My sophomore year college roommate, J., visited last weekend to celebrate our shared April birthdays. It’s the seventh year in a row we’ve been able to celebrate together despite living in different cities, and now it’s a tradition so firmly rooted I can’t imagine it not ushering in each year with her. We don’t do much when we visit one another – I think she took me shopping once in Chicago and last year I took her to the Warhol museum, but the whole entire point of the weekend is to laze around in pajamas and drink absurd amounts of coffee until one can reasonably look at the clock and segue into cocktail hour. The best part of my frienship with J. is how little upkeep it takes. We don’t call often, maybe three times a year – sometimes one of us sends an email or the other drops a card in the mail, but we don’t communicate often. Yet, when we do, it’s like we last spoke yesterday, and there is no guilt involved in not calling, not keeping up, because we know, every year in the spring, we will spend two full days doing nothing but talking, trying to figure out our lives over one last top-off of the coffee cup.
Some years, our conversations take on themes – other years they wander around. In years past I know we’ve talked relentlessly about our marriages, about school, about dreams achieved and dreams deferred, but this year we talked almost entirely about our careers, and what to do about them. And even though talking with J., as it always does, helped center me in my world for a bit, helped me feel like less of a lost soul, this isn’t so much a post about our conversations as it is a post about conversations I’ve had with at least eight other women, most of them co-workers, who are around our same age and made similar choices about life and now find themselves overwhelmed, confused and feeling unsure of what to do next. This post is about women somewhere around my age (nearly 32), women who have put school, or work, or both, before having a child, women who are beginning to see some success in their fields but aren’t yet breaking through the proverbial glass ceiling, women who are wondering if all of this, well, work, is worth “it” – whatever “it” is. Here is what I can tell you about those of us in this particular stage of life:
(a.) We have a desire to cook beautiful meals. We have the proper kitchen equipment, the wherewithall to purchase whatever ingredients we may need, and a pile of cookbooks and cooking magazines which we have diligently thumbed through and put sticky notes on all the recipes we hope to make. And yet, with the rare exception, we eat cereal for dinner. Or eggs. Or beer. Or sometimes, we just have a couple glasses of wine. Because cooking the beautiful meals, which always require items like freshly made bouquet garnis or creme fraiche or duck livers, are simply too much work.
(b.) We are too tired to cook because our jobs are, frankly, exhausting, and we take our work and our co-workers so much more personally than our partners do. We exhaust ourselves not only with the work itself but with the personal and political we have to pour into the work because all of us, at some point, have been in trouble at work, (my personal lecture came when I expressed an opinion at work and an older colleague called my boss and said I was too vocal for being so young, and I needed to wait five years before speaking in a meeting) – and we worry about all of this in a way we don’t believe men do. Or, if they do, they don’t tell us.
(c.) We owe taxes instead of receiving refunds – a blessing in one way because we obviously earn enough to sustain ourselves but sometimes, it feels like a punishment because we didn’t make the choice to buy homes when we couldn’t afford them or have children when we weren’t ready. We can never afford the amount of taxes we owe (although I will say I’ve been exempt from this, this year, since we bought a house).
(d.) We want to have children, conceptually, but we can’t imagine how they fit into the lives we’ve created. We’ve all been told by people above us that having children will, in some way or other, harm our careers. And we’ve had enough friends who have given birth that we are no longer able to idealize the experience. Those conversations about episiotemies, breast feeding woes and sleepless nights? Girlfriends, let me share something with you – if you so desperately want us (ie, your childless friends) to join you in motherhood you should really keep those horror stories to yourself and confirm only our belief that motherhood will be exactly like it looks in J.Crew catalogues, all grass fields and matching sweater sets. Because, dude. Pregnancy-induced heartburn does.not.sound.good.
(e.) We want to practice yoga regularly. And garden. Grow our own vegetables, can them, and then make amazing stews come autumn. We know these things are important because, damnit, BALANCE is important. We are supposed to be balanced – everybody tells us so – but it’s really damn hard to find room for balance when we are so busy not making dinners and not going to yoga and wallowing in guilt about all of this not-doing (not to mention being annoyingly aware of our aging ovaries) because, if we did even a quarter of what we think we *should* in order to obtain balance, we probably wouldn’t sleep.
All of this isn’t meant to sound whiny, it’s meant to share what I believe a certain subset of women my age are struggling with, and it makes me wonder if this idea of balance is, in fact, the new American dream. What if, for the sake of argument, we FORGOT about balance? Recognized it is probably never going to happen? What if we said, let’s face it, we are never, ever going to tie some herbs together for a roast chicken, or master shoulder stand, or grow peppers from seeds we began nurturing in March on paper towels? What if we recognized that, yes, having a baby is an overwhelming prospect but one that can be figured out when it actually happens instead of the constant concern about how it would actually work?
Is this giving up on things we deserve, or would this be incredibly freeing?
I wonder why we want all of these things – why isn’t going to work enough for some of us? Why do we torture ourselves with cooking magazines and yoga class schedules and the possibility we are missing out on balance? Sometimes I think I worry about these things because I am afraid of seeming unfeminine – as though, if I don’t seek more in my life than my work, I will be perceived as, well, not a good woman.
As I write this, my available time to do so is running out. I need to respond to work emails, finish a draft of several pieces of writing, get dressed and mentally prepared for an important meeting at work. There is so much to address here, in my mind – like, how come I actually stress about the fact that sometimes I feel stressful? Because everyone knows stress is bad for the body and sometimes, I SWEAR, I can actually feel the stress churning itself into cortosol, which contributes to belly fat, which will contribute to an eventual heart attack by squeezing my internal organs. I wonder…are we the victims of too much information, concerned with the fact the very lives we lead are somehow bad for us when really, it is that very concern that is worse for us than the occasional ingestion of some high fructose corn syrup? Is the quest for balance an impossibility forced on us by the media, or is it, actually, important to our overall sense of well-being? And how come our partners never worry about exercise or whether they eat pizza for dinner five nights in a row? And, I’ll admit it, all of the women I have had these conversation with are engaged in heterosexual relationships, so when I say our partners, really I mean the men in our lives…how come they don’t have the same quest for balance? My husband loves his job. Loves it. And does not mind if he is working well into what should be the dinner hour, because being good in his job is the thing – the important thing – the thing that makes him feel happy and whole and like a contributing member of society. Shouldn’t our work feel the same way, that simply by putting in fifty or sixty or seventy hours a week, balance could be achieved? And yet, I always have the sneaking suspicion I am missing out on beauty, on some intangible satisfaction one achieves from being more than what she does for a paycheck….
Hmmm. This post sort of sucks. I haven’t come to any conclusions, and all I’ve managed to do is whine. But, for an hour (yes, it took an hour. I know!), I did something that makes me happy, that won’t pay me back in terms of dollars, but already, my day is off to the right foot. I need to think more about this…