When You Can’t Have the Life You Want
My son wanted some juice so I pulled a glass out of the cupboard. It was short and round and reminded me of a pumpkin.
It also reminded me of when I bought it. I had decided I wanted to clear our mismatched collection of glasses and mugs and bought the pumpkin-inspired glasses to replace most of the odd assortment. I boxed up the old ones and off to the thrift store they went.
However, now when I look in the cupboard, I once again see all sorts of random mugs and glasses. Why? Because my 81-year old mom, whose memory is slowly slipping from her, decided we couldn’t possibly get by with only 12 glasses for our family of seven. So she has been slowly restocking the cupboards with every shopping trip she takes.
It’s one more reminder of how my life no longer feels like my own.
Living in a World Not of My Making
Mismatched glasses are a small thing, but for some reason, the small things seem to be what push us over the edge. Or at least, that’s what does it for me. I can weather the big storms only to be reduced to angry tears when the school clothes that come in the mail are the wrong size.
The small things are the reminder of how out of control life feels. About how nothing around us is what we want it to be. For widows, there is, of course, the gaping hole left by the loss of our spouse. But you don’t have to be a widow to feel like you’re no longer in charge of the direction of your life.
Maybe you have…
- A disabled child
- Aging parents
- A serious illness
- A child who passed away
Or any other countless scenarios in which you are left reacting to life rather than directing it.
5 Things to Do When You Can’t Have the Life You Want
To be clear: I love my mom dearly and wouldn’t have her anywhere other than under my roof. My hope is she’ll be here to the very end. Similarly, I imagine parents with disabled children wouldn’t give them up for the world. But at the same time, let’s be real and admit these types of situations require us to put aside what we want in life and instead do what needs to be done.
While some people handle life’s unexpected turns with grace and dignity, I must admit they often make me grumpy at best and furious at worst. I haven’t quite perfected my coping mechanisms for dealing with the reality that my kids have no dad and that my mom will inevitably throw away the very important piece of paperwork I need.
However, here are five ways I’m trying to come to terms with not having the life I want.
1. Remember comparison is the thief of joy.
Hands down, I’m happier when I don’t dwell on what others have that I do not. Right after Tom died, it seemed like I really fixated on other families and how dads interacted with their kids. It was the emotional equivalent of rubbing salt into wounds. I wanted so much for our family to be like those families – whole and seemingly happy.
But over time I learned to stop comparing my family to others. I stopped going to church or the playground and scanning for the dads in the crowd. On a different note, I’ve stopped poring over home décor magazines and websites because I know my dreams of a minimalist home will never come true so long as my mom – whose obsession with stockpiling items extends far beyond glasses – is in the house.
2. Reframe what you do have.
Another technique I’m using is to shift my focus from what I don’t have to what I do have. By reframing the situation so that it seems like a positive, it doesn’t seem so bad.
Now, I totally get that there really is no way to reframe the loss of a spouse as a positive so I don’t even try. Instead, I work on flipping my perspective about the details.
For example, rather than stewing about the fact there is no other adult to help split driving duties, I tell myself the time in the van lets me catch up on my favorite podcasts. While I hated moving after my husband died, I remind myself what we gained – a huge yard with berry bushes and enough rooms for everyone to get their own bed.
3. Carve out something you can control.
When I look at all the scenarios listed above, the common thread I see is that they are all completely out of our control. If your baby dies, there is absolutely nothing you can do to bring him or her back. Same thing with your spouse or any other loved one. If you’re sick, your parents are sick or your child is sick, you can hope and pray but really, you’re at the mercy of miracles and modern medicine.
I’ve found that the best way to combat the feelings of helplessness these situations create is to find some small area of my life that I can control. For me, that looks like getting up at 5am each day because that gives me an hour alone to do whatever I want. To combat my mom’s clutter habit, I cleared off a shelf in a cupboard that’s too high for her to reach. It’s ridiculous, but I open that cupboard and smile every time. It’s my small corner of order in a life of chaos.
4. Use social media as a happiness reminder.
You would think social media would fall under point one above – that is, that it would be a stealer of joy. And I do think that’s true if you’re looking at other people’s social media accounts. After all, everyone’s putting their best face on social media, and it can be depressing to compare other people’s best days to your mediocre life.
However, what I do when I need a boost is skip other people’s profiles. I head straight to my own instead. That sounds narcissistic, I know, but keep with me. If I’m putting on my best face online, then my profile will reflect that, right? So I just need to go back to social media to remind myself that life is not all bad.
Specifically, I turn to Instagram. While I often use my personal Facebook page to vent (my poor friends!), my Instagram represents the best of me. When I’m feeling down about life, I can scroll through the photos and remember that it’s not all as dark as it seems.
5. Take comfort in knowing you’re not alone.
I’m not sure if this is helpful to everyone, but knowing that others have persevered in more difficult situations is both motivating and inspiring to me.
There are many stories I take heart in…stories from people who endured the Holocaust to those from present day refugees. I don’t find comfort in these stories because someone had it worse than me, but because someone had it worse than me and they didn’t let it break them.
Take this example I heard on the podcast Reply All. It’s about how teachers who were sent to a Chinese concentration camp during World War II – the Weishen Prison Camp to be exact – ran Girl Guide and Brownie troops for the kids there. They played games, sang songs and practiced their table manners all while living in the shadow of death.
In the podcast, they interview Mary Previte who was one of the girls. She had this to say:
I’m not saying this was fun city. I’m telling you we lived a miracle where grownups preserved our childhood.
And the amazing thing was that Mary was a boarding school student so she wasn’t with her parents. These were relative strangers who were going above and beyond to protect and insulate her innocence.
That touches me in a very profound way. Yes, I have been dealt a lousy hand, but my kids are all here and safe. If people who literally couldn’t be sure they would be alive by sundown could keep it together and put a positive spin on their situation, so can I.
What about you? How do you cope with knowing you can’t have the life you want?
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