Lea is my first wife, but she was my second fiancée.
Beyond a passing mention, I’ve never written here about that first serious relationship I had. But I thought of her and that time in my life again recently, in a context of trying to remember who I was then and gleaning my impressions for possible parenting insights.
If you’ve known me since college or earlier, then you know who she was, so it’s not really a secret. Even so, I’ll call her Cora for the post.
Cora and I met in Russian classes at UAH. We were cordial acquaintances for a little while, but once we got together we got serious pretty quickly. Cora was smart, kind-hearted, and pretty. She laughed at my jokes. We had a lot of fun together. We were good. I think we were a lot of people’s favorite couple.
We were engaged when Cora got an opportunity to study overseas. She would leave Labor Day weekend and would not return until the following June, putting our separation at a little more than nine months. Our plan was to stay engaged and pick back up where we left off when she returned.
I was all of 21 years old when we made these plans. She wasn’t much older. Our plans were unsound, constructed with generous amounts of naiveté and immaturity.
And—spoiler alert—they didn’t work out.
Really, we were doomed from the start and didn’t realize it. Cora wanted to travel the world, and she was willing to be a lot less comfortable than I was to do it. You can have all the love, common values, and whatever else in the world, but if your basic life plans don’t align to some significant degree, it’s not going to work.
Catalyzed by continual sensory overload and aggravated by spotty communications home—she was in a former Soviet republic to and from which phone calls were erratic and hideously expensive, and this was all just before email was ubiquitous—this came into sharp focus for her. She broke our engagement around Christmas. In February, I got a letter in which she said she didn’t want to see me again. And when Cora did come back to the United States in June, she was married to a man she had met over there.
I was shattered.
For a long moment—maybe two weeks—I was nearly paralyzed by misery. Then, I was socially and emotionally dysfunctional for a lot longer. It took me six months to get any mojo back, and another six months before I was even remotely equipped to try again with anyone. I clumsily fumbled away promising interactions and even a start or two with several good women during that time. Even though it all worked out, I can still cringe rather readily remembering some of those moments.
There was nothing inherently notable about what happened. It was the story of a broken heart. (In case you haven’t noticed, there are more than a few of those out there.) But it was my broken heart—the only one I ever had.
Now. I told you that story to tell you this one.
Until that moment in my life, my approach had been to do “the next thing.” I had never really tried to sit down and map out my plans. There were always forces out there to which I could hitch, so I did. I knew I didn’t want to be an engineer, because I didn’t enjoy higher math. What are you going to do? I don’t know, but I’m going to communicate. Major in Communication Arts. Technical writing internship? Yeah, I’ll try that. OK, that was fun. Now I’m going to be a technical writer.
I tell you, it was almost that low-key. I was just checking boxes.
The “next thing” for me at that moment, besides that Cora and I would get married upon her return, was that she was going to graduate school out of state. So I would find work there while she pursued her master’s. No thought required.
But then, suddenly, Cora was Mrs. Someone Else. Then I didn’t have a next thing.
I had moved out of Dad’s house. There was that. But I was still making $6 an hour at the bookstore at which I had worked all the way through college, and while I dearly loved being on my own, I didn’t have a lot of money at all. So I started selling cars. My standard of living improved. Then an old bookstore colleague who had landed at Intergraph called me to interview for an opening in her department. I got that job in January 1994. I met Lea in July, and we started dating in October.
And my actual adulthood started. I was 23.
Now, 24 years after that October, our older son is getting close to adulthood. Let’s say he’s not yet on final approach, but he’s talking to the tower. And I think several factors are contributing to him and his peers perhaps feeling considerably more pressure than I did to have a Life Plan.
You know what? Mostly, I think they ought to relax.
I think sometimes, people make such plans and it works out fabulously. They write down all of the bullets. Then they check all of the boxes in order. And finally, they live happily ever after.
And I think other times it’s a fast track to misery, riddled with the guilt of unmet expectations, perceived wasted time, possibly large amounts of squandered money, and such.
I think those who are able to make detailed plans in which they feel confident, and then execute them, are doing great things. But I think perceived pressure to make such a detailed plan is actually a compelling reason not to charge into one.
There is plenty to be said for young people trying to make some choices, where said young people can see them, that are consistent with adulthood, independence, and the lives they think they want to have. But—whether they are planned or unexpected—TBDs aren’t automatically the devil. I suspect that path to that Grown-Up Place is often shorter with a squishy step or two than it is setting them all in concrete and then having to dig some of them up later.
After all, I had a plan too.