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I started a new job a couple of weeks ago. It's my first official full-time job - with benefits, PTO, the whole shebang - in six years. I've been freelance since I moved to California back in 2011, and it would take about four hands to count the number of part-time, independent contractor positions I've had in the time since then. I'm in the middle of doing my 2016 taxes, and I have seven W-2s and 1099s combined, on top of photography and other random work without official forms. Needless to say, next year's taxes are going to be a whoooole lot easier. And I might actually get a refund.

When I lived in Los Angeles, being broke and working multiple jobs a week was the norm. Almost everyone I knew was doing the same thing, because they were all pursuing their desired careers at the same time, and needed to make room for auditions, personal projects, etc. I, however, didn't go out to LA with any specific goal in mind (no acting in front of a camera for me, thank you very much), so I didn't really have much of a plan, other than I knew I wanted to take pictures and get paid for it. Just in case you're wondering how that turned out...it didn't. By the time I landed back in Minnesota, I had $0 in my pocket and was experiencing some pretty hefty feelings of defeat. 

I have always thought of myself as a late bloomer. I've mentioned it multiple times on this blog, usually as a disclaimer for why I haven't yet taken action on something, or made a specific decision. The term "late bloomer" has always been a kind of shield for me, to explain why I seem to be so much further behind the rest of my peers when it comes to figuring my life out. I've been especially defensive about this topic lately, as my money has dwindled despite the multiple jobs I've been working, and I didn't see myself getting any further along in achieving any of my dreams. I've felt this invisible pressure; eyes and opinions from the outside looking in on my life and judging me, asking why I don't have a steady job, husband, kids or a house. 

But recently, as I was lying in bed, agonizing over my lack of adultiness and generally feeling sorry for myself, it dawned on me: maybe those eyes and opinions are invisible because they actually don't exist. Maybe this pressure I've been feeling all along has been coming from - gasp - myself. 

It took me a little while to wrap my brain around that. 

Don't get me wrong; I don't think I'm fully to blame for my feelings of inadequacy. We live in a society that still values the College-->Career--> Marriage-->House-->Kids formula above all else, even though fewer than half (46%) of U.S. kids younger than 18 years of age are living in a home with two married heterosexual parents in their first marriage, and as the idea of purpose over just paying the bills is become more prevalent, younger people are taking longer to settle into careers. As it turns out, what is culturally still viewed as "normal" is actually now less common than the myriad other possible life combinations that exist. And yet 1.5 kids, 2-car garage, 9-5 job with a 401k is still the most visible narrative.

As someone who spent 80% of her life on the same path as everyone else, the last several years or so have been fairly discombobulating. After college graduation, the marriage rush hit, along with a stream of steady jobs and mortgages and babies, and I suddenly found myself turning right while everyone else turned left, walking down a completely different path alone, scratching my head and wondering what happened (and how it happened so fast). As hard as it is to admit, I have felt left out. It was comforting being on the same page as the majority of the people my age. If you're doing the same thing as the people around you, it's easy to feel like you're doing everything right. And the loss of that shared experience, which is something I'm constantly craving, has left me feeling a little...lonely. Not personally lonely; I have a wonderful community of people around me whom I love and who love me. More...alone within the crowd that is that community. Our society's markers of adulthood are in abundance all around me, and yet I can't relate to them. Struggles to get pregnant, first home purchases, how to deal with clogged rain gutters, photos of kids and wedding anniversaries on Facebook. The list goes on. I can't relate. 

But here's the thing: I don't want to relate. I mean, I do...but I don't at the same time. What's happening is that I don't want what I think I should want, and then I wonder what's wrong with me for not wanting it. I have bought into the "norm" even as I've increasingly discovered that it is not something I desire. And it has resulted in a paradox, this inward tug of war, between actively choosing and enjoying the direction of my life, and then comparing that life to the lives of my peers, and feeling wholly inadequate. I play the comparison game with things that are incomparable - it's like going to the grocery story to buy an apple, and then holding the apple up next to an orange and wondering if it's a bad thing that the apple is so red.  

So. This brings me back to my bedtime eureka moment. My assumption for a long time has been that other people are putting pressure on me, that their judgment is something I have to defend myself against. But - and this is so hard to own up to, because I have a very healthy sense of pride - what it really comes down to is a lack of self-acceptance. Yes, I am making my own choices, and yes, these choices are a reflection of what I actually want. I didn't accept a full-time job until I found one that I knew I would actually enjoy. I desire love, but I don't know how I feel about marriage as an institution; even when I was in a long-term relationship that I assumed would last forever, I didn't necessarily think getting married had to be the end result. I'm not sure if I want to have kids, but if I did, it sure as hell wouldn't be right now.

These are my truths. And yet, I struggle to accept that it's okay to feel the way that I do. I struggle with feeling like I'm deviating from the norm. Which is kind of funny if you think about it, because if the "norm" isn't actually the norm, then ultimately, I'm the one actually doing what is the norm, which is really code for doing what will make me happiest. And that is really what matters the most, regardless of what it looks like.

This article from The Atlantic, which came out last year, was eye-opening for me, and is worth reading in its entirety. Two quotes that particularly stood out to me were: 

"...In fact, if you think of the transition to “adulthood” as a collection of markers—getting a job, moving away from your parents, getting married, and having kids—for most of history, with the exception of the 1950s and 60s, people did not become adults any kind of predictable way. And yet these are still the venerated markers of adulthood today, and when people take too long to acquire them, or eschew them all together, it becomes a reason to lament that no one is a grown-up."

And:

“...In Burrow’s study, commitment to a purpose was associated with higher life satisfaction and positive feelings. They also measured identity and purpose exploration, having people rate statements like “I am seeking a purpose or mission for my life.” Both kinds of exploration significantly predicted feeling worse and less satisfied. But other research has identified exploration as a step on the path to forming an identity, and people who’ve committed to an identity are more likely to see themselves as adults. In other words, flailing isn't fun, but it matters."

That second quote, the one about purpose and mission in life (and flailing. Oh, the flailing)...that one struck a chord. The one thing that has gotten me through multiple toxic relationships, moving across the country, being broke, and questioning if I'm doing life "right", is having a reason to wake up in the morning, one that extends outside of myself, or any other person in my life. That reason may shift from year to year, but feeling like I'm striving to be part of something bigger than myself has been my own personal marker of adulthood; the more I move away from selfishness and exerting my energy towards something more than my personal well-being, the more I feel like I'm finding an independent place in the world, one that I can own and feel good about.

This is a topic I will be exploring a lot more moving forward on this blog. I am, as of recently, really and truly 100% single and on my own for the first time in several years. I have money. I have dreams. I feel hopeful about the future. If ever the world was my oyster, it is now. And I'm looking forward to documenting this journey, and exploring my own personal version of adulthood as it unfolds.