Sometimes you feel that you simply cannot get it right.
When I was 18, the future just one verb tense away, my Mum gave me advice. I mean, she gave me advice all the time, mostly about vests and eating meat, but I can still remember how much I laughed that day when she told me I had exams to do, that friends (especially boys) were a needless distraction, and that I should ignore any obstacles between me and my target destination. I laughed, when I maybe should have cried, imagining endless years ahead. No friends (especially boys) at university, in case I failed my degree. No friends (especially boys) in my career, in case they got me fired. And no friends (especially boys) when I grew old and absent-minded, in case they threw me off course as I tottered down the street, distracting me on pension day, leading to a week of hungry penury. Annoyed at my laughter, my Mum preached on: aspiration, aspiration, aspiration.
Last week, a well-known television personality who seems to have progressed from how to sell your house to how to live your life, offered quite the opposite advice. Kirstie Allsopp, of property programme Location, Location, Location, wouldn't get on with my Mum. She argued that girls should finish school, get a job and a flat as soon as they can, set themselves to meeting a nice man and producing some offspring, postponing university until their early fifties. They'd be young Mums, she argued, and would still have an opportunity for further education and a more illustrious career when their children leave home. I mean, after all: what is equality of opportunity across genders but a selfish impulse for education and success by women, who should be at home in 'a nice flat', admiring some Cath Kidson chintz, cuddling a baby and posting furiously on Mumsnet? Being a woman: that's your vocation, vocation, vocation?
Oh dear. I've really messed it up, having gone directly to university from school, directly into my career, managing to secure some friends (including a husband) along the way, not quite managing to be the 'typical' woman. I'm no model daughter or wife; I'm not a Mum, and when a friend hands me their new baby to admire, the child almost inevitably looks at me askance and starts to cry. I have no great regard for flowery chintz, and the very thought of having postponed my years at university - which I loved - until a decade which still feels far away, makes drops of icy horror run through my veins. Somehow I've fallen between advice extremes. I got sidetracked from the purity of the code of aspiration, through things like having fun or travelling or getting married. Imagine. I read books which aren't on any syllabus. I watch soap operas, linger over coffee breaks, and write: for fun. And I don't quite manage the whole cute, cuddly, nurturing thing which females are meant to do. Who knows: maybe I'm just selfish. That, and addicted to bad puns: crustacean, crustacean, crustacean?
When I became a teacher, some family neighbours nodded approvingly. It was a good job for a girl: I'd be working with children and would have long holidays when I had some of my own. They recoiled when they realised that I'd be teaching teenagers, not fluffy infants, and I felt terrified at the thought that, one day, I might have to be responsible for a small child's life, not just a teenager's grammar. So much centres around the modal verbs: can, could, would, should, might, may, ought, shall. I measure my days in verb tenses, from telling some seventeen-year-olds, hit by an advance-guard of nostalgia, the dates of their final exams next year, to correcting past tense forms, to lectures about the revision which should be done. I wake at 4am, already tense about the future of the day, or years ahead; I stare into the darkness, wondering whether my own story is already complete, with just more of the same to come, thanks to disregarded modal imperatives, which urged me what to do: deflation, stagnation, summation?
Advice is easier given than it is to take. My mother gave up work on getting married; Kirstie Allsopp wrote about the advice she'd give to a daughter she doesn't have. The advice I've given to many years of teenagers bypasses for them my own anxieties. Somewhere, amid the well-meant or malicious commentary which can make a life feel like a sporting fixture, we have to find the mixture of things which can feel right to us: knowing when to listen, when to disregard. We can't live someone else's life for them, either by following or persuasion. Because to reach a point when life seems all past tense, and to realise it had been done according to someone else's thoughts?
That would be damnation, damnation, damnation.