Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Refrigerator, Nora, and Having It All

Nora Ephron’s recent passing was a sad day for our household, as it was for America. I was working when Jocelyn called to say she had read the news online—we were both stunned that this woman, a heroine and role model, a favorite writer and filmmaker, could be taken from us at such a young age. The next day, Jocelyn found a quote in the Times from Ephron’s commencement address to her alma mater, Wellesley, in 1996.

“Maybe young women don’t wonder whether they can have it all any longer, but in case any of you are wondering, of course you can have it all. What are you going to do? Everything, is my guess. It will be a little messy, but embrace the mess. It will be complicated, but rejoice in the complications. It will not be anything like what you think it will be like, but surprises are good for you. And don’t be frightened: you can always change your mind. I know: I’ve had four careers and three husbands.”

Jocelyn put the clip on the refrigerator door, where we collect quotes and New Yorker cartoons and bon mots to supplement our daily nutrition.

After Anne-Marie Slaughter’s essay in the recent Atlantic, in which she explains why she gave up after trying to “have it all”, the question is very much on my mind. I think it is on the minds of many women, young and not-so-young.

Perhaps the answer depends on the type of mother you want to be, and the type of children you are trying to raise. Perhaps it depends on what “having it all” means to you and how you want it look to others.

I look back on the years when my kids were young and there is no denying that they were difficult for all three of us. I had one daughter while I was in medical school and another during my third year of residency. I took three months off with the first and six weeks with the second. I had live-in childcare from the very beginning, which was always the biggest source of stress in my life. Would the babysitter show up? Plan B invariably involved my mom, my mother-in-law, my sisters, or one of my close girlfriends. I utilized all of them at one point or another. By and large, the eighties, as a decade, were lost to me. I never heard of The Talking Heads, the Police, knew vaguely of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and missed pretty much every important cultural event from 1982 until 1989, when I passed my oral boards. I remember buying my first Sting CD in 1990. I roller-bladed in the house to his music.

I have tried to remember when I first read Heartburn, and I can’t because I’ve read it so many times. Nora was one of the reasons I wrote Good in a Crisis. I remember thinking, if this funny, hardworking, single parent can write a book about leaving her husband, so can I. Our experiences were different, of course, as were our books, but there is no doubt that she inspired me. During the pre-publication process, we had hoped to get a blurb from her, but Nora didn’t blurb. She blogged. And we weren’t able to get her attention. I studied her author’s video before I created my own.

But in Nora’s memory, I find myself trying to devise my own commencement address. What would I say to young women about “having it all”? I guess I would say this:

1. Marry a good man. Not having one makes everything much harder.
2. You only get one crack at life. Either live it or don’t. If you want to have a great job or make art or write or see the world or have kids or all of the above, do it all. And have as much fun as possible. When it’s not fun, move on to something else. Life is about balance. You will make mistakes. Learn from them.
3. You don’t have to plan everything. Actually, you can’t plan everything. Part of having life skills is being able to handle whatever comes next. And as a parent, you want to teach those skills to your kids.
4. There are times when you make hard choices, kids over career, career over family. Feeling pulled in two directions is not the end of the world. Jocelyn still chides me for not breastfeeding her. Get over it, I tell her.
5. As Nora said, Don’t expect it to be easy. But then again, don’t expect LIFE to be easy. Don’t expect KIDS to be easy. If a career is to be rewarding, don’t expect THAT to be easy. It will all be messy. Along the way your children will learn about messes and learn how to handle them by your example. What more valuable lesson can you give them?

Carrie Bradshaw?

I’m beginning to feel like a slightly older version of Carrie Bradshaw—someone who writes about sex and the city and contemporary quandaries facing single adults. As much as I try to avoid that niche, I keep getting shoved back into it by the writing world.

A couple of months ago I took a trip to the South. It was a multi-purpose trip combining a book event, a visit to some relatives, and vacation. I crammed a lot into a few days and learned a whole bunch, most of which was unintentional. But isn’t that how the best learning occurs? I met an interesting man, played a terrific round of golf, saw snakes and lizards, enjoyed edifying conversations with my ex-brother-in-law and his wife (Mike and Nancy), and saw Charleston, Beaufort, and Savannah. So I will cover these in order of increasing importance, not in any chronological order.

I love a good snake, love to watch it slither across the deck. Lizards are nothing short of fascinating. The tree frogs provided a deafening but delightful hum to fall asleep to, and I heard “Big Al” the alligator splash his way into Mike and Nancy’s pond one morning. Unfortunately, I never got the chance to see him face to face. On the golf course we gave up a ball to a copperhead in a water hazard rather than try to retrieve the Titleist. And for a bug person like myself, the South is simply paradise.

The man I met reminded me that I could be still be entranced by a diabolical liar. I would have thought those days were over, that my experiences in romance had created a permanent DEFCON:4 state of alertness with regard to players. But this guy had a line I’d never heard before. He said he was a widower with grown kids who looked forward to grandchildren! He was charming, self-effacing, lamenting hair loss and his return to the dating world where he’d found husband hunting forty-somethings who were over-enhanced and accompanied by excessive baggage.  The over-enhanced overkill should have been the giveaway.

Then I drove to Spring Island to enjoy Mike and Nancy’s hospitality for a few days. The island is breathtaking and prehistoric. Around every corner I expected to find a dinosaur egg hatching. Nancy cheered me up about the scumbag I’d met in Charleston. Mike cheer me more when he said, “You probably write out of sexual frustration.”

That had never occurred to me.

As I let the thought sink in over the next few weeks, I decided he could be correct. I also looked around me and began to see sexual frustration everywhere. My friend who is intensely political and blogs obsessively. My friend who exercises like a maniac. Pretty much everyone who works full time and writes or paints or runs marathons or does something obsessively IN ADDITION TO his or her job is probably sexually frustrated. How many of us are willing to admit it? I have friends MY AGE who say they are done with sex. It begs the question: if we started having sex, would our blog/art/writing/marathon running suffer? I have a friend who spends his time trying to find a partner on Match.com and I have often chided him for not channeling his energy into something more useful. Now I wonder—does he have it right? Or is sex—as the guy in Charleston so disingenuously declared—not worth it?

Much of the world’s interesting art and music and overall pizzazz is still being created by middle-aged folk no longer burdened by the demands of young children and the striving that accompanies life in our thirties. A lot of these people are alone. If sexual energy gets channeled into something, I suspect this is better than not channeling the energy at all. And it’s especially better than having no energy.

I guess some of us still want to have it all. The question is whether once we get it, will we let it slip away?

Taking the Fall out of “Falling”

A friend recently told me that a woman had broken his heart.  He is a divorced man, middle-aged, a grown-up.  He met this woman the old-fashioned way, through a mutual acquaintance and not through an Internet dating site.  She was nearly but not quite divorced.  They had both suffered through long, loveless marriages.

He told me the story in a meticulous, measured fashion, careful not to leave out any details.  He told me the story in a chronological fashion.  It seemed to me that he had memorized every detail of their relationship, every word she had ever uttered.

Before he began his story, I asked how long they had been together.

He said, five weeks.

I felt doubtful that a brief relationship could generate such heartache, such devastation.  And yet, as he spoke, I realized that he was indeed devastated. He had attached himself to this woman with a fierce ardor born of many years without passion.  I listened to him quietly until the pattern of his story revealed itself.  I listened patiently until I understood what had happened.

I understood because she was me ten years ago and I was him four years ago.  And after twenty years of therapy it is easy to recognize patterns of behavior in people.

My friend wanted reassurance that his love would see his value, come back to him, that they would be together again.

And because I had been, at various points in my life, both him and her, I gently told him he should not wait.  He should move on.  The odds are not good that she will ever want someone who treats her as well as he treated her.  She was used to someone less kind, more hands off.  His kindness smothered her, terrified her.  Love itself caused her to run.  Unless she received therapy, she would not change.  He doubted she would.

I told him what I tell my daughters.  Don’t fall in love with someone’s potential.  Fall in love with the person you see before you day after day.  But don’t expect change.  It is easy to fall for the one you think they can be.

I told him that his mistake was in falling too quickly, in not really knowing her before he gave her his heart.  The signs were all there in the facts of her life.  He chose to ignore them. After two and a half hours during which he benefitted from my twenty years of psychotherapy, albeit in a highly condensed form, he thanked me profusely.  He said I helped him.

Speaking with my friend about his loss made me think about how love can enter your life suddenly and without warning.   But it doesn’t mean that you’re ready for it.  Timing is everything in life.

I felt sad for him, jealous, and a little superior.  I feel sad that he’s hurting, jealous of the intensity of what he experienced, and superior because I am years past those emotions through oodles of therapy and painful hard work.

But it begs the question: Is love worth it?   If everything is a matter of timing and luck, plus navigating your own past as well as the emotional baggage that most people carry with them, it’s a wonder that couples over forty-five ever get together.  It seems like a crapshoot at best, and at worst a nightmare.

Is love worth it?  This week, my answer is a resounding No.