Realizing it's too late.IT IS A TRUTH NEARLY universally denied--for at least the past 40 year--at one cannot have everything one wants, and certainly not in the order in which desired. This is, of course, heresy. I recall very clearly being told by teachers in elementary school, and celebrities of various stripes exhorting us via the media, that we could do anything, be anything, have it all, if only we wanted it badly enough. Being an underweight, plain asthmatic with too-thick glasses and too-high grades, I wanted very badly to not be beaten up at recess, but even the force of will that drove me through Look Homeward Angel before I was a teenager was insufficient to be spared pummeling. I had a vague sense that this message did not jive with the teacher who told me that girls were not supposed to do better than boys at math, but enough sense to figure that challenging any of this would get about the same level of response as from my mother when, at about age seven, I suggested the parable of the Prodigal Son smacked of unfairness. Silence would have been golden.
Two generations later, we still are burdening far too many young people with this gibberish, despite the appalling fallout among their parents, or those old enough to be their parents. We cannot have it all, and certainly we cannot have even what little we may want in whatever order we prefer.
From a therapist's perspective, it is sad. When the wall of reality is hit at 39, or even older, there are biological and psychological facts at play that mean that earlier choices were not just passing fancies and errors. There is not a perpetual reset button on life; you cannot reboot the system endlessly. Those early choices bear permanent effects, and those effects corral the options available. It is not an exaggeration to call the adjustment to reality a grieving process.
Middle-aged adults who pursued their parents' goals realize that the career they have never has, and never will, fit their disposition or talents. They would like to change tracks, but some tracks will be next to impossible. The training for some professions, such as the medical fields, requires not only tremendous time and willpower, but the capacity to memorize vast quantities of data. This is called fluid intelligence. It tends to peak and then slowly decline starting around age 40, although the first bits of this reduced ability to remember facts and figures quickly often is camouflaged by the increase in crystal, or analytic intelligence.
Crystal intelligence increases and remains at a plateau into the 60s and may continue very effectively until senescence. This is a good reason to send White House press secretary Jay Carney to the store with a verbal list of groceries, or want him on your team for Trivial Pursuit or Jeopardy, but you had better ask diplomat Henry Kissinger to explain the implications of recent events involving the Muslim Brotherhood and Coptic Christians on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The brilliant woman who sailed through nursing school to become an ARNP in her late 20s can find that pursuing her real dream--to be a physician--an entirely different matter 20-odd years later. It may not be impossible, but the challenge of memorization and 24-hour-plus residential shifts are substantial for anyone: more for someone in midlife than in young adulthood.
The tragedy of infertility perhaps is the most heart-rending outcome of believing--or fooling oneself with--the lie that there always is plenty of time, and we really can have it all. The biological troth is that female fertility dives in the late 20s, and male fertility, as it turns out. is not an endless field of opportunity, either. Fold in the effects of often silent sexually transmitted diseases, and you have the profound sorrow of couples who each decided to "enjoy their youth and freedom" and to be "successful" before beginning a family, and now must accept that perhaps having children is one option that effectively has been removed from the table.
Perhaps as sad as the grief over opportunities surrendered is the awareness that there was sometimes not a tradeoff that even begins to merit the sacrifice. To have dedicated oneself to a cause--military or missionary, for instance--and have the awareness of that higher purpose as the counterbalance to losses later, can provide the basis for psychological and spiritual adjustment. Realizing you have given up the career of your dreams and your hopes of a family to have "fun," whatever that may mean, is a very hollow source of satisfaction in middle age, when the evenings are long and quiet and the years are short. The fast 20 years of adulthood spent on weekends getting drunk or high and trying to get "lucky" usually bear three rotten fruits: an arrested character development that makes the party in question highly undesirable as a mate; a good possibility of some sort of souvenir infection with various unpleasant effects; and a dearth of stories of any interest to anyone who is neither drunk nor stoned.
Pursuing professional success, or the wrong career, or money--as if acquiring a large pile of wealth were necessary before beginning marriage and a family--generally is unnecessary. There are very few career options in which absolute youth is necessary, and these generally are short-lived: professional athletes and fashion models, for example, although nothing prevents a professional baseball player from having a wife and children, nor a model from enjoying a husband and offspring.
The same malicious disregard for reality and human nature that has been drumming the have-it-all message into our children has taken the dream of a healthy, happy adulthood and turned it into some sort of gotterdammerung. What does it mean when marriage and a family is viewed as something best left to when you are just too old and tired to have fun, as if a mate and children were some sort of chore on par with cleaning toilets and figuring out the precise source of the puddle under the kitchen sink? Once you are too old to get out there and get lucky. you may have to settle for a quiet night at home, tucking in the babies and resting in the arms of someone who would die for you.
I think that is having it all.
Dolores T. Puterbaugh, American Thought Editor of USA Today, is a psychotherapist in private practice in Largo, Fla., and an adjunct instructor in psychology for St. Petersburg (Fla.) College; Troy University, Tampa, Fla.; and University of the Rockies, Colorado Springs, Colo.