Sometimes I spend too much time on Facebook. By “sometimes” I mean often, and by “too much” I mean more than 10 minutes.
There are studies that negatively correlate the amount of time spent on Facebook with an individual’s general happiness and life satisfaction. The results don’t surprise me.
Three or four posts into my newsfeed I’m almost sure to come across an engagement announcement or a wedding photo, a baby being born, a house being purchased, a promotion being granted, or a trip being taken (I tested this for about a week–my hypothesis held true). These are beautiful things. Exciting things. Things that are worthy of celebrating, photographing, and posting to Facebook. They just aren’t my things. And whether I want it to or not, sometimes that gets to me.
I sit there staring at my screen, scrolling through posts of smiling faces and filtered sunsets, tiny feet, arms wrapped round bodies, homemade bundt cake, and fully furnished rooms with decorative pillows and matching curtains, and I wonder what it’s like to meet all of life’s benchmarks. To transition seamlessly from dating to engagement to marriage. To progress from student to intern to full-time employee, moving through a company or jumping from one startup to the next, not just surviving, but actually sustaining your own life. What is it like to settle into a house and take on a mortgage? To have a retirement fund or personal investments? To discuss whether or not you’re ready to start a family? (Or even have that option on the table). What is it like to rest safely inside the delicate arc of the bell-shaped curve of adulthood?
As a child, I enjoyed my annual visits to the pediatrician. I wasn’t allowed to touch the toys in the waiting room (too many germs, my mom said), but I could flip through an issue of Highlights while waiting for one of the scrub-clad nurses to shuffle me back to the examining rooms. She’d note my height and check my weight. Sometimes there would be hearing or eye exams, which I treated more like video games to be won than metrics to be measured. She’d show my mom and me to my designated room where I’d change into a pale blue gown and we’d wait for Doctor Kinberg to come in carrying a clipboard with my recently documented stats.
I was always ahead of the curve—tall for my age and early to hit the benchmarks. I lost all of my baby teeth by age 10 and had already finished with braces before I entered the 7th grade. I was emotionally mature as far as teenagers go and smart enough to score well on standardized tests. Following high school, I went straight into college, where I overloaded on credits and graduated with honors. I had an attractive (albeit short) college dating relationship. I studied abroad and traveled to Rome. I did all of the things I set out to do in college, all of the things that were expected of an upper middle-class girl on the fast-track to a “bright future.”
Then I plateaued.
And though time kept moving—the way that time does—my life never really took off. I floundered. I wandered. I attempted to chase dreams and ended up back home with my parents, working my high school job in a bakery. It felt like a setback, a step in the wrong direction. I hadn’t just plateaued. I was regressing from the mean.
I moved to Kansas City, where I hopped from one job to the next (teaching, editing, youth work, tutoring), and while many of my peers moved on with their lives—securing jobs and stable relationships—I seemed perpetually stuck in moratorium, unable to make up my mind or to move forward once I did. I was either early or (more often) late, but never on time with my desires and opportunities. Around the time my friends were getting married and moving into houses, I was trying to figure out how to put my life back together.
I decided to go back to school (mostly because I wanted to, but also simply because I knew it was a place where I would succeed). Now three months post-master’s I’m taunted once more by the demon of comparison.
“I’ll never make it,” I think, scrolling through snapshots of baby bumps and engagement rings, wondering how time passes so quickly without me. How can my niece be turning five? How can my parents be nearing retirement? How can Starbucks already be pushing the Pumpkin Spice Latte?
I’m tired of “laying foundation” and racing toward milestones that never seem to get any closer. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve missed it—the chance to tick all the boxes and reach all the goals, to fill my little plastic car with pink and blue pegs as it speeds down that highway of Pay Days and LIFE tiles. I wonder if I’ve missed out on the future I should have had. If it’s too late to try keeping up with the game.
A couple of months ago I was eating Thai food with two of my friends and their one-year-old son. I know relatively little about raising a human and am always fascinated to hear what they’re learning in the process. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that Z is already a year old. Other times it’s strange to think that he ever didn’t exist.
We ordered tempura vegetables while waiting for our entrees. My friend spooned some onto a plate for Z, who had been shifting in her lap and reaching toward the salt. With one hand Z clenched a carrot and with the other he grabbed a dull silver spoon from the table. I watched as he tried to make sense of the tool, eventually placing the carrot on top, knowing that the spoon was a vehicle for food, though perhaps not quite knowing why or how.
His parents were amused. They smiled and watched as he manipulated the utensil. “Can you take a picture?” his mother asked me. I snapped a string of seven, unsure of the occasion but happy to oblige. Later, I learned that this was Z’s first time using a spoon unprompted, and though his parents are far from obsessive, they are understandably proud and shamelessly engaged in his development.
“People are always looking for these developmental benchmarks,” Z’s mom tells me later over coffee. “His first tooth, his first steps, first word. But there are so many firsts that he’s experiencing all the time. We don’t want to miss those.”
In the short time that I was with Z he developed an appreciation for tempura vegetables and tried his first taste of salsa alongside an inaugural bit of fish taco. Later, on Flickr, I see evidence of Z’s first finger painting and wagon ride. I find a Facebook post of his first favorite YouTube video, which I like and I “like” because it has something to say about connection and engagement as much as it does development. For a toddler, there are nearly as many firsts as there are days in the week, most of which would go unnoticed if his parents were focused on milestones.
I wonder how many of my own firsts I’ve overlooked in my fixation on marking (or missing) milestones. My first newspaper job as a regular contributor. First freelance gigs and supercool interviews. My first time making risotto, fermenting wine, poaching an egg, or learning code. My first front page, first publishes essay. I may not yet know how to support myself as a writer, but I do know how to file a police report, navigate a city, fix a garbage disposal, and do my own taxes.
I think of how much courage it takes to apply for jobs and start new relationships, to go on date after date, pitch story after story, or pray prayer after prayer even when the outcome doesn’t turn out as I’d wanted.
Hope, I’ve recently been told, is not dashed by our struggles, but rather birthed by them; it is a function of struggle itself. Which may explain why its presence in my life is both constant and surprising.
When I take stock of all that has happened since I moved to California, all that has taken place during the latest in a long string of “discovery periods,” I realize that it is not the absence of living, but the definition of it—this moving, breathing, loving, hurting, trying, failing, struggling, and surviving. Though I sometimes feel stuck waiting for my life to start (or restart), it has actually never stopped.
Milestones are meant to be reached and recognized. They are great and wonderful things, worthy of joy and celebration. But in seeking all we hope for and striving for all we desire, we risk letting the goals of the future keep us from observing the gifts of the present. I want to learn to live better. To mark milestones as they come without missing my life in the meantime.