When I was eleven, I discovered boys.
Sure, I had played the odd game of catch-and-kiss on the playground, but reluctantly, under extreme duress, accepting only a kiss on the back of my hand. And I did have my first innocent crush on a boy who was good at maths when I was nine. But for the most part, I didn’t waste much energy thinking about boys. I was happy riding my bike, climbing trees, and playing with my brother, who was a year older than me.
Until I turned eleven.
I was in primary school when some of the girls started getting boyfriends. Out of nowhere, our conversations were infiltrated with talk about boys and who had a crush on whom. Getting a boyfriend was like winning a prize. Being asked by a boy to “go out with him” was a real achievement. It was the unofficial schoolyard rating system, the popularity test. We were very young—only just coming into puberty. After holding hands for a few weeks, couples would break up, and new couples would form. It was a new era.
Over the next few years, as my body changed, so did my thoughts. I spent more and more time thinking about boys, about love, and about what I wanted for my future. Thus began my fantasies about what it would be like to have someone special and be in love.
Unbeknownst to me, my fantasies were the product of years of grooming. As a child, I had read many of the classic fairy-tale books. I watched fairy tales depicted in cartoons, and I listened wholeheartedly to the fantasy love stories read to me by my mother at night.
I loved hearing about Snow White and her adoring dwarves, who was tormented by her wicked stepmother. Miraculously she was rescued by a charming prince whom she married and together they lived happily ever after. I also enjoyed learning about Rapunzel, who was imprisoned by an evil witch inside a tower in the woods and then discovered by a charming prince, whom she later wed and went on to live happily ever after. Then there was Sleeping Beauty, who was cursed by an evil fairy and forced to spend years in a deep sleep waiting for her curse to be broken by her true love’s kiss. She was gallantly rescued by her charming prince, and they also went on to get married and live happily ever after.
There were many stories with similar themes, but my favourite story, the story that inspired me the most, was Cinderella. What an amazing transformation—the rags to riches, the wrong made right, and the toppling of another evil stepmother. All was made possible from just one night of romance, during which the handsome prince, her saviour, falls madly in love with her. Henceforth, Cinderella goes on to get married and, of course, live happily ever after.
The fairy tales all had a recurring theme: a young lady, often beautiful, trapped in a torturous circumstance, is found and rescued by a handsome and charming prince. Unquestionably, they fall in love and live happily ever after. The prince we never really knew anything about. Beyond being handsome and charming, was he a good person? Was he intelligent? Was he a good communicator? What were his best attributes? I never really did figure that out. He had money and status, and no other details were important enough to mention.
The two events were interdependent: being rescued by the charming prince and living happily ever after. To be happy, the damsel in distress needed to marry the prince. End of story.
“Happily ever after” is such a sweeping statement. What does it even mean? Supposedly it refers to a married couple with children living blissfully together in perfect harmony, without stress or adversity. It is a notion of everlasting love, implying that everything will work out perfectly in the future.
Understandably, from a very young age, I was in pursuit of my own happy ending. Just like every other little girl, I wanted my happily-ever-after. Perhaps, though, I had been misled.
Nowadays, there is much debate about the negative repercussions of a young girl’s obsession with seeking her happily-ever-after. Some suggest that such a heavy burden may cause psychological impairment. Sadly, I wasn’t blessed with this perspective when my life plan was taking shape.
And why are the villains in these fairy tales often a woman? Why is there often an evil stepmother? The fairy tales all portray the second wife as a woman who is uncaring, unloving, and fuelled by jealousy. This certainly doesn’t make it easy to send positive messages about blended families. The stories imply this subsequent wife is not capable of embracing another woman’s child. Upon reflection, this is not a constructive subliminal message.
Ironically, in these fantasy love stories, there is no mention of the psychological damage endured by the damsel in distress, no mention of post-traumatic stress disorder, no mention of the countless visits to psychologists necessary to work through her lifelong issues. The mere presence of the prince is a magical antidote that cures all.
There was no inference of Cinderella needing therapy after years of emotional and physical abuse, and there was no discussion of counselling for Rapunzel after her years in solitude. Not to mention Snow White second-guessing her own character-assessment capabilities after naively accepting gifts from strangers that almost caused her death. Any and all suffering wondrously disappeared at the hands of the prince. It magically disappeared, and they all lived happily ever after.
The fairy-tale damsels, it appeared, had no control over their future. Their prosperity hinged on the arrival of a man.
Entrenched in my subconscious mind, these fairy tales would later guide me on my own search for happiness. The terms of reference were set, and the instructions were clear: I just had to find my prince, and voila, my happily-ever-after would automatically ensue.
The grooming didn’t stop with fairy tales. Society also played a role. There was never any doubt in my family’s mind that a young girl’s destiny was to grow up, get married, and start a family. This destiny had been clear since the dawn of time, or so it seemed. Biologically, I was designed to reproduce, so it made sense that my fate was to get married and bear children. Of course, there was a suggestion that I might find a good job somewhere on my journey, but the end goal was pretty clear.
Society’s cues came from many sources, including movies, magazines, religious discussions, and general conversation. A continual flow of verbal and nonverbal cues was everywhere around me as I grew up. Every good love story ended with the girl getting the guy. Regardless of the hurdles in front of her, the leading lady always found her man. Society ignited in me, and in every other little girl, a love-story fantasy, a fabricated dream.
The message was unmistakable: the measure of my life’s success was to get married and have children. And just like that, my beliefs were formed. There was only one path for me to follow, one prewritten script, one life plan.
In my teens, my girlfriends and I spent many hours talking about boys, thinking about boys, and dreaming about boys. We had many memorable adventures centred around chasing boys. I was especially close to Maxine and Judy, as I affectionately called them (more on that later). From the age of fourteen, they were my two best friends—my BFFs. We were inseparable.
The three of us met through our love of playing netball. Maxine went to a Catholic all-girls’ school, while Judy and I attended the local coed public high school, although we didn’t share many classes together. We each lived within walking distance of the neighbourhood park, which featured a playground, sports field, and tennis courts. After school, we would make our way to the park, our regular meeting point, to hang out. It was here we spent many hours together. It was during an age when mobile phones didn’t exist, and our parents allowed us to stay out until dark.
Our friendship was solid. We were three very different girls who thoroughly enjoyed each others’ company. I used to liken us to the points of an equilateral triangle, because we each had our own distinct way of being. Judy was kind and caring, Maxine was gregarious and defiant, and I was studious and sensible. We loved each other, and we laughed about our differences.
Ironically, we had loathed each other in earlier years. Maxine and I had played against each other in opposing netball teams. Both very competitive, we were arch-enemies on the court. Similarly, it was my competitive nature that caused an earlier rift with Judy. During a school basketball game, Judy took it upon herself to deliberately trip me because she felt I was being too competitive and taking the game far too seriously (well, that’s my recollection). I landed flat on my face and subsequently held a grudge against her for years.
I look back now and laugh at those times. How amusing that I would form a lifelong friendship with two girls who had been my enemies.
On weekends, the three of us would gather in Judy’s lounge room with a dog called Buddy (who suffered from an unfortunate flatulence problem) and watch chick flicks and tragic love stories, while eating oven fries with ketchup and way too much salt. We fell in love with different actors playing characters in the movies—John Cusack, Keanu Reeves, Patrick Swayze, and Tom Cruise—and indulged the idea that we too would one day get our serendipitous love story.
We especially loved watching Lace, the story of three best friends and their schoolyard pact to stay together through ‘thick and thin’, a motto we adopted for ourselves. It followed the journey of Maxine, Judy, and Pagan through a teenage pregnancy and many relationship make-ups and break-ups. We loved this story and how the characters freakishly resembled our own identities. Our looks even paralleled our counterparts’. We delighted in comparing our own journeys with those of the characters and often called each other by our replicas’ names.
Sometimes, however, the whole boy obsession became too much for me. Being the sensible one in our threesome, I had to question some of the insane ideas the girls would dream up to chase boys.
For example, I had to draw the line one night when five of us had a sleepover at Renee’s house, another friend from school. We were fifteen years old. The girls devised a grand plan to meet a group of boys at the neighbourhood park around midnight. Remember, we weren’t blessed with the technology of mobile phones back then. It was a time when you had to make a firm commitment and stick to it.
The midnight plan didn’t bode well with my sensibilities. I chose to resist peer pressure and stay behind at Renee’s house. The genius plan involved the four girls sneaking out of Renee’s bedroom window while I was left alone to calm the barking dog. Once Renee’s mum fell asleep, the girls arranged their pillows to replicate sleeping bodies under the blankets and then snuck out the window. I was glad I wasn’t with them. I was not interested in the neighbourhood boys and just wanted to get some sleep.
Twenty minutes later, while I was still trying to calm the nuisance dog, the home phone rang. Shortly after, Renee’s mum entered the bedroom. Pretending to be awakened and startled, I watched as she discovered the four girls were not in their beds. It turned out Maxine’s mother was bizarrely sitting on her porch at midnight that night and saw four teenage girls strolling past her house. After a laughable escapade (in hindsight), the girls’ were caught out.
There was a bright side: my decision to stay back on my own that night earned me significant brownie points with all the mums. My star rating rose, and after her months of grounding, Maxine was only ever allowed out in the evenings if I chaperoned her. As a dutiful friend, I couldn’t say no, even when I wanted to.
We rode the roller coaster of our teenage years together. These were exciting times. Through boyfriends and break-ups, we made some wonderful memories and stuck together through thick and thin.
My teenage years, though, weren’t always about boys. I was doing well at school, which I enjoyed. And I also managed to get a part-time job and spend quality time with my family.
Creation of the Life Plan
After finishing high school, I was accepted into a university in Sydney, almost two hours from home via public transport. Maxine and Judy followed a different path, securing full-time jobs in the city centre. We managed to stay close despite the distance between us. It was a time of change and the beginning of a new life chapter.
By the age of nineteen, I had moved out of home and was learning to be independent. I was on my way to getting a university degree. I was ticking boxes left, right, and centre. My future was taking shape, and everything seemed to be on track—everything, that is, except my love life.
I knew I had plenty of time to settle down, but the thought still nagged at me from the back of my mind. I secretly wanted a strong, intelligent, and kind man to fall madly in love with me, propose to me in the most obscure and romantic way, marry me, and have children with me one day. I wanted to know it was going to happen—maybe not now, but definitely before I turned thirty. Thirty just seemed so old!
Thereupon I forged my first life plan. Not a lot of thought or rationale went into this plan; it was just a basic timeline to ensure my future happiness. The girls and I often laughed about the plan. It was a fun reminder of what lay ahead.
Life Plan #1
1. Find a suitable man by the age of 23
2. Fall in love
3. Be in a relationship for at least 2 years
4. Get engaged
5. Get married by the age of 26
6. Have my first child at 27
7. Have my second child at 29
8. Turn 30
9. Live happily ever after.
Soulmate, the One, the Right Man
My life plan seemed simple enough. Surely I could manage to accomplish my tasks in due time. Easy! Or was it? Upon reflection, I realised some complexities were missing from the plan, for society had already ingrained in me a notion that I wasn’t just looking for a suitable man, I was actually looking for the perfect man.
So who was this perfect man? A mysterious figure also referred to as the right man, Mr. Right, the one, or soulmate—different terms to describe the same concept. A concept that implies there is precisely one person who is the perfect match for each of us. Just one!
The responsibility to find the one right man for me was seriously daunting. From a mathematical perspective, my task was to find one perfect man among nearly six billion people on the planet. Now, to be fair, only half are men, so assuming my one man would fit within a fifteen-year age bracket, it was more like one perfect man in half a billion, or some other ridiculously huge number. It was a degree of difficulty beyond comprehension.
This perception of “just one” invoked in me a small degree of anxiety and a touch of fear. With a deadline of thirty and half a billion men to sift through, was there anything else I needed to add to the equation? Yes, there was one more complication: the layer of serendipity, the romantic notion that life will happen by chance.
Effectively, good fortune and luck were required to make my happily-ever-after. I needed to have faith that my soulmate would cross my path at the right place and the right time.
So, when my mysterious soulmate crossed my path, how would I know he was actually the one? For such an important life decision, I wanted to be sure. The whole notion baffled me.
I decided to go right to the source and ask married family members how I would know when I had met the one. More often than not, their response was, “You just know.” What on earth did that mean? “You just know.” How was that a helpful answer? It was vague and dismissive, suggesting that my married respondents didn’t really have the answer. It perplexed me how the heck they had made their decision to even get married.
I wanted a checklist—a proven checklist, not some made-up guesswork. I wanted to know for sure when I had found the one. I wanted all the variables. What did I need to tick off to satisfy myself that a potential suitor was truly my soulmate? With centuries of love stories, why was there no explicit algorithm?
The advice I received was seriously unhelpful. I would rather have been told, “Well, actually, you never really know if you’ve met the one; you just convince yourself it’s right.” That answer would have been more helpful. But those I interviewed did not want to admit to an impressionable young lady that they had married someone who potentially wasn’t their soulmate—that they settled for something less than perfect. Instead, the myth that marriage was the union of two perfectly matched souls was etched into my mind. My beliefs were solidified.
The pressure to choose the right one made my life-plan quest seem overwhelming. Like climbing Mount Everest, the pursuit seemed impossible. My other life challenges seemed to be a breeze in comparison.