Starting a new year makes me look toward the future, looking at all the choices that lay ahead of me. But it also nudges me to examine my past in a very certain way. It's the time of year I always find myself thinking about the choices I didn’t make — about the life I didn't live.
Most people I know have one or two or maybe more. The alternate universe timeline. The lives that might have been.
The one big decision that could have swayed everything the other way. It’s life’s big what-if that follows me around, tugging at my sleeve like one of my children, vying for my attention.
I find myself thinking of the one that might have been if I had decided to go to college in London ten years ago, indulging my streak of teenage rebellion and sense of adventure. The life that still would have led me to be a writer, but on a completely different level. I had the application for months, but as soon my acceptance came for the safer, cheaper, in-state school, it got shoved in a desk drawer never to resurface.
Maybe it’s a wish that life was more fluid because parenthood brings with it a permanence that is both lovely and stifling all at once. It’s a passionate curiosity to glimpse what might have been.
Had I followed that route, I would have left my high school boyfriend, the man who eventually became my husband and the father of my three children. I would not be struggling to write essays, dictating to an app on my phone while my toddler follows me through the house like a baby duckling.
I sometimes dream about that life, the one with no husband, no children, living abroad near my British relatives, or perhaps with my best friend, who made that bold move to break ties with old boyfriends and move to London to study fashion design. Perhaps by now I would have returned to California or found some new adventure. Perhaps I would be rootless, traveling and writing and drinking in a life so different than my own that I can hardly imagine the taste of it.
The thought of it is thrilling and exotic, and somewhat sad.
It is a way of living I know I will not experience in this lifetime. I wonder if the person I might have been is out there in some alternate universe, wondering what it would have been like to take this route.
The one where I am cobbling together odd hours of the night to forge my career in between breastfeeding and tending sick children. The one where I am sometimes met on the street with skepticism that I am merely a mommy blogger, filling up some excess hours of my leisure days as a stay-at-home mother by writing stuff.
In that alternate reality, I like to think I might have published a novel by now. I might have pursued my MFA. I may even have followed my latent dream of becoming a professor. It's impossible to know, yet I can't stop thinking about what might have been, no matter how many years go by.
There are other lives too, more pedestrian and closer to my own. The ones that might have happened if my parents hadn’t moved when I was halfway through high school. If I had settled down in the same manner with a hometown boy, attended the local pastry chef program, maybe falling into freelance life someday, maybe not. It’s a mirror life, one I can almost make out by stalking the lives of hometown friends on social media.
I wonder if I would be the same sort of person in each life. I wonder if all paths lead me to a similar understanding of life.
It’s hard to know what to call it. It’s not a longing for escaping this world altogether. I am not discontent in the life I have made for myself. Some days are difficult, and I wish I could take a break, step into something different. Maybe it’s a wish that life was more fluid because parenthood brings with it a permanence that is both lovely and stifling all at once. It’s a passionate curiosity to glimpse what might have been. It’s a wish that I could live a thousand different lives if only there were time. I want to experience them all, to see myself in every iteration. But at the end of it all, I think I would choose this one, time and time and time again.
Because no matter how long I spend wondering about the lives I didn’t live, this is the one I chose, and it’s the one I would choose again.