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Relentless and disappointing. Messy and clarifying. Fragile and unexpected. Full of growth, grief, change and survival. Enlightening and tumultuous. Transformational and lonely. Exhausting, exhausting, exhausting. These were the words more than 200 of our readers used to describe 2021.

Zora Neale Hurston once wrote, “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” Whether you’ve had a year of questions or a year of answers has always been a matter of personal perspective and circumstances. But while every year has its ebbs and flows, its triumphs and tragedies, its fond farewells and good riddances, there was widespread agreement among many of our readers: 2021 was defined, personally and collectively, by its twists and turns.

At the close of the year, promises from a new administration had given way to frustration and increased rancor among many Americans. Vaccines seemed like they could offer a reprieve, but distribution was unequal and new variants have challenged lingering hopes for a covid-free future. Women returned to work in a fractured job landscape; others left their jobs while many still felt locked out of the workforce. Over and over again, they said their lives, values and boundaries had changed.

For many of you, 2021 was a year that depleted: Words like exhausting, overwhelming and relentless were by far the most popular ones people used on social media and via a call-out to describe the year.

Coming into January, Amy Chase, a 37-year-old project manager, was hopeful: She was pregnant with her first child, due in July. But on Jan. 6, the same day a right-wing mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, Chase discovered she had miscarried.

Because of covid restrictions, Chase was alone in the doctor’s office when she got the news. Her word for the year was “draining.”

Chase has stayed busy — keeping her schedule packed with mentoring, volunteering and running her nonprofit, the Crescendo Group — but these activities don’t overwhelm her, she said: “I used to do much more pre-pandemic.”

She’s anxious about the big things: climate change and spikes in domestic violence; coronavirus variants and shifting ideas of what “normal” could be. She feels she can’t rely on the lifelines that kept her afloat in the past: big group exercise classes and easy, carefree get-togethers with her friends, many of whom are moms wary about exposing their children to the coronavirus.

Then there are the personal upheavals. Her depression and anxiety got worse. She and her husband have tried for a baby again but haven’t been successful, she said. The effort has been wearing on Chase: the trips to the obstetrician’s to draw blood, the mornings that begin with her peeing in a cup.

She is still grieving the child she lost. The holidays were especially hard this year, Chase said: “I just kept imagining what it would be like if he was around. He would be 6 months old.”

For many women, words like “disappointment,” “grief,” “rage” and “loss” defined the year.

“[Disappointment] surfaced all year, in all sorts of capacities,” one reader wrote on Instagram. “It was consistent.”

Vinnie Pizzimenti, 37, described the year as “frightening”: “It was frightening to learn how quickly disinformation could spread, and how readily people consumed it — to the detriment of public health.”

Transgender activists from Texas to Haiti described a “lonely” battle to push back against restrictive legislation and provide safe spaces for their youth. Asian and Asian American women described isolation and vulnerability as they reckoned with high-profile, violent attacks on their communities. Worldwide, many continued to lose family and community members to covid. The job gains many women had hoped for didn’t fully materialize, burnout was everywhere, and remote work continued to take a toll on working moms. Throughout the year, women voiced frustration with elected officials for not doing more to subsidize child care or extend pandemic-era benefits.

Other readers emphasized uncertainty: Quite a few of you felt that “unpredictable” and “roller coaster” summed up your year.

Cristiana Jurgensen’s word was “unnerving.”

“Just when you get a grip and think you understand what is happening, how to behave and how to deal with it, everything changes again,” wrote the 48-year-old middle school principal, who lives in Saudi Arabia. “I wonder what new calamity will be waiting for me when I wake up in six hours.”

But 2021 was also a year of transitions. Our readers said their 12 months were defined by “resilience” and “growth”; that it had been “clarifying,” “enlightening” and “revealing” — in good and bad ways.

Responding to increased burnout, more companies began experimenting with four-day workweeks this year. Some women embraced the roads the pandemic had thrown them on, whether that was becoming a stay-at-home parent or quitting their jobs. And others saw opportunities to live a life that was more in line with their values.

Marcia Ximena Chong Rosado, 30, said the year felt like a “marathon.” She sought therapy for the first time in her life, she wrote, finally finding an intersectional therapist who could meet her needs. But not long after she started making progress, legislation changed so that she could no longer see her therapist, who practices outside of Chong Rosado’s home state of Massachusetts.

In an act of “radical love,” Chong Rosado left her job this year, a move she said was “a long time coming, and much deeper than the Great Resignation.”

“I deserve better,” she said.

For 24-year-old Meital Smith, the word for 2021 is “anticipation.”

For the past two years, Smith, a recent art school graduate who has published a comic in The Lily, has hit a number of milestones she had been working toward all her life: graduating college, becoming “a real adult.” But it felt strange and incomplete.

“I’ve just been thinking, for the past two years, ‘Oh, once this pandemic is over, I’ll be able to be in my twenties and be this person that can be young and free,’” she said.

Instead, she’s felt stalled: “I still think of myself as 22.”

Smith’s college graduation was online, with a computer program reading out the names of her graduating class, she said. She didn’t have the chance to ceremoniously flip a tassel or toss her hat in the air alongside her classmates; instead, Smith’s school wanted students to buy regalia so they could pose for photos and display them on a prerecorded video.

The best part of the day was being able to go to a socially distanced celebration barbecue at her best friend’s home.

“The whole thing was really unfulfilling,” she said. But, she added, “I don’t know what college graduations are usually like.”

Smith feels like she’s still waiting for her adult life to really start, looking toward a future when she can live the idealized early-twenties life she’d hoped for. She’s now living at home with her parents in Seattle and applying for graduate school.

Her art projects reflect this sense of anticipation: She’s working on a series of interactive prints based on a cross-country road trip — something she would love to do soon. She’s said she’s also challenging herself to think of growth differently. Smith thinks of the way artist Cécile Carre drew a seed germinating deep in the ground: growth as something hidden and quiet.

She knows she’s both lucky and privileged, she said. She can rely on her parents and doesn’t have to worry about her basic needs.

Smith hopes that “actualization” will define the next year of her life: “I would love for some things to bloom next year.”

Chase, the project manager, said she feels more pessimistic than ever before. Her word for 2022? “Hopeless.”

But she also wants to stick it out.

“I keep going back to a conversation with a therapist from a couple years ago,” Chase said.

“I would tell her, ‘I’m surviving.’ And it got to a point where she pointed out, ‘Look, you can’t just be surviving. You’re not living,’ ” Chase said. “Despite the challenges, I still want to live.”

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