What do you want to be when you grow up? A question we’ve all been asked and probably asked numerous young people ourselves. A question that seems harmless when asked, yet can feel overwhelmingly heavy when you don’t know the answer. This is the story of my unconventional – yet not uncommon – pursuit of what becoming I have the heart to be.
I grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s in what I would describe as a very normal family. I’ve come to appreciate the extraordinary nature of my youth. I knew and spent time with all four of my grandparents and my great-grandmother. Church on Sunday was non-negotiable. Sunday school teachers were often family members and the lessons lived beyond the one-hour of teaching. Every month the extended family gathered together to celebrate birthdays that had occurred that month – always with made-from-scratch cakes and homemade ice cream. My four siblings and ten cousins were close in age and most lived fewer than 5 miles away. My dad’s brother is married to my mom’s sister. We all resemble each other, shared the same last name and were at every holiday gathering no matter which side of the family it was. All this was normal and routine to me. So why didn’t I have a clear answer to that routine question of “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
I distinctly remember as a high school senior really wrestling with that question. In my heart, I knew what I wanted to be – a wife and a mother. Those dreams weren’t exactly in line with the socially expressed aspirations women were supposed to have in the late ‘80s. To complicate matters, I hadn’t had a serious boyfriend and prospects were certainly not knocking down my door. I was a very good student and involved leader in 4-H, FFA and Church groups, so it seemed natural – I should go to college and become ‘successful.’
How do you choose a college when you don’t know your career calling? How do you navigate becoming an adult when you aren’t really sure who you are?
These are questions I have the pleasure of helping students with now in my career – but at the time I just pretended I knew what I was doing. I chose a college based upon which one sent me the most recruiting material! Luckily for me, that came with a hefty academic scholarship as well and I found myself attending Buena Vista College in Storm Lake, Iowa.
Like many college students, I embarked on a journey to discover who I was and what I wanted to do in life. What I quickly learned is I had no idea! And two years in, I made a decision that broke my father’s heart and is one of the few I have regrets about – I quit school. For me the question that had prompted me to make the decision was – Why spend the money on college if you don’t know what you want to do?
To prove myself an adult I bought a house (why pay rent when you can pay a mortgage and own something in the end?), became assistant manager at a pizza place and entered into a serious relationship. This was good for a year or so until I was wrestling with the next question – what now? I moved nearer to Sioux City and I returned to college at night and on the weekends while working full-time and sometimes part-time too. Being busy was good – it left little time and energy for the questions to haunt me. What are you doing? Where are you headed? Is this what you are made to do?
In 1994, I did what you do next in life – I got married. For the next 10 years we wrestled with all the questions we didn’t talk about before making this major decision. What were our, collective, goals in life? What careers did we want? How many children? It was that last question that would create the most angst. My upbringing led me to want a larger family. His upbringing led him to want no children. This was a big question we should have talked through before getting married, but we didn’t. Instead, two years into the marriage, at 22 years of age, I signed a consent for my husband to have a vasectomy; effectively putting an end to my dream of becoming a mother. Why?
So many questions are a part of a major life decision – and this was a major life decision. What is the impact to me if I say yes or no? What is the impact on my marriage? How is this disagreement about family already impacting my marriage? My mental well-being? What will fill the void? What new dream will take the place of motherhood? Would making a final decision make it easier to go to family events and face all the questions there? The well-meaning, innocently asked but deeply painful questions of – when are you having kids? Should we send the maternity clothes to your house next? Could I reveal the secret marital struggle to my family?
My decision to support my husband and agree to no family together, meant eight more years of marriage. Eight years that were not unhappy. Eight years that led to a focus on more education and a career – something I probably wouldn’t have done otherwise. Eight years of being more attuned to the impact of innocent questions that can have painful consequences for people struggling with fertility or marital strife or any other sort of personal issue that is not public. Ultimately though, my void was not filled, he wrestled with guilt and we escaped into individual interests rather than drawing closer together. Another series of self-reflective questions led me to decide I was done living a lonely life with someone. Do you know that it can be far lonelier to be with someone who is absent than to be alone?
Rediscovering who you are is a journey of questions. What makes me happy? How do I define myself? What fills my soul? What impact do I want to make in the world?
My journey involved professional career exploration as well. On one return trip from Minneapolis, where I had interviewed for a new position, I found an answer. I didn’t want a new job. I didn’t want to move. I wanted what I had always wanted – to be a mom.
This seemed preposterous. And then a friend said – why not do it yourself? You can become a mom without a husband. You can have artificial insemination. You are financially stable, secure in your career and have a great support system. You can do it.
And a new series of questions emerged. Could I really do it? Was it selfish? What was it like to be a single parent? What was the process for artificial insemination? What did it cost? How do you select a donor? What will people think? How will I react to those who judge the decision?
I can tell you these aren’t easy questions and there isn’t one ‘right’ answer for everyone. The decision I made was not a flip decision. It wasn’t made on a whim. It was the result of months – more than a year – of wrestling with questions myself, talking them out with friends, family and a counselor, getting a lot of different opinions and perspectives as well as hours of prayer for guidance.
Whatever that major life decision is that you are wrestling with – changing careers, changing marital status, choosing a college, starting a family, adopting/fostering – whatever decision it is, ask a lot of questions over and over and over again. And then take a leap. You’ll never have all the answers, there will always be more questions. Trust yourself and make a decision knowing that you’ve analyzed and come to the best decision you can at that point. Then don’t look back. Don’t question the decisions made – just look ahead to the next chapter of your life.
In all the questioning of my life, I have never questioned the decision I made in August 2007 that ultimately led to the arrival of my daughter on July 27, 2008.