Finding joy when your dreams are falling through

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

Recently a question popped up in my DMs:

I’m a single 38 year-old woman who wants to be married and be a mother. How do I keep my anxiety over my relationship status from constantly stealing my joy?

I’ve just been finding it difficult to experience simple, everyday joys when it often feels like some of the greatest joys in life are beyond my reach.

— S

This question struck a nerve for me, not only because I remember well the feeling of being somehow locked out of life, as I sifted through a mailbox full of wedding invitations (without a plus one) and birth announcements, fearing it might never be my turn.

But also because all of us go through periods where our lives fall short of our expectations. Whether because of illness or loss, financial difficulty or infertility, the predations of others or plain bad luck — life disappoints all of us at some point. Sometimes it leaves us waiting, hanging in limbo with no clues as to whether happiness is just around the corner, or nowhere in sight. Or sometimes it tells us in no uncertain terms that our dream is DOA.

The second scenario is unquestionably the more brutal, but its finality is also freeing. A closed door doesn’t keep us waiting. It forces us to consider what else our life might be for, and move our search for happiness elsewhere.

Waiting for the uncertain promise of happiness is much harder, in my experience. And harder still when there’s an expiration date on the dream, as is the case for women who want to give birth to a child. In my experience, waiting can feel like wishing your time away. Like wanting to just flip ahead to the end of the book so you can know what happens to your favorite character. Yet that time you’re wishing away is still your life.

The answer is obviously not the “count your blessings” approach of the toxic positivity crowd. It doesn’t solve anything, and often just leaves us feeling worse. And if “the universe has your back” / “everything happens for a reason” philosophy works for you, then great, but it’s certainly not the answer for everyone.

But what, then? Is it possible to keep anxiety and uncertainty from crushing the delight of daily living?

If so, here’s how I’d go about it.

Get clear

Fear narrows. Joy expands. So if the situation you’re in is creating anxiety, your first step should be to get clear on whatever is knowable, ASAP.

I used to avoid clarity because I was afraid that I’d find out something horribly disappointing. If you don’t take the test / submit the application / ask the question, you can go along believing that your dream might be possible. But by living with your eyes half-closed, you’re trading potential disappointment for certain anxiety.

So, go get the fertility workup. See a therapist and ask yourself if there might be anything from your past that might be holding you back from a fulfilling relationship. While you’re at it, look at the models you have for motherhood, and what fears you might have about that monumental undertaking. Ask yourself whether having a child without a partner is an option. If yes, talk to family and friends about how they might support you through that experience. Based on that information, make a plan for how you’ll handle the next few years. Will you prioritize dating like it’s your job? Will you prioritize saving for a future family of two? Even if what you’re crafting is a plan B, having it will free a lot of cognitive load that is currently going toward the anxiety you have simmering on the back burner.

Mourn the plan

Now that you’ve acknowledged this isn’t how you wanted things to go, allow yourself to process your disappointment. In our How to Dream workshop, we do an exercise on grieving unlived lives — letting ourselves feel the sadness of possibilities now closed to us — so that we can focus our attention on the dreams that still might be born.

It’s easy to dismiss an unlived life as “just a dream” or “a silly wish,” and it’s understandable that you might want to minimize the suffering of not getting the life you wanted. You may have been raised to see disappointment as ingratitude, or believe that “just getting on with it” is resilience, and it’s foolish to dwell on the past. I certainly did.

But what I’ve learned is that if we don’t allow ourselves to grieve our unlived lives, sometimes they can “haunt” our present. We don’t feel full agency in our lives, because we feel like our situation is something that happened to us, something we just ended up with.

I’ll make this personal. When I was younger, I dreamed of being a matriarch of a big family. I imagined having three or more kids, a big noisy lively bunch. As an only child of parents who split when I was two, that sounded like heaven to me. Then I met my partner late, and struggled for four years with infertility. And my one child is the greatest, most magical gift.

I’m lucky to find that this life is exactly right for me — a quieter, more intimate family that is simpler in its dynamics, a snug little nest. But I believe I’m able to feel this wholeheartedly because I’ve allowed myself to also feel the loss of that other dream, and truly let it go.

It’s ok to feel sad that you haven’t gotten the easy path you’d hoped for, that it’s been hard to watch others celebrating what you want while you watch from a distance. You can be happy for them, and still hopeful, while being sad that it didn’t go down the way you wanted it to.

Live like it’s going to happen

Imagine you visited a psychic, and she looked into her crystal ball and told you that exactly one year from today, your dream will come true. You’ll meet the person you’re going to marry and have a child with. How would you spend the next year?

I asked myself this question about four months before I ended up getting together with Albert. My answer: making my life the kind of life I’d be happy to invite someone else into. In other words, not waiting!

I started reading poetry every morning before I got up. I stopped eating dinner in front of the TV all the time, and started taking myself out to eat on occasion. I searched out inspiring places to write, and would spend my Saturdays scribbling away in the Rose Reading Room at the New York Public Library. I made art dates with friends and drank a lot of Manhattans.

Did I feel lonely sometimes? Sure. But I reminded myself that one day, when I was married and had my family, I’d be too busy to do a lot of the things I enjoyed doing back then. (True fact.) And so the best way to spend that time was so that whatever happened, I wouldn’t regret it.

A big theme in my work these days is how strangely vulnerable joy is. Many of us have learned to cope with the uncertainty of life by bracing ourselves, worrying about and dress rehearsing our losses before they happen, as if this will somehow blunt the pain of their arrival.

Right now, you may be bracing yourself against the fear that your dream of finding a partner and being a mother won’t come true. Anxiety becomes like armor, and this keeps joy at a distance. How can we risk letting ourselves have joy when disappointment might be just around the corner?

But here’s a secret: when you get the thing, you have even more to lose. And this practice of holding joy at arm’s length can go on forever.

So if there’s one thing you can do for that future self, the one who hopefully soon will be sleeplessly pacing a dimly lit nursery, half-covered in spitup, it’s to learn how to let joy in. Even when you’re worried. Even when it’s just a small glimmer in a dark night. Even when it feels like it might break your heart.

December 14th, 2022

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    Discussion (19 Comments)

  1. Dani on December 14, 2022

    Such a good post. It was an encouraging and realistic perspective. Thank you

    Reply
    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on December 15, 2022

      Thanks for the kind feedback, Dani!

      Reply
  2. Blair on December 14, 2022

    “the feeling of being somehow locked out of life” – thank you! That’s exactly how I feel. Thank you also for calling out toxic positivity’s greatest hits. Maybe part of my joy will be to laugh (politely, on the inside) when someone implies I deserve my circumstances because I’m secular. That’s almost as funny as believing I deserve them for not filling my parents’ psychological voids.

    Reply
    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on December 15, 2022

      I’m sorry you’re feeling that way, and even more so that some want to blame you for it. Good for you for being able to find perspective, stand in your own truth, and laugh when it all gets too absurd. Wishing you joy, Blair!

      Reply
  3. Kay on December 15, 2022

    That is an exceptionally helpful article, well done you!   I wish my younger self had seen it.

    I’m a single (divorced) 60 yr old female with no children but over several years learned to value being single. I am happier than I was before and love my independence.   It has taken some work with a therapist which I strongly recommend. 

    Reply
    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on December 19, 2022

      Could not agree more, Kay! Having a therapist can be an invaluable guide to shifting perspective. I definitely recommend it too!

      Reply
  4. E on December 15, 2022

    Thank you so much for this perspective!

    Reply
    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on December 19, 2022

      Thank you for the kind feedback, E!

      Reply
  5. Annoesjka on December 15, 2022

    Yes, a wonderful and very insightful post indeed! Again, I’d like to add.

    I have a couple of friends (who also struggled with not getting pregnant) I’d like to share this with. And this one is something I should imprint in my heart as well: “by bracing ourselves, worrying about and dress rehearsing our losses before they happen, as if this will somehow blunt the pain of their arrival.”

    Reply
    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on December 19, 2022

      Thank you, Annoesjka! I always appreciate your warm-hearted words here. Wishing you a joyful holiday season!

      Reply
  6. Ann on December 15, 2022

    Great article — and this phrase struck me the most: ” all of us go through periods where our lives fall short of our expectations.” ALL OF US…and sometimes when you are so very disappointed, you look at others and forget this. But it is true. Your suggestions are great for almost any situation…and also remembering when you are seeing the Facebook posts of friends who have what you want — that their lives are not perfect. NO ONE has a perfect life. But we all have joys.

    Reply
    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on December 19, 2022

      Beautifully said, Ann. “No one has a perfect life. But we all have joys.” It’s so hard when we’re looking at those happy FB posts to remember that everyone’s life is a series of hills and valleys, and maybe when you’re in a valley, someone else is just at the top of a hill. Appreciate your comment and kind feedback.

      Reply
  7. Lieve Hendren on December 16, 2022

    Thank you so much for sharing this ‘underbelly’ of your story (for lack of a more eloquent term). It’s so easy to only share highlights and jump immediately to the positive reframe. As usual, your post does a beautiful job of honoring both sides of the journey. I have been wrestling with similar challenges around the gap between my greatest life dream, becoming a mother, and where I am, chronically single. I also have been trying to live into that vision of seizing advantage of my single season to take myself on dates for a few years. It’s easy to get discouraged, but living in that space of fear and frustration all the time is self-defeating. I really appreciate how your articulated grieving the dream, which is a convoluted, nonlinear process. You are always an inspiration, thank you for touching my heart.

    Reply
    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on December 19, 2022

      Thank you, Lieve. I know exactly what you mean by the “underbelly” and I’m finding more and more that that’s what I want to read, and to write. No one’s life is as simple as it seems on the surface, and yet all the media we’re offered seems to flatten things out. Yet the reality is that the “positive reframe” isn’t joy. It’s just spin. Wishing you joy in your single days and hopefully as a mother one day soon.

      Reply
  8. Mina on December 17, 2022

    Thank you, from my whole heart! ❤️ Thank you for your thoughtful and caring words and honest and brave sharing of your own experiences. 🌼

    Reply
    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on December 19, 2022

      Thank you for the kind feedback, Mina. Wishing you joy!

      Reply
  9. Lieve on December 23, 2022

    Thank YOU for your kind reply and words of support. It’s such a nonlinear process. For someone who is used to setting goals knowing a clear plan to move forward (I’ve already completed one of my 2023 work KPIs!), embracing where I have control versus where I don’t can certainly be a challenge. I really appreciate you continuing to acknowledge and ‘dig deeper’ into the core issues that delay or prevent joy. At the same time, reading this blog reinforced my commitment to live as if “my person” will magically arrive on January 1st, 2024. It’s helped me enjoy the present holidays much more. Wanted to share this gratitude with you.

    Reply
  10. Cécile on December 31, 2022

    Happy New Year Ingrid! And hello from France where it’s already midnight!
    I just read your post a few minutes after midnight and I couldn’t have asked for a better start for the New Year, this resonates so much! Reading your book in 2022 was already such a blessing, so thank you thank you for all you share and do! <3

    Reply
  11. Olivia on January 28, 2023

    Ingrid you write the most beautiful blog posts! Signing up for your emails (however late I read them) was one of my netter decisions! Thank you for this blog post, I definitely needed it

    Reply

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