The Curse of Being Bound to an Image

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Jen Linfield Photography. Image links to source.

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Jen Linfield Photography. Image links to source.

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Sarah Henderson’s blog Feminist in Spite of Them. It was originally published on her blog on February 2, 2015.

It’s been over nine years since I left my parents and over time my perception of how much progress I’ve made in my life has changed many times, fluctuating between sometimes thinking I am doing a terrible job at being an adult and sometimes thinking I am doing well. Through some enlightening conversations I’ve had recently with my friend James, who is in my cohort of ex-fundamentalists, I’ve come to realize that in spite of everything that I re-evaluated and realized since I left, I missed a very important thing. (I am not going to say that I missed one very important thing because I am sure that there are other things I’ve missed as well.)

Here it is: we were raised to believe that there is a pre-set standard for what adulthood should look like.

I was given to understand that I should grow up and get married at age 18-21, give or take, and after that point I should be completely mature and adult. There would be no need for further growth or any further emotional development. I should have my spirituality completed settled and sorted out, and I should not be different in any way, other than age, from any other married woman who was, say 40  or 50 (the same message was given to young men, although it was gendered differently).

There is a small inconsistency in this idea because older people are assumed to have more wisdom if they are telling you something they think you should do differently, but other than that, young adults were expected to be completely mature.

To get a somewhat more rounded idea of what other people (who were not raised in fundamentalist homes) internalized regarding expectations of how adulthood should unfold, I have spoken to several other people in my life. First, I asked my husband Chris what messages he received from his family on this topic.  He was raised in a fairly “average” home, if there is such a thing. He said that he wasn’t taught specifically that he needed to have his life together at a certain age. Instead, his family taught him life skills that were needed. His parents have supported him and his siblings in making their different choices, and when something hasn’t worked out the way they were hoping, his parents supported them again in making new choices. His parents have shown me the same kind of supportive attitude, when I have had hopes and dreams that didn’t work out. They tend to meet us where we are at, and while they give advice and input, they only show support to their adult children when they are struggling; they do not say guilt-inducing things, or say that they are disappointed in their children.

I also spoke to my friend Amber about her understanding of her parents’ attitudes about emotional and lifestyle development and this is what she had to say: her parents strongly encouraged her to start working early, to learn how to have a source of income and how to manage money. If she wanted money for extras, she needed to earn it. She was also strongly encouraged to go to enter some form of higher learning (apprenticeship, college, etc) right out of high school; her parents felt that this was a good idea to avoid becoming involved with other things instead of finishing school or an apprenticeship, as it is more difficult to finish pursuing such goals when you are married, have a mortgage, or have children. Her parents demonstrated what a good relationship should look like and what to expect; but they had no expectation that their children should have a partner at a certain age or have kids at a certain age. Her parents also taught her and her brother that women should be respected, and are equals, and encouraged her to be independent. She says that it was expected that she wouldn’t settle for anything less than a partner who treated her as an equal, showed her the respect she deserved, and loved her more than anything else.

In terms of emotional maturity Amber and her brother were able to go to their parents for anything, and her parents expressed that they felt that it was their life duty to look after their children, even now (Amber’s brother is now in his 30’s). Her parents have modeled for her that even parents don’t need to be independent, allowing her to see their vulnerability in a safe way. As Amber and her brother have gotten older, they are there for their parents for support and advice sometimes, when applicable, as well as their parents continuing to support them,  Her parents encouraged her to understand that there are life stages and people change and adapt over time. They encouraged her to take her own path, and made it clear that if her chosen path was to change, that would be okay too. She said that above all, the message she received was that she should pursue what she wanted. I asked her if, in her experience as part of society (in a secular “average” household) this is a typical message for young people to receive, and she said that within her circle growing up, and other people she has known since then, it appears to be typical.

In a recent conversation with one of my sisters, we were talking about her life plans and I asked her when she thought she should have her “stuff” together. She told me that she figures she should be well on her way with her life plan by 21. She has a pretty good idea of how the next 8 years should unfold, and strong expectations about what she should accomplish in that time. When I was 20, I thought that by the time I was 25, I should have my career down pat (which was still ironic for me at that point in time since according to my parents, there was no intention for me, as a woman, to have a career at all), and I should certainly have everything in my head settled and sorted by the time I was 25. I have struggled quite a bit with certain things since leaving my family, but I believed there was a deadline for dealing with those issues.

I thought that I should have the perfect relationship, which would turn into the perfect marriage. I thought I should sail smoothly through school and within six months, I should land a good job and get established in my career. I should start a family and never struggle with my past issues again. Overall, I have a good life, things just haven’t all worked out quite as smoothly as I thought that they would, if I tried hard enough. My career hasn’t taken off quite the way I was hoping. I struggled a lot with feeling ready to want children, because of what I went through a child. I was talking to my sister Natalie about this, and she pointed out that when our parents reached this age and stage in their lives, they chose Patriarchy and Quiverfull ideology, rather than sticking it out and trying to succeed in the 80’s when professionalism was taking off for both men and women. (Note: I feel comfortable saying that my parents did not succeed, since both of them have been unemployed for the greater part of the past 30 years).

The pressure that was put on me to have children, by my parents and the ideology they adopted, has also contributed to feelings of failure as an adult, as I am now 26 and do not have children.

I made a difficult decision to share this next bit on my blog, because I feel that it is not talked enough about and I feel that hearing about this may be good for others who have gone through the same thing as I did. I decided last summer that I was ready to have children. My husband and I had been talking about it for several years, and I finally felt like I was ready to take that step. So I went off birth control and we started trying. In October, 2014, I got pregnant, but by December I had a second ultrasound that showed that I had miscarried. That didn’t fit into what I thought my life plan should be.

Having the miscarriage brought up a lot of pain for me, which meant that I had to face that I hadn’t wished away my struggles from the past. I have a lot of painful memories from when I was a child. My childhood memories were linked to the idea of having my own children in a way that I think is reasonable. I get triggered by things sometimes, which is difficult. I had this idea that I needed to put those feelings and memories aside, and move on in my head. I am not talking about healing, I am talking about forcing it away. And I really tried to do that. I wanted to. I wanted to live a life where the things that happened to me, didn’t happen. But that’s not true, that stuff did happen. I survived. But not without scars. There is still some pain and some struggles. Some bad days. And somehow, that is okay. It’s sad that I had a miscarriage. But there is lots of time for me to heal from that and move forward.

I’ve come to realize that people I know, who weren’t raised like I was, think that it is okay to start their lives out slowly and work their way up to where they want to go. They think that it is okay to be more mature at 25 than they were at 20, and to be more mature and established at 30 than 25, and more mature and established when they are 40 then when they were 30. To see life as an unfolding story. Not one that you have to finish writing by age 20 or 25.

This is the curse of being bound to an image of what your life should look like. I am shocked to have realized at age 26 that I had never re-evaluated my feelings about my life path and the messages that I received about it. I have re-thought so much, and somehow I missed this huge piece of what life is all about. But it’s not too late. I hope that by sharing my husband’s and my friend’s thoughts on their parents’ attitudes, I can show that not everyone thinks this way. It is so easy (and so frustrating) to feel that you have gotten all the way out of fundamentalism but still be hanging onto an image or a timeline of how your life should be, that is not based in reality or has nothing to do with what you want in your life.

Discovering who you are and what you want, and pursuing that for yourself, is such an essential part of the human experience. It’s too big to miss out on. It’s still important for me to be functional. I still want to keep actively pursuing my goals. But I am going to let myself of the hook a little, and not count set-backs at 26 as a sign of global failure in my life. It just means that I am so much younger than I realized.

I have so much more time than I realized. There is lots of time for success. 

4 comments

  • This resonates very deeply with me. I don’t know if I would call how I was raised or how my parents believed “fundamental”, but I guess it does fit the grand scheme. I was raised by older parents…my father was old enough to be my grandfather and my mother is slightly older than most of my peers’ moms. By the time we hit our teen years, we were being asked what we wanted to do with our lives. They didn’t confine us to babies or husbands, but they did encourage us to have a solid plan. So I did. Very concrete, very well thought out. Well…I met my first husband and that plan got changed. It became another, different, concrete plan. That one didn’t work out either. At all. Now here I am, 37, divorced, remarried, back in college and step-mom to a 20 year old young man. I have a very hard time with his lack of (what I consider) direction. There is little to no plan. What little there is, is sketchy at best and he has no true idea on how to accomplish said goal. He just knows he wants it because he sees someone else living a life that he thinks looks good.

    I actually panicked after I turned 30. I began to fear that my life was slipping away from me and I had no time left. I mean, panic attacks, crying, freaking out, rushing to hit any short term goal. It’s very hard to shake old ideas and habits, but I’m actively trying. Thankfully my husband has a very “let it be” attitude. He allows things to play out the way they will. The fear is not gone, but it is diminished considerably and that in itself is an accomplishment.

  • In their quest to help their children, parents make an awful lot of mistakes. I have children who are grown (whatever that means!) and some still in high school and below. Some of them knew what path they wanted to take and some are still figuring that out. We try to support and encourage them in figuring out what is best for them. We do try to encourage them to go into fields that actually have employment opportunities though. Yes, I have daughters who would like to be married, but the right guy hasn’t come along yet. They have careers which provide good income and future prospects. If you ask them if they have it all figured out, they’d say, “no”. I do not understand this idea that anyone could possibly have life figured out at age 20. Yes, he or she should be working at something, going to college in most cases (but not all), and learning. I thought the homeschool movement was about helping encourage lifelong learning. I’m over 50 and there is so many new things yet to learn. Books to read. Places to visit. People to meet and develop friendships with.

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