My fifth birthday party was the stuff of every little girl’s dreams. The most special women in my life — my mom, my cousins, my aunts, my grandmother, my school friends — celebrated with me at a place called Let’s Dress Up.
Racks upon racks of dress-up clothes towered over me — ballerina-pink taffeta gowns, lilac satin A-line dresses, ruffles and tulle and lace spilling over hangers. I ran my fingers along the gowns, eager to try on as many as I could, hopeful that I’d find just the right dress to wear to celebrate my special day. Once we’d selected our gowns, our ladies-in-waiting (or, the store employees) would paint our nails, and then we’d sit down for a tea party in one the garden-themed rooms.
As I pulled each gown over my head, breathing in the musty scent of aging taffeta, it was as if I were trying on my future. It’s not that I actually thought my life would resemble the Victorian era I was obsessed with, that I’d spend my days in ballgowns, sipping tea. It’s more that I imagined my future as a grown-up would hold some degree of glamour. I was going to be an artist — some days I thought I’d be a writer, and other days I wanted to be a singer or a painter. I would live on a cobblestone street in England, or maybe Paris. And I would obviously spend my days eating endless amounts of cake.
A few weeks ago, I had some unexpectedly childless time. Dan was at home with Selah, and I was coming home earlier than expected from an event, so I did what any suburban mom would do and made a “quick” stop at Target. I found a few summer dresses to try on, and as I pulled a tiered maxi dress over my head, I breathed in the musty scent of the fabric and was immediately transported back to that fifth birthday party.
I thought about what my grown-up life really looks like now that I’m turning thirty and wondered what my five-year-old self would think of it. I may not live on a cobblestone street, but the pieces of my life do feel as though they’ve been cobbled together one at a time. They’ve ultimately led to where I hoped to go — and that’s a privilege — but the road took some twists and turns I didn’t expect.
Admittedly, parts of my life do sound glamorous, or at least they would to a five-year-old who loves to read and write and who dreams of being an author someday. I work at a publishing house as a copy editor, spending my days polishing words and approving cover designs and running galleys to Production. I am also a writer, penning ideas in my notebook and click-clacking my keyboard in the early mornings, when the house is quiet and I’m the first to dip into the fresh pot of coffee. I am married to a dreamy, kind man and we have a beautiful little girl with a musical name. I sip coffee in the mornings and and red wine at night, and it’s true that I can eat cakes and cookies whenever I want to.
But as with any good story, there are two sides to this one. I started my current job as an unpaid intern at twenty-six, after a false start on my career as an elementary school teacher. I waited tables so my husband and I could make ends meet while I learned a new trade and earned a paying job, and I’d come home exhausted at 11 p.m. after 15 hours of work, smelling of onion soup and beer. I finally got my dream job, and I’ll admit that it still feels like a dream that I get to edit and write for a living, but it doesn’t come without challenges. I face crash deadlines and hours of fact checking and more paper cuts than I can count. I come home and Dan tags me in as he leaves for work, and I’m on my own with our fiesty toddler, who is prone to throwing her food and her body on the floor in defiance. When Dan comes home, I complain that we don’t have enough time as a family because of our work schedules (which isn’t true, but sometimes feels like it). We collapse into bed after dinner and Netflix.
My life only partially resembles what I imagined it would when I was young, when I couldn’t understand how stress would cause streaks of silver to run through my hair, how marriage would turn my world upside down, and how motherhood would fundamentally alter my identity. I’m tired but happy, uncertain but faithful, unfinished but fulfilled. I live a much more ordinary life than I expected to, and it’s in that ordinariness that I’ve learned to love and be stretched.
I rarely wear taffeta and almost never have occasion to dress up anymore, but remembering that little five-year-old girl in the enormous pink ball gown reminds me of how far I’ve come, how lucky I’ve been, how privileged I am.
If I could tell her the story of who we are now and how we got here, this is what I’d say:
It’s possible to live out your dreams in small ways, even if you don’t know what they are yet, and even if you take a circuitous path to reach them.
You can be a woman who fights a good fight against the guilt of being a mom and a wife and an employee and an artist in a world that wants you to pick just two.
Your life doesn’t have to be classically glamorous to be truly dazzling — leading an ordinary life is an extraordinary gift.