It’s a common complaint in the modern age that we have too much choice. In the last week I have purchased a laptop and a cup of coffee and both came with a seemingly unending list of options. Still, this is not the choice I refer to. Instead I want to talk about choice on a larger scale, choice that many of us seem to forget or overlook.
A phrase I have long known to be true (and yet spent several years with my ex-husband trying to deny it) is that you have the relationship you deserve. If you are being treated in a way you don’t like and yet you stay then it really is that you are choosing to be treated in that way. In many ways this goes further, that you have the life you deserve.
This isn’t to deny the horrible things that happen, rather that there are always options, there are always choices. It’s easier to tell ourselves that there aren’t. So many of our options can be unappealing that choosing between them can feel as though there aren’t choices. My most recent unappealing choice was between continuing in a job that was making me miserable (the contract for which was coming to an end anyway) or quitting and losing the last month’s salary. I chose to leave and maintain my faith in being the master of my own destiny but I won’t pretend that this wasn’t made on the basis of only giving up the last month of a job. Had it been a permanent position I’m not sure I’d have made the same decision. It was a horrible choice
But if I had to name a single word that defined happiness for me, my answer would be autonomy. My definition originates from a negative; unhappiness for me is a lack of freedom, power and choice. When I surrender my sense of these things I surrender my capacity for joy. In the sphere of relationships this isn’t so revolutionary. Controlling partners stifle us and make us unhappy while supportive partners nurture us and make us happy. But rarely do we take the model into other aspects of our lives.
My grandfather made an astute observation this week. I commented that I was exhausted by the juggling of my work and family life, which being a stepmother took its toll on me in ways I had never imagined. My Grandfather’s rather gruff response was that I didn’t have to care for my partner’s kids. At the time I felt this hugely unfair; while admittedly I had made a choice to live with my partner, surely now the fact I have to cook for, clean up after and generally care for two small children was not a choice. But it is a choice. I could insist my partner did it all. It would be unreasonable and would make me a total bitch but I could. I choose to be a loving and involved stepmother and my choice to make nutritional food that the boys will enjoy is absolutely a choice. I could give them a ready meal; I choose to cook a full Sunday roast. If I’m stressed by this then that is my responsibility. If I blame the pressures of society then please slap me! I choose to be a good stepmother and not a crappy one. End of.
What then of work? You have to have a job don’t you? Well yes, unless you are significantly disabled, are retired or raising a family, not having a job makes you... well let’s just say I don’t like people who don’t work. I could choose to be the kind of person I don’t like but I’m not going to (obviously). Still, I choose to do a job that causes me stress. I could choose to return to retail which caused me no stress but I don’t want to. I like the fulfilment of my challenging job and yes, I like the money. Again, when I dig beneath the surface, I cannot avoid the fact that of my options, I’m taking the one I want.
Now stepmotherhood and a challenging job are one thing but what if rather than being a stressed twenty something that looks thirty something I was deeply unhappy. What if I felt my life was on a path heading nowhere I wanted to go? Then I should change it.
My mother has a friend who stayed in an unfulfilling marriage for 25 years longer than I did. It took her longer to leave because she felt she didn’t have a choice. When she realised she did, it was game over. Despite not staying as long, I stayed too long. The first six months of my relationship were great, the first year pretty good. It then went slowly downhill. I stayed four years longer than I should have. Why did I stall? Well, mostly because I loved my ex-husband. Even in our last weeks together there were good times. The problem was that these became rarer and rarer.
That is how it goes in reality. Rarely are there snap moments where things change. Instead our relationships slide (sometimes into abuse or dysfunction but sometimes they just slide), our careers start to shift in directions we don’t want (my ex-brother-in-law springs to mind as a designer that got promoted to the point at which he all but ceased designing) and we replace cars, book holidays and buy homes without truly engaging with our choices. Even comparatively snappy experiences such as unexpected pregnancies or redundancies rarely make us sit up and think as dealing with the fallout takes all of our financial and emotional resources.
I’ve been guilty in recent months of slipping into passivity and feeling that life had taken on a momentum of its own with me trying to keep up. This is daft; I chose my life in Gloucestershire and could just as easily choose change. As it happens, a few days away thinking about things made me realise how much I am happy in my relationship (I was excited to see the fiancé and his kids tonight), how much I like my job (sure I’m stressed about returning tomorrow but that sure beats being depressed or uninspired by my return) and how ready I am to sign up to the mortgage for the house we’re hopefully now in the process of buying. I am juggling a lot but I’m happier than I was when my life lacked these things I have chosen.
Part of the reason I’m such a fan of taking time out is that when you’re in the day to day it can be hard to see your options. Sometimes they’re hidden, sometimes we have blinkers of (often to protect ourselves) but try hard enough and you find them.