‘Life,’ as the old cliché goes, ‘is what happens when you're making other plans’.
Clichés are clichés for a reason I suppose.
When I was in freshman year of high school (aged 14–15) we did a project called ‘Who Am I?’. I compiled a book documenting my past, my present and what I thought my future would be – right through to an imagined obituary.
My imagined future was as conventional as you'd expect from a girl who grew up in a small town, inexperienced and naive, with a conservative (small ‘c’), traditional upbringing. My dad worked in a white-collar job; my mother was what was then called a housewife and is now called a stay-at-home mom.
If I recall correctly, in my imagined future I married a handsome doctor, and had two beautiful children – one of each, a girl and a boy, of course. We were of course together to the very end. I had a career too (I can't quite remember what career I gave myself – possibly veterinarian, as I was an avid fan of James Herriot at the time). But the main accomplishments in my imagined future were marriage and family. That was the plan.
At around the same age, I tried to imagine what life would be like in the impossibly futuristic Year 2000. I would be 32, I thought, with awe at how OLD I would be, but I still imagined myself married with children, and maybe some career or other. That was the plan.
As I got older, I still imagined marriage and family, though knew I'd have to have a career as…something or other. I abandoned my veterinary aspirations when I realised I wasn't good enough at science. I was good at English, which I went on to study at university, but even as I graduated I had no idea what I wanted to BE. The plan became fuzzy.
I came to London after I graduated. I'd met an English boy on my year abroad and so I'd booked up a return to the UK, with a flight and a visa. That was the plan. But he dumped me months before graduation day. I came over anyway, and thought I'd stay for six months and then return to the US. If I'm honest, I also harboured a hope we'd get back together in the interim. That was the plan.
Of course, we didn't get back together. I lived a miserable few months first in his house, until we had an inevitable screaming row, in which he punched me in the face. I then moved on to youth hostels. After a while I got a part-time job in a bar for £25 a week, and then, at last, a job as a secretary, earning just enough to rent a room. At the bar, I met the man who was eventually to become my husband, and later moved on to a job as an editorial assistant, so thought I'd found both the relationship I wanted and the beginning of a career. Career, marriage, then at some point maybe two beautiful children (one of each). That was the plan.
I didn't go back to the US after six months. I divorced my husband. I don't have the perfect handsome husband or two beautiful children (one of each). Career-wise, I've been fired once, made redundant three times, and been unemployed a further three times due to fixed-term contracts coming to an end. My career in book publishing morphed into online publishing. And as I write, I have no idea what turn my career will take next. That was NOT the plan.
This is absolutely not what I'd imagined, either aged 14 when I did my ‘Who Am I?’ project, or aged 22 when I collected a diploma and boarded a jet to London. When I had to forgo a meal to pay for a youth hostel in London, knowing nobody other than the man who'd just hit me, and with no job, I was terrified. When I divorced my husband, I was terrified. When I first lost a job, I was terrified.
Yeah, the divorce – and much of the relationship leading up to the divorce – was hard. But when I came out of it, I gained a new confidence and appreciation of what I need and deserve. I'm still single, but there's plenty I enjoy about it, and I know that being in a relationship and having a ring on your finger is no guarantee that you'll never be lonely.
I don't have two beautiful children (one of each), or any children for that matter, but as I've aged I've realised I didn't really want them anyway, and thank goodness I didn't have any with my ex-husband. Marriage and children, which used to feature so heavily in the plan, have dwindled in significance to microscopic scale.
I lost some old friends along the way, but I gathered new friends. Those friendships change too, as friends pair off and start families, but I know and value the true friendships. They're friendships I may never have forged if I hadn't escaped the confidence-eroding claustrophobia of my marriage, or left one job to move to the next.
Being out of work sucks, but the move into online publishing injected me with a new enthusiasm, and it's something I never would have found if I hadn't been made redundant. Each loss of a job has always led onto something new and different and the novelty and the opportunity to learn something new keeps me motivated and happy.
Divorced, single, child-free and out of work at my age? Nope, it's not what I ever would have imagined (or chosen). But to quote another cliché, when a door closes a window opens. (When you think about that one literally, it doesn't really make much sense, but go with me here.) And I've chucked the plan out the window. I'm not panicked. I'm curious.