Reflection: Water and Wild Boars

By Steph Conroy

In my first year of teaching, struggling to keep my head above water, I came out of a relationship that was unhealthy. This person was very charming and very good at making me feel ashamed. He was also good at keeping me stationary. He travelled. Explored. Went places. Meanwhile, I stagnated, afraid to wander. Afraid I might get in trouble. Uneasy at the thought of his disapproval, which became more arbitrary and demoralising as time went on. Fortunately, by then, we had drifted apart.

A year later though, I was still drifting. Life was monotonous. It was late nights rehashing memories over cans of Wild Boar 9% bourbon. It was episode after episode of Arrested Development (the irony of the title wasn’t lost on me). It was lesson planning and marking work and doubting I was qualified to do these things at every turn. It was various incarnations of Noodle Box. Again. Again, I drifted in eddies around the people who were familiar. I began to hear a voice that told me that this wasn’t right, that I wasn’t doing the right things with my life, and I indulged these whispers and let them coax me into a quiet unhappiness.

But then the tide changed – yes, LOL at this extended water metaphor – and I moved away from old friends. Away from people who I loved, but who didn’t know how to listen. Those who liked to rehash memories but were reluctant to make more. And then I started to swim, tentatively, against the current of familiarity. I was tired of being the person who let myself get away with doing nothing I really wanted to do because I was waiting for something intangible. I recognised that it wasn’t just that shitty boyfriend who had undermined my confidence. It wasn’t the friends I told myself were holding me back. It was years of fulfilling expectations I had never questioned, and then passively watching my life grind to a halt while I waited for the next milestone (or boyfriend) to come along so things could keep moving as they were “supposed to”.

See, the trajectory is straightforward- the white, straight, middle-class trajectory, anyway- and it is one I’ve known would never be a question of if, but when. It is the narrative that begins in adulthood with formal education and a great job. Cool, I thought. Boxes checked. But then in Chapter 4, marriage takes focus as the zenith of female achievement, followed shortly thereafter by children. In Chapter 5, we learn home ownership is challenging but possible on a dual income. Chapter 6: Dinner Parties and Nice Jeans. I’m not even being facetious when I say this is what I wanted. Or expected. But something was wrong. I was pedaling but not moving. I was floundering. My development was arrested.

What do you do if this path doesn’t present itself so readily? What if you don’t meet that special someone at university or at a nightclub or a coffee shop or online or at that bullshit yoga class you took that one time? To me it felt as though that life-path, that runway, flanked by bright lights which had been blazing expectantly since 18, had gradually fallen into disrepair. Like someone had snapped the book shut under my nose and steered me away from the tarmac. And I watched from the terminal as the journeys of others took off without incident around me. What the fuck would I do with my life if the only path that existed didn’t happen for me? What if no amount of moping or furious bursts of gym activity would bring about this destiny? And so, kicking and screaming, at the edge of the waterfall, I thrust myself out of the fucking river and found a vantage point on the rocky earth surrounding it.

First, I examined my assumptions about what my life should look like, starting with the three categories I had lumped single women into.

  1. Women who are single want to get married, or find a life-partner- that is a given, and when they do, and they almost always do, they are happy. Always. Always and forever, Amen.
  2. OR, women who are single are frivolous and confident and ambitious and impossibly beautiful and once they’ve earned a bunch of cash and they’re tired of living it up in their high-rise apartments and drinking Aperol Spritz and they’ve grown weary of bedding model after football player after Wall Street banker-type in magnificent displays of physical prowess, they’d get on with that marriage stuff. Yawn. No biggie.
  3. OR, women who are single-proper are “dumpy” and have cats and eat Twisties for dinner and wear polar fleece and have no interest in men so this doesn’t concern them.

How? How, could I have drunk all three batches of this gross patriarchal Kool-Aid, then found the emergency stash, guzzled that like a thirsty disciple and licked the sides of the receptacle it was served in? I should mention, I am done beating myself up for this ignorance. Unlike many of the fierce, intelligent, independent women I now know, I did not grow up in a feminist household. If I utter it now, regardless of the context, the word itself seems to drop into the family living-room like a lead turd and the air grows stale until someone breaks it with a short laugh. I didn’t know anybody who was a feminist until I was in my early-twenties, and even then I wasn’t interested. I mean I actually used the word dumpy for fuck’s sake. While I’ve worked wilfully to rectify this lack of understanding and awareness, I realised my deficit of knowledge had rendered me a disempowered blob when it came to the notion of independence and self-actualisation. It had never occurred to me that some women enjoy being single- choose to be single- and have meaningful, fulfilling lives. What?! That’s crazy talk. Some women engage their minds in further study? They hike mountains? They go camping? They join clubs and meditate and make new friends and they travel solo? They go to the gym to get strong, as opposed to throwing kettlebells around in the name of self-loathing? They do these things in and of themselves, not as a means to some prescriptive end. They do them despite being single. And some of them are not single. Some aren’t straight. Some like cats and not polar fleece. Some are married and living it up in high-rise apartments drinking Aperol Spritz. Some can’t afford that house, even on a dual income.

Essentially, vitally, I learned that women don’t fit neatly into three categories like bags of lentils in the soup aisle. As such, neither do their life paths. Hallelujah. I could finally stop trying to assign myself to type-A. I could conserve the energy I’d spent avoiding type-C, and start working on carving a path for myself. It would be a path that reflected what I truly wanted. It was just a matter of figuring out what that actually was.