Whether you realise it or not, your life is unfolding according to a script that was written before you were born. If you’re a woman born in a Westernised country, the story arc mapped out for you probably looks something like this:
Go to school!
Find a job!
Buy a house!
Indulge your grandchildren!
Like it or not, that’s the way our peers, communities, and even our governments expect our lives to unfold. When you’re at school or college, you’re told to study hard and not get distracted by boys. Then some time around you’re late-twenties you start getting chastised about not having found a husband. God forbid if you’re much over thirty and haven’t had a child. Married? Everyone will want to know when you’ll start having kids. And by the time your first-born starts walking, you’ll probably already start to feel pressure to give her/him a brother or sister.
This script is deeply ingrained, cultural, almost inescapable. And for those who prefer improvisation to playing their role as scripted? Well, they’d better prepare to be panned by the critics.
Spinsters will die alone and get eaten by their cats
Childless women are selfish (even the Pope said so)
Old women without grandchildren are sad and lonely
Women who “put their careers before children” will regret it in their forties
It’s very judgemental, very unfair, and – if you’re one of an increasing number of women whose life doesn’t fit that mould – very depressing. Yet even within the big picture story arc outlined above, many of us find ourselves playing parts that we would never have chosen to audition for.
Take me, for example.
I was born just a week after my mother turned twenty, and was quickly joined by another three siblings. The role that I was assigned was that of the responsible one, the sensible one, the clever one. I studied hard at school and dutifully went to university without taking a gap year (sensible). Despite getting good grades (clever), I applied to the small university in my home town rather than the more prestigious one in the state capital because my parents couldn’t afford to help with my living costs until I found a job (responsible). I was accepted into a highly competitive graduate trainee program with the Australian foreign service (clever), and despite disliking it almost immediately I stuck around for nearly six years (sensible, responsible).
I was living a life that my parents and grandparents could be proud of, but it was making me unhappy. I was following their script, not my own.
Not surprisingly, I eventually rebelled. It happened when I was 27 years old and living rent-free at government expense as a diplomat in Vietnam. I had a couple of promotions under my belt, my own office, and was heading up a small team as I managed two sections of the Consulate-General. A successful diplomatic career was mapped out before me, but I felt like a fraud. This wasn’t who I was, or who I was meant to be. It didn’t feel right.
I’d been mis-cast.
Tearing up the rulebook felt liberating, and I was filled with anticipation and excitement about what my future might hold.
That was the first of many times that I quit a job and tried to ‘find myself’ (spoilers: the only thing I ‘found’ was how deeply ingrained my conditioning and how difficult it is to escape a typecast). It’s now been more than ten years since I first attempted to break away from the path that had been set out for me. There have been ups and downs. I’ve fallen back into old patterns only to wake myself up years later, deciding once again to pull out the typewriter and try to write my own script, trying again to take control of the direction in which I was heading.
Playing along with other people’s expectations seems like the easier choice. After all, it’s usually the path of least resistance. You won’t have to deal with as many critics. And you’re much less likely to face people telling you that your choices are wrong and that you’re selfish. But I’ve come to realise that there really is only one critic that you need to please. And yes *sound the cliche klaxon* that critic is you.
If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend Bronnie Ware’s 2009 article on the top five regrets of the dying. During her time as a palliative nurse, Bronnie listened as her dying patients reflected over the lives they’d lived. Her article summarises the most common regrets that she heard over and over again. And chief among them was the wish that they’d had the courage to live a life true to themselves, rather than conforming to the expectations of others.
Think about it. That’s powerful stuff.
I’m so grateful to Bronnie for writing that article, and to the many patients who shared their wisdom at the very end of their lives so that it would benefit those of us still in the middle. No matter your current age, now is the time to start thinking about how you want your future-self to feel on her death bed. Rather than being a morbid exercise, I see this as an opportunity for inspiration, to consciously choose the direction you want your life to take, and to live your life with purpose.
You don’t need to be stuck forever playing a role that someone else wrote. You can be the scriptwriter of your own life. It’s time to unwrite the rules that were set out before you were born, and decide exactly who it is that you want to be.
It’s time to be who you really are.
It’s your time.