When I was 24, my great-aunt and -uncle asked about my life goals. At the time, I was working nights as a copy editor and dreamed of someday shifting into a full-time writing job. (One where I got to write more than headlines and didn’t have to work until midnight!) I also remember telling them that I wanted to write a memoir someday, get married and have kids — with a move out West somewhere in there. Your standard American dream, journalist’s edition.
I remember my great-aunt telling me that I hadn’t lived enough to write a memoir yet. (She was right!) And my great-uncle asking about the marriage thing: “When do you want to get married … in 10 years?”
Ten years?! By then I would be 34, which seemed ancient.
“Nah, more like somewhere in between,” I said. After all, my mother had married at 27 — and my parents were and still are incredibly happy — so I assumed my life would take a similar trajectory. (My summation was also in line with norms for my generation; as of 2016, the median age for first marriage is 29.5 for men and 27.4 for women.)
My great-uncle smiled and nodded, and that was the end of the conversation. If he thought I was naive for thinking I could pinpoint when I would reach certain life milestones, he didn’t say so.
Ten years since that conversation, I am 34. I still live in Washington, with no immediate plans to move. I was able to escape the night shift and am happy to have a writing job now. I haven’t written that book yet, but I know I will. I’m very single, and I have no idea whether I’ll be starting that family with someone else or going it alone.
Sometimes the uncertainty over that last bit is just fine. It can be exciting that, at 34 (which I’m pleased to report is still quite young), I don’t have it all figured out yet; that the story of my life is still unfolding. And sometimes — when my friends are welcoming babies into the world, or they’re freezing their eggs, or I’m editing an essay about a woman trying to get pregnant on her own — the uncertainty is overwhelming. I love my life, but I still envision more. The family piece of that dream for my future, which always seemed like a given, is still a question mark.
When you’re young, most of your life proceeds in a linear way. You graduate from high school, then college, then get a job. When real life doesn’t progress as smoothly, in relationships or career, it can be hard to sit with. “We think about planning our lives like there’s one of two ways to go: You’re a completely lazy slacker who lets it be all about fate. Or you’re this hyper-control freak who’s trying to force her life to go a certain way,” says Sara Eckel, author of “It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single. “We think of them both as being not appealing. Or you kind of bounce back and forth between the two ways, and neither one is sort of satisfying.”
So how do you plan for something that is not as straightforward as making deposits into a 401(k) plan or buying health insurance? Eckel talks about the Buddhist notion of the middle path, where you strive to be somewhere between slacker and checklist dater. “If you want to have a relationship, you do what you need to do — you get off the couch and go to the cousin’s friend’s birthday party, but you don’t make it such a big deal if you don’t meet anyone that day, or that week, or that year.”
Part of adulthood is realizing that life works in meandering ways. “Maybe you go to that party and you don’t meet anyone you want to go on a date with or who will be the father of your children someday. But you do meet someone who has a lead on an apartment,” and then you end up getting a job lead from someone in that building.
Eckel also stressed not putting parts of your life on hold: Don’t wait to buy a house or take that dream vacation until your dream travel companion pops into your life. “Don’t treat your single life like an extended adolescence,” Eckel said. “Just make sure that you are planning for your future — a future that could include a spouse or might not. It’s important to kind of have the rest of your life be pretty secure,” Eckel added, because if it’s not, that puts even more pressure on getting married.
Now add to that the fact that a person’s relationship goals don’t exist in a vacuum. Most singles I’ve met or interviewed aren’t ready for a serious relationship until their career is on solid footing. And that can take a while. For example, Adam Smiley Poswolsky, a 33-year-old writer and motivational speaker in San Francisco, is looking for a serious relationship, but his main focus right now is on his career. “I’ve found that it’s hard for me to get a long-term relationship going because my lifestyle is so nomadic,” said Poswolsky, who’s written a book, “The Quarter-Life Breakthrough: Invent Your Own Path, Find Meaningful Work, and Build a Life That Matters,” about how there is no timeline for adulthood anymore. “It’s hard to create the routine and healthy habits when you’re on the go. Hard to settle down when you’re not settled.”
Poswolsky sees his generation as “inventing the timeline for yourself,” adding that even with a lucrative job, it can be extremely difficult to buy a home in a major real estate market. “You have to create a different timeline, and that’s okay,” he said. “The problem is that there isn’t necessarily a road map for how to do that. And that’s where the problem comes in. That’s where the anxiety comes in.”
So what do you do to manage the anxiety? Dating coach and personal image consultant Neely Steinberg found therapy to be incredibly helpful. “It’s important to have people by your side — not just family and friends who will say what you want to hear, but to work with people who can give an unbiased perspective,” Steinberg said. Through working with a therapist, Steinberg was able to break out of her habit of dating emotionally unavailable men or those who lived far from her home in Boston. In her early 30s, she met the man who’s now her husband, and, at 39, she recently gave birth to her second child.
“People want answers,” Steinberg added. “They want magic formulas” to find their life partner. But “you have to learn how to be okay with loneliness,” she said. “To a certain extent, you just have to learn to be okay with uncertainty.”
My great-aunt and -uncle passed away several years ago, and we never had the chance to follow up on that conversation we had a decade ago. But if we could, I would thank my uncle for overestimating my time frame. For giving me room rather than pressure. And we would probably get a big laugh out of how certain I had been about how my life would unfold.
I realize now how difficult it is to map out a life, especially when it comes to relationships. If you work hard and pursue career opportunities, you will probably find your dream job eventually … or forge your own path and create it. And you can date in search of a serious relationship. But that doesn’t guarantee you’ll meet the right person who’s looking for the same thing you’re looking for at the same time you’re looking for it. Finding him or her can take a lot longer — and be a lot harder — than you imagine.
At 34, I am still going on first dates as some of my friends are on their second kid or second marriage. But for now that means I can join them for a Saturday afternoon hangout at the playground and party-hop later that evening or spend the night in, reading alone on the couch, no crying child or spouse to disturb me. And right now, that’s pretty great.