Matthew, my 18 year old brother, puts his soon-to-be nachos on the plate and stands in front of the microwave, his fingers hovering over the number pad.
“How many seconds do I microwave it for?” he yells to my mom, who is trying to sit down and enjoy her dinner.
“I don’t know,” she says between bites of food. “How long do you think it should be in there?” She smiled at me.
Classic Mom response.
“Can you just tell me?” he groans.
The rest of my family continues to eat their food. The “how long should I microwave this for” question is a common occurrence in our house. Matthew has begged my mom to make him a chart for all kinds of different foods with a list of how long to microwave them for. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do when he moves out and doesn’t have anyone around to ask. I don’t know why he’s so worried about microwaving foods for the exact time.
My mom thinks that if she doesn’t give him an answer every time, he’ll figure it out on his own and stop asking. But it’s been two years now, and there’s no hope in sight.
A few weeks later, I’m back at my apartment, putting cold mashed potatoes and leftover chicken on a plate into the microwave. I stand on my tip-toes, my fingers hovering above the keypad.
How long should I microwave this for?
I thought about it harder than I should have, but eventually I just typed 1:00.
And then I stood there, watching my food spin in a circle, wondering why it took me so long to decide on that number. Why my brother was so focused on getting that number right. Why he thought my mom knew the magical number for every type of food.
Because the truth was that my mom really didn’t know the magical number for every category of food that goes into the microwave. When she did give him an answer, she just gave him an estimate, or a random number, or something that she used in the past.
And my brother believed her.
Growing up, we think that adults know the answers to everything. Parents are like encyclopedias to us. And then we grow up thinking that once we turn 18, life is just going to unlock a secret library of adult knowledge.
This doesn’t happen in real life. I was disappointed to learn that while there is not a secret library, adults also don’t know everything. Adults are just good at pretending they know everything.
I would constantly text my other now-adult friends, complaining about how I sucked at being an adult. About how I couldn’t cook, couldn’t get the trash out on time, couldn’t run simple errands. I felt like I couldn’t juggle everything that I saw every adult managing.
My friends told me I wasn’t alone.
They had no idea what they were doing either, but both my parents and their parents had made it look so easy.
For some reason, my peers and I put so much pressure on ourselves that we feel like we have to project this image that we have our life together. That we know what we’re doing. That we know where we’re going in life. That we know how long we should microwave leftover taco meat for.
Sometimes in life it seems like we only have one chance. One shot. One chance to get a degree and choose one career. One shot to type in the correct amount of time to microwave your food.
If you don’t get the degree that works for you, you can go back and get another one. If your food comes out cold, just put it back in the microwave.
That illusion that we only have one chance drives the perfectionism that lingers in the dark alleys of our society. For some reason, we feel the need to present a perfect picture to our peers. Social media hasn’t helped this at all. We don’t tell them when we’ve had a bad day. When people ask how we’re doing, we say great. We post pictures of us happy and pretty and managing our life, when in the shadows it can be falling apart and then the makeup comes off and then we’re crying ourselves to sleep at night.
Before I went on my first international trip, I was so stressed out and panicking that I was going to forget something. That’s the cliche thing that happens on every trip: someone always forgets something, and I didn’t want to be the one in the group who forgot something important. Even though I went over my packing list three times, I was still convinced that my passport would be sitting on my desk as I drove to the airport.
One of my professors listened to me talk about the trip, and gave me great advice. She told me, “You’re not going to Mars.”
And she was right. I wasn’t going to another planet where I couldn’t buy something if I completely forgot it. And while that was true; it also held a deeper, underlying message.
I didn’t have to have everything be perfect. I didn’t have to over worry about every little thing because it could be fixed.
Beep, beep, beep.
The microwave yells at me for the second time to take my food out. I didn’t hear it the first time; I was lost in the rabbit hole of the thoughts that the microwave prompted.
I take my food out of the microwave and try a bite of the boxed mashed potatoes I made the night before.
So I put them back in for another minute.