By the time we learn to read, we’ve already internalized a whole host of social rules telling us what we SHOULD and SHOULDN’T do in order to be accepted in society. But I recently had an epiphany: the only thing I should do is to unlearn those rules.
According to society, in our late teens and early 20’s we should take risks. We should travel. We should be open to new experiences and people. But once we’ve had our fun, we should find The One, get married, start a career and have kids. At which point we should grow up and be responsible. In theory, that doesn’t sound too bad. I’m on board with getting a job, paying the bills and putting my child’s needs above my own selfish whims.
Like a good girl, I did everything I should do, but when the reality of my day-to-day sunk in I realized it wasn’t enough. Despite being happily married, pursuing a career I love, and enjoying the joys and challenges of parenthood—I realized a part of me was dying a slow and painful death. My inner adventuress was crying out for attention, like a screaming kid at the grocery store, making me ashamed that my beautiful life wasn’t enough to make me happy.
I should be happy. I should be satisfied. I should be grateful. And I was, to a point. But something was missing. I finally realized that if I didn’t listen to this voice in my head that craved new adventures and random conversations with strangers, I would lose my most treasured quality: a sense of wonder.
Ironically, I was losing my sense of wonder while encouraging my son to explore his own. But what kind of example was I setting? In order to be the role model I hoped to be, I needed to let go of the fear of other people’s judgment.
Which led me to do something I’d often wanted to but had been told I shouldn’t. I decided to transform my naturally blonde locks brown. Simple enough, right? Turns out it was kind of a big deal. “People would kill for hair like yours!” “It’ll never grow back the same color, you know.” “You’ll never stand out!” The naysayers exclaimed, as though it were a matter of life and death. It’s hair, not an end to world famine, I thought. I would just smile, smug in the knowledge that I, at least, had some perspective. I admit I was still apprehensive about actually doing it.
I’m not averse to change or risk. I’m a writer who married a musician, for one thing. And before that, I never hesitated to live and study abroad in Paris and Australia, teach Aleutian kids to swim in Alaska, or engage a Kosovar woman in conversation after she blamed me personally for bombing her family. I have always intuitively followed this path of discovery, seeking new experiences to bring out my most authentic self.
So I dyed my hair. Some people treated me differently while others saw me for who I’ve always been. I felt different for a while and then I forgot to pay attention to what I looked like. I started exploring long-forgotten hobbies and interests. I took up surfing, rediscovered kickboxing and took up a new friend’s invitation to go camping somewhere I’ve never been. I opened my social circle and started making time for people, instead of always being too busy. I started riding a creative tidal wave, working on four new novels simultaneously.
Immediately after taking these first steps, I became happier. More grateful. More patient. I am learning to accept that I’m vulnerable to caring what others think sometimes. I’m not perfect (no matter how hard I try). All I can do is my best— with what I know and who I am right now.
Letting go of SHOULD doesn’t mean I’m unaffected by societal expectations or that I’ve found The Answer. It just means that I acknowledge SHOULD, and then examine my reasons for doing (or not doing) something, giving myself permission to be the person I want to be. Which reminds me: Who do you want to be?