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If I Could Do It All Over Again...

My fear-based decisions were never the true North of my soul.

In my weekly writing class, the prompt was familiar, for I had asked my own students the same question over the years. Yet, ironically, I had really never spent a lot of time contemplating my own response in writing. Ok, I thought…now is the time.

If I could do it all over again, what would I do differently?

And so, I began…

I would not listen to the fearful whispers, some of which have echoed in my ear throughout my years, often from others who were the closest to me: You aren’t smart enough; you’ll get lost if you go on your own; you don’t need a career; you have to get married before you graduate college otherwise it will be too hard to find someone; daughters don’t move away from home because they are supposed to take care of their mothers.

I fought these internal utterances for so long, but a few of them ultimately prevailed because I was not strong enough to combat them. “Go away,” I should have yelled at these irrational, limiting statements of supposed fact, but instead my weakened sense of self and my acquiescence won. “OK,” I responded. I’ll do the next best thing.” Of course, I now know that any of my fear-based decisions were never the true North of my soul, but this knowledge came from my years that I hadn’t yet lived. Hindsight is so easy to interpret.

I desperately wanted to be a medical doctor. I loved all subjects that had to do with the human body, physiology, biology, psychology, but I abhorred math because I feared it so. My mother’s comments reinforced my trepidation and, in a sense, affirmed my own limited beliefs in myself: “Girls aren’t really good at math, so it’s ok if you don’t understand it.”

Why didn’t I question this ridiculous statement? But, of course, I did not have the fortitude or the understanding of myself and the world regarding stereotypes and traditional roles that weren’t accurate or traditional. “I want to be a doctor, I told my mother, triumphant in my declaration of a life-long passion and career, but she reminded me that this wasn’t a job for a woman. “How could you do that and have children?” she added. So, I offered her a runner up thought, “What about a nurse?” “That’s even worse,” she responded. “You will be changing bed pans. “If you have to work, be a teacher, so you can have the summers off to be with your kids and you will be working the same hours as your children are in school.”

I knew I wanted to help others, so I placed ‘teaching’ in my memory bank to be accessed years later when considering a college major and career, replacing my passion for science and medicine with another noble, altruistic field despite its ‘runner-up’ status in my heart.

Along with my mother’s reminder that women in medicine was a poor idea, I allowed my female (!) geometry, drill sergeant-of-a-teacher to define me, but as a young girl, I allowed others to easily wrinkle my spirit. I always deferred to authority whether it was my teacher or my mother.

Fast forward to my fourth decade when I decided that I wanted to earn a doctorate for no other reason than to challenge myself within academia, as I had always loved learning. And, so I did, become a ‘doctor’ of sorts, but of course not a medical doctor. In this way, I proudly tested myself, the little girl who was told that if she had to go to college, then she at least needed to find a husband there.

The author and her husband Paul on the day she earned her doctorate degree
Source: bjaffe/blogger

One of my friends was exceedingly comfortable anywhere around the world. She could fly to an unknown European city with a map and comfortably find her way. She literally said, “I could be plopped down anywhere and feel at home.” I began to sweat just thinking about doing the same. This thought was as foreign to me as it was for my mother to allow me to drive 20 minutes from our family home in San Francisco.

“You’ll get lost. Let Daddy drive you.” I wanted to try and at times I did, all the while getting lost, sweating, pulling over to a phone booth, panicked, as I asked for directions and help. It became somewhat of a family joke that Barbara would always get lost. It wasn’t until I married and shared my trepidation with Paul that he helped me through my directional limitations by mapping out where I wanted to drive and spent a great deal of time writing it all down for me. In time, I became confident. Of course, today, a navigation system is one of my greatest joys.

Today, I can get myself to most any part of Los Angeles, which is no easy feat. However, the thought of renting a car and driving in unfamiliar territory still strikes a paralyzing fear within me. “You might want to work on this,” added my therapist who I have seen off and on for years. “Actually, I don’t. I am fine with never coming to terms with this issue and dying with the same fears. I have worked on myself so much in other ways. I will let this one go.” We both smiled, but I am truly okay with it all. I am never hesitant to find my way when my grandchildren are involved, which is enough for me.

But, these reflections are filled with hindsight and retrospection. I continue to believe that for me, regret has no room in my life. Rather, what I have chosen not to do are my choices and life lessons. So many of my trepidations ultimately propelled me further despite these thorns piercing my spirit.

Actually, I wouldn’t do anything differently if I had to do it all over again, for I am here, with a good life, a life of contentment and quality, certainly with challenges and sorrows, but of intense joy and laughter as well. Maybe, just maybe, I had to hear the whispers of fear so now that I am growing old, I can say, “Yes, I heard them, and even listened to the words of dread that deterred me at times from the path I could have taken. Yet, when I reflect on where I was and where I am, I would not do anything very differently except increase the often-muted volume of my own voice that has always guided me to where I need to be.