I’m not where I expected to be

By Caitlin Kelly

Caitlin Kelly (New York Times), Ryann Gastwirt...
Caitlin Kelly (New York Times), Ryann Gastwirth (Financial Times), Jose Lopez (New York Times) and Jeff Bercovici (Forbes) (Photo credit: Financial Times photos) Talk about unexpected! How on earth did my photo end up on the Internet? Jose is my husband.

I had a business lunch recently with a woman a bit younger than I. We both work for ourselves, battered survivors of the (most recent) recession, hanging on to long-term clients while seeking solid new ones, a combination we admitted can be exhausting.

We’re both married suburban home-owners.

Although we had never met, and knew no one in common, we felt comfortable enough to speak more personally.

“I’m not where I expected to be,” she said.

I sighed, with relief that she had said it, that someone else felt as I often do, that we could talk about it without self-pity or whining — but truthfully and candidly.

Where I live now, in suburban New York, one is expected, from birth onward, to be Very Successful. Those of us who live in apartments or modest homes, driving old vehicles and doing funky creative work with inconsistent incomes are very much the anomaly in a sea of corporate poobahs and tenured academics, like two of my next-door apartment neighbors.

I recently attended a backyard book party for someone I frankly envy: huge, gorgeous old house; her book an instant best-seller; a tiny, trim figure in a stunning new dress from Paris.

I admit, I find it hard sometimes, surrounded by others’ success in all the areas I’d once hoped for, to look at one’s own life with deep satisfaction and gratitude.

Yet I know mine is good: a loving second husband; a home we own and enjoy; friends, decent work, health, retirement savings.

I never was someone with a Set Plan. I married late, at 35, to a physician, so I basically expected to stay married, and to enjoy a life of growing material ease.

But the marriage was unhappy and brief. I was once more single, living alone on a very tight budget, for six years.

Here’s Niva, who writes Riding Bitch, on the issue:

Sometimes I am still shocked by where I am in life: a widow, former caregiver, film writer/director who still works a day job and barely scrapes by, at 42 years old. Not feeling sorry for myself, just stating the facts. Actually, I was reminded of the facts yesterday.

Before leaving said day job, whether next month or next year, I’m using my health insurance to get everything checked out. There I was with a new OBGYN, from whom I need a referral for a mammogram, getting thoroughly probed and questioned about my family, medical and sexual history. Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, the conversation found its way to a subject which I had not anticipated discussing, and inadvertantly brought up the reality of my situation.

“Are you thinking of having children?” the doctor asked.

“I’ve… thought about it,” I answered slowly. “But I’m not really sure what my options are at this point.”

Maybe, at any age, we’re all still waiting and wanting — something.

The long-time assistant to American artist Jasper Johns was recently charged with stealing and selling his works. One comment struck me as naive indeed as unrealized ambition is a powerful weapon:

“It’s crazy. Isn’t being Jasper Johns’s assistant enough?”

Then there’s Woody Allen’s newest film, Blue Jasmine, starring Cate Blanchett in a Blanche duBois-esque role, a Ruth Madoff character who’s plummeted from flying private in Chanel to living in her step-sister’s crowded, grubby walk-up in San Francisco. It’s a searing, depressing, reminder that hitching your entire identity and ego to wealth and power, especially someone else’s, is rarely wise.

According to this New York Times front page story, legal immigrants to the United States awaiting green cards face an absurd delay of 7.6 years.

Here is Angeles Barberena:

A supermarket is not where Ms. Barberena, now 56, thought she would be at this stage in life. After completing undergraduate studies in chemical engineering at one of Mexico’s best universities, she led a comfortable middle-class life in Mexico City.

But she left in 1995 with her husband, two small sons and a sense of desperation. A neighbor’s daughter had been abducted, bringing an epidemic of kidnappings within reach of her own family.

“I lived in panic because I did not have any way to protect my children,” Ms. Barberena said.

In 1996, her father, a naturalized American citizen, presented a green card petition for Ms. Barberena, his married adult child. And the wait began.

It’s an odd thing, this life.

We often grow up with such high hopes, even expectations, of who we will become and where we will live, the people we’ll love and who will love us.

Of our children, our home(s), our studies and travels and achievements.

(Who factors in the stumbling blocks of infertility, miscarriage, divorce, premature death? Grieving takes time and energy. It slows, or stops, our momentum. So do illnesses, surgeries and recovery, job losses and and protracted searches for paid work.)

We — naively — assume, or hope, we’ll earn and enjoy rising, unbroken income streams and good health, stunned and felled when one or both fail us.

We forget, or don’t want to imagine, that people we adore will die, sometimes very suddenly, tearing a hole in our world that no one else can replace.

Of course, as this blog post at key and arrow points out one can simply be content where you are.

Here’s a blog post by my mother-of-two-small-boys friend Sarah Welch, who runs her own company, Buttoned Up:

While still working, I’m doing it well outside the structured environment of corporate America. It definitely feels a little wacky some days. Technically, I think the actual description for what I’m doing is “Leaning Out.” Maybe even aggressively.

At least that’s what the 20-year-old-version-of-my-40-year-old-self thinks I’m doing. And she is deeply, deeply uncomfortable with it all.

My actual 40-year-old self is just fine thankyouverymuch. First of all, she begs to differ with her 20-year-old-version when it comes to the leaning out description. Um hello? Since when did sixty hours of work (even if you put them in at non-standard times) count as slacking?

As for marriage, kids, suburbia, and the unconventional job?

I chose them. Actively, willingly, excitedly, with arms-wide-open.

I want to be exactly where I am. Doing what I am doing. Downshifting, side- shifting, upshifting…whatever the current moment calls for.

Are you happy with where you are right now?

How much do you plan ahead — or wait for fate to dictate your next steps?

57 thoughts on “I’m not where I expected to be

  1. Jessica Slavin

    Reblogged this on like an apple and commented:
    Wonderful as usual, Caitlin Kelly describes my life and those of more and more people, it seems. And gives me a lot to think about. I am most definitely not where I expected to be, either. But what would my 20-something self think of where I am?

    1. Thanks!

      I think we don’t have enough public conversations about this. People who have done “well” are set and anyone who feels disappointed or frustrated is meant to suck it up and blame themselves…when there are many structural problems built into the economy and policymaking.

      1. Jessica Slavin

        Yes. But as I was thinking about my own 20-something perspective, I think I would be delighted with the life I have found. It is more a disappointment to the 30-something aspirations that developed in and after law school. But, I grew up on a dairy farm, parents who hadn’t (then) finished college, parents later divorced and circumstances were even more difficult. So, I guess, so much is a matter of expectations. Your piece made me think about my expectations, what “success” means to me, what happiness is, etc. Thanks!

      2. Thanks for your comment — and reading!

        My husband has ascended to crazy heights professionally, (compared to those of his parents, who did great work, while local and poorly remunerated)…White House Press Corps, a team Pulitzer, a NYT job…

        I feel useless compared to the accomplishments of my family. 🙂 I wanted to write a book about the kids of famous/accomplished parents. Not all of them have risen to similar glory and it’s an odd burden not to.

      3. Jessica Slavin

        No doubt! So interesting to think about. My own parents were hippies when I was a child, and i never felt like law school was a good fit for their aspirations for me, anyway! But one absorbs the expectations of the community one inhabits/engages with, I suppose.

        FWIW, from where I sit, your life sounds dreamy. Even dreamier than the colleague’s you describe. Freedom and happiness and the presence of mind to enjoy them are awfully valuable.

      4. My work/life is generally good. I’d like a (much) higher income — like double or triple — and more challenging stuff to produce…cranking out 1,000 to 1,200 word stories for income is pretty dull. Which is why I enjoy writing books. If I got off my duff and chased down corporate and advertising work, I’d earn more.

  2. this post really hit home for me / i find myself, from time to time, thinking i should be in a different place by now. usually this happens just before a birthday; i turn 32 next week, so i am currently resisting the urge to give into this type of energy again. / it’s funny because i remember, at certain points in my life, thinking back & saying to myself, “if only i would have started doing this or that earlier, then i would really be something.” then, years later, i would reflect on that thought {ha!} & scoff at myself for thinking i was too old to start it THEN. it’s a pattern, & i’m happy to have recognized it, as nothing is more timely than NOW. i admire you & your friend’s honesty because i think many people feel that way from time to time & are often just too afraid to say it. there’s comfort in knowing that someone else, & a talented someone else to boot, feels this way sometimes, too. it reaffirms that contentment doesn’t come from achieving another notch up in success; contentment is found in present circumstance. thank you for writing this!

    1. Thanks…I suspect many of us feel this way but it’s a difficult thing to admit to, or talk about. You don’t want to be a whiner, but there are times you think “Really? This is as good as it’s going to get?”

      The challenge is being content enough…I come from a family who have all achieved a lot, so we’re a driven crowd. 🙂

  3. Great post. Perspective is tricky, isn’t it? I am not where I expected to be. I have two special needs sons, both teenagers now. I just crossed my 25th wedding anniversary, an event that would never have happened if my sons weren’t so badly in need of a stable household. I am writing and publishing, so I do have an identity beyond motherhood.

    1. Thanks! Congratulations on managing and surviving such a tough ride. I have friends with sons who are autistic and they have been brutally honest with me about the costs of that, emotionally.

  4. It is too easy to expect the future to follow a linear path. The future’s design is more like Appalachian back roads meandering and climbing towards something interesting … maybe. For myself, I wished I’d felt a little more in control of the car and ended up here anyway.

      1. Definitely! Even unrealistic goals serve a purpose. My goal to ride in the Tour de France has taken me to great places, including a modest fitness.

  5. i am happy in my life right now, in most areas – still hoping for a partner to share it all with. i tend to be the watch what unfolds type of person, so i’m always amazed by what happens and the paths i find myself on.

  6. Apparently it’s part of social psychology (doing a course in it now) that most of us perceive ourselves and better/smarter/more efficient/etc etc than we really are. i.e. we’re optimists! And it’s true we don’t counter in for the possibilities of major setbacks in life.

    I never had huge plans for my life. I took it as it came but I certainly never planned on getting cancer in my 20s. And while I am so, so thankful for what I have now and where I am, I occasionally get the pang of jealousy too. Two months after I was diagnosed with colon cancer, a friend of a friend was also diagnosed. She was the same age. My surgery went wrong, I haemorrhaged and very nearly lost my life, took a long time to recover and then found that because of that poorly done surgery I had many complications which caused me to be in and out of hospital or the next 15 months. I had an ikeostomy bag on my stomach for this whole time… i was supposed to have it only for 6 weeks. The damage the surgeon done to my organs was so severe, I am now facing ivf just to fall pregnant and I am having trouble going back to work for my very frequent toilet habits. I am also facing a court case. While i did get married, we can’t afford a house or ivf.

    While this was going on for me, I watched this other woman have perfect routine surgery, she left hospital in 3 days, required no chemo, got married, bought a house and had a baby. I am happy for and I would never wish what happened to me on anyone but I do feel the pain sometimes of ‘why couldn’t have it been that straight forward for me?’

    Having said that, I am still so grateful every day. It’s amazing to see how far I have come even in the past 6 months! I have a lot of loose plans of where I would like to be going but right now, I leave it to fate… I am where I am for a reason. I tried to control for so long what was happening to me but it was futile. So now I am just chilling and enjoying the sweetness of a very simple and slow paced life with my new hubby!

    1. You make a powerful point — we are often so completely NOT in control of what happens to us, and all we can control is how we react. And you have been through some hells…I’m sorry to hear it. My mother has survived multiple cancers, so I’m sure she has had moments of this sort of question.

      That surgeon sounds like a brute. Very frightening.

      1. I like to believe that I have some control over my life… I hate to be too fatalistic but so often that small amount of control you think you have is really taken from you. And all you have left is how you react. I’m sure you’re mum has had those questions!

        That surgeon? I have recently found out that he made the same mistake on another patient recently. Cut the wrong vein. She was not as fortunate as me. She had stage 1 cancer and she’s dead. So I suppose it works both ways. That woman’s daughter’s and husband must be thinking ‘why couldn’t our mum scrape through with her life, like that other patient did’.

      2. Surgery is really frightening…the total trust we have to place in their skills. I am so sorry yours went poorly. I’ve had four orthopedic surgeries since 2000, including a total hip replacement in Feb. 2012. Fortunately, good results each time.

      3. Yeah I read before about your hip surgery. I never knew it was four though! We do have to put our trust in them and overall, they are freaking amazing. But yes, very scary also.

      4. Half plastic (made in Warsaw, Indiana) and half ceramic, made in France, and a titanium shaft that is now implanted in my thigh bone. I saw the X-ray. Holy shit!

        Took me a long time to get used to the idea of it. But the scar is now much less visible and I take 90 minute dance classes and have NO pain. After 2.5 years of daily pain, I feel human again, even with a “fake” hip inside me.

      5. Temporary? It’s a big life adjustment having a bag of poop glued to your stomach! Apparently the Queen has a permanent ileostomy.

  7. George (QW)

    I guess it all comes down to expectations, right? How much were you hoping to achieve and how true you stayed to the goal you set for yourself at 18. I always pushed myself very hard to get where I wanted to be, but one thing is for sure: ultimately, it’s not just about you. It’s about where you come from, your education, your social status, your health, your opportunities and last, but not least, your luck. Whether we like it or not, we live in a society that is not as flexible as it used to be some years ago.

    1. Very true indeed. The one thing I do not have, still, and would likely have made a difference here — a graduate degree from an Ivy League school. I have many of the other pieces, but in my industry in this part of the U.S. it’s expected, and very limiting not to have it.

      Social capital is another piece of this puzzle and a key one: who you know, not just what you know, and what they will do to help you.

  8. Funny, I had this conversation today with my husband. This is not what we planned…but did we actually plan anything…not really. Sitting there at our daughter’s First Day of School celebration Jim looked at me and said “Yeah, when we drove our daughter home from the hospital and we drove past the neighborhood school, I would never have thought…our daughter won’t be going there, she will be going to a small neighborhood school 30 minutes outside of Frankfurt, Germany.” It isn’t where we thought we would be, but it is the right place for us to be. And we are happy to be right where we are.

  9. It’s a good question. I had a plan, always. Absolutely none of it ever happened, not one single bit. And frankly THANK GOD. I’d have probably murdered someone by now if I’d become a lawyer (plan A) or doctor (plan B). As it is, I’m just a few years into a writing career that I should have started straight out of high school, if I hadn’t let a guidance counsellor’s warnings of dire poverty scare me away. Am I direly poor? I suppose so: I’m technically homeless! But then, I’m house sitting in a much nicer place than I could ever afford, not paying any rent, with multiple options for month-long stays with friends all over the world, and making enough to pay the Greyhound/plane fare since I’m not paying rent. Things could be a lot worse.

    My mother died at 45, having just started to come into her own. But she really was HER when she died, whereas before she’d always been someone’s mom, wife, sister, etc. There are worse goals than simply to become one’s self, one’s true and best self.

  10. I think I am close to where I expected to be, but I didn’t anticipate the route I would take to get here. And it took me longer than I expected as well. So maybe I am now where I thought I would be 10 years ago.

    I suspect I really plan about 20 years ahead. Then I expect to keep making readjustments. The basic process is to set an overall goal, and then just make smaller choices that seem designed to move me in that general direction.

    1. I think life is like sailing….you can set any course you wish, the wind, weather and currents may work against you. Then you have to tack…the route is longer, but you do get there…eventually. (Can you tell I’ve done a lot of sailing?)

  11. Interesting post Caitlin. Well, I’m happy with my life. Hubby who loves me. Great kid. Nice family. Sort-of relaxed life. I think where I begin to get unhappy is when those people outside the area where I live come here and judge our lives based on their own materialistic viewpoints. And I begin to feel a little less confident of our cute house, and cute, lower-stress life because if our house doesn’t look like it’s out of HGTV, and since I cut my career short and don’t have some fancy title and income anymore, and we aren’t driven by the same keep-up-with-the-jones motivations others in Metropolitan areas are, something must be wrong with us. My husband and I made a choice a few years ago: lower house payment or nicer house. We chose lower house payment so our house will be paid off in the near future. We had a choice–he continue on VP track and never be around? Or do something more Manager/Director level. We chose the latter so we could actually see each other. I had crazy busy traveling corporate job? I chose to stop when I was making 50% of our salary because it was all too much. And it’s all good. But they are all choices and we are left there going. Hmmm, can we afford some fix ups on our house? How are we going to pay for school, not even college, but middle school! Am I ever going to have an income again? Is he going to be at this set income for the rest of our lives?

    But we are healthy! And we love each other! And our kid is being raised BY US! Not day laborers…
    It’s all a tradeoff, and even if we have what we expect, there are so many challenges to maintain it. And I’m not sure that woman who lives next door and has a best selling book and a great figure and beautiful house is all that happy either….you never know what her tradeoffs have been….

    1. Good point.

      I wish there were more public — media/TV/radio/blogs — conversations about people who have made deliberate choices to live lower (income) for a higher quality of life, but who do NOT then only rush off to raise goats or eat kale on their organic upstate farm. I feel like people like you (and me) are an anomaly and, I, too, weary of people who have no notion that driving our crappy old car is a CHOICE and we get to go to Paris instead. Or I can work on stuff that actually matters to me intellectually rather than just cranking out a ton of shit (with a Big Fancy Title at a Major Publication) to make more $$$ to…impress strangers?

      I know the value of my choices — when my husband comes home (retro and I’m happy with it), the place is clean and there are fresh flowers and the bed is made and I can make us a really nice meal without feeling exhausted and resentful. Those are gifts we are giving to one another, our time and energy and attention.

      Good for you! Thanks for sharing this.

      1. “I wish there were more public — media/TV/radio/blogs — conversations about people who have made deliberate choices to live lower (income) for a higher quality of life” ….awesome project idea, I’ll bet you would do a great job w/this….we all have lots of stories we could share 🙂
        And yes, I know that stereotype well, there’s one of those goat farm/artisan cheese/organic kale farms along every corner where I live along w/about 10 “Healing/Holistic” centers…..

  12. ianprichard

    Man oh man am I not where I wanted to be fifteen, ten, five, even two years ago…

    I was visiting friends and family in New York the last several days, and had several conversational variations on this theme. Pretty much everyone I know isn’t where they thought they’d be, but almost all of them want to be where they are now. (Those that aren’t are the predictably and perpetually malcontent…) So much changes, so quickly and sometimes so drastically, and how well we accommodate and embrace those changes is the metric by which I (try to) measure success these days. Though it certainly is hard when that green-eyed monster rears its ugly head. Or when I flip through the TV channels. Or drive under billboards. Or or or…

    I have a hard time turning my life over to “fate,” but I do try to “stay out of the results” and “stay out of my own way” to the extent that I can manage it, which maybe is kind of the same thing? It’s funny – keeping my head down and just doing the work always ends up producing more results, and is actually more rewarding and far less anxiety-producing than constantly gauging my own progress against others and trying to arrange for my own success, but it’s always-always the harder thing to do. Like you open this post mentioning – it’s always nice to know there are other people struggling in the same way to make “making do” meaningful – so thanks for a great post in that regard.

    There’s a great This American Life on “Plan B” (no, not the morning-after pill), if you like TAL and have the time: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/205/plan-b.

    1. Love TAL…thanks for the link!

      It’s a challenge not to succumb to envy and we live in a culture that is all about the bigger/better/faster/shinier/newest thing (visible proof of your putative success) when we have NO idea, in fact, how it was achieved…Some people get a boatload of family financial support or have a super high-earning spouse or got a full ride through college/grad school and hit the ground running with a good salary and no debt…

      In choosing journalism, I knew I’d never have a $$$$ income, but those at the top of that game can easily make $100k+. That was then. In 2008, 24,000 journo’s lost their jobs. So much for that “plan.” 🙂

      1. ianprichard

        Yes, no matter how hard we try to control our own destinies, so many things can intercede. Nothing can remind us of our powerlessness so effectively as (inter-)national economics…

  13. Well! Talk about serendipity. I wrote a piece about Elmore Leonard yesterday and it brought back all of the memories of my writing days in Detroit, when I hobnobbed with so many wonderful, talented writers. I realized as I was writing my blog that I would give anything to have those days back, and that I must have been nuts to just walk away from what might have been a pretty satisfying career. Instead, I gave it all up to move to the far boonies. I thought when I moved here I would have the time and space to launch a writing career in a much different direction. I would write longer, more thoughtful pieces. I would write books. With the assistance of nature, I would be writing, writing, writing. I would never stop writing. It didn’t happen that way. I actually stopped writing anything meaningful for more than 10 years. I worked sporadically on a book I thought I might actually finish, but I never did.

    So am I where I wanted to be? I’m writing, which is where I want to be, but I make no money at it. None. I thought after eight years of writing blogs I would have been “discovered” by now. But here’s the thing: I live simply in a place so remote from the cities you would have to want to come here specifically in order to find me. I do, of course, have access to the internet and thus to the rest of the world, but I don’t have the kind of relationships with other writers I once had when I was in the middle of my small, relatively insignificant writing career. We were competitive, we supported one another, we were all part of a vibrant writing community, and we couldn’t help but work harder to make our mark.

    I’m 75 years old now–a fact I can’t get away from. I’ve been married to the man I love for 57 years. I’m happy in every other aspect of my life, but it sticks in my craw that the one thing I’ve always wanted–some remunerative recognition that I’m a pretty damned good writer–apparently isn’t ever going to come my way.

    I blame myself, of course. I quit when I was moving forward. I suck at marketing, and I’ve never felt comfortable pushing myself. I’m also not particularly ambitious. The fire in my belly went out long ago.

    Another hurdle: I want to write what I want to write when I want to write it. I’ve written what someone else has asked me to write and I did it for money for a long time when I was a younger writer, but I’ve discovered blogging and I love the kind of freedom it gives me.

    My dream–still–is to be regularly paid as an opinion writer. I’m working on two books that will probably never be published, but I’m working on them and I love them and I love how I feel when I’m working on them.

    So as a writer, no, I’m not where I wanted to be. Sadly. no. As an older relatively healthy woman living in a beautiful place with someone I love–oh, yeah!

    1. Thanks for being so candid.

      You make a powerful point about the very real value of having a writers’ community. I pay a high price $$$$ wise to live 40-minute drive from NYC: taxes; maintenance on our apartment, (more than $800/month, and more than some people’s mortgages on very large houses elsewhere); $8 toll to cross a bridge one-way. etc. But I just spent 8 hours at an all-day NYC writers’ conference meeting 5 new-to-me-editors, and a writer who knows someone who writes for a Very Big Magazine and will introduce me to him…I think a truly ambitious career requires a strong and growing network.

      I write a lot of stuff for the income. I enjoy my work, but my books offer the greatest intellectual challenge and statement of my values. So, yeah, you have to be flexible. Or you have to pay the price of not having been….?

      Time to get those books finished! 🙂

  14. Jamie Fleck

    Watch out!! The middle class is going to get you!! (Or in this case the upper-middle class) Despite what corporations and banks and advertisers want you to think, materialism is not the answer. I find it dismaying that we live in such a materialistically abundant and morally void world where there is little genuine interest, compassion or humanity. Focus on your successes and not your failures and you will see you are quite an accomplished lady indeed!

  15. Yes I’m happy with where my life is, there are certain things that I’m changing but in the over all I’m happy. That said, I was going to summarize how I went from aspirations of become a Biologist to where I am now, and then I realized the question of Am I happy and how much do I plan ahead were really lees important to me than the question of Am I passionate about what I do and if it all ended tomorrow would I be happy with how a far I achieved and with that the answer is yes. I would be sadden because I would not be able to do more (in so far as the way I’d done to date), but I would have no real regrets with where my life went…

  16. Ms Mond

    I always let “fate dictate” because everything came really easily to me, but then I took the ease I find in academics for granted and screwed up my final exams, meaning I didn’t meet the requirements to get into college.
    Not very cheerful, at any rate 😛 So the unhappiness with where I am now has made me realize that is is important to plan ahead to avoid getting into a mess.
    I can really relate to what you say about the unpredictability of life, be it for career or health – my boyfriend unexpectedly got admitted to hospital yesterday and although he’ll be fine, I’m beginning to discover that life can be a very twisty road.
    Hope I didn’t ramble too much, but I mean it as a compliment that your post evoked a lot of thoughts in me! 🙂

  17. Pingback: Tradeoffs « A Fit and Focused Future

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