Like so many of us, author Mary Laura Philpott had a checklist of things she wanted in life: a thriving career, a loving partner, a beautiful home, a happy family. And also like so many of us, she thought that once she completed her checklist, she would be content. But in her new essay collection, I Miss You When I Blink, Philpott examines what happened when she "had it all" and just felt anxious, confused, and like a failure.
"For anyone who has even a speck of perfectionist tendencies, there can be this mindset that you have to get every aspect of your life perfect before you can be happy," Mary Laura Philpott tells Bustle. "I wasted a lot of mental and emotional energy trying to get every plate to spin at exactly the same speed, as if there was some state of ideal contentment I could reach at work, at home, in my friendships, etc., and only then could I let myself relax and be happy. It has taken me a long time to accept multiple states at once."
"[I think] part of that feeling of lacking is simply feeling the absence of the things you didn’t choose."
The realization that our choices can be changed led Philpott to contemplate a major overhaul of her life. But change is never easy. In her essays, Philpott writes about major career confusion, frets over whether or not to move her family to a new town, and even wonders, at one point, whether she and her husband can remain married but live in different homes. This desperate drive to figure out something that will abate her perceived inadequacies is both raw and recognizable.
"[I think] part of that feeling of lacking is simply feeling the absence of the things you didn’t choose," Philpott says. "If you choose this job, you can’t take that job. If you choose this mate, you can’t choose that mate. If you choose to have kids, you can’t have a kid-free lifestyle. Much of what we don’t have is a result of choosing something we do have. It helps me to remember that life is long, and that — while some things, like having kids, are permanent decisions — lots of choices don’t have to be forever. You can reinvent yourself repeatedly in all sorts of small ways that aren’t permanent."
Philpott does all of this mental and emotional searching and shifting with the specter of outside judgement hanging not-so-subtly over her head. It's an experience many readers will recognize all too well.
"Oh yeah, I worried. I always worry. I fretted a lot about whether I’d be letting people down if I changed. Part of that is my nature — I want to please people, and I want to be good at everything, so it’s hard to let things go. And part of it is just a common condition of womanhood — so many of us naturally assume the burden of carrying everything for everyone around us, and we imagine that we’d be disappointing people if we didn’t keep doing everything," Philpott says.
"I don’t have to love my life 100% or burn my whole life down. There are more options than just those two."
And while this story of all-encompassing upheaval isn't exactly new — you've read about Elizabeth Gilbert's travels through Europe, you've followed Cheryl Strayed's hike on the Pacific Crest Trail — Philpott writes for people more like me, and maybe like you, who are ready to hunt for true happiness without starting from scratch.
"I don’t have to love my life 100% or burn my whole life down. There are more options than just those two. I love the big life-blowup stories — they’re really fun to read, and they can be so empowering — but I am glad to contribute to a different kind of story as well. Personal evolution can come about through a series of more manageable changes, too," Philpott says.
It's this approach to carving a new life path — perhaps less cinematic but far more attainable for most — that will be comforting to readers of all ages and in all circumstances.
"Anytime you feel like something’s not quite right and also think you’re the only person experiencing that not-quite-rightness, it’s awful," Philpott says. "Part of what drove me to finish this book — and what drives me to read books — is that need to connect and show people that we’re not alone. You may feel like a weirdo for not being happy with the life everyone around you is happy with, but you’re not weird. Or maybe you are weird, but at least you know we’re weird together."
In the end, I Miss You When I Blink is about all of the lives we can lead, all of the people we can be, all of the decisions we can make and unmake and then make again throughout our lives — and it's about the passage of time: unyielding, unforgiving, yet ultimately hopeful.
"I have an obsession with time and how it keeps moving faster the older we get. It’s so damn linear! When will scientists figure out how to make a time machine so we can hop around and visit our different life phases?" Philpott says. "I love my right-now self, and I love my right-now family and friends, but I miss some things about our earlier selves and the times we had together that are now irretrievably past. Then again, it’s the things that happened in the past that helped me figure out my present. So I’m grateful to the progression of time, too, I guess. Just make me the time machine, nerds. Please."