At risk of sounding like Verdi the snake, I really did used to follow my heart, and it took me to some wonderful places. If it took me someplace I didn't want to be, I'd stew about it for a while and then start to sort of daydream myself into a better story.
Now of course it's all so different. One bad move I made in 2005 had pretty disastrous consequences. It started when I was in a casual long distance relationship and I started to get this feeling that "adults" settled down, put down roots and committed. It's almost as if I felt like I'd been so lucky in my single parent life, had done so many awesome things, that I was somehow supposed to... quit while I was ahead? Maybe that, and then also like... I was being immature by being single. Like being happy and following my heart, which while up until then had been productive and successful, was actually a sign of immaturity and a lack of development. I felt like I was always eating life dessert and never eating my life vegetables.
And I did love the guy I was in the long distance relationship with, and I was with him at a time when these thoughts were really plaguing me. My heart was telling me that I was happy and excited each day as a single mother, and this was how I should try to keep my life as long as humanly possible. And then my head was arguing that I was being childish and spoiled, and "at some point" there should be a home and yard and man and stability, so I should settle down with the long distance guy.
And don't get me wrong - there was something attractive about the thought of stability that came from settling down. But it was only attractive, in my experience, as a way station or a resting place. A settled relationship seemed like a place to recharge in comfort before I got back to the things I'd rather be doing. And I couldn't picture a man who would be willing to love me, live with me, be my anchor and comfort - but also let me travel, have adventures and choose my own path. I've never been in close proximity to a relationship that worked that way. And long distance guy didn't fit that mold in the least. He wanted a wife that stayed in place.
After a year of heart (happy single!) versus head (I should settle down), I opted for settling down with the long distance guy. I rationalized that in a way I was following my heart by being with him - in some kind of twisted way, if I looked at it from a certain angle and didn't look too closely - my heart might be craving stability. Only there were practical issues - some blended family hurdles - and so we settled uneasily on some kind of forced limbo where I moved halfway closer to him geographically. It was miserable. I was miserable.
I settled for a job at 'fabulously important place', which I hated, and moved into a house that felt like 'not my house', and settled on a few more life choices for the good of the relationship that made me feel like a trapped rat. I continued to rationalize that I was doing all of this incredibly unlikeable stuff in order to get to the ultimate place that would (if I didn't look too closely at it) make me truly happy (sort of) - which was the relationship and the stability it would bring.
And then of course the relationship dissolved out from under me, and there was no ultimate goal anymore to the trapped miserable place I found myself.
After that came months of being so lost, I couldn't even articulate to anyone how lost I was. I was living in a beautiful place, I was working at a place that would look phenomenal on my CV. I was given back my freedom to move freely around the planet. Only I was completely frozen.
For the first time in my life I had spent years building up a life for myself that was absolutely and totally WRONG for me. I had completely failed. I had (I thought) listened to my heart and hit a brick wall in a dark alley going 100 miles an hour. I found myself completely unable to make even the smallest decision for myself after that. I couldn't make eye contact with people in the grocery store. I couldn't make a decision on whether or not to go on a weekend camping trip, let alone jet myself and Ky to some other country. I felt like... I don't know, like going out on a limb was the most dangerous thing in the world. And when making eye contact with the cashier in a store suddenly feels like going out on a limb, that's a troublesome place to find yourself.
Never in my life have I felt so stuck at the bottom of a well. Then followed a domino effect of bad decisions knocking into worse ones, toppling everything along my path. It was a horrible time in my life. I no longer trusted my instincts. I no longer trusted my life. And - because I'd spent so long convincing myself that the "settling down" plans I had been making were the plans of a mature adult, I felt like a life failure at maturity and adulthood. And I felt like I was somehow obligated to keep pressing on that path, but it was so counter to my real needs that I was always lost and churning inside.
Part of empty nesting for me is trying to get in touch with my gut instincts again. I've been trying for years, but so much fear has built up that it's been hard for me to tell the difference between my gut telling me something is wrong for me, and my fear holding me back from something good for me, giving me a false stop sign.
Because going with your gut sometimes is scary. It's scary, exhilarating and challenging. And figuring out if you're that kind of scared - the kind that precedes an awesome, terrifying, exhilarating choice... or the "red flag warning" kind of scared that tells you not to do something ultimately bad for you - is really hard when you're not tuned in to the differences. Your mind can convince you either kind of fear is the other. I've been stuck in that tug of war for way too long.
I've always envisioned having a core of things that are incredibly important to me. Things I genuinely love, things I genuinely believe in. Those form the heart of me. Anything I do that keeps close to that heart, that stems from it genuinely and never strays too far, are the right things for me. Sometimes I end up traveling so far from my core, doing something I dislike, thinking that where I'm going is ultimately going to return and touch the core again, and that I can just "bear with it" for the greater good, etc etc - that never works. I get so far out that I'm miserable. And I can no longer remember why I thought running so far away would bring me closer. And the farther I go, the less I can remember the way back, the less I can hear and feel that core. It's a terrible place to be.
Working back to it is very hard. And over and over I have to remind myself that when I get close to it again it will be scary. But it's a different kind of scary than being far away is. I have to be careful and re-learn how to tell the difference.