There’s something about the scent of saltwater as the surf crashes that lulls me into contemplation. So when I found myself on the beach with my mom this summer—my family lives 2,000 miles away in Maine—I couldn’t help but think about the choices that have led us to where we are.
Next month, I’ll turn 32. That’s full-on “in my 30s”—scary to say out loud, because 30 is one of those numbers that sticks in your head as an age by which certain boxes should be checked: job, marriage, house, kids, savings. You can rejigger that order a bit, but it’s a pretty common road map—or at least, it used to be. It was my mother’s map. But as I’m staring down my fourth decade, it’s become evident that I’m not following that plan.
As the tide receded that afternoon, I thought back to when my mom was my age. I could see her chasing two toddlers, my younger brother and me, around our modest ranch house in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Years before, she’d started a graduate program in oceanography, but dropped out when the schoolwork demands became too rigorous. She thought about moving west to pursue an interest in geology, but the idea of uprooting herself and leaving her boyfriend (now her husband and my father) was daunting. So she got a job in retail, married, had children, and stayed at home to raise us while my father went to the office.
There was no “working from home” on the laptop back then. She didn’t even have a car to get us kids out of the house. Just thinking about that day-to-day routine gives me anxiety and claustrophobia—I can only imagine the restlessness of being confined in such a small world. But she did what was expected of a middle-class young woman from small-town New England and let her “might have beens” disappear.
I’ve chosen the opposite path: I completed my master’s degree despite plenty of (unpaid) hurdles and consciously pursued a career I love as opposed to “ended up in”; I transplanted myself from the East Coast to a state across the country where I didn’t know a soul; I left my longtime boyfriend back east, jeopardizing our future by launching the dreaded long-distance relationship; and though he eventually moved to Denver, we haven’t married, thought about kids, or purchased a home. Why? Because we don’t feel the need to wed; we’re sooo not ready for children; and, really, renting is the smartest thing to do these days if you don’t want to be tied down. I’m happily drawing my own blueprint, messy and incomplete though it might be, and with that comes a certain sense of independence and personal flexibility to check a whole different set of boxes: urban condo living, backpacking Patagonia on a whim, and renting a ski condo in Breckenridge with a dozen friends.
Sure, sometimes I wonder if I’m letting the most important landmarks pass me by. Because, yes, expectations have changed…but only to a point. Plenty of my peers are blissfully satisfied as new-parents-slash-first-time-home-buyers. But when FOMO—Fear Of Missing Out—starts to creep up, I remember why it is that I’ve got a pen at the ready in my hand: When and where I need those things to make me happy, I can draw those boxes in and start checking.
Would my mother redo her choices if she had a “shifted blueprint”? She’s always said no, and from under her beach umbrella, she chuckled as we reminisced about her stay-at-home-mom years and my terrible twos. Maybe she would have been happy if she had packed up and moved west to study geology. But things turned out pretty darn well for her and my dad, and, thanks to them, for my brother and me. I, for one, am grateful for the sacrifices she made when she checked the boxes she did.