Work in progress

I was sitting around a dinner table with some other mothers recently. One, the mother of an only daughter just launched from the nest into her brand new shiny life as a college student, said, “Well, my job is done now. I need to go back to work.” I know the subtext of this remark: “Ohmigod, my entire life just flashed before my eyes. My kids don’t need me anymore. I’m scared. What skills do I bring to the table? Who wants me?”

My life at 47 is the result of the choices I’ve made, sometimes blithely, sometimes blindly. I’ve been able to balance work as a mom and sporadic work as a freelance writer because I’m privileged to have a spouse with a decent income and benefits. I’ve invested deeply in my relationships with my children and am reaping the reward of three well-adjusted teenagers. But, if you’ll pardon the metaphor, I’m left holding what’s left of the diaper bag, which contains little now but doubts about self-esteem and existential purpose, and an estimate for 12 years’ worth of college tuition. And I’ve been thinking about the role model I’m providing for my daughters.

We assume we’re doing our kids a favor — especially our daughters — when we assure them from day one they can do anything they want. But as Courtney Martin, a 20-something rising star author and journalist, told me: “We’ve been told we can do anything; we think it means we have to do everything.” That conflict is at the roots of what it means to be a woman in our culture. When it comes to life choices — the question of balance — women remain extremely conflicted about how to handle their various roles in private and public life.

Martin, in her book Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, examines the pressures young women internalize now. They aspire to be leaders and lovers: smart, pretty, sexy, athletic, altruistic, and fun. The overload often leads to self-loathing when they invariably fall short somewhere, resulting in eating disorders and depression. So should we tell our daughters to scale back their ambitions? Or are we even talking about ambition — are they as invested in fulfilling others’ expectations of them as I and other women like me have been, except in different aspects?

Necessary Dreams by Anna Fels, a 40-something psychiatrist, looks at the other side of this coin: women’s reluctance to claim ambition. It seems that whatever path women have chosen — career pursuits or staying home with children — asking them about ambition reveals “often long-winded, evasive, contradictory, and confused responses.” Even well-educated, professional, and influential women link the concept of ambition with greed, egotism, and disregard for others.

There is a certain kind of sexy midlife crisis, the kind you read about in More magazine, when the law partner chucks the suit for a surfboard, or the VP takes a buyout to make documentaries in Nepal. Then there’s the other kind — the slightly overweight 40-something mom realizes — when she finally has time to contemplate — what’s missing.

When my own unsexy midlife crisis hit, I picked up Fels’ book again. Some days, I feel the acute symptoms of untreated ambition aversion. I regret the things I didn’t do with my 20s and 30s — and even my teens. I might have pushed myself harder to master languages, journalism skills, photography. I might have worked late more often instead of hitting happy hours, or at least networked happy hours more artfully. Or perhaps not.

And I find myself writing this not so much as a whiny jeremiad about the pitfalls of staying home with children but as a cautionary tale to my very own daughters to choose wisely and take their own needs and the advice of their feminist foremothers to heart. Do what you love, love what you do, and don’t apologize for it. Take a risk. Take the paycheck. Take the trip to that faraway place. Take up a cause. Take your time in love. Practice preventive care of your midlife psyche by listening to your heart right now.

You know, I bet there’s a grandmother or two who could offer the same advice about the golden years. Maybe it’s time to stop contemplating, and start completing, what’s missing.

Kris Berggren is officially the mother of three teenagers as of this month.

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