On Not Having It All Figured Out

It’s 5:45 a.m. and I am at a gift kiosk in Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow, standing in front of a row of Matryoshka dolls that are all priced in rubles. I have no internet access in Russia, and I’ve never had to convert currency from rubles before, so I am slowly and methodically pricing each of the dolls backwards to see which of them is the least over-the-top but still a suitable gift for my four-year-old daughter. My anxious, constantly-rushing soul is freaking out over the amount of time I am taking on this exercise; but I remind myself that my layover is more than five hours long—so the more time I take up selecting a doll for Matilda, the better. I finally choose a yellow doll with three layers, pay the lady judging me for choosing the simplest one, and retreat to sit at my gate, where a dozen Orthodox Jewish men are chanting their morning prayers into a pink sunrise…

This is the latest in a long list of souvenirs I have bought for my daughter on an international business trip. There is a huge map of the world in her bedroom and every time I leave, I point to where in the world I am flying, and she asks me what I will bring back for her. The map is three feet wide. Matilda thinks the world is three feet wide. She frequently asks me if we can take the subway to the Carmel Highlands in California, and each time I explain to her the depth and vastness of the world, and the constraints of the NYC subway system, and then settle on a plaintive, “Maybe next month.” She thinks I’m the coolest person on the earth she studies.

When I was a kid, my dad traveled for work—a lot—for most of my childhood. I bragged to my friends, “My dad is in London today;” or, “My dad’s in Tokyo. He travels all the time,” picturing him, jetting off to cosmopolitan business destinations with intentions of big money deals and souvenir shopping for me. From Tokyo, he brought me a perfectly realistic set of plastic sashimi that was (heartbreakingly) lost in one move or another. From London, a tiny t-shirt that said MIND THE GAP that I did not understand at all. In my mind, he spent all of his copious free time on these trips looking for just the right gift for me, his beloved daughter.

In reality, my dad was flying for hours, landing, going straight into meetings and business meals with jet lag, and allotted very little time for personal flights of fancy—just like I do now. On his first trip to Tokyo, he was to teach a computational programming language to local engineers. His visit was important enough to be covered by a journalist from a small paper, and somewhere I have a clipping from a Japanese newspaper with a picture of my dad in his tight fro and enormous wire-framed glasses posing next to an ancient computer, smiling the way you’d expect of a 31-year-old man on his very first trip to Asia in the mid-80s. It was an honor for him to be there. The youth in his eyes then is what gets me. Today, I’m older than he was in that picture. They flew him across the world to teach his expertise; but when I was a kid, that trip was only remarkable to me because he brought me plastic sushi.

I used to think my parents had it all together. Actually, in truth, I used to think that the way to have it “all together” was to get married and have children at age 30. For some reason my young mind settled on that as the transition, the door through which you passed into adulthood, where your time was then defined by having too much money and too much fun spending it. In retrospect, it was a sort of death I envisioned: death in the absence of growth, the absence of trials, the absence of insecurities.

This is common, I think, for children to perceive their parents as the penultimate adult models. We inch slowly toward their age every day and realize how little they knew and how unprepared they were and how naked we all remain in this world long past our birthday. Having realized that my parents are, in fact,not superheros at all (or at least not the way I originally perceived them to be), I look at my daughter and feel it’s impossible that she could see me as a model of adulthood, as someone who’s got it all “figured out”. In the one conscious hour that we are at home together every morning, she sees:

– me, panicked, guzzling coffee, potentially black if the milk has spoiled (it has)

– me, in various states of undress as I delve into the depths of self-consciously second-guessing my wardrobe, cussing under my breath

– me, forgetting what time it is when the radio suddenly starts playing a song I love, singing and dancing along, making us late

And even at 33, it’s still odd to me that anyone so small would look to me as the one in charge of her life. I didn’t get married. I skipped a step and lost the rhythm. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m really only marginally qualified for this job. One day my kid will find that out.

I have a photo of my parents on their wedding day, deliriously happy in the back of a taxi, my mom clutching her bouquet and my dad holding an enormous Zabar’s shopping bag, probably the wedding cake. It’s flash photography and my dad blinked, a huge smile topped by closed eyes representing dramatic irony of walking blindly into official adulthood, hoping for the best. I looked at this photo as a kid and saw adults that found their soulmates and were about to start the rest of their lives. Now when I look at it, I see, they were just kids themselves. Think of all the wonderful things they didn’t know would happen.

No one, not ever, not anywhere, has everything all figured out. But what I do know for sure is: that’s not really so bad.

(Photograph by Joseph Rodriguez. Thank you, Anja.)

6 thoughts on “On Not Having It All Figured Out

  • Reply piper ann February 27, 2018 at 6:35 pm

    This is spot on and gave me chills. I try to let my 4 year old know that I’m just doing my best, but I’m just making stuff up as I go. Sometimes I have to apologize to him and I regret yelling or overreacting, but I’m proud that I can give that to him, and soon my 1 year old. Lol, I guess it would be cool if they could avoid being let down when they find out I’m not perfect, by just knowing from a young age.

  • Reply Aman Sidhu February 27, 2018 at 7:56 pm

    Lovely essay and can relate on many levels (especially the coffee, wardrobe, singing bit). Raising a glass to not having it all figured out.

  • Reply Kelsey February 27, 2018 at 8:43 pm

    My heart caught in my throat – I love this. I remember looking at my college aged cousins when I was in middle school and thinking they had it all figured out and I couldn't WAIT to get there. How surprised I was to find out that just because you reach an age you don't have it all figured out. How cool that our kids see us as superheros even if we don't see ourselves that way.

  • Reply Amanda March 3, 2018 at 11:49 am

    Same here! I distinctly remember riding the school bus in middle school and watching the high schoolers get on the bus. I wondered, "How do they know what bus to get on? There are no lines like at my school?" And, "How do they know what classes to go to? I heard they don't just stay in one room!"

    Now that I'm a mom, I wonder how my parents knew everything—when to take us to the doctor and when to wait it out, how to cook supper every night, how to make decisions without Google! But I'm slowly realizing… they didn't know everything, they just did their best, like I'm trying to do, like I'm DOING.

    Thank you for this!

  • Reply Jenissa March 10, 2018 at 9:18 pm

    This essay made my pores rise. The humanity of it is gripping and refreshing.

  • Reply LaTonya Yvette May 23, 2018 at 1:28 am

    Thank you Jenissa. Anja is amazing.


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