Love, marriage, kids - life does not follow a timeline

When I was 24, my great-aunt and great-uncle asked about my life goals.

At the time, I was working nights as a copy editor and dreamt of shifting into a full-time writing job.

I also remember telling them that I wanted to write a memoir some day, get married and have kids.

I remember my great-aunt telling me that I hadn't lived enough to write a memoir yet. And my great-uncle asking about the marriage thing: "When do you want to get married... in 10 years?"

Ten years? By then I would be 34, which seemed ancient.

"Nah, more like somewhere in between," I said.

After all, my mother had married at 27 - and my parents were and still are incredibly happy - so I assumed my life would take a similar trajectory.

My great-uncle smiled and nodded, and that was the end of the conversation. If he thought I was naive for thinking I could pinpoint when I would reach certain life milestones, he didn't say so.

Ten years since that conversation, I am 34. I still live in Washington, DC. I was able to escape the night shift and am happy to have a writing job now.

I have not written that book yet, but I know I will.

I'm very single and I have no idea whether I'll be starting that family with someone else or going it alone.

Sometimes, the uncertainty over that last bit is just fine. It can be exciting that, at 34 (which I'm pleased to report is still quite young), I don't have it all figured out yet; that the story of my life is still unfolding.

And sometimes - when my friends are welcoming babies into the world or they're freezing their eggs or I'm editing an essay about a woman trying to get pregnant on her own - the uncertainty is overwhelming.

I love my life, but I still envision more. The family piece of that dream for my future, which always seemed like a given, is still a question mark.

When you're young, most of your life proceeds in a linear way. You graduate from high school, then college, then get a job.

When real life doesn't progress as smoothly, in relationships or career, it can be hard to sit with.

"We think about planning our lives like there's one of two ways to go: You're a completely lazy slacker who lets it be all about fate. Or you're this hyper-control freak who's trying to force her life to go a certain way," says Sara Eckel, author of It's Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You're Single.

"We think of them both as being not appealing. Or you kind of bounce back and forth between the two ways and neither one is sort of satisfying."

So how do you plan for something that is not as straightforward as making deposits into a savings plan or buying health insurance?

Eckel talks about the Buddhist notion of the middle path, where you strive to be somewhere between slacker and checklist dater.

"If you want to have a relationship, you do what you need to do - you get off the couch and go to the cousin's friend's birthday party, but you don't make it such a big deal if you don't meet anyone that day, or that week, or that year."

Part of adulthood is realising that life works in meandering ways.

"Maybe you go to that party and you don't meet anyone you want to go on a date with or who will be the father of your children some day. But you do meet someone who has a lead on an apartment," and then you end up getting a job lead from someone in that building.

Eckel also stressed not putting parts of your life on hold: Don't wait to buy a house or take that dream vacation until your dream travel companion pops into your life.

Most singles I've met or interviewed aren't ready for a serious relationship until their career is on solid footing. And that can take a while.

For example, Adam Smiley Poswolsky, a 33-year-old writer and motivational speaker in San Francisco, is looking for a serious relationship, but his main focus right now is on his career.

"I've found that it's hard for me to get a long-term relationship going because my lifestyle is so nomadic," said Poswolsky, who has written a book, The Quarter-Life Breakthrough, about how there is no timeline for adulthood anymore.

"It's hard to create the routine and healthy habits when you're on the go. Hard to settle down when you're not settled."

He sees his generation as "inventing the timeline for yourself", adding that even with a lucrative job, it can be extremely difficult to buy a home.

"You have to create a different timeline, and that's okay," he said.

"The problem is that there isn't necessarily a road map for how to do that. And that's where the problem comes in. That's where the anxiety comes in."

So what do you do to manage the anxiety?

Dating coach and personal image consultant Neely Steinberg found therapy to be incredibly helpful.

"It's important to have people by your side - not just family and friends who will say what you want to hear, but also to work with people who can give an unbiased perspective," she noted.

"People want answers," she added. "They want magic formulas" to find their life partner. But "you have to learn how to be okay with loneliness".

My great-aunt and great-uncle died several years ago, and we never had the chance to follow up on that conversation we had a decade ago.

But if we could, I would thank my great-uncle for over-estimating my time frame. For giving me room rather than pressure.

And we would probably get a big laugh out of how certain I had been about how my life would unfold.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 30, 2017, with the headline 'Love, marriage, kids - life does not follow a timeline'. Print Edition | Subscribe