“Any progress?” is the terse, two-word question I have been conditioned to fear.
In the workplace, it’s no big deal. I can fire off a quick, cheery e-mail. It’s a lot harder when that question comes from my mother, who is never asking about law briefs or novels. She’s asking if I’ve found a prospective groom yet.
Ignoring the question or snapping at her to stop pressuring me results in a lecture on the Stages of Life. It is her favorite lecture, and the worst lecture.
According to my mother, life is divided into distinct, non-overlapping stages:
- Acquiring an Education and A Well-Paying Job (Preferably in a STEM Field)
Judging by when my mother’s anxiety over my lack of a ring started, Stage Two ideally starts around twenty-six or twenty-seven. The rest of your life (and/or death) can unroll at your leisure.
Needless to say, I didn’t stick to this timetable. Partially because the guy I was dating at twenty-six spent most of our relationship telling me he could never love me because he was “damaged,” but also because that’s when I acquired a load of debt I was ill-prepared to handle.
I paid upwards of ten thousand dollars in interest alone my first year post-graduation
I knew going into law school that I was borrowing more money than I had for undergrad, which I’d already paid off in full at relatively low interest rates. It would be fine, though! The top tier law school I was attending boasted of near-certain employment for its grads, and the median salary they listed made my eyes pop. I’d get my degree, get a killer job, and finally check off Stage One of my life.
Except when my three years were up, law firms were in a hiring freeze and barely half of my class had paying jobs. It took countless rounds of interviews, but about two weeks before graduation, I could relax. I was employed — one of the lucky ones.
Well, relatively lucky. My final loan principal was $117,185, which is hefty without factoring in the silent killer of interest. I hadn’t realized how much rates had risen between my Bachelors and JD degrees, and I was fixed at 6.5% to 7.5%. That deceptively low interest multiplied like rabbits and added up to tens of thousands of dollars over the life of the loan. My first year post-graduation, I paid upwards of ten thousand dollars in interest alone.
Over half my salary every month went toward my minimum required loan payment, and only about half of that money carved into the principal balance. I lived frugally, had no savings, and though I had employer health insurance, it wasn’t good. I felt like I was eternally running in place, and I lived in fear of getting sick or injured — or worse, fired.
My fellow associates and I would sit around late at night scheming ways out of our debt, like members of the Ocean family planning a heist. We discussed a class action against Sallie Mae (there’s always at least one lawyer who guns for a class action suit in response to any problem), buying homes and pulling second mortgages at comparatively lower interest to pay off our loans (where would we get money for down payments, though?), and even borrowing from our credit cards (FYI, being in debt to Capital One is not a huge step up from being in debt to the United States government).
Finally, we had to accept it: There was no way out except to keep working long, grueling hours at a job we hated, until we died or our loans were repaid. Literally, whichever came first.
In the midst of this depressing reality, my family began to grow antsy. As far as they were concerned, I’d checked off Stage One, and I was hurtling towards my thirties. It was time for Stage Two.
I was unsure if I had the time or energy to unravel my Stage Two, but I’ve always been game for love. I donned my cutest jeans, perfected a winged eyeliner, and, as the experts say, “put myself out there.”
Unfortunately, dating is hard when you’re working in excess of fourteen-hour days. First dates usually involved me getting up from my desk and stretching around 5:30, loudly announcing to the office that I was going to grab a coffee, and then guiltily meeting a guy at a bar around the corner for forty-five minutes of awkward conversation before returning to work.
There’s always at least one lawyer who guns for a class action suit in response to any problem
Surprising no one, second dates rarely materialized. Which was OK, I tried to tell myself. Maintaining a relationship when you’re working yourself to the bone just to tread financial water feels overwhelming and impossible. But since I did want to eventually enjoy a long-term relationship again, the only reasonable solution was to get out from under the debt. Then I could focus on my personal life and begin Stage Two properly.
I used what little free time I had to escape to the arms of my first love: writing. I got lucky, and found a measure of success as an romance author. Every single royalty or advance check I got went toward my loans. With two full-time jobs, I was finally able to outpace the interest, and my monthly payment got to a place where I could afford to leave my toxic day job for a healthier one that allowed me more time to write.
The day I made my final loan payment, I sat back and waited for the knock on my door.
Here’s the thing. After all that — the time, the effort, the stress, and the loneliness — Sallie Mae apparently does not send along a good-looking, sweet guy you can take home to mama with your last loan payment.
I should have gone along with that class action idea.
Not too long ago, I stood in my older sister’s high-end kitchen. She hit Stage Two right on time, getting married to the tall love of her life right after they graduated medical school.
Between wrangling her three sons, she informed me my singlehood is a sure sign I am doing something wrong. “Just swipe right on everyone and take the first man who annoys you the least and dotes on you the most,” she told me with great pragmatism.
I won’t lie. It’s a tempting thought, to just find some nice guy who is willing to tolerate my daydreaming and inability to plan trips and obsession with dinosaurs and too-loud laugh. I’d be able to start Stage Two, and aren’t The Stages all that matter?
But for the last decade, I’ve sat down at my computer and written romance novels. I craft worlds where no one will question whether the heroine can have it all. Where it doesn’t matter how old she is, or how quirky she is, or how much debt she’s in: If she wants love, she gets it, and she gets someone who loves her, not in spite of who she is, but because of who she is. I speak at events where I look hundreds of people in the eyes and I tell them that a partner who respects them and is considerate of them is the floor, not the ceiling. Yes, find a nice person who doesn’t annoy you too much, but that’s the bare minimum of what you should have and deserve.
How can I do all of that, and then settle for less than love and compatibility in my own personal life, just because I’m thirty-four instead of twenty-seven? Merely so I can check a box and activate Stage Two?
Feeling self-righteous and impassioned with my epiphany, I gave my sister an abbreviated version of my reasoning. She only rolled her eyes. “Fine, wait and hope Mr. Right is out there and single like you.”
That’s exactly what I’m going to do.
Recently, Mindy Kaling said during a commencement address at Dartmouth, “Don’t be scared if you don’t do things in the right order, or if you don’t do some things at all. I didn’t think I’d have a child before I got married, but hey, it turned out that way, and I wouldn’t change a thing. I didn’t think I’d have dessert before breakfast today, but hey, it turned out that way and I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Now, I’m closer in age to Mindy than the students she’s talking to, but her words resonated with me, and not only because I, too, had a slice of leftover birthday cake for breakfast. In a world where everyone is beautifully unique, how can we all be expected to keep to a rigid timetable for major milestones? Or hit those milestones — ever? Or even value the same milestones at all?
There’s no doubt in my mind my debt cost me in my personal life. Sometimes, I resent that cost, and how it took me extra years to get to a point where I could have time for relationships. It’s OK to resent and regret things like that. It’s OK to be sad, or lonely, or to wish something in your life was different.
There are definite upsides to the path I chose, though. Without debt guiding my employment choices, I discovered I actually do love the law. My degree and work history gave me a powerful skill set which allows me to help people. I get paid to write the books of my heart. I’ve had opportunities and experiences most women my age don’t get.
I wouldn’t change a thing.
There’s no doubt in my mind my debt cost me in my personal life
Last night, my mother ended her phone call to me with her now-standard, “Any progress?” Ideally, I’d be able to explain to her that I’m not opposed to finding a partner, but I want to find the right partner; that, like anything else, my love life may not gel in the right order or on some artificial timeline or ever, and that’s OK. Progress isn’t a straight line, and neither is life, and yes, I have progressed, in so many visible and invisible ways that have nothing to do with whether or not I’ve leveled up to the next Stage.
But I understand the traditional culture she was raised in, and I know all of her pressure comes from a place of love and worry. So I replied with a calm, “not yet.”
Not yet, not today, not this minute. Someday I might be able to give her a response that satisfies her. In the meantime, I’ll just be over here, figuring out what progress looks like to me.
Alisha Rai writes award-winning novels that have been named Best Books of the Year by NPR, Washington Post, Vulture, Entertainment Weekly, Amazon, Kirkus, Bustle, and Cosmopolitan Magazine. You can find her on twitter @AlishaRai or Instagram @alisharaiwrites.