My entire life, I have let should win out over want. As someone who thrives on praise, I have made many of my life decisions based on what would get me ahead and win approval. After all this time trying to do the right thing, I’ve lost track of what I actually want. But now it seems want may be starting to win out over should.
“You should go to a liberal arts college because that gives you the most career options – art school could be very limiting,” said my guidance counselor in high school. Off to a liberal arts college I went. “Completing this project is your highest priority,” my bosses said. I did what they asked, and promotions followed.
Over time, I also filled my own mind with shoulds. “I should go to graduate school,” and “I should have kids because my friends are starting to get pregnant,” and “I should work out more and lose the baby weight,” frequently filled my thoughts.
As a mom, the shoulds are everywhere. You should only feed your children organic food, you should make their Halloween costumes, you should bake for that school party instead of buy, you should never yell. You should put them first, always. You should cherish every moment. In this cacophony of shoulds, from work, to family, to school, how can we find our way?
In 2020, when I was busy running around trying to please everyone at work and at home, COVID snuck in and locked us up, and time stopped. Balancing work and life at home became utterly unachievable. The praise I craved was absent. I felt trapped in a rigid daily grind of trying desperately to be a good parent and employee simultaneously, and I gradually came to realize success was impossible. I couldn’t please everyone and still take care of myself. By the time the kids went to bed each night, I had nothing left. I kept thinking, I will find time to write and cook and work on my photography on the weekends, in the evenings, but that rarely happened. In reality, I was depleted.
Over months of late nights in front of the TV watching cooking shows and other happy programming to manage my anxiety, I started examining the life I had willingly created, the layers of school, jobs, earnings, kids, daycare, marriage. All the levels of stress and expectation I had placed on myself, to be good at everything, to excel to achieve the measures of rightness. I started to consider, “Are these things the right things for me?” and “What do I really want?”
I started to find myself approaching more and more choices this way. There was new permission to think differently. Somehow in the shadow of COVID, when everything about life shifted and the rules of the game changed, stuck to my desk on endless video calls while staring into a screen, I started to listen. Maybe I didn’t really need to please everyone around me. Maybe I could trust myself enough to make a new set of choices.
Some pieces of my life – my family, my husband – those things are right and good. But in other aspects of my life, I’m ready to think differently about how I spend my time. And at 42, I need to leave the should behind and focus on the want.
I know I’m not the only one feeling this shift – workers, many of them women, are resigning from jobs they don’t love or shifting their personal and professional goals. I can’t say I have figured it all out yet. I don’t really know what will come. But I am getting to know that internal voice and she is starting to shout, and I hear her. She knows what she wants, and she isn’t backing down.