Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Advice I Wish I'd Gotten as a Young Woman at Princeton

When I entered Princeton University in 1987, I was absolutely clear on the fact that, among other goals, I wanted to (someday) marry a man who was my intellectual equal and have biological children with him. Not only would I have been the perfect audience for Susan Patton's recent advice to young Princeton women, I lived that advice.

I thought about potential partners with the same seriousness with which I'd approach any other goal, bringing all of my Princeton drive, analytical ability and meticulous planning skills into play. I was so convinced that the cornerstone of my future and happiness would be inextricably linked to the man I married, that I spent more time comparing the relative merits of the men I dated than I did working on my senior thesis.

And I did indeed marry a Princeton classmate. In the Princeton Chapel. I got a good job that I enjoyed doing. And after a few years, we decided to have children. I saw myself building that happy future, brick by brick.

Of course, I planned my pregnancy carefullyI had a checkup with my doctor to make sure I was in good health. I started taking folic acid supplements to ensure that my baby wouldn't be born with spina bifida and got pregnant before 35 to lower my chances of Down Syndrome. I stopped drinking caffeine and alcohol and taking medications. I made sure I was getting moderate exercise and eating healthy, organic meals. I even stayed away from the microwave in the break room at work. And my pregnancy progressed smoothly, as expected.

We chose a jungle theme to decorate our son's room. The crib sheets and the walls were adorned with wild animals, and the rocking chair I bought for nursing him sat beneath a seven foot tall palm tree made of PVC pipe covered in green, blue and purple fabric. I imagined the safaris we'd pretend to take together with our stuffed monkeys and the picnics we'd have on rainy days under our colorful tree.

Then my actual son showed up. The one who was real, and alive, and his own person, rather than the product of my well-laid plans. He was born full term and healthy, but he cried almost constantly, in ear splitting wails. He hated the feel of the crib sheets on his skin and wouldn't sleep there, so the crib housed the stuffed animals waiting for their safari. But as my son grew, he didn't show the least bit of interest in them, and they remained caged there, watching. We never had a picnic under that tree either. Years ago, after he and his little sister had (yet again) knocked it over, taken it apart and rolled the PVC pipe around the room, I posted it on Craigslist, and off it went, to grace some other nursery and linger in some other mother's daydreams.

Instead, my son loved trains, puzzles, computers and numbers. Rather than tucking him in at night with a furry tiger, he snuggled up next to a jigsaw puzzle of a train, carefully laid out and put together on his bed. We built more railroads together than Amtrak, and I learned more train lore than I ever thought possible. Well before he could speak (and words came to him long after his peers), he would type words (including "train," of course) on our computer. When speech did come, he used it to count the train cars he lined up across the living room floor, over and over again.

He was diagnosed with autism when he was three. Instead of taking imaginary safaris with a future member of Princeton's Class of 2023, I found myself taking my toddler to get brain scans and learning how to help with his speech therapy. I decided to quit my job and put any career I had on a semi-permanent hold. Our family finances faltered as we lost my income, while incurring new expenses for therapy and medical care for our son. And all of these struggles stressed our marriage.

This wasn't the happily ever after I'd envisioned. Getting a good job, finding a wonderful spouse and having kids together: suddenly those weren't the foundation of my happiness, they were so many cards I'd carefully stacked up to resemble a house. And I was watching them come tumbling down.

But when they did, I found that in trading jungle animals for trains -- in trading that ideal, imaginary career, and life, and family for this real one -- I didn't get something less, I got something different, and (unimaginably) something better. Life handed me a gift, I just had to be open to seeing it.

And this is where I think Susan Patton goes wrong, and where her critics go wrong as well. Happiness isn't inextricably linked to the partner we choose, nor is it linked to our career or our Princeton education.

I spent my life, at Princeton (and beyond), sharply focused on my goals -- on getting what I wanted. I believed happiness and fulfillment was the end product of a carefully calculated series of moves, of items checked off a list and each card neatly in its place, with the King of Hearts as the cornerstone. With that belief came its shadow: that failing to reach my goals meant unhappiness. And that fear drove me. In my misguided worry that it was somehow possible to miss out on happiness, I spent years assessing how each step I took might affect a future I could neither predict nor control. And I missed much of what the present had to offer.

It wasn't until I had my son that I really understood that happiness doesn't arrive in the form of items neatly checked off a bucket list. It isn't the product of success or proper planning. It doesn't lie outside of me, waiting to magically arise when all the circumstances align according to my plans. And unhappiness doesn't come from the failure to achieve my goals. If this were true, by every measure, I ought to be thoroughly miserable. I don't have any career to speak of. I don't have the family I planned on or the life I wanted. But here I am. Happy. In spite of how tenuous and beyond my control life, health and marriage can be, I'm happy.

This is what my son taught me, what I wish someone had told me at Princeton, and what I wish I'd had the confidence to believe back then: Everything will be ok. Even if you don't get what you want, it will be ok. Better than ok. I love my son and my life so much, I have to fight down a boiling shame to even admit to ever not having wanted exactly this. This moment, with all its turmoil and struggles and imperfection. Just this.

Life is messy and unexpected and out of our control, and the mistakes, the losses, the grief of life will come to all of us eventually. There's no avoiding that. We try our best to do everything right and still we tie our lives to the wrong person, we commit too young or hold off on commitment too long, we want to share our lives with someone but never find anyone, we break up, we lose the person we love, we leave. We're unable to have children, we have unwanted pregnancies, we have miscarriages, we have abortions, we lose our child, we have children with birth defects, cancer, neurological disorders, mental illness or just children who aren't what we expected. We never get that dream job, we lose our job, we get the job we think we'll love and hate it, we have to give up our careers... And yes, we mourn all these things that didn't turn out as planned or never came to be.

Then we grow. We learn. The mistakes, the losses, the missed opportunities, the grief -- they can break our hearts open and show us worlds we never imagined. They can transform us and teach us to face life with greater grace and strength. Then, rather than yearning for what we don't have, we love, appreciate, and see the value and beauty in what we do have. And happiness is right there with us. And everything is ok.


  1. Life is hard. No one talks about the "what its". Unlike you, I never plan. Never consider tomorrow. It drives my family crazy (that means my mother and sister). I started my family at 19 and just took one day at a time. Now 23 years later...6 kids ( 3 biological and 3 step, but all the same in my heart) I wouldn't change one difficult, amazing, or beautiful moment! Hopefully my children will choose somewhere in the middle though....a little planning...a little spontaneity and lots of happiness!!

  2. I feel like I could have written this blog post -- the details are different, but aspects of the end game are the same. I applaud your courage in putting pen to paper -- I have tried numerous times, but have always held back, because my story is also my children's story and I've never been comfortable making their stories public.

    Now if only we knew how to bottle these experiences and share them everyone still wrapped up in the happiness == conventional success formula.

    1. Margo, so true! I love hearing people's stories, and the more stories I hear, the more I find that I can often relate to the journey, even if the details are different.

      And yes, it's difficult to navigate that dance that goes on between wanting to share one's own story and wanting to protect the privacy of the people who are part of that story. I agonize over so many aspects of that. In this case, I came down on the side of sharing, but there are many other stories about motherhood I know I won't be able to tell, because they're never mine alone.

  3. Amy- Your blog post reminded me of these words from an anonymous Civil War soldier. Every year I send this to my closest friends on Thanksgiving.

    From an anonymous Civil War soldier:
    I asked for strength, that I might achieve. I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey. 
    I asked for health, that I might do greater things. I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
    I asked for riches, that I might be happy. I was given poverty, that I might be wise. 
    I asked for power that I might have the praise of men. I was given weakness, that I might feel need. 
    I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life. I was given life, that I might enjoy all things. 
    I got nothing that I asked for, but got everything I had hoped for. 

    Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered. 
    I am, among all people, most richly blessed.

    Wishing you and your family every happiness.

    Very best-

    Susan Patton