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Challenge: WHO Are You?

Who I Could Have Been

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It’s tempting in this season of life—the one that is filled with diapers and dishes and falling asleep by 9:30 most nights, and also with sloppy toddler kisses and family vacations and a sweet spot in my career—to say that this is all I’ve ever wanted.

And it is, kind of. I have a loving partner, a delightful daughter, a fulfilling career, and a supportive community. I would not trade the life I have now for the deceptive promise of a better one. But I sometimes think about the paths I didn’t take and wonder if I did myself a disservice by not pursuing one of those instead. There were moments throughout my childhood when I thought maybe I’d be a journalist, or a member of the Peace Corps, or an actress on Broadway (never mind that I couldn’t sing, despite years of practice in choir class).

But for most of my life, I was consumed by one desire: to be a lawyer. My dad planted the idea in my head when I was about five years old. The details are fuzzy now, but I remember I was arguing with my him over some technicality, some loophole, some bit of faulty logic in the way he was choosing to parent me in that moment. He told me I should be a lawyer, because I could charge people to argue on their behalf. (I know now that this is a massive oversimplification, but hey, I was five and it made sense to me.)

The seed germinated, and as I grew up, I became fascinated by law, history, justice, and equity. My heart has always had a deep bent toward fairness, and I now see that this was the image of God in me all along: I am a justice-seeking, equality-loving, do-gooding Enneagram Type 1.

I was also certain I’d be president someday, and I distinctly remember feeling disappointed that I probably wouldn’t be the first woman to hold the office. Surely there would be a few of them before I became eligible several decades later.

(I’ll be eligible in 2024, in case you’re wondering.)

My dad helped me chart my path to the presidency: he encouraged me to stay stubborn and argumentative, attend law school, work as an attorney, run for Senate, and eventually, take my place in the history books.

I committed to the path externally by reading political biographies, taking every single social studies class available at my high school, and participating in Youth in Government (basically, Model UN for Senate hopefuls).

I committed to the path internally, too, by deciding to opt out of family life. Somewhere along the way I picked up the idea that a woman with a powerful career wouldn’t have time to birth or raise children (though my parents never, ever would have believed this or said it to me). I was open to the idea of having an equally ambitious husband, maybe, but there would certainly be no babies, no maternity leaves, no tiny noses or butts to wipe, no daycare drop-offs or school plays in my future.

I started my college career majoring in political theory and social movements, fully intending to go to law school after graduation. Two years into my degree, and six months after becoming involved with an ultra-conservative campus ministry, I made an abrupt decision to change my major to elementary education, mostly because it seemed like the good-Christian-girl thing to do.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about this decision, one that seemed out the blue and out of character for me. When I called my mom to tell her the news—thinking she’d be thrilled because she was a teacher too and has always been supportive of my crazy dreams—she asked, “But why? Are you sure you like kids enough to be a teacher?”

The story I told everyone was this: while observing a school board meeting, I realized I’d rather be affecting change in the classroom than debating the politics of those changes several levels removed. That’s commendable, to be sure, but it wasn’t true.

The story I didn’t tell, the one I wouldn’t even admit to myself until many years later, was this: I thought I’d make a more attractive wife candidate if I didn’t have dreams of holding political office, if I just had a nurturing, traditional-gender-roles kind of job. I thought I’d say, “I’m a first grade teacher,” and the men would melt as they pictured me mothering their children.

Though no one said this to me explicitly, somehow I knew that any move to make myself smaller was a move to make God and my family bigger. So I changed my major to elementary education began to retreat before I truly had a chance to advance.

Ten years later, I sometimes wonder who I could have been, what I could have done, if I’d followed my passion for activism and change and politics.

In describing my career path to friends, I’ve laughed about my naive little dreams many times: “Isn’t that cute? Isn’t that just darling? I thought I would go to law school! I thought I could be president! I thought I’d never have kids! Wouldn’t that all have been so terribly wrong for me?”

Or would it?

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I see now that my life could have gone any number of ways, and I actually don’t believe that I am now on the single perfect path for me. At the same time, acknowledging that another path could have fit too doesn’t mean I want to leave the one I’m on now. It’s just that sometimes I wish I could keep in touch with all the Brittanys who went different ways.

There are some paths that would horrify me, I’m sure—some unhealthy relationships that almost became permanent, some moves I’m deeply grateful I didn’t make. Perhaps I could tell each of those Brittanys that she did the best she could in the moment, hold her hand and tell her she’s still loved, she’s still herself, and she has not given away all her power.

And there are some Brittanys I’d love to cheer on: the attorney living in D.C., preparing to run for a Senate seat in the next few years; the journalist living in New York City or maybe San Francisco, guzzling coffee and staying up too late writing headlines; the stay-at-home mom in Georgia, chasing her kids as they chase a soccer ball in the backyard; the expat living in Europe, scraping together an income from waiting tables and teaching classes and writing novels.

What I’m trying to say is there are a lot of things that were once true about me, a lot of things that are still true about me, and just because they didn’t become the overarching narrative of my life doesn’t make them any less true.

I’ve spent a lot of time this year regretting some things I used to believe about faith and God and people. I’ve spent a lot of time deconstructing ideas that I’ve always found icky but just recently have become willing to wrestle with. For a long time, I thought that anything I had shed—a belief I used to have, a career I used to want, a desire I used to feel—was misguided, at best, flat-out wrong, at worst. And sure, it’s okay to admit that I’ve done and said and believed things I sincerely regret now, that truly were misguided and wrong.

But that doesn’t mean that every path I could have pursued but didn’t—every door I chose not to open—was bad or ill-fitting. Those people I could have become—the journalist, the lawyer, the president, the expat, the woman who chose to never become a mom or the woman who chose to become a stay-at-home mom—those all could have been valid, even good, options for me. The further I get down my own life path, the more I am willing to hold space for what could have been. And the more I hold that space, the less resentful I feel about the moments when I was less than true to myself.

I’m not going to wrap this up with a bow and say that the life I have is the only one that was really right for me all along. But this next part is still true: every little decision I’ve made in my life has led me here, to a life I love even though it’s not quite what I imagined, even though it could have gone a million different ways and it still could have been “right.”

I write words and put them into the digital world, but I still long to see them bound into a real book.

I spent my most energetic years working for social justice in education, and even though I’m in a different industry now, I’m learning that I still have influence and I can use it for good.

I’m pretty low on the totem pole at work, but that doesn’t stop me from advocating for real change and being an unconventional leader where I can.

I have a pig-tailed little girl who looks just like me, but she is wildness embodied where I was passive and content. For a while I thought she was my polar opposite, but now I realize she is fully living out in her body what I’ve felt in my heart all along but was too afraid to show.

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I have a husband who is not exactly the man I thought I married, but in the very best way: five years in, and I’m just barely starting to see the layers that make him who he is, just barely beginning to understand the depth of his character and his faith and his love for people.

This is how things look for me at age thirty, and I hope there are plenty more years and a million more decisions ahead of me. I like to believe I’m getting better at charting my course from a place of knowing myself, that I’m growing ever closer to the image of God that’s been inside me the whole time.

A version of this post originally appeared on Brittany's blog, Brittany L. Bergman. You can follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

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