I was born and raised in the “People’s Republic” of Arlington, Virginia, a largely white, liberal and upper-middle class pressure cooker steaming with the kind of one-upping infamous in the Washington, D.C. area. At my highly competitive public high school, Vera Bradley totes, Tiffany & Co. bracelets, and AP classes were all in vogue. It was assumed you would get a new car for your birthday ― and certainly one nicer than any of your teachers drove. The overall mentality was “work hard, play hard.” Perform well in your college prep classes, and your reward would be great in consumerist heaven. As long as you earned the desired grades and test scores, your parents would turn a blind eye to your weekend ragers. It was not an environment where anyone held onto high school sweethearts very long, let alone married them.
Having now lived in more modest parts of the country, I’m even more shocked by my hometown’s culture of teen decadence now than I was then. Shocked and maybe a little jealous. Not because I wanted to keep up with my classmates’ fashion or parties, but I did envy their freedom. My parents were strict. One of their many rules was that I was not allowed to date until college. I adhered to that rule until my now-husband interfered.
I met David when I was a sophomore and he was a freshman, but we didn’t begin dating until my senior year. We saw each other at our shared extracurriculars and gradually got to know each other until I felt a crush coming on. Uh-oh.
Now, you’re probably wondering why I didn’t just give the ol’ teenage rebellion a try and go for it. Well, back then I felt a tremendous sense of duty ― guilt, really ― for all of the comforts and opportunities I had in my life. My life was so much easier and comfortable than what my parents had known at my age. I thought the best way to show my gratitude was to follow their rules and make the most of all they had given me. So I did ― until I could no longer deny that I had fallen in love with David.
In a way, I wasn’t really breaking my parents’ rules at all. I had waited to find someone who loved and respected me and shared similar values. He actively envisioned me as part of his future and only ever treated me with kindness. Even during tough times, we laughed together. We dated for the rest of high school and throughout college, evading all the pitfalls of hookup culture and online dating.
But I would be lying if I said I never suffered any anxiety about our relationship. Like many young women in my situation, I kept trying to solidify our post-grad plans. There were many questions, sure, but the central one was, when we would we get married? I would alternate between telling myself, “As soon as we both have real jobs and some savings” and, “As soon as I’ve hit X, Y, Z, and other milestones.”
Of course, this wasn’t a one-person decision. Marriage involves two people.
Luckily I didn’t have to hint too much because David also had marriage on his mind, yet he’s a classic Type B and I’m a classic Type A. He was confident that all would be revealed in time, whereas I practically wanted graphs and charts to map out everything from our engagement to our first home. As far as David was concerned, we couldn’t decide anything until we graduated from college and his older brother married his fiancé. Always a list-maker, I produced many lists during this period. I had (and have) such big dreams and I wanted to find a place for David in every single one of them. Already fretting about college graduation, AmeriCorps, and a handful of creative projects lined up for the near future, I made engagement something to fret about, too.
Yet when David graduated from college early and I stayed on to earn another degree, I finally let go. He moved back home with his father while he worked his first job, and suddenly I no longer saw him every day. I had to focus on myself and the goals I had independent of him. That didn’t mean saying goodbye to him. It meant ensuring I didn’t say goodbye to all I had spent the last four years cultivating in myself.
Today, a year and a half into marriage, I’m so grateful that I embraced the woman I knew I was becoming ― that I was bold enough to chase after so much of what I imagined I would.
David and I remained together quite happily, even though we didn’t always live in the same city. I traveled and kept my creative, professional, and spiritual goals at the forefront. I trusted that our time as husband and wife would come as I continued fighting for my big dreams. Instead of making checklists, I listened to myself. I’d ask myself what I wanted to experience and accomplish that day, that week, that month, and I would do it. Every once in the while, the old anxiety would creep back, but I quickly shushed it. David and I were building a life for ourselves at our own pace. That pace didn’t have to suit anyone but us.
A year and a half after I finished school, David proposed. It was a blustery March evening, and we were sitting at a restaurant special to us. By that time, he had been working in his field for a couple of years and no longer lived at home. I was also working in my field and had recently seen the release of two books I had edited. But neither of us had finished grad school or lived in an apartment sans roommates or achieved any number of other arbitrary milestones. With the howling wind and rain spoiling our river view, the timing was perfectly imperfect. Completely in love and tired of making calculations, I said yes.