As of this writing, I am sitting at my cubicle in the small ad agency I work at in the suburbs of Connecticut, sipping my second iced coffee of the day (it’s 11:30 AM), and focusing on anything other than work. I’ve been assigned to probably the worst client I’ve ever endured and, as an account manager who has never been as naturally good with people as most of her colleagues seem to be, dealing with the 2 AM phone calls and frantic emails has been taxing, to say the least. Every day it feels harder to just smile and agree, so I quietly get revenge by burning company money to online shop, look for other jobs, take long coffee breaks, and, now, write articles for personal finance sites.
I’m probably older than most TFD-readers, but hopefully not that much. I’m 34, which can feel very different for different people. A lot of my friends who still live back in the City (yes, I call New York “the City,” because that’s what people within 100 miles of it who have no life tend to do) are 34 and they feel like 22-year-olds to me. Many of them are unmarried or married and childless, going out when they want, working/quitting/applying for jobs they want, swiping on dating apps, seeing 11 PM shows of movies, and living a life that feels totally alien to me. When I go visit them for a weekend here or there, I feel like I’m in an episode of Sex and the City, as pathetic as that sounds, because the feeling of being able to go to a dinner and then a bar and then follow the night as it comes is incredible. I don’t have to race home to relieve the babysitter, or respond to her texts every 15 minutes, or even think about my daughter. I’m free for those precious weekends.
I don’t necessarily envy this life, mind you. I love my home, my husband, and of course my 6-year-old daughter, but I am often met with pangs of regret and envy when I call them from my kitchen island and get filled in on the exciting and ever-changing details of their lives. My life, save for a few things here and there, tends to be pretty much the same every day. I get up, get my daughter ready for school, drop her on the bus, head to work, work, come home, let off the babysitter who does the after-school shift, make dinner, do homework, put my daughter to bed, do a little on the elliptical if I’m lucky, cuddle up with my husband (and you can fill in the rest there). I have a good life, and I know that, and I try to remind myself “actively” — a word my therapist loves to use — of how lucky I am. But I find myself often incredibly bored, and wistful for the life I imagine I could have had if we’d stayed in New York, and hadn’t had our daughter so young.
The thing is, where I’m from, 28 is not young to have a kid — it’s actually kind of old! That’s probably weird, I know, but I’m from a conservative family, Catholic school in Northern Virginia, the whole nine yards. Most of my girlfriends were married in their early-to-mid 20s, and the only reason I didn’t follow suit with my husband is because we met when I went to college in New York, where I became “radicalized” as my parents often semi-jokingly say. He comes from a much more liberal background, and when we fell into a group of hip, progressive people at school, suddenly the path I thought I had to follow didn’t seem so completely set in stone. We could build a life together in New York without having to get married at 25 in some lavish wedding and have kids right away.
We moved in together a few years after college, much to the horror of my parents, but still didn’t feel any pressure to tie the knot. We attended wedding after wedding for my friends, and each time felt less in a rush. We both had a lot of ambitions (he worked in urban planning and I worked in the non-profit world at the time, which meant that we were both wide-eyed and underpaid), and we didn’t want to give that up. The first few years we lived together, an incredible amount of things seemed possible to both of us, and even though I knew I wanted to be with him for life, each year in New York made the pressures and expectations of my background feel further and further behind me. I remember sometimes having a distinct feeling of “I don’t care what my mom thinks,” which you have to understand was extremely liberating for me.
But, as you can probably guess by now, I got pregnant. I was just shy of 28 and felt utterly unprepared, but completely clear-eyed about wanting to have the baby. I had had an abortion as a teenager (which was much of what propelled me to moving to New York instead of going to Richmond, as I had initially planned all through high school), and I did not feel any kind of moral pressure to have the baby. I didn’t think this was “God’s baby for me” — mostly because I don’t believe in God — and I also didn’t think that my then-boyfriend would pressure me either way. I knew that he would completely support whatever decision, and that made me feel even more certain about having a baby at that time. I didn’t feel like a kid anymore, and I knew I was at a place in my life and with a person that it was the right decision, even if I had not prior to that point been in “mom mode.”
It became clear right away that we couldn’t afford to live in New York if we were going to have a baby, so he took a job in Connecticut (that actually paid slightly better!), and I decided I would leave my job a few months before baby-having, since my maternity leave was going to be laughable anyway. We moved to Connecticut and set up in a little Cape Cod-style house, and I enjoyed the first six months of motherhood in a very relaxed and idyllic setting. Despite my parents’ initial explosion over us having a baby !!!OUT OF WEDLOCK!!!, they quickly got over it and settled into their excitement over being grandparents. They helped us out financially, and my mother came to live with me for a month to help me ease into everything. Frankly, even before I found out about the pregnancy, I had been feeling fed up with expensive, noisy, smelly New York, and at first the move to Connecticut felt ideal: I could train it in easily when I wanted to hang out with my friends, but escape the chaos and build a nest somewhere where everything wasn’t incredibly expensive and frantic.
By the time my daughter was six months, though, I was itching to get back to work, and we needed the money. My husband wanted me to work, too, as he knew my professional life had always been a big part of my identity. I couldn’t find any non-profit work, though, so after a solid three months of searching and calling every person in my very-very-extended network, I took a job in account management for a market research company. It was not my passion by any means, but I got to go into the City frequently and I had a good amount of responsibility, AND made over $65k a year. I excelled at that job and moved up, then over to the ad agency where I am now, and where I have enough autonomy to be not working at my desk (and working on things like this) for extended periods of time. I handle my shit. My professional life in Connecticut hasn’t been perfect, but overall I’d say I enjoy it, and have definitely made the most of what it is.
We talk a lot about moving back to the City, but we both know we never will. There are too many reasons not to, and now that our daughter is settled in her school and her friend group, it would feel wrong to take her away. I don’t have some depressing Sam Mendes movie suburban life, I’m not secretly drinking and taking pain meds and sobbing on the bathroom floor. I don’t want to over-dramatize the situation. But I am not incredibly happy with my life, and I know that a lot of the things I promised myself I’d do “one day” are likely not to happen, or at least any time soon — grad school, world travel, starting fresh in a new city, starting my own company, etc. My life is now constrained in a way I had never anticipated it would be, and so much of what I loved about my life before (primarily the freedom and openness my husband and I both had) has all but evaporated. I know that my life must be lived now with someone else as the constant priority, and I still feel that there is this spontaneous, irreverent 28-year-old inside of me who has been put on pause. I want to un-pause her and go live free in New York again, but I know I can’t. And no one could have prepared me for that feeling.
There was a fork in the road, and I chose the path that led me to a domestic life that I do love for what it is, but which inescapably can feel like a failure to me. I love my daughter more than life itself — I would lay down my own life for hers in a second — but I can’t say that I don’t sometimes wish she had come along later. I do sometimes feel a pang of regret at having had a child at 28, and it’s one that I wouldn’t vocalize to even my closest friends.
Mothers are taught to be grateful, and enthusiastic, and doting, and always talking about their children as blessings and gifts and the best things in their life. We are not allowed to express regret or doubt or even nostalgia for our pre-motherhood selves. If I were to say out loud “I regret having my daughter when I did,” people would assume I meant I wish I had chosen not to have her when I found out I was pregnant. That is not true, but it’s also an unfair question — of course I would not give up my daughter, but before I was pregnant there was no daughter. She didn’t exist, and could have not existed in another plane of reality. Almost no mother would say “I would have chosen not to have my child if I could go back,” but that’s an impossible proposition to answer honestly. Things happened the way they did, and there is no going back, and you can feel that something is both wonderful and tinged with a bit of remorse. Life can be bittersweet, and so can having children. (One thing it has taught me for sure, for example, is that I don’t want any more children — the freedom of just having one is still significant.)
Financially, logistically, and personally, having a child was a choice I objectively wasn’t ready for, but I don’t think anyone ever really is. We made the best of it, as all parents do, and will continue to make the best of it. In a few years, when our daughter is between elementary and middle school, we will probably move to one of the other, more manageable cities that have caught our eye, and my life might feel more balanced and “me” then. I am not completely hopeless about my future as an individual, even if I can often feel like I’m drowning in the title of “Mom.” I know that I’m going through a particularly tough period at work, and it’s making my whole life seem more bleak as a result. But I do wish, regardless of all of that, that mothers were allowed to talk more about regret, remorse, or mistakes. When we are only allowed to express joy and gratitude, we paint a picture that is unfair to so many young women who are thinking of becoming mothers themselves. No woman in my life ever even hinted that it was anything other than “the best thing in their life.” Where I come from, motherhood is a sacred, untouchable thing, and if you are not extremely fulfilled as a mother, something is wrong with you.
I don’t think something is wrong with me, I think something is wrong with a world that doesn’t allow moms to be full people, or be honest about the good and bad of their experiences. I love my daughter with the weight of the world, but I wish I had become a mother later in life, when I had accomplished more and understood more about myself. Both of these things can be true, and both of them can be part of who I am. I don’t feel guilty or ashamed, I just feel human.
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