The Problem with "If Onlys"
I recently read another interesting passage in Overwhelmed, a book I mentioned a few posts ago. Author Brigid Schulte (a working mom) and one of her case study participants, Karen Graf (a stay-at-home mom) were discussing guilt and motherhood:
"Perhaps, I (Schulte) told her, she appears calm because she’s confident she’s closer to what an ideal mother should be. She (Graf) shook her head. ‘Working moms like you feel guilty, worrying, “Am I a good enough mom? Do I spend enough time with my kids?” And at-home moms like me are always asking ourselves, “Am I doing enough? Is it the right thing? Should I be working? What was all of that education for?” We are all torturing ourselves.’ Each one of us is ensnared in guilt and compelled to compensate for the phantom life we’ve forgone."
This post isn’t about motherhood or whether or not you should work after you have kids. It’s about this idea of a “phantom life:” the life we could be living if only we had taken that job, not taken this job, majored in this, not majored in that, moved away, stayed put … the list goes on and on. All those “if only” choices that would make right now so much better.
Right now, I live in Indianapolis and spend the vast majority of my time taking care of my two toddlers. I see impressive things some of my peers from art school are doing and think, “if only” I had the freedom to move to my dream city and make a living making art all day long. Or, I think about all my friends and family still living down South and think, “if only” we could have found a way to stay in Birmingham and be a part of that neighborhood and community I love so much.
After spending some time thinking about the idea of a phantom life, I realized I have lots of them. But instead of giving me anything productive in my actual life, they keep me doubting and envious and wistful.
A few years ago, a friend (we’ll call her Amy) spoke to this idea in our small group. Amy was in her 30s, married, no kids, finishing her residency in med school, and her sister in-law had just announced they were pregnant … again. Amy cried when she heard the news.
She talked about how she wanted to be happy for her sister- and brother-in-law, but that she struggled with the choice she and her husband had made to wait until after med school to start a family. Amy said it was hard to see all their friends have kids and wonder if she had made a big mistake. Then after some processing and tears, she said a phrase I think about often:
“There is no alternate reality.”
Meaning: There is no other version of herself living this ideal life she is missing out on now.
It seems so obvious, but this has brought me a lot of comfort over the years; it’s part of my Christian faith as well. Somehow, everything that has happened and will happen in my life, in all of our lives, is in God’s plan. Our choice matter – we can do better or worse things in our lives – but I’m not in total control of the outcome of things, and that’s surprisingly freeing. I don’t have to think about the “if onlys,” because they aren’t real.
Yes, we all have agency and our decisions matter, but at the same time what was meant to happen is happening and there has only ever been one plan and that mystery is mind-boggling and beautiful. My life is right now; it’s better for me to try to live well in this one than be caught up thinking about one that doesn’t exist.