A friend emailed this morning asking if I had suggestions for books to give to high school and college graduates. I looked around at the bookshelves in my study room and suggested a few including, “Living a Life That Matters” by Rabbi Harold Kushner; a book by Dennis Trittin, “What I Wish I Knew at 18″; and “Love Does” by Bob Goff.
The books caused me think about what I consider important at 41, over what my 21-year-old self might have thought about life.
At 21, my ideas about my life looked a lot like what columnist Ellen Goodman described at a YWCA luncheon a few weeks ago.
Who was “The Ideal Woman” circa the ‘90s, Goodman asked?
The Ideal Woman got up at 5:30 a.m. and exercised with a cardio workout and weights for an hour before she woke her 2.3 children, and served them a grade-A nutritional breakfast. She ushered them out the door to school, perfectly groomed, and equipped with every completed piece of homework tucked neatly in their backpacks.
She then showered, slipped into her $1,200 Armani suit, and left for the office where she spent a rewarding day working at her creative and meaningful job that improved society, and yet also provided her with a $250,000 salary.
After work, The Ideal Woman returned home to make a Julia Child-worthy dinner with her husband while they had interesting conversations about their day, helped their children with their homework, and then gathered the family around the table to have stimulating debates over dinner about world affairs.
After dinner, she spent quality time with her 2.3 children before tucking them into bed. The ideal woman then read several journals to stay up on current events before engaging in hot, multi-orgasmic sex with her husband until midnight when she fell asleep because, well, tomorrow is another day.
Goodman’s tongue-in-cheek description made me laugh. And wince. It was awfully close to what I envisioned for my life at 21.
I wanted to be clever. And accomplished. An amazing wife and mother. I knew, theoretically, that you couldn’t have it all, but it wouldn’t hurt to aim high.
So I set out on a career path, driven by the idea that I could write about important topics; and while I was at it, end world hunger. I learned that my sphere of influence was a bit smaller than that.
I discovered that rather than change the world, I could affect (and be affected by) the lives of the three or four or five people who worked alongside me by being a good co-worker, a fair manager, and a dedicated friend. I found out that as you move up a career ladder, you sometimes lose the intimacy of deep relationships with your co-workers. I also learned that managers get to make significant decisions, but they must also handle the unpleasant decisions that sometimes negatively alter people’s lives.
Along the way, I got married, armed with feminist ideals of partnership and equality. If you had asked me about the pitfalls of marriage at the onset of my own, I would have answered that too many women submerged their own identities in marriage and lost their independence and sense of self. It’s possible that that happens. But on the other end of the spectrum, I found that it’s hard to buck traditional roles or even pretend that some gender-based differences don’t exist. Focus on making sure responsibilities are split 50/50, or that your spouse appreciates your independence, and there’s less attention paid to knitting together an intimate partnership.
It was interesting to see François Hollande be sworn in as France’s new president last week. He and his girlfriend, Valérie Trierweiler, are the first unmarried couple to occupy France’s presidential palace. Furthermore, Ms. Trierweiler is trying to figure out how to reinvent the role of first lady to fit comfortably with her own professional career as a journalist.
“I haven’t been raised to serve a husband,” she told the NY Times. “I built my entire life on the idea of independence.”
NY Times readers responded with a barrage of compliments for Trierweiler’s bold statement. I read her comment and wondered how that would work out for her.
My 41-year-old self now thinks less about gender wars and more about the ways that men and women are amazingly different. And how much I appreciate those differences. And how building a relationship requires a deep commitment to figuring out how to serve another person.
How do you find ways to meet your spouse’s needs? How can you be the person who cheers him on, appreciates his strengths, and provides some grace when it’s required?
It sucks that my marriage ended with my husband having an affair with my friend. But I also think of the countless ways I failed to appreciate the things that Eric did well; failed to see things from his point of view; or communicated harshly when I could have opted to be more kind or gentle.
I listen to girlfriends complain about their husbands, and I’m sometimes struck with how small the annoyances seem to me in comparison to the benefits of having a spouse.
I used to chafe over the division of labor in our house. I worked full-time. Eric was a stay-at-home dad. It annoyed me that I worked all day only to come home to pull a second shift with dishes to wash, the laundry, diaper duty and manage our social calendar while Eric whiled away time on the computer. Male managers at work didn’t run out at lunch time to drop off dry-cleaning and buy birthday presents for their kids’ friends. Their stay-at-home wives took care of those duties.
Yet, today, when all the responsibilities fall to me, I think I’d be heady with gratitude for any one item to be taken off my plate by someone. I guess you care less about measuring for 50/50 when you’re shouldering 100 percent.
At 41, I care (a little) less about perfection. On most days, much of my house does look like a model home. Everything’s spotlessly clean and in its place (save the children’s rooms). But truthfully, the house is a little sterile that way. When I go to the homes of many of my friends, there’s a lived-in feeling that’s comfortable and inviting. I love the conversations and the laughter we share in their houses, and I leave without remembering a single detail about their furniture or decor.
And the same is true for almost everything else we women seem to put our efforts into when we’re 21: What we wear, how thin we are, how smart we are, how successful we are in our careers.
When I think of some of my closest friends, I think of people who are genuine and caring. I enjoy my friends who are kind and loyal and fun to be around. I don’t care about their houses, their clothes, or careers. Think about the people who have meant the most to you in life, and I doubt any of us come up with a list of people who matter to us because of their degrees or successes; their athleticism or beauty.
It’s only the most partial of lists, but this is what life looks like into my fourth decade of living:
- I (mostly) realize that idealistic standards are ridiculous
- I’m less anxious to change the world, and I think instead about the small ways I can make a difference right around me.
- I appreciate what is because, too often in the past, I’ve brushed aside the moment while I’ve focused on the future.
- I’m usually happiest when I’m thinking about other people rather than myself
Would I have understood any of this at 21? I’m not sure. Usually life lessons are learned far outside of the pages of a book.