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?