A somewhat less purpose-driven life

In 2003, my friend and I, both singers, staged what we described as our farewell concert, a final cabaret-style show before we hung up our vocal pipes for good.

I was 24 years old.

Prior to that show, I had devoted the better part of my life to singing and musical theater. But as the start of psychology graduate school loomed closer, I felt I had no choice but to stop singing and start getting serious about my career and life.

I spent my 20s and 30s working to achieve my personal and career goals. I got my graduate degree. I got married. I had two children and started up a private practice and started to blog and write about maternal anxiety. Now here I am, at 40, having met many of the goals I set out for myself thus far.

It was in this goal-achieved state that I recently found myself in the house, alone, without any plans. Initially, the prospect of a lazy, free afternoon was thrilling. But mere minutes into my time off I was suddenly overcome with anxiety. I did not have any goals set for the next several hours. What on earth would I do with myself?

I quickly grew so uncomfortable that I started creating tasks for myself: didn’t my older son’s closet need to be reorganized, and didn’t I need to start thinking about summer clothes? Without goals, I felt unmoored, and felt compelled to work on something—anything—in order to regain my bearings.

I write about maternal self-care all the time. I urge mothers to be kind to themselves and to prioritize their own needs. At some point during my afternoon alone in the house, I had a physician-heal-thyself moment, when I realized that I had to do a better job of taking my own advice. I had to stop living my entire life in the service of meeting goals.

Truth was, I rarely ever engaged in any activity that didn’t involve goals of some kind. I had goals concerning how I wanted to bring up my kids and how I wanted my career to evolve. I had goals relating to mundane tasks, like challenging myself to precisely time my trips to the grocery store to maximize efficiency. Even the seemingly frivolous things I did had goals attached. Like TV watching, for instance, when I endeavored to complete the entire series of 30 Rock before it left Netflix.

There was always satisfaction after achieving these goals, but there was also fatigue. And more recently, the realization that I was so caught up in meeting my goals, I was not savoring—or even paying attention to—anything I was doing along the way.

In reflecting on my goal-driven life, I realized that the cabaret show in 2003 was the last time I’d worked hard to accomplish something purely for myself. Sure, it was nice to get applause, but I wasn’t up there on stage for the praise. I was there because I loved being there, under the bright lights, singing with my beloved friend. And I loved every minute of the many hours we spent rehearsing for the show. Obviously the show was not going to help my career or personal life. I just did it for the pure joy of it.

In order to find that joy again, I decided, I would have to bring the pipes out of retirement. I went on my town’s community swap Facebook page and found a local voice teacher. At our first meeting, she asked me what my goal was: was I auditioning for a community theater production, or perhaps considering going pro? And I happily responded that I had absolutely no goal in mind. I just wanted to be left the hell alone so I could sing my heart out in peace.

So now, on Mondays at 12:30, I’m in a rehearsal space, singing “now I like to daaaaaance” up and down the scales like some 16 year-old preparing for her school’s production of Grease. Sometimes people wander near the space where I’m singing, and I wonder who they think I am and what they think I’m doing. After all, aren’t voice lessons meant for people who have specific objectives, like teenagers trying to score a plum part in the school play, or professionals hoping to land a coveted role?

But I don’t care. I can’t tell you what it has meant to me to have something that is purely my own, to not feel compelled to show results in any way or answer to anyone. I get to enter the rehearsal space, toss my phones (I have two—one for personal use and one for my practice) aside, and just belt out some show tunes for an hour. When I’m singing, I am purely in the moment, not obsessively doing and planning like I usually am. It’s an hour of mindfulness practice every week. Happily, I’ve discovered that taking that hour out of my life (and away from my phone) has not hampered my career or parenting in any way.

Another unintended benefit of the voice lessons: I’ve set a good example for my kids, particularly for my older son. He’s only 7 but is already involved in several goal-oriented activities (he works to earn Cub Scout badges, baseball trophies, and backyard football glory). When I started these lessons he asked me why I was taking them, and I was proud to respond that I just loved singing and wanted to spend some time each week doing it. I hope my son is getting the message that it’s OK to do things for the pure love of doing them, without the expectation of praise or reward or achievement.

I’m not going to lie: I’m still pretty goal-oriented. I’ll never live a completely non-purpose-driven life. But I’m going to aim for a somewhat less purpose-driven life, where I pursue some activities whose only goal is joy. Which means that, for the foreseeable future, you’ll know where to find me on Mondays at 12:30. I’ll be belting my heart out, without a phone, without an agenda, and, at least for the hour, without a single goal in mind.

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I’m Ilyse Dobrow DiMarco, Ph.D., aka DrCBTMom. DrCBTMom.com combines the expert advice of a self-help book with the warmth and readability of a mommy blog.
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