When you feel like you’re being left behind

Our agony aunt Mary Fenwick offers words of wisdom to help with whatever is troubling you. What do you do when you feel like your life is stuck while everyone else moves on to the next stage?


When you feel like you’re being left behind

I’m 31, yet I feel as if my best days are all behind me. My friends and brother all seem to be moving on to a different stage in their lives while I’m being left behind. They’ve purchased first homes, are getting married, having children – all things I want but don’t have. I’m funding a Masters so am putting all my money into that instead of a deposit for a house, but I wouldn’t want to buy on my own anyway. I’ve been single for three years. I’ve wanted a child for a while and split up with my last boyfriend because he didn’t want children, but with every passing year, my worry that I’ll never meet anyone to have a child with increases.

I put on a brave face in front of friends or family but am filled with envy or sadness when I see them, and often drive home in tears. I can’t remember the last time I felt happy, and feel as if I am driving people away as they increasingly spend time with other couples. I’m finding it hard to stay positive, and I really don’t know what to do.

It sounds like you have a lot of heartache. I think you know that what you’re seeing is not the whole story, because you use the word ‘yet’ in your first sentence, but may I just check something? If I’m now an agony aunt – new for me – then you’re my first agony niece, and I don’t want to be giving you words on a page if you are stuck in deep dark woods and what you need is a helicopter. Did you write at a particularly bleak 3am or do you feel like this most days? I ask because a person who has tipped from sadness into depression won’t be able to do what they need, even if they know what it is. My own quick check for the difference between sadness and depression involves three P-words – personal (who caused the problem?) permanent (how long will it last?) and pervasive (how much of my life does it affect?). It bothers me that your answers seem to be ‘me, always, everything’. And you seem to have lost sight of another vital P-word: precious. Your life is precious. Your mind is precious and you need it for your Masters. The future children in your life need your open, precious mind and heart.

So can I ask you to do this one thing: if you still feel exactly the same, please talk to someone, probably a GP first. At various times the following options have worked for me: antidepressants, counselling, going for regular walks with a friend or re-connecting with my own happier past. Your aim here is not to ‘stay positive’ always and every day, but just to aim for the closest tiny patch of sunshine and look around from there. Even the helicopter will need a little clearing to land. My next question is: ‘Do you know where the sunshine is?’ It sounds as if you’re convinced the only source of potential light in your life is a boyfriend who wants children and a house with you, right now, or preferably sooner.

That’s one story, let me tell you others. When I was 31, I was married, pregnant with my first child. The marriage brought me heartache beyond what I could bear, and I left when I was pregnant with my third child. I fell in love again and married the right man the second time. Five years later, when I was 45, and my husband 44, he died suddenly. Other stories: I had two fantastic great-aunts, neither of whom had children. One outlived three husbands, all very happy marriages, and when I knew her, she had a one-armed ‘boyfriend’ of 89. She shocked friends by declaring ‘I think sex is gorgeous’ when they were sitting around all purse-lipped about the youth of today. The other had a wicked cackle and a notice on her fridge that said ‘old age and treachery will triumph over youth and enthusiasm’. A friend who’s turned 50 had her troubled teenage nephew live with her for a year when his mother couldn’t cope. ‘I’ve come to think this is my role – I’ve got the time and space to look after the awkward ones,’ she says.

If you’re really asking me to tell you what to do, one answer might be ‘let it be’: let this just be a moment where you don’t know what to do. Look up Andy Puddicombe’s TED talk – when was the last time you did nothing for just 10 minutes? Or follow Joan Baez’s advice: ‘action is the antidote to despair’. Do anything, even if it’s a tiny, silly, wrong thing. When my husband was terminally ill, I had my eyelashes permed. Lying there with little rollers being glued to my eyelids, I thought ‘is this the most absurd thing I’ve ever done in my life?’ Most of all, if you are convinced that children are going to be an important source of happiness for you, then invest in being the person you want them to know. Be an aunt. Be a great aunt. And see what happens.

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Mary Fenwick is a business coach, journalist, fundraiser, mother, divorcée and widow. Follow Mary on Twitter @MJFenwick. Got a question for Mary? Email mary@psychologies.co.uk, with ‘MARY’ in the subject line

Photograph: iStock