Laura and I sat in our lawn chairs as the thousand or so people around us tore down their tents, poured out their drinks, and packed up their koozies. It wasn’t going to rain, we laughed. Twenty minutes later, I was holding a lawn chair to my chest, trying to shield my white t-shirt from the pelting rain. We were wrong (and my defense proved useless, in case you were curious). The dove gray cloud that we’d spied past the trees rolled in fast and its charcoal gradations brought along lightning and downpours. Somewhere between our picnic spot and the parking lot, clutching my bag and chair, I stopped and laughed. This, I thought, was not was I’d expected my Fourth of July to be. Squelching through puddles in Vans and dripping jorts—nope, not on the to-do list. And yet, it was the most memorable Independence Day I’ve had in years.
Before the deluge, another friend and I had been talking about expectations. She is in her mid-30s and is struggling with all the things you’d expect a woman in her 30s to be struggling with—love, the question of children, the idea of success. And she told me that when she looks at her family, she sees the norm: cousins who are CEOs and young families who are already settled. She feels like a black sheep, she said, and always has because those are not the characteristics of her idea of a happy present and successful future.
I think we tend to feel guilty when we diverge from a path that’s considered the norm, one that maybe our family or our friends have modeled for us and expect us to follow as the default. I think that guilt might be part of us feeling as though by choosing a different life experience, we’re saying that we don’t value or approve of what those closest to us have chosen. I wish we could cast that guilt aside, and along with it, the need to defend our choices to those who picked differently.
What’s funny, to me, is that both sides feel both guilty and defensive when they look at the other. Am I happy with my path? What would my life be like if I had majored in this or taken that job or didn’t get married? I know I’m particularly introspective, but I don’t think I’m alone in wondering these things. And I don’t think that it’s bad to wonder these things. What hurts us is when we move from wondering to pressuring ourselves to be something we’re not, or to live a life that we’re not interested in living.
It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot over the past few months. I find that when I meet new people or catch up with old friends or family members who aren’t familiar with my work or my lifestyle, I downplay my passions and I minimize what I do. I characterized one of my recent features as “stupid” to a third cousin at a funeral, and during the conversation, a part of my brain was screaming at me, “What are you doing?!” Because my work isn’t stupid, and I know that. I enjoy my work, and I recognize that. And I’m very excited about my next steps—I live that excitement every day. So why do I represent it as something entirely different to the uninitiated? I don’t have answers to that question just yet, but I’m working on it. I’ll keep you updated, yeah?
In the meantime, sound off on your own black sheep-ness in the comments. What keeps you fierce and different and guilty and defensive? Tell me, do!