Choosing or Not Choosing? With grandmothers.

Maureen Dowd’s editorial, “Blue is the New Black,” is just the last in a series of articles I’ve read recently about declining female happiness. I find the topic depressing, of course, but I think it’s right on. Dowd’s final assertion that our plethora of choices may be responsible for our malaise is both suspiciously accurate and deeply saddening to me. I think often of how hard our mother and grandmother’s generations fought for those very choices. How dismayed they would be to know that finally, the future they had envisioned is here, and yet it is resulting in the polar opposite of what they wanted. More despair, more pressure, more unhappiness, and not less.

I think of my grandmothers, both of whom were college educated but neither of whom pursued her own career. I am fortunate to have had two wonderful grandmothers, each of whom could be called a force of nature in her own way. My mother’s mother, Nana, was a tall, slender whip of a woman who was always perfect coiffed and dressed. She was intimidating to me for a very long time for the perfection and gloss of her exterior. She devoted her life to her family, and to a few causes dear to her heart, among them Middlebury College and Planned Parenthood (kind of a big deal back in the day). There were always fresh flowers on the table (cosmos and zinnias, in particular, make me think of her), pearls around her neck, and birthday cards in the mail, arriving right on our birthdays, with her small, perfect script writing inside. In her house I remember perfectly-made beds with crochet bedspreads, the lazy susan top on the round kitchen table, and the super recliney chair on the screened in porch. I remember Sunday school and the framed age-by-age pictures of my mother and her brother above Nana’s bed and the step down to my grandparents’ bathroom.

My father’s mother, Gaga, was entirely different. She was small and a ball of opinions. She could barely keep her sense of humor and her keen intelligence to herself; more than once I remember her whispering to me some cutting aside under her breath. Born in another era, she would have been an outstanding doctor. Instead, Gaga majored in zoology at Wellesley and spent substantial time volunteering at the local hospital. She loved Miss Piggy and the memory of her garden’s roses to this day make me swoon. She mothered four boys and embraced me, her first grandchild and a girl, with particular enthusiasm. Like Nana, she was devoted to Planned Parenthood. In her house I remember the mirror with the night and day lighting in her closet, the steep steps to the attic full of exciting dusty boxes, including old Princeton reunions costumes, and a wall full of books in the family room. I remember the curving driveway whose asphalt would get soft in the sun, the plot of black-eyed susans on the right, and the smell of Shower to Shower powder in the changing room at the beach.

Oh, I miss my grandmothers. Dowd’s words made me sad for them, for how their efforts (and those of my mother and her generation, the subject of many more posts) seem to have wound up going awry.

But her column also made me ponder choice, and the way that much of the complexity that drives unhappiness (in her description) is something I choose precisely because I refuse to choose. Some of my happiest friends are the ones who have made an explicit decision to focus on their families or on their careers, who have thrown themselves wholesale into one arena or the other. It is those of us who are marooned in the middle, in my experience, who are often the most conflicted and unhappy. In my determination to be a mother and have a career, am I in fact failing at both? A lot of days it feels that way. It also feels like I have a foot in each world and a home in neither. I wonder about this a lot. But I know that I am simply not ready or able to choose one exclusively at this time.

(caveat: I realize it is a great privilege available to very few women to stay home full-time.)

Obviously choosing to do both avails me of joys and satisfactions in both worlds. I suppose the essential question is whether those joys outweigh the additional demands and expectations I impose on myself (or is it the world imposing them on me? I don’t know) by choosing this bifurcated life. I say bifurcated when I wish I could say blended. I continue to strive to find a model with a more seamless integration between my professional and my personal lives. I don’t feel optimistic right now, but I also hate the conclusion that trying to live my life the way I have will result in more unhappiness, so I see no choice but to keep trying.

3 thoughts on “Choosing or Not Choosing? With grandmothers.”

  1. I work. I parent. I don't do either of them to the best of my ability. I am starting to feel the pain and anxiety of trying to do both. I am starting to miss my kids. To realize that my time with them will diminish with every year that passes. I am sad.

    There is too much choice and yet, there is not enough. In trying to manage both work and home I often feel trapped. Too many tasks. Too little time. And I have little room to enjoy either one. My mind is heavy. (and my words pretty scattered right now, my apologies)

  2. I am not a parent, but my guess is that women who do both and struggle with feeling that they're not doing either as well as they could….probably aren't giving themselves enough credit. You guys are probably doing better at both than you think you are right now.

    All the best!

  3. LOVE YOUR BLOG! Just discovered it tonight, and I can’t stop reading! Felt compelled to comment on this particular post b/c I went to Middlebury (class of ’95).
    Looking forward to reading more!

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