The other day, I got an interesting email from a good friend of mine. She was walking home from work, she said, having what she referred to as a “low self-esteem day,” when she came upon a big sign in a storefront, picturing three smiling (appropriately diverse, yet all perfectly coiffed) women, “around our age,” her email said (read: early-to-mid 30s), looking happy, healthy, content. “And I just thought to myself I bet they all have kids.” This particular friend doesn’t even want to have children–an assertion she reiterated in her email–but that didn’t stop the tears. “I just feel like life is passing me by,” she wrote.
(For the record, this friend is amazing and wildly enviable in her own right. She’s lived all over the world, and is successful, beautiful, talented, happily married.)
In a way, it reminded me of this comment, from Christine:
They’re familiar feelings, even for those of us who, outwardly, do seem to have it all. And yet, I think, for women, the whole “life is passing me by” thing is somewhat new. (For men, the story’s so old, there’s an archetype: divorce, young girlfriend, Corvette. Even, for some, toupee. Cringe.) Aging, of course, is as old as time. But, as my friend and I talked it out later–over wine, naturally–we determined that this particular brand of angst has less to do with aging per se than it does with the idea that, as time goes by, what once looked like a wide-open wonderland bursting with possibility and open doors starts looking more and more like a collage of What You’re Missing Out On. That, with every choice we make, we shut those other doors for good, one by painful one. It’s that evil ‘opportunity cost‘ thing, come home to roost. And there’s no model for how to deal with our feelings over what we’re leaving behind Doors Number Two through Infinity (after all, if we can ‘do anything,’ the possibilities are literally infinite, right?).
We want to travel, but can’t take off whenever we feel like it if we’re also going to get our business off the ground–and featured on Oprah. We want a family, but that’d mean that packing up and moving to Cairo or New Orleans on a whim is pretty much off the table. We want to be there for our daughter’s every milestone, yet we also want to model what a successful career woman looks like. We want torrid affairs and hot sex, but where would that leave our husbands? We want financial security and a latte on our way to the office every morning, but sit in our ergonomically correct chairs daydreaming about trekking through Cambodia with nothing but our camera and mosquito net. We want to be an artist, but have gotten rather used to that roof over our heads. We want to be ourselves, fully and completely, but would like to fit in at cocktail parties, too. (And when on earth are we going to find the time to write our novel??)
And it can’t help that women are so often subject to the Either-Or treatment. You can be a Madonna or a whore, a Peggy or a Joan, or as The Guardian argued yesterday, a Jen or a Cameron. By virtue of being one, we necessarily are not the other–have we absorbed this paradigm to the point that its extension holds sway as well? Do we believe that it’s necessarily mother or CEO? traveler or wife? artist or president of the PTA? (And, if this either-orism is but an illusion, is it possible that all those closed doors we’re so busy pining over might in fact be unlocked?)
Granted, these are beautiful, wonderous, lucky problems–pardon me, choices–to have.
And make no mistake, we know how lucky we are. We’ve been reminded regularly, since we were sporting pigtails and must-see TV was 3-2-1- Contact: You girls today are so lucky, you can be anything you want! And don’t forget that we came of age during the Have it All era–another swell idea in theory. But I think those sentiments–constructed though they were to be capital-E-Empowering!–often play out to look a little more like capital-D-Disappointing. Like fear that the path we’ve picked isn’t good enough, or that we missed our calling along the way, or that we’ll never get to do all the things we can do, or that because we can do it all, we should. And the real stink of it is that all this fixating on what we’re not doing makes us that much less able to enjoy what it is we are doing. Knowing we can do anything, trying to have it all… it kind of makes me wonder, have we all just been set up?