Out to lunch with some friends the other day, H said she was tired of feeling like something was wrong with her because she’s in her forties and still single. She called herself a “Late bloomer” and said aloud, “So what if I’m doing things in the wrong order?” To which I said, “There is no wrong order,” followed by, “There’s no such thing as a late bloomer.” I vehemently believe this–when it applies to other people. But when I’m thinking these things about myself, which I do often, I’ve never believed anything more.
There are systemic constructs that we buy into, even if in our deepest hearts, we don’t believe them. I’ve been called a late bloomer since I was a child. I took longer than my peers to develop physically, academically, socially, professionally and emotionally. That I’ve always taken longer to do things other people did years before never bothered me, until I realized very early on (maybe around eleven or so) how much it seemed to bother other people. I knew I was a late-bloomer because that’s what I was told, but it wasn’t a belief I had about myself; it was provided. Even then I wondered, how can I be late to my own blooming? I’m exactly on time, and so is H, and everyone else, because the truth is something we all know: reaching every marker on society’s watch isn’t blooming on time, it’s not even blooming.
People feel pressured to meet these (strongly suggested) life stages, but arriving at each one does not mean they’ve bloomed. They are no more grown than I am; they’re just more accepted. As we close in on 30, 35 and 40, we grow more afraid. We are afraid to be alone. Not just because being alone is scary and lonely and isolating, but because on top of the palpable sense of separateness is the stigma. The stigma exists because of our fear, not only of solitude, but of difference. We are afraid of difference (others and our own), not because of what being different feels like to us, but because of what society’s response to our difference feels like. How can a person ever bloom, much less on a schedule, when they are shamed for not being someone else, when they’ve failed to meet the arbitrary expectations of strangers, strangers who have met the arbitrary expectations of our society?
I’ve set people up who have gotten married and had children, and once they were a couple, they forgot what it felt like to be single, and disappeared into their world of couple friends and friends with children. And of course they forgot what it’s like to be single, because being single is awful, and it’s awful in large part because of the stigma, the ingrained suppositions about people who have “failed” to get what other people have not failed to get. One of the worst parts about this convenient forgetting is the aphoristic person the once-single person turns into. The inherent emptiness inside the expressions once-single people used to despise but now toss our way: “It will happen when you least expect it,” or, “You just have to really want it,” is annihilating, especially coming from someone you fixed up because they were ONCE-SINGLE! When someone is grieving, we don’t tell them that they’ll get over it when they least expect it, or that they just have to really want to not be in mourning. We ask, “How can I help you?” Or, “What do you need?” Not having a family when you want one is a type of mourning. There’s an inherent grief in always being the single person in a sea of families, knowing you’re being assessed and judged for not having what you want; knowing you’re being judged instead of helped.
We are our own schedules. We are our own time-frames. I haven’t failed at life because other people have what I want, just as they haven’t failed at life because I have what they want. One doesn’t fail because they aren’t in sync with the majority. One doesn’t fail because they aren’t living up to a set of standards and beliefs they didn’t design. We all have limiting beliefs, and so does society, and this is just one of them. And that belief says that if you haven’t achieved the same things as the majority in a set period of time, you are a failure. That idea is antiquated, it’s out of sync with the world we live in today, where people live longer, and are more socially and politically aware, and yet we continue to operate using this outdated model. You have not failed at life because you are single at 40, or unpublished by 45. You have not failed at life because you are childless at 50 or still renting an apartment at 55. Failure is the absence of effort; failure is not a person.