Earlier this year, I went to Sacramento for a concert. I was meeting up with my high school friend Chelsea, but we hadn’t seen each other since we graduated. This was a band we had both loved since our school days, so I was grateful for the chance to catch up.
She had married at 18 and had two children. I hadn’t met them or her husband yet. I was excited to see her, but I wasn’t sure what to expect. Her life was drastically different than mine. At 26, I’ve only just gotten married, and I’ve been very vocal about not wanting kids any time soon.
I struggle with motherhood. I always have. I have a few friends my age, Chelsea included, who have married and started families. I never could have, not at that age. Between mental health issues, a struggling career and the existential fear of losing my agency to a small human child that must be constantly watched over, I am not anxious to become a mother.
In trying to mediate my feelings about the pressure to become a mom, I developed a plan — Doing Life Right™, I subconsciously called it. College, career, marriage, and then maybe kids, in that order. This plan became my failsafe. Over the last year or so, however, I realized how terribly judgmental it was making me. It also didn’t really work.
Since I mapped out my life, I’ve had to seriously grapple with how things never happen the way you think they will. I lost my job, and have struggled to find decent work since. I just got married, but I don’t feel nearly as put together as I feel someone who’s getting married should. I have no idea where my career is going. Whatever I thought I would be doing at this point in my life, this wasn’t it.
When I visited Chelsea and her family, I knew bits and pieces about their lives from social media, but that was about it. Chelsea’s unbridled joy was immediately evident. She excitedly asked me about my life, how things had changed since high school, all while playing with her kids.
She never shushed them, never brushed them off. She seamlessly included them in our conversation. In a messy house, surrounded by toys and Harry Potter stuff, I saw a woman whose children brought her enough joy to light a space station. As she breastfed her daughter while we caught up, I realized just how badly I had misjudged young motherhood.
I felt I needed to apologize to the young mothers in my life, and ask them how it actually was to be a mother in their early 20s. But the idea made me nervous. Some of these friends, like Chelsea, I hadn’t talked to in years.
Ironically, I was afraid of being judged myself. I reached out to another friend of mine, Brittany, whom I knew from my brief church days. Married at 20 with her first daughter by 22, she always wanted to be a mother, she told me.
But I would quickly learn that these two friends had their mental health struggles, too.
“I have struggled with anxiety my whole life and I never knew that’s what it was,” Brittany shared. “I just kind of clung on to (my daughter), and that identity of being a mother, like ‘OK, this is what’s keeping me here, what’s keeping me going.’”
A serious case of postpartum depression after her second child made her realize she had to prioritize herself.
“I had to kind of find myself again,” she said. “You can’t pour from an empty cup. (My children) deserve to have a mom who is happy, joyful and excited about their life.”
Chelsea shared how her own bouts with depression and anxiety made motherhood a struggle. Something shook loose when she quit her job to stay home with her son.
“That’s when it all came crashing down at me, that I’m actually very depressed,” she said. “I was having a hard time getting out of bed. I was having a very, very hard time sleeping.”
When her husband went away on a business trip, Chelsea realized she needed help.
“I had a day where I cried every five minutes. I realized, then and there in that week, that I need to see a therapist now.”
I thought hearing my friends talk about how their mental illnesses were exacerbated by motherhood would scare me off even more.
But it didn’t. If anything, knowing that both Chelsea and Brittany had gone through serious mental health battles and come out the other side made me feel more confident. Brittany shared that she’s even been able to help her daughter with her anxiety thanks to her therapist. That’s something I would want to do if I ever became a mom.
I apologized to them both for being closed-minded about their choices. Both of them were, in my opinion, far too forgiving. Brittany was quick to remind me that everyone can be judgy.
“We all do that. Even I do that, going, ‘Oh, that couple just bought a house, and that couple just went to Italy and had this beautiful vacation.’ But ultimately it’s not your life. It’s not your choice what is right for them. What’s right for you may be completely different.”
I thought that by Doing Life Right™ I would be saving myself from the pitfalls of what I determined to be an “unsuccessful life.” But a series of failures has made me readjust my thinking.
Hearing my friend’s stories made me realize how universal it is to adapt to whatever life throws at you, whether it’s losing a job or having a kid. None of us are doing life wrong. We’re just trying to make the right choices for ourselves.
“Parenting, it just happens,” Chelsea said. “And you just take it on the best you can.”