Rear View Mirror

I used to be somebody.

I had a job – okay maybe not a big fat job, but a little fat job – with an uplifting title and a salary that seemed to me handsomer than I’d expected for that stage of my life. I had a secretary, employees who wanted to please me, colleagues who cared what I thought, and a few fans in the business who were happy to run into me at conventions. I left a tiny mark on an industry – a pinky print on a short period of its history, but nonetheless, I did one or two notable things.

Because my neck and shoulders used to hurt from too much telephone time, I wore a headset, making it impossible for my staff to know if I was actually on the phone or not. I preferred to keep my office door open, so my assistant made a changeable plaque for my desk that read NOW or NOT NOW, to silently inform people of my availability to converse. My office was a corner one, not as large as the other older executives – and admittedly it came with a view of a depressed New England city – but it was a light, bright office, and I was happy for all the glass, which I used to tally the performance of the sales people in the division on what we called the Window of Opportunity.

But the wanderlust started singing its siren song, rustling up the restlessness in me, beckoning me to quit my job and the up-and-coming life I had perfunctorily choreographed for myself. “You’ve got the coolest job,” people said, “how can you leave?” It was hard to explain that the consequences of not leaving had surpassed those of leaving, as scary as it was.

What followed was weird and wonderful; to stow my belongings and move to Europe, to be in my thirties and yet footloose, like a college student without a college. No job. No man. No itinerary. No dependents. I was a professional vagabond. Or at least that was my response to people asking that rather uninventive question, “and what do you do?”

I did this flittering about thing for just enough time to run out of money, and then (luckily) found myself in career-step again, in the same industry but on a different (and desired) coast of the Atlantic, bouncing around European capitals. But then, like Ground Hog Day, once again the restlessness took hold. So I stepped off the hamster wheel, again.
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And well here I am. I don’t have to go to an office every day. I am more in control of my time than my friends with regular full-time jobs. I schedule long vacations when I want. I choose to accept assignments, or not. I work with a cool network of colleagues, so I still get the best of the team thing, but sans all the baloney.

I’m a working mother on my own terms; I was home when they were babies and now I’m home – more often than not – when the kids come home from school. I witnessed all the firsts, first hand (well except this one). Plus there’s this: I have time to fart around. You know, the sort of puttering not really doing anything but kind of reading maybe daydreaming, thinking about whatever, Walter Mitty-ish, distracted way of wasting time? I actually get to do a bit of that.

This is the part where I’m supposed to crow about how leaving the corporate grind was a redefining, liberating moment from which the good fortune of my life has been launched. I’m supposed to brag about how I’m so much happier now, without those external pressures, the full-on job, the bullshit of the corporate world. I’m supposed to say my life is exponentially improved and that quitting that job was the best thing I ever did, for me and well certainly – cue the trumpet fanfare – for my children.

Except there isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t wonder if it was the right choice. I miss some parts of that previous incarnation of me, despite my smug satisfaction about how sweet things have turned out. God knows I miss the secretary. But I also miss the brain-jolt that comes from working with a cohesive team, every day. I miss the camaraderie of pulling together to meet that weekly deadline, or face a tough first quarter, or celebrate a we-pulled-it-off performance. I miss the status – there I said it – of having a few initials by my name and the doors that opened to me as a result. I miss the truly disposable income that comes from a steady and hearty paycheck, you know, higher thread-counts and other little luxuries of life that aren’t must-have but sure are nice-to-have.
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So did I make the right choice? Have I made a mistake? Or is this questioning simply a natural reaction, at this middle-ish point of my life, to reflect upon the choices I’ve made and experience the reward and regret associated with paths both chosen and un-chosen?

I have friends who’ve done well. They get profiled in the Alumni magazine. They appear in stories above the fold on the front page of the New York Times. They’ve made a major lasting impact in their fields. They live in apartments with foyers larger than my bedroom, or designer homes built with the profit from stocks I opted to sell so I could move abroad. Funny that it’s often when I think about these more traditionally successful people that the pangs for what I didn’t do seem fiercer. Then I saw this thoughtful post by Tim Kreider for the New York Times’ Blog, Happy Days. He calls this phenomenon the referendum, a (mostly, but not entirely) midlife examination, driven by the realization that time and choices are running out and as we take a measure of ourselves, we can’t help but make a comparison to our peers.

It’s exacerbated by the far greater diversity of options available to us now than a few decades ago, when everyone had to follow the same drill. We’re all anxiously sizing up how everyone else’s decisions have worked out to reassure ourselves that our own are vindicated — that we are, in some sense, winning.

Satisfaction alternating with dissatisfaction passes over me like ocean waves. One day I’m winning, perfectly delighted with the quasi-bohemian freedom of my life. The next day, I wonder if having and doing those other things would have made life easier or more enjoyable.

And some days I wonder if I wouldn’t have been better off without kids. About this, Kreider writes:

Judging from the unanimity with which parents preface any gripe about children with the disclaimer, “Although I would never wish I hadn’t had them and I can’t imagine life without them,” I can’t help but wonder whether they don’t have to repress precisely these thoughts on a daily basis.

I can imagine my life without them. I can imagine the things I’d do on a whim. I can imagine empty, quiet weekends and uninterrupted conversations. But I didn’t choose a childless life, just as I didn’t choose the corporate life. And though I keep doing it, I know that looking back to evaluate these choices is not a particularly productive use of my time. There’s no do-over, Kreider reminds us, “Life is, in effect, a non-repeatable experiment with no control.”

So I march forward, an anonymous person with a busy-lazy life, with two children who fill me up as much as they wear me out. In the end, I suppose it doesn’t matter which choices I made, as long as I own up to them and play them out fully, without the nagging voice of remorse – just the occasional, curious, mindful glance in the rear view mirror.

But let me just say this: I really really miss my secretary.


5 Responses to “Rear View Mirror”

  • j Says:

    This is really good. I hope Kreider takes a look at it. It complements his writing, bringing the evolving feminine side of the mid-life “referendum” into perspective. Thanks!

  • Lynn Says:

    Wow, it’s like you just reached into my brain and wrote down everything I was thinking in there. It’s comforting to know how universal these feelings are. I’ll have to go read that post…
    Thanks for this.

  • Jeremy Says:

    Another lovely post.

    One thing Kreider missed, in talking to his friends-who-are-parents, is that none of them have children who are yet old enough to bring a full perspective to what, in fact, the parenting is ultimately all about. Yes, when your children are young, there is that daily, David Byrne-ish thought in your head (“My god; what have I done?!”). When your children grow up, become their own individual adults, you know what you’ve done. He was somewhat mystified about what everyone was getting out of it, this parent thing. Parents of young children are not the best people to ask, or to look to for the answer.

    That all said, I think this ‘Referendum’ time is far better spent seeking to understand rather than regret the choices we have made to date. We always only act with the information available to us at the time: “And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

  • Kunyi Says:

    I really enjoyed this post. I agree that I can imagine what I would DO without children…but honestly, I can’t imagine who I would BE without children. Children seem so uniquely painful and joyful. And the mirror they hold up to us calls us out in a unique way. And THAT stimulus seems to prompt unrelenting and uncompromising contemplation. In my case, I find it’s usually something unpleasant revealed.

    A recent meltdown (more mine than my son’s) of his sloppy (my description) job of washing dishes, and my determination to make him do it the “right” way prompted a heated discussion of why there is a “right” way, and why he has to do it that way, and why isn’t his way the “right” way. Notwithstanding my observation that it’s better to wash glasses before greasy pots, I had a moment of panic – had I become my mother and grandmother who really DID believe there is one right way to do just about everything? I don’t think I ever get called out the way I do with children – not in my marriage, not in counseling, not by my friends…

    I don’t know whether I would choose the same path knowing what I know know about the sometimes brutality of life with children (whom I am besotted with – I feel I need to make that clear since I’ve also used the word “brutality”). I think I would – I know what I get, but I also know what it costs. Something I didn’t expect is that I think I’ve grown up a lot since having to learn to be in a family. I don’t know whether you get that chance if you’re not forced into it by something like having a family.

  • Ingrid Says:

    This is a great post, because you are HONEST about ALL your decisions. You aren’t trying to justify any of them. We are all trying to write the story of our lives every single day. When stuff happens today that makes us feel bad, we reach back to earlier decisions to cope with our anger or frustration. We’re terrified the story won’t end well – especially if it got off to a flying, albeit clichéd start: ‘straight A student’; ‘excellent employee’; ‘great manager’. It sounds as though your Wanderlust preceded children — as did mine — and that becoming a parent has raised the stakes of that Wanderlust. Now you wander, but you call yourself into question for it BECAUSE YOU ARE A MOTHER, rather than just calling yourself into question along with questioning everything you see as you go. ‘Are my choices right NOW THAT I HAVE CHILDREN?’. That’s the vulnerability that allows other people’s choices or opinions to eat away at you. No one knows how to raise children successfully. We all just do our best and make mistake after mistake. However much money and time we throw at it. Living with children IS brutal — children can be terribly brutal. That’s not all they are, of course, and their brutality only exposes our own, suppressed brutality. We just know we’re not allowed to do what they go on doing until they finally accept it’s not worth the hassle. It’s your honesty that redeems all your choices — you have made them with your eyes open, and you accept their consequences. I think that’s remarkable. x

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