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Tuesday, May 31, 2011


"I thought you were a feminist," the husband joked after reading my last post. I am a feminist. Really. Truly. Germaine Greer, Nancy Friday, The Boston Women's Health Book Collective collectively, Betty Friedan, Kate Millet, Sisterhood Is Powerful,  Adrienne Rich, I read you all. Yes, sisters, I am a feminist, I swear. I was primed. 

So why the weird stuff about ambition? And how to explain my existence as a stay-at-home mom?

I was never going to be a stay-at-home mom. I was going to have a profession. A sanctioned, capital- P profession. Sanctioned by the parents, I mean. I've dipped into that a bit already, but to recap: That ship ran aground in my mid-twenties, when I realized - surprise- that what I really wanted to be was a writer, and immediately began doubting myself. Stepped off the sanctioned path, got lost in the woods.

Bad mixed metaphor, and beside the point. The point is, I was going to work "outside the home." Yes, I wanted children; but I was in one hundred percent agreement with Adrienne Rich that just because women are biologically compelled/created to have children doesn't mean that having children is the ultimate fulfillment of a woman's destiny. Motherhood wasn't going to complete me. It wasn't my destiny, it was my choice. I agreed then. I agree now. Really.

So even though no childbirth was going to be my ultimate experience, even though having a child wasn't going to fill some hole in my womanhood that would forever go empty, no baby was going to plug a gaping hole in my psyche, well, maybe - definitely - because I didn't have a mother, it did.

Probably because my mother died when I was a baby I discovered a hunger for that mother-child bond that awakened with the birth of my first child. I took a leave of absence from my teaching job, and suddenly, I didn't want to go back. I didn't want to leave my child. Ever. Possibly to a pathological degree.

Who would want to miss a moment when every moment with a baby is full of change and growth?

At the same time, who wants to be "just a mom," a full time job with zero status (unless it is the status gained by proving that you're able to stay home when almost everyone else has to work at least part time, but that's really just reflected status from the breadwinner, not true status?) Who wants to give up autonomy, financial independence, future financial gain, lunches out,  and fun shoes to stay home with this magnetic source of drudgery, filth, frustration, and fatigue?

Choose motherhood? You spend years on the floor or the bathroom--which, by the way, you can never enter by yourself (and closing the door while small hands beat upon it and little eyes peer underneath it or pass desperate notes through the slit does not count as privacy.) "They suck everything out of you," I've heard more than one parent say about their children. The best comment I ever heard, though, from a friend whose three children were under five at the time, was that she "felt like an elevator." Choose motherhood? I did.

If you'll permit an extended metaphor, I would say that being a mother is like a being a nail. You start out all shiny and pointed, and end up dented and flush against the surface of some structure whose shape you can't discern, and which is permanently under construction. Oh, sure, it's only you, doing your part to create a dependable, sturdy, solid corner of the scaffolding of society, but it's awfully hard to remember you're doing something important when your head's been pushed down so far, and not too many others notice, either.

And as wrong as it feels to agree that motherhood has such low status, I actually spend time distancing myself from this choice by making sure that everyone knows that I'm a writer, too. I'm a mom, but also a writer. I mean, it is true. I am a writer. And one of the benefits of being a writer is that I can arrange my schedule so my children are the priority when they're around. For many years they were the only priority, because the labor side of motherhood was so intensely physical and non-stop there was no time or energy for anything else. Even so, I clung to the writer-identity to give myself a modicum of self-respect. Oh no, I'm not "just a mom." I'm a writer.

And another thing. The raising of children is one job, the management of a home, another. I am a parent, yes, but not a maid or a domestic goddess. Who wants to be that? Only very famous people who get paid to do that work.

As usual, I am a welter of conflict about this topic. I feel the job is vital; but does that mean that mothers who work outside the home are doing a lesser job? I know that many who do feel they're failing at both, the paying job and the mom job. It's damn hard to do one thing really, really well. So doing two?

The bottom line is that I feel angry that I feel ashamed  about this choice. I feel I have to apologize to the "real" feminists, because to choose mothering as a career places you in dependency on someone else, and that is a big, feminist no-no. Furthermore, I worry I'm being a bad role model for my children. Mine are both girls, but if I had a boy, I would also worry that he would think that being "just a mom" is what women should be. And there's reality, too, which is that my children have to plan to take care of themselves financially, and while I'm providing them a role model of a mother, I'm not providing them with a role model of a financially independent working woman.

That part I'm trying to change.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Ambition, Blind, Pure, or Otherwise

“…thou wouldst be great, art not without ambition; but without the illness should attend it….” Macbeth I:5

So here’s where I have to talk about ambition. I have to talk about it, considering where I left my last blog post. “What if reach exceeds grasp?” One person commented, a question I was already considering, just as I was aware of a depressing sidebar to the idea that feeling successful means achieving an intersection of capability with desire. I admire these friends who seem so comfortable with themselves that either they can accept their limitations; or they are so self-confident they don’t need to prove the upper limit of their ability. Are they aliens?

Another friend, an artist, had already poignantly expressed the truth that in creating art, success may be a fleeting feeling, quickly replaced by the need to improve upon what failed in the last creation.  (And let me note here, that I extend “creativity” to all endeavors that require synthesis; the arts are obvious, but the sciences, and plenty of other careers or callings require it.)

Oh, how I’ve hated to talk about ambition. Maybe it’s because when, a few weeks ago, I brainstormed about it in my notebook, the first things I wrote down were all negative:”witch,” “dirty word,” “self-aggrandizing.” I don’t know why, I truly don’t. But I have to face it; I’m more ambitious than I realized. (Of course, said my sister the psychologist, that’s the source of your problem.)

Why the negative associations? I mean, both my parents--all my parents--were/are professionals. My mother was an economist, my stepmother and father  lawyers. Going back a generation they were all professionals, too: physicist (grandmother), lawyers, a federal judge. My father’s mother was the second woman to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. I was primed for an ambitious career.

I even gunned the engine right out of college, starting as a receptionist at a law firm, being promoted to paralegal within weeks (dressing for the part, etc, etc.).

I hated that job, oh how I hated it. No blocks of free time in the afternoon. I might have gone to law school anyway, though, if my parents hadn’t dissuaded me. The practice of law has changed, they told me. It’s not the way it used to be. Don’t do it. 

Zero encouragement. My engine sputtering, I asked what I ought to be. Civil Engineer. Stock broker. Accountant.

Seriously. These were their suggestions. Nothing aligning with my interests. Not a word about the written word. Stalled.

Not that I blame my parents. At least not in my rational brain.  I think, though, my subconscious got the message of their silence, and it’s been a long, LONG time my writing ambition has been working it’s way up and out.

So now it’s here on the page, for my tens of readers. And it isn’t that pretty. And it’s really kind of scary. Maybe it's out of reach. But I have to agree with my aforementioned commenters, that the creative ambition is something that is often out of reach, and it’s the reaching for it that is creative, and it’s the reaching for it that’s also constant failure.

A word about Ambition versus Goal. I've been writing as if the terms are interchangeable, when they're not. Maybe ambition is a driving force, and goals are concrete achievements. Parsed that way, then, you know, you can feel successful when you’ve achieved a goal, while understanding the need that drives you onward to new goals is ambition. Maybe I’m just going in circles here. I'm trying to figure out how some people can achieve their ambitions and their goals, while some people keep gunning past goal after goal, fueled by ambition. My friends who feel successful lack nothing in the brains department. So what allows some people to feel successful is not so much the intersection of capability with desire as it is the intersection of ambition
with achieved goals. Those lucky folks aren't hung up on proving themselves. Clearly, as my 8th grade friend put it, some people are just more ambitious than others. Sadly, I must be one of them. Oh dear.

Returning to the question posed by my reader. What if reach exceeds grasp? Well, I guess that's the definition of ambition, that's all. Not a referendum on talent, intelligence, or success, for that matter.  Maybe it’s a new Laurie Anderson tune. Not Walking and Falling, but Reaching and Failing. 

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Know thy True Self

courtesy of wikipedia/Gnothi_Sauton_Reichert-Haus_in_Ludwigshafen.jpg
The most unequivocal "yes" to my question, "Do you feel successful?" came from a friend I've known since 8th grade. She's a teacher, and just a couple of years ago, after a series of disastrous, disappointing, or just plain dull romances, she married a childhood friend. (That's another story, and quite romantic.) She told me she feels successful because she found something she enjoys doing and she does it well, she found a partner she loves to be with, and she was smart enough to know she didn't want children.

What really surprised me was what she said next. "I guess I have pretty low expectations, and that has made me happy."  

She said she's never had a "burning desire for fame," just the desire to be "comfortable," to wear what she likes, to drive a nice car, and to take "two five-star vacations a year." She's been nominated twice for Teacher of the Year, but hasn't won. She's happy to have been nominated and says she's glad her principal appreciates that she works twice as hard as everyone else to make sure she gets her job done right. "I've never thought of myself as the smartest person," my friend said. "I'm not ambitious. I don't read much. I like to watch TV. I'm no Susan Rice (a classmate of ours)." She said all this with the utmost acceptance.

Now I've always thought she underestimated herself. No, she's not an academic nor an intellectual, but she's bright, practical, and down-to-earth. I started to argue with her. But as I argued, I realized I was really arguing with myself for doing exactly what my friend does: assuming I'm on some totally different level from ambitious, successful people. This assumption upsets me and is probably why I spent so much of my early adulthood trying to prove that I am smart (my calculus went something like this: I hang with engineers and computer scientists from MIT, they are smart, and they like me, and they only like smart people, therefore, I must be smart) instead of doing something practical like earning money. My friend, however, was completely unperturbed. 

I thought about all I know about her, about how her parents wanted her to be a doctor or lawyer, and about how she struggled with those demands in her twenties, until she found her niche. My friend said that even when she tried law school, she never envisioned herself as a partner in a big firm, but rather as "one of the billion" lawyers at AT&T or some other company, "working in my little cubicle."

My sister's husband is a psychoanalyst. He said he would define success as living an expression of the True Self as described by D.W. Winnicott. While everyone in my "family of origin" has either been to a psychoanalyst or is one, I had to do a little research on Winnicott. Research is ongoing, but what I understand so far is that True Self is the authentic expression of personality, without concern for fitting into or living out someone else's expectations (that would be False Self.)  Winnicott was an object relations psychologist, and believed that child development occurs in the bond between infant and mother. In infancy, any action that is self-initiated, such as grasping toes, is considered an expression of True Self.  The response of the mother is crucial to the mix, creating the usual mess of False and True selves that make up most of us. And requires much psychotherapy when we grow up. 

I digress. But not totally. 

Other people who've identified themselves as feeling successful share my friend's realistic attitude.  Some of them had early ambitions that might be described as "burning," but discovered, in trying for them, that they weren't the right fit. There was a certain amount of shucking of other people's unrealistic expectations about them before they reached this point. (By the way, they all seem to have managed this shucking on their own. None of them, to my knowledge, has been in psychoanalysis.)

It is perhaps too obvious to mention, but I will anyway, that the stage of life a person is in affects how successful she or he feels. If I'd interviewed these people ten years ago, their answers might have been quite different. 

Nevertheless, I can conclude that people who feel successful share the trait of realistic self-knowledge, an open, honest self-assessment that accepts limits, eschews mountain-summit ambitions, and comprises awareness of intellectual and emotional strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps they've succeeded in living as their True Selves.

And perhaps that explains a lot of my feelings of failure. 

Monday, May 16, 2011

A Parenting Fail (Elusive Success)

While it's stimulating to discuss theories of success and failure, most of my time is wrapped up in the ongoing venture called motherhood, an endeavor whose ultimate success or failure is my biggest concern, and whose outcome depends on myriad small choices.  Like the following one.

So the 3rd grader is in a school play. Something about fish and finding your unique self.  There has been lots of drama about this play around our house, with involved daily updates about rehearsing for various parts and about when parts would be finally assigned. Each child would rank their first four choices and hand them in to the teacher. Then, one day, accompanied by lots of pouting and complaining, the update was that the 3rd grader's class had agreed to perform the play with another class, which meant each part would be doubled up.

"It's supposed to be a play about finding our own unique selves," she pointed out. "It doesn't work if there are two of everything." Well, she had a point, but two children reciting in unison would be cute, from a parent's point of view. I told my child it would be fine, meanwhile marveling at how much she seemed to care. She's not the most obviously dramatic of my two children, but she was actually in tears.

Two days later, the 3rd grader's traverse from the school bus to the front door looked like the gallows walk. Parts had been assigned. My child had been given her fourth choice, Clownfish 1.

Oh the tears. Oh the misery. So much angst. "Clownfish 1 doesn't even get to tell Swordfish his problem. All the other fish get to tell Swordfish their problem." So there I am, staring at my usually rather stoic child, in tears again, this time over her lack of lines. At least I'm assuming it's a lack of lines that is the problem. I'm also thinking, wow, how did acting get to be so important to this child? She has recently joined an after school acting class, and I guess she really likes it. Maybe she'll become a movie star and I can finally go to the Academy Awards. I hope James Franco won't be hosting by then. Maybe Tina Fey.

Anyway, it seems the trouble is the lack of lines, and that she didn't get her first or second choice part.

So here's where the parenting needs to happen. Do I say, in effect, look, not everyone can get her first or second choice, and some people don't even have a line, so buck up? That's the "Sometimes we don't get exactly what we want but we're all part of a community" lesson.

Or do I say, well, look, if you're really upset, maybe you could talk to your teacher about adding a line to your part, so Clownfish 1 can tell his problem to Swordfish, too? Advocate for yourself. Maybe that's the parenting lesson here.

Reader, I chose the latter. Immediately my child wanted me to e-mail her teacher. No, I said, you can write her a note, or write her an e-mail from my account, and we'll make sure she knows it's from you. So during the 7th grader's piano lesson, the 3rd grader wrote a note, apologizing for being upset and making her suggestion about the line. I open up my e-mail, make the subject line state who the e-mail is from, and my child types out her message and we send it.

Cue to dinner time, when the 3rd grader is relating all the iniquity of the situation to her sister and her father. There's a certain amount of sympathy, and a certain amount of tearful eye-welling.  Before dessert, I check my e-mail. The teacher has responded that she's sorry my 3rd grader is upset; that she'd had her do Clownfish 1 because she got the beats on the humor so well in all the lines. She'll be happy to talk to her about the change tomorrow.

Do I detect a certain weariness?

Lines? Plural? I go back to the table. I confirm with my child that she does, indeed, have several lines.  How did I miss this? How did my child miss this? Now I'm annoyed. And embarrassed.  Look, I tell the child, your teacher gave you a real part with lots of lines and said you're good at it. If you want to be part of a play, you have to accept you might not get the exact part you want. That's the way acting is. At least you got a part. So buck up, quit being so negative, and do your part.

I go back to the computer and send another e-mail to the teacher, subject: Sorry. I tell her I'd encouraged my child to advocate for herself. I had also told her, I assured the teacher, that her request might be denied.

I had a parenting choice, and I made the wrong one. That's what my 7th grader calls "a fail."

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


The inevitable moment has arrived. I've collected a small stack of self-help books on Success. I had to, after all. Research. The thing is, I'm not sure I'm ready for them. I'm afraid.

What if, when I open them, I discover that everything I'm writing about has already been written in them? More important, what if, when I read them, I learn that I actually possess some quality that would eliminate the possibility of my success. What if I fail the checklists? I know they're going to tell me I have to have faith in myself, or some similar pablum. Well, hello? Need I say more?

And then there's the other fear, the one I really don't want to admit to my tens of readers. The fear that after reading these books, I will become an INSUFFERABLE self-promoter with a falsely inflated ego. You see, I am suggestible. I know that. I've read some self-help books in my time. Louise Hay? I've affirmed. Julia Cameron? I've tried to believe in G.O.D. and ask the universe for whatever I need.

Once, I borrowed a guided relaxation/self-improvement tape from a housemate who was relentlessly pursuing escape from herself. In the tape, I had to picture myself in a lovely place, yadda yadda, picture myself relaxing in a comfy seat in this lovely place, yadda yadda. Then I had to imagine a young child coming into view, approaching my maturer self, and offering a gift to the older me. The tape told me to accept this gift. Well, I pictured, for some reason, the young child handing me a gold ring, and then, although the tape didn't tell me to, swallowing it. Strange, I thought, I am swallowing this symbolic gift from my symbolic inner child. Hmmm.

Nevertheless, I felt one hundred percent relaxed afterwards.

Later on that day, I told a friend who happened to be a very religious Christian about this experience. She said that I had to be careful with these sorts of visions, because the Devil can come to people that way.

Now I don't believe in the Devil, but I am suggestible. I was disturbed enough by her reaction to mention it to the professional I was then seeing twice a week. Dr. B, a nice, Jewish professional in a beautiful house in Weston, MA, laughed--laughed, at me-- and said, "You're very suggestible."  If your shrink tells you that, you know it's true.

So am I ready for Dale Carnegie and that guy who wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People? I think I have more prep work on my own definition before I swallow theirs.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Worldly Success and the Artist

A friend subdivided success into public and private realms. The public realm is the one I need to talk about right now. Feeling successful in this realm, my friend said, means feeling on par with your peers, and doing the things you're supposed to be doing at the time you're supposed to be doing them. Going to school, starting a career or getting a graduate degree; finding a mate; creating a family; owning stuff. We're not entirely sure about the next Shoulds, but they're on the horizon.

I thought this definition was useful -- to the degree that it was not useful to me. This definition of worldly success is the one I was raised with, and the one that's made me feel most like a failure. It's an upper middle class definition. At times I've worried that to be a successful artist a person must hail from either lots of money or from none to possess either the insouciance about position or the desperate ambition to attain it necessary to persevere in the arts. The upper middle class is not the place for experimentation, as experimentation puts you right into conflict with security and direction. In my 20s it was fine to be working at a menial job and writing, even if some of my friends were climbing various professional ladders. I wrote a novel. Seemed legitimate for a twenty-something. A novel was good. I sent it around to about ten to fifteen agents. A few read it, and one, who is actually and truly a very famous agent, ALMOST took it. But she didn't. I was crushed. Single, still working at a menial job, and close to thirty. Meanwhile, in the years I spent writing that novel, friends who had started in menial jobs along with me now had promotions and advanced degrees.

Life history follows, and I could go on and ON. My point is that the linear, clear-cut ladder of success doesn't work to the advantage of artists. Duh, you're saying. Well, it's one thing to know that, another to FEEL it (as those professionals like to say). Artists wander off the path, or get stuck on a rung near the bottom. Arranging a life to create art doesn't leave the energy a professional needs to succeed at law or medicine or business or teaching or engineering.  One of my priorities for a job, I used to joke, was that it give me "blocks of free time in the afternoon." Thus, the menial work. It left me brain power for my writing. What it didn't give me, though, was a sense of pride, a sense of progress, or significant money beyond basic living expenses.

I was creating art, though, you might point out. Well, true. But my art wasn't giving me any of those markers of worldly success either. In fact, I was embarrassed to talk about my writing, since the obvious follow-up question to "What do you write about?" is always, "Are you published?" So I took my writing down a notch or ten or twelve on the priority list, and went to graduate school. I became a teacher. Another extremely valued, prestigious, and well-paid career choice. Nevertheless, it was a relief to me (and to my family) to have a profession, capital-P. I tasted what life would be like without this other thing calling to me, without the secret and shameful wish to be a writer, capital- W. And actually, although among certain professionals, teaching is held in low regard, in my circles, teachers were pretty darn cool.

However, there were absolutely no blocks of free time in the afternoon. There was no energy left. There was no room in my life for writing. I was a successful Something, judging by my peers, but that something wasn't the thing I wanted to be. Is that compromise worth making?

Monday, May 2, 2011


As you know, I've been mulling success and failure on this blog since I started it. Last summer, my mullings, and my feelings of failure intersected with an inquiry from my college alumnae magazine asking to hear from people who didn't feel they measured up to the illustrious alumnae usually profiled in the magazine (Hilary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Cokie Roberts, Diane Sawyer, Linda Wertheimer, etc, etc). E-mail us, the magazine asked, and we'll see what kind of responses we get, and decide what to do with them - and if we like yours, we'll contact you. Well, I had a lot to say on failure to live up to the Wellesley name, and so did many other women. I got a nice reply to my e-mail, but no follow up. My letter on failure FAILED. But I have persevered. And I'm making it a little more formal.

I've been advised by various professionals, that one way to stop feeling like a failure is to reframe my definition of success. Or to broaden it. Or to uncouple Success from Publication. I've usually brushed off these suggestions, while assuming their implication is that these professionals can look through my blue, myopic eyes, down my throat, into some part of me, probably in my solar plexus, and SEE that I am DOOMED to FAIL, and that therefore, they are doing me the service of prying my fingers off of the pretty toy hope I clutch to take it away and replace it with something more mature. After all, they are paid professionals. Turns out I have very strong fingers; but I am listening a little better now.

Before reframing success, I had better define it for myself. I've been talking to people about how they define success and whether they see themselves as successful. I'd love to see comments here on the topic, too. Success or failure.