyday this week. We never know all of what it going on with other people.

  • Travelrkris

    Yeah…but your story isn’t over yet. I felt like you did for a really long time. I worked really hard in school and eventually got a really good job, but was single into my mid-thirties. I felt totally behind. I had amazing things happen in my career and even lived abroad, but I still felt like a failure. Then I met and married someone I would not have been ready for sooner. It all worked out, and now I wouldn’t change it for the world.

    You don’t know how your story ends. It is hard when you want something you haven’t got and might not get. We’ve been trying for a baby for 10 months now unsuccessfully, so it is easy to see the friends and their kids and go “oh my gosh I don’t have one and may never have one!!!” But maybe we will get pregnant. Or adopt. Or just have lots of disposable income.

    Any one moment in time is where you are now. Not where you’ll be forever. The only constant is change, and since that is true, by definition, your swan ending may still be coming. :)

  • Stefan Salvatore

    Very interesting idea..
    Maui Photographer

  • Robin

    I’ve never posted on this site before, but this essay and, even more so, the comments particularly resonated with me. I was super geeky and unpopular in elementary school. I was super awkward, had thick glasses, and at one point, even an eye patch. As I got older, in middle and high school, I had more friends, but it was still definitely within my niche of being super smart and artsy. While I was happy with myself, it still bothered me that I never had a date, not much of a social life, etc. I know I tried to make myself feel better with the ugly duckling becoming a swan mentality a lot. In a way, it’s a useful mentality to survive school, but it was really difficult when I graduated from college (with honors) with a technical theatre degree and the economy started crashing not long after. There weren’t many jobs for new graduates, but especially those with arts degrees (and a healthy dose of introversion). Suddenly, even though being super smart/academically successful/artistic was supposed to be my thing, I couldn’t find a job.

    I’ve had lots of amazing life experiences like traveling (and a good family to back me up), but it was super difficult to be still single (in the South, no less), majorly underemployed, and living at home for a few years. It was massively depressing to go on Facebook and see everyone else’s seemingly perfect lives. Comparison is the thief of joy though, as several other people have said. No one’s lives are as perfect as Facebook makes them seem and, even if they are, it has no impact at my life. That’s hard to remember sometimes though, especially when I’m not feeling at all like a swan.

    Now at 30, I’ve bought a house and (finally finally finally) met “The One,” but I still struggle with a lack of career success and the fact that I still live in the small town where I grew up. That’s another one– if you were going to be the smart, successful one, not the marriage and kids one, you absolutely were supposed to leave town and never look back! Sometimes though, it’s ok though to value spending time with your family over “moving away.”

    I rambled a lot for a first post, but it’s late and this got me reflecting quite a bit :)