The Compromise

A young (and surprisingly fresh-looking, given that it’s dawn in this photo) me, feeding LittleMan his first rice cereal on the floor of my parents’ house, February 2009

I had a conversation with someone last week that got me thinking about regret.

Regret is such an ugly word: one that connotes shame and sadness and a desire to move backwards in the hopes of rewriting history.  It is such a strange word to associate in any way with the following of love and the bearing of children…and yet, in fathoming the life not lived, the path not chosen, it lurks somewhere on the fringes.  After all, children are the great before-and-after in a person’s life.  There is the person you were before – those ambitions, those priorities, those needs – and then the person you become the moment your first child is born.  You might still have the same ambitions, priorities, needs…but now those are all tangled up in someone else’s needs too, someone who comes first.  There are new logistics to consider.  Financial realities.  A dearth of sleep.  A dearth of free time.  And so it is a simple fact of life that children put certain projects on hold, perhaps indefinitely.

We are all dogged by regret, but it’s something we don’t talk about much.  What opportunities might you have taken? Would you have spent your time the same way?  What would you have done differently, if you could have anticipated how children would change your life?  (Because – and it never fails to surprise me how true this is!! – NO ONE ANTICIPATES how much children will change her life.)    

I recently finished Elle Luna’s graphic manifesto, The Crossroads of Should and Must.  In the book, she touches on the issue of time
and the sheer impossibility – for most people, but for the purposes of this
essay let’s say for mothers in particular – of letting go of the excuses that keep us from following our passions.

I’ll start by saying that I really enjoyed Should and Must.  It’s a quick read, and visually quirky and engaging.  I found it thought-provoking at this moment in my life, standing at my own little crossroads as my babies blossom into childhood and my 15-year-strong career starts to feel a bit exhausting.

This is the point.

But I’ll add that sometimes I think these books can make those of us with creative passions but “regular” jobs feel kind of…crappy.  Let’s say you didn’t, for example, drop everything and quit your job and move across the country to find the exact white-walled room you saw in a dream and then fill those walls with the outpourings of your creative heart.  Maybe that simply wasn’t an option for you.  The Crossroads of Should and Must is a place of privilege.

I know a thing or two about creative privilege.  The Creative Writing department at Princeton is, if you will forgive me, a mindblowingly impressive place in the world.  Toni Morrison.  Joyce Carol Oates.  I spent hours in rooms with these writers, rooms with sofas instead of desks and we all sat around reading and they critiqued my work and I had arrived.  Arrived.

Until I departed, because I was rejected.  At half-term in my Junior year the time came to declare which type of English major I wished to be, and I submitted three years’ worth of my best work, and the Creative Writing department rejected me.

In a fit that I now chalk up to the blind self-obsession of youth, I railed about the injustice on the phone with my father, who took it with extreme grace and empathy, given that he had made my education a finical priority for the better part of 18 years.  Then I got my shit together, found some perspective, wrote a non-fiction thesis I was proud of, graduated, and embarked on a career which required a great deal of writing.  I earned a reputation as strong and quick with the written word.  So you see?  That rejection didn’t break me at all.

Except.  Except the fact that I did not actually write again – for fun, for myself – for 10 years.  I JUST STOPPED.  One hit to my ego, and I gave up on Must, like, big time.  And I really, really regretted that.  I regretted it every time someone asked me if I still wrote.  Every time one of my friends said (so well-intentioned!) I just keep waiting to read that you wrote the next great American novel.  Every time someone asked me what happened to my stories. (I lost them.  For real.  They might be on a floppy disk in the only storage/memory box we allow ourselves to keep in our 850 square feet.  But I’m not sure.)

In the many years I have reflected on the ways this creative rejection did (and, practically speaking, totally did NOT) change my life I have had to reckon with one truth: I didn’t have the courage to be a writer when I was 20.  I didn’t have the cojones to get rejected and get back to it.  The fact of the matter is – and if this is the case I don’t fault them for one minute – those incredible people at whose feet I laid my best work?  They might have just been looking for a little more COURAGE.

You know what gave me courage?  It’s so stupid, so…millennial: this blog gave me courage.  A blog I never would have started if I didn’t have a crazy toddler who was crazy picky and for whom I cooked like crazy anyway.  A blog where I started putting myself out there in all my maternal vulnerability and found so much support.

Here’s what’s funny: Should gets a bad rap in Should and Must.  Should can be a place of privilege too.  Should is kind of a nasty word for Responsibility, which I am fortunate to have in golden spades: children to love and feed and clothe and educate, a husband to stand shoulder-to-shoulder and share the load with, a home to save up for.  These are good Shoulds:  Shoulds I dreamed of and prayed for, Shoulds I am proud of, Shoulds I would – literally – throw myself in front of a train for.

The point is that my Shoulds led me back to my Must.

There are never only two choices.  There is always a third: we’ll call it the Compromise of Should and Must.  This is a good place to live.  It is a place of creative tension, a place in constant flux, a place where balance is being fought out, but there are no “wrong” choices.  It is a place that is stressful sometimes, but in the best way, which bears remembering.

It is a place I didn’t know existed when I was 20 and single-minded and self-righteous.

It is a place I had to earn…and then discover I had earned it.


(Full disclosure: The Crossroads of Should and Must was sent to me a few months ago by my friends at Workman Publishing, whom I’ve worked with over on postmodyrn.  They publish some seriously great cookbooks too.)


  1. Jaime, this was a truly insightful piece on rejection, ego, responsibilities, and dreams. I'm so glad to hear that you're ready to dive back into your passion.

  2. Thank you, Lizzy!

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