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Beth Comstock: By Every Measure of Success, I’d Made it, But I Was Filled With Despair

“There was a growing gap between the life I was expected to follow and the life I actually wanted to live.”

I was the woman who seemed to have it all at the time: a fancy new home near D.C., a seemingly happy marriage to a handsome man of means, a new job as the NBC publicity coordinator, and a beautiful baby daughter. By every normal measure of success, I’d made it. Underneath that success, however, I was filled with despair. Up to that moment, I’d lived my life more or less by someone else’s narrative. A simple story, with defined roles, that led to a simple happy ending. Elegant, without complications. But with every day that passed, I realized just how large the gap was between the story I was expected to follow and the life I actually wanted to live. While I had ideas — I wanted to be a television reporter, specifically a science reporter — mostly, I dreamed of setting out in the world.

Once my father, who was a dentist then, convinced a patient, a news producer who commuted to D.C., to have me shadow a reporter. (My dad, a big supporter of my future career, was not afraid to use his unique advantage of extracting promises for his kid while extracting a patient’s back molar.) As it turns out, I spent two hours with Diane Sawyer, then a young State Department reporter for CBS, just back from Chad. A few years later, sitting in the auditorium at my sister’s high school graduation soon after I graduated from college, I daydreamed of the career I’d surely have by the time she graduated from college. In my mind’s eye, I had the sophisticated worldliness of Diane Sawyer. What big city would I be living in? Would it be New York, where Diane had recently moved? What travel would I be returning from? Keep in mind that at this point I was working two jobs in Richmond — one as a Mexican-restaurant waitress to pay for my second, barely paying job as Jackie of all trades (and on-camera reporter) in a small news service covering the Virginia House of Delegates, which I had landed via a friend of a friend’s friend. 

I was the daughter of a small-town dentist and a schoolteacher, and while my parents did well and afforded my sister, brother, and me opportunities, we were not wealthy, and certainly not well-connected. My father’s other aching-molar patients didn’t work in media. I jokingly call my mother “the mayor,” because she knows and talks to everyone; our town was our world. While working in the news service, I continued to seek out bigger jobs, perusing the want ads of Broadcasting magazine. That’s how I came to apply for TV meteorologist in Salisbury, Maryland, where I horribly mispronounced the name of the town as I did the on-set interview. In Richmond, I hounded a local TV station’s news director with my videotapes, calling him so relentlessly that he lost control. “You look like you’re twelve,” Mr. Rant barked. “Why would I put anyone like you on camera?” My confidence was shaken, and my fear of striking out into the unknown had held me back. I was happy to say yes to getting married. I was in love and lacked the maturity to ask what that meant beyond saying no to pushing for jobs that would jump-start my career — jobs in TV markets beyond Richmond or Salisbury or locations as exotic as, well, Tulsa, where I had in fact been offered a job.

Dave’s outlook didn’t change as much as mine did after Katie was born. He still went out, had fun with his friends. I was the earnest wife, and now mother. In fairness to him, I had never declared that I wanted to be otherwise. In fact, I may not have known, or at least been able to articulate it. That was the worst part, being slowly caged by my own passivity. I had a growing, painful sense that another side of me needed to be released, and the only person standing in my way was me.

I don’t even remember the conversation we had in which Dave and I decided on a divorce. I initiated the process, but I don’t remember the words. I just knew: I. Can’t. Be. This. Until that moment, my fear had held me in place. I was worried about what my family would think, what my friends would think, what my colleagues would think. I was terrified of traumatizing my daughter. And I was deeply afraid of going against convention.

My mother, knowing me to be shy, had pushed me to be a joiner in my small town, where the ethos was to always say the “right thing.” That mentality followed me at school, with friends and teachers who encouraged me to do what I was told, do well, look good, and obey the rules. My school, like most, was pervaded by the myth that rewards are reserved for those who say “I know,” instead of reveling in “I don’t know” and learning to ask the probing questions.

Wading into the unknown just wasn’t a skill I had acquired yet as an ambitious but aimless 23-year-old trying to shake off my limited perspective. So I gravitated to “what was done”: I got married to my college boyfriend, Dave. And then not long after, without planning it, I was pregnant. Everything was happening too fast. It was as if someone else was narrating my life.

The moment Katie was born, she created a love in me so strong that it yanked a fierce clarity from my depths. My vague despair morphed to a clear-eyed vision of a future that I knew had little to do with my present. I knew I had to chart my own course, be the captain of my soul. What was clear was that I had to go; what was less clear was where. I had fantasies of fleeing back to Richmond, Katie and me rooming with a high school friend. I was going to start over and this time get that job at the local TV station. When fantasies weren’t enough, I’d tell the babysitter that I was going out. I’d drive to the movie theater at the local mall and buy a ticket to an emotional movie like “Terms of Endearment.” And cry in the dark. Alone in every sense.

I came to see that — while incredibly hard — there was nothing shameful about endings or mistakes. It can be a wise decision to leave one path and choose another. Scary, yes, but it can be the first step to something better. And that itself was a massive insight for me: something better was a deliberate choice. Already I had a different perspective on reality.

Once I’d spoken the word divorce aloud, it didn’t feel like as much of a failure to me. I felt free, in a slightly terrified way. Finding the optimism to imagine a better future allowed me the courage I so desperately needed to move forward, as me.

Of course, my new life was no “Eat Pray Love” romantic journey, where I could shrug off my responsibilities in the quest for a sexy guru and the perfect cup of chai. I was choosing life as a single mom and just starting out in a career. I rented a little place of our own in Alexandria. I loved every square inch of that tiny house, even with all the pressures of motherhood and work and change. I had bills to pay. (I even had to take out a loan to hire a lawyer to “petition the court” to get my surname back.) I was alone. My baby, Katie, was crying. I was crying. It was scary. But it was also exhilarating. The thing I’d only imagined was now happening, and I was frozen in disbelief. Now what?

My future was now blank. I would have to write my own narrative. From now on, my story wouldn’t be so traditional, or perhaps so elegant, or simple. But that was the point. It was becoming clearer to me that the fullest lives were lived by people not afraid of complication, mistakes, or imperfection.

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Published with permission from Imagine It Forward: Courage, Creativity, and the Power of Change by Beth Comstock. 

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