Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Wasted Youth... or Not...

I've known what I wanted out of life since I was 16. I wasn't exactly sure how to get there, because my career – which is usually a fairly cut and dry thing to achieve – wasn't important. I didn't care about seeing the world, or partying, or “making the most of my youth” like so many people. No, what I wanted was a husband and children. That's not something you can make a plan for and just follow the steps until you get there.

I knew I wasn't going to get it right away – after all, I was 16 when I figured this out. I decided school and work could take precedence for a while, until I found the right person and we decided the rest of it together. But I was never shy about sharing what I wanted, and I got the same kind of response from almost everyone who heard me.
You've got plenty of time. Don't be in such a hurry!
Have some fun first! Travel; see the world before you settle down.
I love my kids but I wish I had waited longer before having them.
Don't waste your youth like I did!
Those responses always made me angry, because I was sick of people assuming they knew what would make me happy better than I did. It has been 12 years since then, and I am still unmarried and without children – but not because I decided they were right. No, if I had met the right guy at 18, or 21, or any of the other years in between, if we had settled down together and started a family, I wouldn't regret it. I would be thrilled.
The truth is that I don't have those things yet because I've been responsible. I wanted a husband and children, yes, but I wanted to do it right. I still do. I could have slept around, and not used protection, and gotten pregnant when I was a teenager. That's pretty easy for a girl to do, and fun, too. I could have gotten a guy to marry me, if I wasn't picky about finding the right guy.
But when you know what you want, you know how you want it to happen, and I knew I didn't want to marry the wrong person and end up divorced, single parenting all those bundles of joy. I didn't want my kids to all have different fathers. Maybe it works for some people... but it's not for me. And I knew that when I was 16, just as I know it now.
It's been a while since I've heard those platitudes, since I'm now 28. I'm a lot more likely to hear that I shouldn't wait too much longer (which is also stupid, because if I could have had it all by now – the right way – I would have). But I heard that last one – don't waste your youth like I did – in a song I was listening to. It brought back all my old feelings about that statement, and I realized there's a lot more to it than people arrogantly assuming I don't know what I want for my life. The big problem is that those kinds of statements sound incredibly selfish.
People who refer to settling down young as wasting your youth are basically saying that having fun is more important than having a family – at least while you're young and have energy. Don't waste your energy on those tiny human beings, no! They don't need your attention the way Las Vegas does. Or Italy. Or Mexico. Those are much more valuable things to spend your energy on. Not.
It also implies that having a family isn't fun. I know that having children is hard work, and life is certainly simpler without them. But I also know that being with children gives you a special kind of joy that nothing else in the world can equal. I know that tickle fights and story time are fun. And I know this through other people's children, so I can only assume that when you're sharing those moments with a sweet little child who grew inside you, the moments are even more precious.
I'm sure some of those people meant to say, “get settled so you can provide for them better.” Or perhaps, “give yourself time to mature, because parenting is hard work.” But even those kind of irk me – because it's clear that they didn't take who I am into account when making those statements.
I started babysitting when I was 12. Every job I ever had was taking care of children in some form or another, and in all different situations, too; typical children and special needs children, individually or in groups, organized activities and free-for-all parties. By the time I was 18 I had more experience with children, and more knowledge about how to care for them, than most of the parents I meet who are having their first child at 26, 28, or 30. I had been CPR and first aid certified for years. By my early 20s I knew how to install a car seat properly, I was taking my Montessori training, and I was well-read about such topics as breastfeeding and positive discipline. Yet I was still hearing those words.
I know that those pieces of knowledge are exceptional to have at those ages. I know that, to many people, that rarity is reason enough to say those things – because I am the exception, not the rule, when it comes to wanting a family when you're young. But who else are they saying that to? How many other people really do know what they want, and whose self-knowledge is constantly being belittled?
And when did having children become a waste of time, at any age?
This is the exact opposite of what women used to hear, by the way. Having a career was, at that time, a required second to the family – if it even showed up on the radar at all. It was perfectly acceptable to be a homemaker and never get any kind of outside job, and a woman who put her career first or never even had kids was considered very strange. Lesser than those who followed the norm. Now it's the exact opposite. I say, stop telling other people how to live their lives.
No one knows what life path will make someone else happy. It's true that we don't always know, ourselves; that life throws inexplicably wonderful surprises at us, but each individual has a better chance to know what will bring him happiness than any outsider ever could. So instead of trying to control someone's choice, help them see the variables so they can make an informed choice and weather the challenges. That's how you can really help them.

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