For a while there I was an early bloomer. I finished college a year early and got married two weeks after graduation. By the time I was 24, my husband and I had graduate degrees and jobs, owned an apartment, and were getting ready to start a family. I was leaping over your classic American middle-class milestones as if they were the 100 meter hurdles.
Then my brother died by suicide, and it was as if someone dropped Mount Everest onto the track.
I quit my job and got a new one. Then I quit that job and got a new one. Then I quit that job. I still wanted to have children, but my heart was torn open raw and, honestly, I wasn't sure that I should. I wondered whether my own history of depression meant that I wasn't fit to be a parent. I worried my potential offspring would inherit my crooked genes. And, most of all, I feared that my years were numbered, that the same ocean of anguish that had engulfed my brother would pull me under, too.
Meanwhile, all around me, friends and family were still running. My husband and I were invited to weddings and baby showers and housewarmings. Holiday cards turned into piles of smiling family photos and letters detailing activities and adventures. It seemed that every year everyone had racked up a stack of accomplishments. Everyone had gained ground.
I, on the other hand, was still working toward base camp on Everest. This, I realize now, was also an accomplishment. Each day that I got up and faced, each day that I survived, was a victory. It didn't really translate to a holiday card, though. (Merry Christmas! This year we are...still alive.) And the work was so subtle, so slow, that I felt like I hadn't budged an inch. Eventually I realized I wasn't on Mount Everest--I was on Mount Grief. And Mount Grief, it seemed, was made of quicksand.
Still, I continued to look to the future. Surely I would conquer this mountain before I turned 30. After I turned 30. Before I turned 32. 33, at most.
Yesterday I turned 35. My book is being published and I am finally expecting a child. In some ways it looks like I've made it over the mountain. In some ways I have, and it's wonderful and I am grateful. But I am also aware of the mounting pressure to reenter the race--and that's something I don't want to do. As painful as it was to feel so removed, so stagnant, there was freedom in not comparing myself to others (when I could actually manage it). There were pleasures and joys in a life that wasn't driven by the usual markers of "success." Part of me wonders what it would be like to blot out that slow-motion decade and dive back into the sprint. Most of me knows that it wouldn't be any easier or make me any happier. And all of me knows that it isn't possible or advisable. Why would I want to work to forget everything I've learned? If anything, I'd like to work harder to remember.
The expectations are still there. The anxiety about lost time is still there. The hope that I will never have to climb a mountain like that again is a nervous bird trapped in my chest.
But when I stop to think about it, I'm a much better climber than a sprinter. And that's not a bad birthday gift. Not at all.