When I was young, I had plenty of expectations for how my life would look with kids. I’d be married, of course, but only after establishing my career because I was raised in the ’90s — Girl Power, abundant. I’d meet Prince Charming in a West Village coffee shop, or a book store, or in my New York apartment building, and we’d date for awhile. (He’d be super successful, of course.)
And then when I worked my way up the ladder — independently, fiercely — and all of the vacations and lazy Sunday brunches had been done, we’d decide to have kids.
Which we would, two in succession. We’d get a dog. We’d live Happily Ever After. The End.
That’s the narrative, right? The narrative we grow up believing as right and true. As I got older, more storylines were added in — like having a 401K, owning a 3-bedroom home, starting a college fund, being able to afford $1000 strollers, and feeling “ready” to jump off the motherhood cliff.
Five years after my world was rocked with an unplanned pregnancy, I’m calling BULL.
There are alternative routes to be happy, to understand life, to be a good parent. Life isn’t as black-and-white as the world I imagined for my adult self. Here are six examples of things I assumed I needed before having kids, and why it’s all bologna:
1. A Marriage Certificate
I understand that religious and societal expectations can cause a heavy weight of guilt and disappointment for having a child “out of wedlock,” but my goodness, are we all ready to retire that phrase yet?
A marriage can be a beautiful foundation to start a family, but we’re starting to realize that non-traditional families can be just as happy and healthy as the nuclear union. Maybe it’s because the Internet has opened us up to stories beyond the central narrative, or maybe we’re all collectively waking up to the unnecessary standards we’ve been propagating for centuries. Whatever the reason, it’s time to stop making people feel bad for living their lives out of the normal and expected order.
You can raise your child in a loving two-parent home without that signed legal document — plenty of people do. You can have a child (or several) and then get married years down the road. You can even get married while you’re pregnant, if you so choose, without any shotguns held at attention. And yes, you can be a single parent and do it with flair and love and happiness.
Forget the statistics and standards. You can find happiness from a multitude of routes, with or without a marriage certificate in your filing cabinet.
2. A Checklist of Accomplishments
(ahem) Having kids shouldn’t stop you from continuing to accomplish personal goals and success because YOUR LIFE IS NOT OVER AFTER HAVING KIDS — despite the message that society has been peddling for years. You don’t have to give up your interests, your career, your style, your ambition, or your dreams. Motherhood doesn’t have to symbolize the closing of one book and the opening of another. Instead, it can be a momentous milestone within the same story — shifting your perspective, refocusing your goals, and making your accomplishments that much more meaningful.
Here’s another secret that new moms seem to forget: In only four or five short years, your kid will be in preschool/kindergarten, giving you a full day to work or focus on yourself. You don’t need to accomplish all the accomplishments beforehand; how boring would life be, if you did?
3. Savings, Funds, Stacks ‘O Cash
When did financial security become a prerequisite for good parenting? Finances can grow over time, and don’t our well-established grandparents have hilarious stories of one-bedroom apartments and “making it work?” Of course no one wants to struggle, but there’s something to be said for children watching their parents build a life from the ground up. Tenacity, resilience, a strong work ethic — these are important lessons.
Despite what society says, you can continue to build your life after kids — just at a different, and more purposeful, pace.
4. A Booming Career
I’d been programmed to believe that smart, successful women shouldn’t have kids before reaching a certain career status, but there’s another theory out there: For those of us who had kids in the pre-Executive phase of life, it might be smarter to slowly build a career while raising kids (and research shows more women are finding flexible solutions via the Internet), and then once the kids are grown (or earlier, even), kick into high gear. I’ll only be 40 when my son turns 18, giving me an advantage over the other 40-somethings taking time off for dance recitals and maternity leave and sick days.
Bottom line: There are no rules. Design the life you want, as it best fits.
5. A Sense of “Finding Yourself”
I recently wrote a piece about this for Babble, and here’s an excerpt:
Six years, one marriage certificate, and a heaping pile of life lessons later, and I finally realize that there isn’t one blueprint for “finding yourself.” (Pinterest images, be damned.)…Here’s the thing: We can find ourselves in a multitude of ways, spanning decades and lifetimes. We can find ourselves through struggles and dark moments. Streaks of clarity and motivation to change can come from unexpected places in unexpected ways.
And having kids is certainly a route for self-awareness and self-discovery.
6. A Plan
This idea that you can intricately plan your life is one of the most damaging lessons we teach our young people. Go to college, get a job, find a husband, have 2 kids and a dog, and live Happily Ever After … rarely happens. And yet so many think that if we’re good enough, smart enough, and work hard enough, we can have firm control over our destiny.
Except the world is rife with inconsistencies, unpaved detours, and sucker punches from the Universe. Having a set script and solid plan before having kids sounds responsible, but it’s more likely setting you up for massive disappointment.
Sometimes it’s the unplanned moments that teach us the most important unexpected lessons.
Sometimes we have to leap and have faith that it’ll all work out. (Because it almost always does.)
So, yes, it’s good to have a general plan, but it’s much wiser to be flexible and resilient.