I loved my all-girls high school in New Orleans. A small one, where everyone knew your name and every tradition was sacred, our bond was so strong we didn’t know how we’d continue after we left the hallowed halls of our alma mater. We were a family in every way—we were each other’s champions, we called bullshit when someone screwed up, and we were certain in our predictions and expectations of everyone in our class.
So when I was at an alumnae event years later, it was no surprise that one classmate there was doing super fabulous things. She graduated from a super fabulous university, earned a super fabulous degree, and was shaking things up in her super fabulous corporate career. We had expected her to do precisely that. She then turned to me, at the peak of my first bout with morning sickness, and said, “I thought you’d be doing something amazing, like living in Paris by now.” Those four little words, “I thought you’d be,” felt like a four-letter word and stabbed me in the gut.
I hadn’t seen her since my post-college move to New York to find myself. I adored New York—its energy, its assuredness, its power to make me move just a little bit faster and think just a little bit quicker. But it was also freaking freezing, void of my family, and limiting in the small fish/big pond. So I moved home, moved on, and moved away from what was expected of me.
Instead, my children would know my family. They would grow up with Mardi Gras as celebrated as Christmas, crawfish their lox, and snowballs something for the summer and not tossed in the winter. My dearest friends would be their crazy aunties. My daughter might attend my alma mater. And yet, the instant I heard those four words, I felt deflated. I hadn’t lived up to the expectations set—the dramatic, brassy, and outspoken girl who spent a lifetime planning big had settled for something far more common. I bailed and it was noticed.
I used to think these great expectations were limited to creative individuals—the film student “making it” in Hollywood, the dancer pounding the pavement in Manhattan, or the writer surviving in a tiny flat in London. The joke my whole life has been that if only I had liked math, my life would have been so much easier. But the truth is, we’re all prey to the perils of expectations, some are just more bedazzled than others. Whether it’s a college major, grad school, a career, a family, or a specialized talent, there is a level of suspense in what we will do with our lives. And it’s so easy to put the onus of expectations on others—your family expecting “great things,” your classmates predicting super fabulousness. But if we are honest, how much of that pressure actually comes from ourselves? How much did we set up? In spite of our fear, we went for it, sailing on the wings of adventure. But then, the struggle to carry on the adventure outweighed the joy. Maybe it was financial? Maybe a relationship? Or maybe, dare I say, we just didn’t like it anymore?
If you’re a daydream believer, like me, you see the future in vivid colors and your greatest fear is that if you change your mind, you’ll smudge the drawing and the masterpiece will be ruined. But at what point did change become taboo for us? If only we saw change for what it is—exciting, surprising, a splash waiting for us if we dare to take the plunge. If only we saw change as the next great adventure. This is entirely different than giving up. We give up because we think we can’t do. We change our minds because we give in to what we can be. The wisdom is in knowing the difference. I’m still working on that.
But I do know enough to know that no one really cares anyway. It sounds harsh, but it’s true. I will carry on just fine if you don’t finish med school and open a donut shop on Oak Street instead. (I’d actually appreciate it, TBH.) My classmate said one shitty thing and moved on with life. I was the only who cared because I thought I let everyone down, when really, I was afraid I let myself down. We are our dream makers, and if the time comes, we are the ones to let go. And if we do, that’s a good time to stop expecting and start accepting.
My classmate is still super fabulous. And me? The irony is that my latest adventure is the most exhilarating to date. I guess the joke’s on both of us.