Well, it’s not as if you’re going to be some sort of hausfrau, you know?” a friend said to me over the phone. It was just a passing remark. You know, like how a drive-by shooting is just a short visit.
We were discussing my decision to leave my job as New York correspondent of the Jerusalem Post. It was a hard decision but I felt that I needed to focus on other things–namely, my long-in-progress novel, various freelance gigs, my family, and my pregnancy. To me, the choice had felt like a deliberate choice, individuality above expectations. My friend’s remark made clear, though, that to others, my choice could easily come across as a failure.
When I was younger, I always assumed that I’d be able to do anything I wanted in life, both professionally and personally (healthy sense of self-worth: check). In fact, in an autobiography I wrote in fifth grade, I vividly describe my future, attending the premiere of my first film–based on my bestselling novel, of course–with my loving husband and three daughters, Ruthie, Esther and Aviva. Both the faux-offspring names and their gender are an endless source of amusement for my two boys and my real loving husband.
When you’re a kid, the idea that you might not be able to accomplish everything that you want to–that you might not have the hours in the day, or that fatigue and conflict might drain you of ambition, or that you might have to make compromises on issues like money and childcare–would seem nothing short of absurd.
Even as an adult, my realization that, at the moment, it was just too stressful for me to work full-time (even from home) six days a week–plus take care of three kids, plus be pregnant, plus do my own book and freelance work–was a hard one. It flew in the face of my self-conception and the Ivy League degrees on my wall, and the idea that a smart accomplished woman should and could do it all.
In 1998, I wrote an essay for a magazine in which I said that my own personal drama had “yet to be played out on these grandiose stages of my imagination,” like “a political march in South Africa, a demonstration in Beijing, a boardroom in Hong Kong, or a White House black tie reception.”
“I love ambition–an implicit part of my character–but loathe what it can do to me,” my second-year law student self wrote all those years ago. “I fear all these competitions leading not to my distinguishing myself, but rather stretching me out to the point of unrecognizability on the rack of accomplishments…. more frightening, though, is how easy it is to lose sight of the “what for?” in the blinding light of “what next?” In law school, we are always working toward some new honor which will give us some form of recognition or validation. I have a sneaking feeling, though, that none of these things will ever really, wholly and completely bring either one.”
Stretching out on the rack of accomplishments to the point of unrecognizability is a legitimate fear for an overachiever. But I realize, as I’ve grown up–and as my multiple diplomas from impressive institutions have been hung up on the walls of my kids’ playroom–that my definition of “accomplishments” has slowly changed over the years.
There were plenty of moments as a correspondent for the Jerusalem Post that constituted “accomplishments” in the eyes of others. I’ll always recall covering the UN General Assembly around the clock–ten weeks after giving birth–as politicians from all over the world pontificated that equal women’s rights are critical, and that all should aspire to those ideals. It struck me as somewhat ironic, in light of those grandiose speeches, to have to take breaks from reporting to go pump my breasts on the floor of a stall in the bathroom, as there was apparently nowhere else in the “women-friendly” United Nations that would offer me an electrical outlet and a chair (were it not for the kindness of one security guard willing to break the rules and offer me one of many free conference rooms).
I remember covering Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meetings with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and stressing out–not over whether or not peace would be forged in the Middle East that day (likelihood: slim) but whether or not I would make it home in time to host my son’s 6th birthday party (likelihood: equally slim).
As I wrote three to four articles a day, pounding them out amid the feverish deluge of emails and phone calls from editors, I wondered–what, or who, was I doing this for? Was it really for the (far too small) paycheck? Was it for the brief second of validation, when someone, drink in hand at a cocktail party, asked me, “So what do you do?” and I could respond with something that sounded professionally reputable, if not glamorous? How many cocktail parties do I go to anyway? Or was it for what I felt I should do, so as to be regarded in a certain light by others generally?
Ambition and the expectations of others are wavy mirrors: they can distort us until we can barely recognize ourselves, or who we are meant to be. I still want to change the world for the better–but I’m less concerned with “the world”‘ at large (which seems to be preoccupied by LOL cats and idiotic memes) than the part of the world I can manage to touch.
I want to strike a balance between writing and being, between connecting with others with my words and connecting with my family and friends with my deeds–and I think that it is possible, provided that I am not afraid of the opinions of others. I recently read an article in the NYTimes magazine in which a tremendously successful executive said, “God didn’t create the universe so that talented people would be happy.” He said, “It’s not beautiful. It’s hard work. It’s responsibility and deadlines, working till 11 o’clock at night when you want to watch your baby and be with your wife. It’s not serenity and beauty.”
I do want hard work, responsibility, and deadlines–but only within the realm of being able to watch my children and be with my LIFE. The sad truth that we all hate to acknowledge is that I will only come through this way once. My children will only have one mother, and I only have one self to whom to be true.
I will fight to be the best life, mother, and self I can be–no matter what the job title may be after my name.