hen I was 14, I watched Gwyneth weep her way through her Oscars’ acceptance speech in pale pink satin and knew in my bones I would one day be up there, too. A few years before that, my plan was to marry Canadian rock icon Bryan Adams and birth eight of his children, at least two sets of twins. At 26, I came home one day to find my boyfriend of eight years had moved his belongings out of our apartment, so I fled to New York to live wild and unhinged, beholden to no one, stubbornly single. Now, I live in the Boston suburbs with my professor husband, and I dream of fertility treatments and maybe someday winning a MacArthur “genius” grant for the speed at which I can complete the Monday crossword.
Dreams change. Life upends us, or we upend life. We believe we have it figured out, and then the world sends us spooling off in another direction entirely. How do we adjust to the unexpected? How do we mourn the dreams we’ve lost? Below, three women and their as-told-to stories about dreams fulfilled, deferred and reinvented entirely.
Annie, On Giving Up a Timeline
I never had much career ambition growing up. I knew I’d have some kind of job, but the one thing I knew I wanted for my adult life was to have children. I think I was always looking for a degree of stability that I never felt I had as a child, and the idea of creating a nuclear family felt like the best way to do that. I also had pretty severe anxiety as a teenager around my own mortality, and the thought of having children was the only thing that calmed that, as weird as that sounds.
There were times when it felt weirdly traditional, this desire for children, especially when I was in university and grad school and around all these highly motivated women. But when all my very smart, very well-educated friends started getting married and having kids, it confirmed that this was what I wanted for my life, too — like it somehow validated my intense desire for a family. I was in a long-term relationship at the time, and I got very focused on our timeline. How long we did we have to get engaged and then get married and then be married and then have kids.
Then, my relationship ended. It was both sudden and not — we’d been having problems for a while, but I’d been so focused on fixing them until one day I realized I couldn’t. I was 32 and single, which meant the timeline I had been counting on was totally out the window. There was no way that I would be pregnant in a year or two unless I did it on my own, and I was starting to date and finding it much harder than I anticipated. I figured since I knew myself and knew what I wanted, dating this time around would be easy, but that’s just not the way it works, no matter what the self-help books say. I was only about five months out of that relationship when my dog died, so for a while it just felt like I was in this haze of grief, trying to keep myself afloat.
And then, about a year after my relationship ended — this is the only way I’ve been able to describe it, as cliché as it is — it just felt like the dust of the last few months settled, and I was able to look at my life for what it was without fear or shame or sadness. I was 33 then. Single. Alone. Really alone. And if I wanted to one day get married and have children, I realized that this may be the only time in my life when I would be alone, at least for a while. So, instead of thinking about how I could find a partner to fix my loneliness, I started thinking about what I wanted to do with all of that untethered solitude. I thought about where I would be the happiest and, at the same time, applied for a number of writing residencies. When I got into four, it felt like kismet. I could do the work I was discovering I loved, and even though I knew I still wanted children in the future, it no longer felt tied to a relationship. I figured that, when I was done traveling, I would start considering how and when I wanted to have them independent of my relationship status. I also talked to my parents and my close friends about the idea of having children on my own, and they were all in complete support. I think knowing that the people I loved were completely behind me was what made this new reality so easy.
I feel, honestly, more excited and more powerful than I’ve ever felt before. I think I’ve always resented the fact that I felt like I had to rely on a man to make this dream of children come true. Taking full control of that decision, deciding that I would have children in the next few years regardless, and separating that entirely from my relationship status felt very empowering.
I don’t mourn my old dreams. I think starting a nuclear family in my early thirties would have prevented me from prioritizing my writing career the way that I have in the last few years. If I hadn’t had that time to travel and meet other artists and to be inspired by the way they were devoting their lives to their work, I likely would have let writing fall by the wayside when I became a mother. Plus, I don’t consider finding a partner to be out of the question — it’s still something I very much want and am very much looking for. Depending on timing, that person may or may not be the biological father of my children, but that doesn’t mean my original dream of having a family is off the table.
Sometimes I feel angry that I have to make these decisions on my own, but we all have to face our innate solitude to some degree. Most days, though, I’m just awestruck by how big my life feels. I never could have dreamed that I would have this much professional success or that it would feel this good.
Maureen, On Giving Up a Linear Career
Recently, a friend from elementary school posted our sixth grade yearbook entries. Apparently, we were asked to finish the sentence, “In twenty years, I…” with whatever youthful dreams we had. Most people listed very specific futures for themselves, often with multiple moving parts. “I will be married with children and also a successful business owner!” or “I will be a famous actress on television.” My answer ended up being accurate, but 11-year-old me had set a low bar for herself: “In twenty years, I will be working.”
I don’t remember why I refused to indulge in youthful optimism, but with 20 years of hindsight, it’s a familiar pattern I followed for way too long: I was so afraid to fail at something specific that I decided not to aim for anything at all. I was the black sheep middle child, and my older sister was a nationally ranked soccer player. I actually remember really thinking about going in to politics as a career. I did Model Congress events and even went to a dorky summer program where we all pretended to be senators; we spent our days drafting bills and arguing in a conference room about funding. But I was just too embarrassed about my lack of tangible success to even imagine dreaming about something this big.
I originally went to Smith College and pretty haphazardly chose Latin American Studies as my major. I had spent some time in Honduras the summer before doing volunteer work, and I think, vaguely, I was considering law school for immigration law. I ended up dropping out; I was unfocused, and managing my course load just felt impossible.
Then I moved to Los Angeles and interned at an independent record label. I spent a year going to the same clubs as Paris Hilton (it was 2008; she was relevant). I have a solid repertoire of stories, like the time I yelled at Brody Jenner for misusing a Segway. Regardless, partying in Hollywood was not my dream and also pretty unsustainable, so I ended up moving back east, to Providence, Rhode Island.
I went to cosmetology school there, and although it took me two attempts, I got licensed as a hairstylist. Basically, this was something that my parents suggested to their directionless daughter who couldn’t manage academics. Although I liked doing hair and ended up being pretty good, it felt, to me, like giving up. I was 25, and I spent the next two years nannying and hanging out in the Boston DIY scene. I loved the flexibility: I had an online radio show, got to see my friend’s bands play late sets on Tuesday nights, and didn’t have to wake up before 10. As I got a little older, though, I started to feel insecure about my long-term career prospects. One thing I’ve felt distinctly over the last 12 years is a very class-based judgement about my lack of college degree and the types of jobs I’ve had. Being told I was “just” a nanny felt very much like an insult. I started to think about going into early education, but it felt like a pipe dream. I knew I would need to take college courses to become licensed, and I still had a mental block that I just wasn’t able to do that.
It was around this time that I got diagnosed with and treated for ADHD, which was huge for me. It helped me make sense of so many of my past decisions and fears, my inability to handle college, how I undermined my own potential, all the seemingly disconnected lives I’d been living. So when the kids I nannied moved into elementary school, I decided to apply to become a teaching assistant at a preschool. I now work at a non-profit organization that holds social-emotional development at the core of its teaching philosophy. I got over my fear of academics, got my teaching certification, and am now in my second year as a lead teacher. I’m currently knocking off some prerequisites so I can go back to school to finish my degree next year. I have hopes of getting a master’s afterwards so I can teach in public schools.
It’s taken me a long time to accept that there’s no other shoe waiting to drop; first there was the weird outlier of six months of stability, then an odd year of moving forward with my goals, and then suddenly three years had passed and I found myself knee-deep in a career I loved with a growing retirement fund and a supportive partner. I have more dreams about my future at 30 than I did at 18.
Sometimes I look back on all the previous iterations of my life and imagine what I’d be like if I stuck with them. If I hadn’t dropped out of school or left L.A., or if I still worked at a salon in Providence, what would life look like for me? I do struggle a bit with anger that I didn’t get treated for ADHD earlier because I wouldn’t have wasted so much doubting my capabilities; I look at what I’ve accomplished in four years and think about how much more I could have done in 10. That said, I’ve had a lot more life experience than many people I know and I don’t regret that at all. I think, ultimately, I’m lucky that I tried so many things out before I found the right path because I know for sure that I am happier and more fulfilled now than I have been doing anything else.
Diana, On Giving Up a Title
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a kid. I went into my undergrad program with strict dreams of becoming a playwright but left with a real love for screenwriting. I loved the freedom to fail the new medium afforded me.
After undergrad, I worked for a TV writing agency and then as a writers’ production assistant and writers’ assistant for the show Greek. I fell in love with the collaborative nature of TV writing — bouncing around ideas as a collective and then having a clear road map to follow when you go off to write your own episode. I was fortunate that the writers I worked with were all really warm, inclusive and kind mentors who were willing to read my work and took my thoughts into account. Not many writing staffs are like that.
Initially, I thought I’d meet my husband in Los Angeles. I dated A LOT. The truth is, dating in L.A. is rough: men are always looking around the corner for someone younger and prettier, and the older men pursuing me when I was in my early 20s were not living the life I would have wanted for myself when I imagined being their age. Dating in any big city can be hard, but also, your early 20s are such a messy (and fun) time of self-discovery. I think I needed to find happiness in my own life and discover my own self-worth before I could find a partner who could respect and match that.
Eventually, I became frustrated by a lack of writing inspiration and decided to move back to my hometown of D.C. to get my MFA with a focus on fiction and the personal essay. Those years in grad school, I felt so happy socially and creatively fulfilled. About a year in, I met the man who’s now my husband. At that point, I envisioned myself as a prose writer who could live and write anywhere. But a year after grad school, I really missed TV writing. It was 2012, that golden age of TV. That’s when I got my chance: One of the writers I worked with on Greek asked me to assist and then write an episode of his show Faking It, even though I’d been out of TV writing for four years.
So I got in my car and drove alone from D.C. to L.A., after being married a year, and lived in L.A. on my own for a few months. But between the first and second season, on hiatus in D.C., I got unexpectedly pregnant — my husband and I had just decided to hold off on having a baby because it would be harder to go back and forth for work. We decided to keep the baby anyway, to just go with the flow. I went out to L.A. for the second season about seven months pregnant and wrote my script while battling the nausea of a very challenging pregnancy. I would quietly leave the writers’ room to throw up every morning and stroll back in ready to get back to business. I was having a nice creative boost in that last trimester and LOVED the process of being in the writer’s room and script writing solo. I felt like I really found myself creatively.
Then, just as I gave birth and was getting ready to go back to join the show for the next season, the show’s budget got slashed and my husband got a job opportunity in Vietnam. It was another moment where I just had to go with it. We moved to Hanoi with our seven-month-old daughter. I still had this pipe dream that if I got a TV writing job in L.A., I would live there with the baby ,and my husband could stay in Hanoi. I was up for a couple staffing jobs and worked my butt off to come up with new scripts as samples but was repeatedly told by men in the industry that they didn’t think it was a good idea to separate me from my family.
After two years in Hanoi, we did move to L.A. to give me my shot, but my husband was traveling all the time for work, preschool for my daughter was so expensive, and any opportunities I had to write had seemed to dry up. After a year, we decided to move back to D.C. for good. Preschool is free, I have a ton of family nearby, and my husband’s professional life is here.
I’ve been working a bit as a freelance journalist and focusing on a new play. It’s been hard to self-motivate and frustrating to feel like I’ve had to close the door on TV writing just because I can’t live in L.A. or New York. I do keep a little hope that some writing project I do in the future may get optioned for TV or film and I could get back into the industry on my own terms.
I think I’m starting to learn that what I may have to do to pay the bills — working at a bookstore or driving Lyft (which I did in L.A.) — doesn’t have to be something that sounds impressive to other people. Even if I’m not working on a TV show, I’m still a writer. Writing is my passion and my profession, even if that’s not always the way I pay my bills. At this point, my family’s happiness is more important than how cool my job sounds at the next high school reunion.
Illustrations by Ana Leovy.