“These will be the best years of your life,” women who were the age I am now when I was a new mother, used to say to me. Those were the years I was struggling to feed my family and keep us in clothes on my then-husband’s graduate student stipend and what I could bring in doing odd (by which I mean strange) jobs that didn’t require a daycare situation. The years when I went to the grocery store and had to choose between milk and bread because there wasn’t money for both. When our only entertainment as a couple was playing board games with the neighbors in the same raft. (It amuses me now to remember our two most often played games were The Game of Life and Risk.) When my husband was away from home for long hours, testing his lab mice throughout the nights when the colicky baby woke up and I felt alone in the world far from home and cried just as hard as the baby did—each of us inspiring more tears in the other.
I thought, even then, their words were disrespectful, in their lack of acknowledgement of the struggle.
As I sat across the table from my mother Sunday morning, my breakfast long finished, watching her eat my “good, but not as good as your Daddy’s” scrambled eggs, I found myself thinking about that statement. Could I choose a “best years of my life”? The top candidate is still the Summer of 1976, when the new husband and I traveled around the country for three months in our tricked-out VW van without a care or responsibility in the world except to see and enjoy. We spent our savings, in retrospect a stupid plan given the coming lean graduate school years (we didn’t know then there would be seven of them, rather than two). But really, was it stupid, given that almost 40 years later I still consider it the only time in my life I would do over? And not for an opportunity to make it perfect, but because it was perfect.
But it was not sustainable, those three months. Real life has ups and downs. Perhaps with the perspective of time, we forget the downs—that is the only explanation I can make for those 50- and 60-somethings who said those hard years would be the best. But I don’t really want to forget the downsides. I’m not sure life can be happy if the possibility of rain, past, present, future, is not acknowledged. As a piece of art on my wall says, “Partly sunny with chance of cats and dogs.” Always.
Now people say to me that I am so lucky for this time with my mother, either because they were caregivers and it was wonderful (in their amnesiac moments), or they didn’t have the opportunity and are sorry in an idealistic way. Or maybe they had a different mother and a different relationship than I have. Or perhaps they think if they’d had the chance, they could have fixed the relationship. I think that’s what I naively thought.
It feels disrespectful, too. No one can know the sandals other people are walking in and we shouldn’t presume to. The people who say, “How are things with you today?” and want to hear the answer, whatever it is, are the ones who make me feel known and supported. Those who tell me how I should feel, make me feel bad about myself.
Will these be the best years? Not on your life. Will they be the worst years? No. I don’t believe in best and worst. Life is a body of work, with successes and failures, good decisions and bad, happiness and sadness, forward and lateral movement.
I’m kind of sorry for people who look back on their life and choose long gone times as “best.” It’s like they are always longing for a time past, instead of living the present. I understand. We remember the simplicity, the times when we are blissfully unaware of the bad stuff that is coming. But there have been so many bests. How could I not think giving birth was the best? Or watching my children play soccer? Or completing a graduate degree I never dreamed I could accomplish? Or the wonderful friendships that have graced my life? Or camping alone watching the osprey fishing over a placid mountain lake? Or welcoming a new grandchild into the world? Or creating two gardens? Or writing a novel in a month? Or making it possible for my mother to still be living in her home on the hill?
And how can I remember those times without acknowledging the pain of childbirth, the soccer injuries, the fact that I never really used my degree, that friendships come and go, that I had to leave the tent utopia and return to ordinary days, that two of my grandchildren are now far away and we hardly know each other, that I will never again see one of my gardens and someday the current one will return to meadow, or that I don’t know what to do with that novel, or that living with my mother is driving me over the brink?
Will I regret these years? No. But like all years, we can’t know how what we do now will impact our future. Like the round-the-country adventure, I anticipate both positive and negative impact. Like then, I made a choice based on what my heart was telling me to do. When I have listened well to my heart, I have never had regrets; even when the journey wasn’t what I expected nor the outcome what I hoped for.
We don’t get everything we want. There is no best, there is no worst. It’s all of a package. It’s called Life, and it’s a risky business.
“Not getting what you want is the trick to happiness, because not getting what you want forces you to appreciate what you already have. If you are always in a state of longing, you can never be truly satisfied” (“Happiness for Beginners,” by Katherine Center).
[As I complete this post, I’m eavesdropping on the people next to me at the café: “You can’t always be looking for something different in life than what you have.” And “You can’t wait to follow your passion, thinking you’ll do it later, when everything else is done; you need to do what drives you first.” I feel like I’m getting a life-coaching session just sitting here.]