Last week, my husband put himself to bed at six o’clock with a bad cold. After the children were fed, cleaned, and tucked into their beds, I walked the dog, tidied the kitchen and family room, and then stood at the end of the island unsure what to do with myself. Should I pour a glass of wine? Tuck into dinner? Put on a TV show? Read a book? Putz around on my phone? It was disorienting not to have my counterpart present, weighing into every decision point — “Nah, I’m not hungry yet,” or “Let’s watch another episode of x” — and I found myself surprised by my own indecision. Those hesitations gave way to a sensation of indulgence. What did I want to do?
He was unwell again the next two nights and I found myself in the same situation, answering only to myself. It dawned on me, as I navigated this alien terrain of answering only to my own pleasure, that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt this way save for during trips to New York, when my husband i working during the day and I set my own agenda. But that feels exceptional, as it belongs to the other-world of travel. When it really came down to it, I realized that I’ve had one brief window of my life in which I “answered only to myself”: my first semester of college at the University of Virginia.
During that semester, my social network was patchy (I knew only a handful of girls from my high school class who had matriculated with me) and I was living two hours away from my parents. I was not particularly chummy with my assigned roommate; we were pleasant but private, neither of us beholden to the other’s patterns. I was cultivating bud-like friendships, but none so close that disappearing for a few hours, or a full day, in the library would lead to “…have you seen Jen?” or “where were you?” I would go on to join a sorority and cement some of my early friendships during my second semester, and everything would change, but — for a spell — it was a time when I could have gone backpacking in the Appalachians for a weekend by myself and I’m not sure anyone would have known. I’d never have done this, of course, because — ever the dutiful rule follower — I was prisoner to imagined enforcements. For example, I attended Mass at the ugly Church on Alderman Road nearly every Sunday. At the time, my churchgoing sprung from habit and deference to my mother. I don’t know that I sought or internalized much spiritual substance in it at the time, though I look back and feel the ritual shaped me in important ways, and perhaps I was called there in some sense. But, on a logistical level, I went because I was worried that when I spoke with my mother (and we did speak frequently, usually every few days), she might ask what I’d done the previous weekend, and I couldn’t bear the thought of either lying to her about attending Mass or disappointing her with the truth. I also barely missed a single class or discussion section that first year. By my second year, I had cultivated an upperclassman’s discernment in the matter and could suss out which sections and lectures I could skip every now and then, no harm, no foul. But as a first year, familiar only with the rigor of attending a strict all-girl’s school prior, I assumed that enrolling in a class was a blood oath. Similarly, I read absolutely everything I was assigned, taking machinist notes alongside. I had learned in high school that I was very good at taking tests because I had a fantastic short-term memory, and I could cram dozens of pages into my mind by copying everything onto paper. This is why my husband can still remember theorems, but I cannot. I was binging and purging the information, and he was internalizing it. I will say that I was getting terrific marks along the way, an outcome that halfway indicts memorization-based approaches to education but also afforded me a nice stretch of runway in which to learn something important about myself: though that kind of study taught me very little in the way of concrete facts, it did reveal to me the depths of my own work ethic, and I have needed to lean on that confidence in countless other situations since. Whenever I have stared down an enormous project since, I have been able to tell myself: “Trust yourself, Jen. You know you will get all the way from Point A to Point Z.” And I do. My undergrad experience taught me that I have follow-through, and that I do not like unfinished business, and that I can always trust myself that I’ll get everything done. But it was not until my second or third semester that I learned that I could pair that discipline with measured judgment as to what needed to be read vs. what could be skimmed (or skipped).
To return to the headlands: what I am saying is that I obsoleted the one semester of my life in which I was entirely alone and answerable to no one but myself, and I did so by conjuring people and forces to whom I could answer. This is not to say that being alone and unencumbered, or not belonging to other people, is an empirically good thing (nor is it empirically bad!). I recall feeling lonely, adrift. I wanted someone to want to know where I was. One week, I ran into a high school classmate of mine at the dining hall and must have erupted into weepy hiraeths, because she kindly invited me over to her aunt and uncle’s home that weekend, insisting that spending time off-grounds, with loving adults reminiscent of home, would help. I will never forget her generosity, or the warmth of her family ushering me into their beautiful Charlottesville farmhouse, but at the same time, I remember thinking — “I’m really floating in the outer rings of the galaxy, aren’t I?” Like, how am I seeking comfort here? Where are my people?
Still, I occasionally find myself envying my absolute independence during those days. I distinctly remember working long shifts in Clemmons Library and then breaking for a very late lunch at Bodo’s at around 3 or 4 p.m. No one knew or cared that I’d blown through lunch and I’d had only my grumbling stomach to guide me. I did what felt natural to me, and sometimes that meant working through an entire draft of a paper before giving in to the hunger pangs. (I also routinely ate Belgian waffles for dinner because they were just about the only palatable thing at the dining hall, and I knew my mother would have been disgusted and worried if I’d told her.) I stayed up too late watching old, comforting movies on the wood paneled box TV my parents had permitted me to take with me. It was about 12×12 in size with a screen that couldn’t have been bigger than six inches wide and a resolution that would make your modern eyes bleed. It weighed ~4000 lbs. Watching old movies on it soothed me. I’d gotten into the habit of watching black and white movies during my childhood summers in Colorado. I would never have dreamt of sneaking downstairs to watch TV in our home in D.C., but at the condo, all bets were off, and my parents’ bedroom was cloistered far enough from the family room TV that they’d never hear. I remember waking up in the middle of the night and watching I Love Lucy and old Betty Davis movies on the family room ottomans. Something about these midnight viewings by myself reassured me, made me feel that I could take care of myself? I returned to the sentiment in college, watching a small stack of old movies I’d taken from home, often at 1 or 2 a.m.
But after that first semester, I had roommates and friends and sorority sisters with whom I grew shockingly close in that distinctly collegiate way. We swapped clothing and did one another’s makeup and stood in line for the bathroom together and snubbed mean frat boys in solidarity. We had no sense for personal boundaries, and I knew everything about them. I remember dozens of car rides to and from Charlottesville with one of my girlfriends in her little gray VW Jetta that smelled like crayons. I knew the car trip snacks she would buy at WaWa (Diet Coke, Twizzlers) and that she preferred the scenic route to the 29 one and these things were never discussed, just accepted and accommodated. We’d fill those rides with drama and crushes and laughter and I loved belonging to her, and to the other gals in our group, who remain to this day my closest friends. One of them actually lived for several months in an eaved storage space you could only access via my second story bedroom in the ramshackle house on Gordon Street I shared with nine other girls my second year. These are the kinds of absurd arrangements that seem perfectly acceptable, even delightful, as a 19 year old. She would duck through the small plywood door in my wall to climb into her mattress bed and knock when she needed to come out. I would not trade those daily interactions for my life: she remains my ride-or-die, and I think sometimes that our friendship was uniquely forged by the intimacy of that living situation. “Let me show you the barest version of my soul — unwashed face and morning breath and all,” was the subtext.
With friends like those, and then the boyfriends that came after, my whereabouts were surveilled, and my plans frequently co-opted, and I was often heading one direction only to be intercepted by more intriguing possibilities: “Don’t go to the dining hall, let’s get salads at Biltmore!” and “Skip the discussion section, we’re laying out in Mad Bowl.”
And then I belonged to Mr. Magpie and I subsequently felt as if I was only half-living when I was apart from him. He was my permanent filter. And, I know, vice versa.
So — answering to no one versus belonging to people I love has never been a hard compromise for me. But — that said! I am sitting here brimming with thought.
First, if you have the opportunity, you should try to live by yourself. I did not and I wish I had. I think I would have loved it and learned a lot about myself because of it. Specifically, I think I would have been better at listening to my own preferences, tastes, rhythms. Nowadays, I often have to really think — “what do I want?”
Second, even if living alone is not a possibility, there are still channels in which “to answer to yourself.” A girlfriend of mine (married, three children, full-time job for a major consultancy) recently shared that, every few weeks, she will drive to the Chik-Fil-A, order takeout, and then sit in her car listening to crime podcasts while eating fast food. No one knows where she is or what she is doing. She is tapping into her own joy. I was deeply inspired by her example, and I am determined to find my own analog, especially after this Leslie Stephens interview I mentioned over the weekend, in which the interviewee, a licensed counselor and expert on “perfectionism” and “balance,” said this: “I adore any woman who dares ask herself, “What do I want?” then takes her answer seriously.”
Wow. Just, wow! Take your joy seriously. Honor it!
Of course, it is not possible or ethical to prioritize my own wants/wishes consistently throughout my day, as there are so many other agendas, schedules, needs, responsibilities, personalities to balance. This is what it means to be an adult. But sometimes I let my own preferences slip permanently into last place. I’m sitting here reminding myself to bump my own wishes up a little bit. One example I am thinking of: we are still struggling with getting our children to consistently eat good dinners, and one recommendation has been to skip afternoon snack and move dinner up until 4 or 5. I respect the moms that make this change. Mr. Magpie and I discussed it thoroughly and continued to return to this: our biggest mealtime priority with our children at their current ages (our philosophy was vastly different even a year ago, with younger ones) is eating the same thing, as a family, at the same time, as often as possible. But we are not going to move dinner up to an earlier time, partly owing to logistics (e.g., Mr. Magpie’s work day does not end until 5-6) but mainly out of preference. We want to enjoy our dinners, too, and we prefer to eat later. And that’s OK. Surely there are spheres of parenthood in which we can still place our own preferences highest. This is one of them for us.
So, today – what do you want? Can you take your answer seriously?
+One thing that attracts me to Mr. Magpie is his openness to joy — the way he really listens to and leans into the things that bring him happiness.
+Such a cheerful dress! The colors are joyful!
+These new caftans from Asha are spectacular.
+Perfect party shoes. LOVE the colors (and low heel).
+Love the idea of this heart necklace against a simple white tee / white dress.
+Sweet, solid-colored, affordable footies for babies in great colors.
+Into this double-long bar cart. So chic.
+Always find it helpful to keep sanitizer wipes in my travel/day outing bag with the kids.
+These earrings are on my summer shopping list.
+Love this scalloped black sundress — $108!
+Look at this fab sherpa chair!
+I can’t believe summer isn’t far off! I was just looking to replenish our water bottle supply and remembering that I surprised my kids on the first day of “summer” (e.g., no more school) last year with a little basket of treats — sticker books, sidewalk chalk, a new water bottle, sunscreen, swimsuits, etc. I already added this water bottle to my cart for mini.
+Breezy blue dress.