When It’s Time to Ask Yourself: Do I want to Try to “Have it All”

About a month ago, my closest male friend from college married the woman that became his better half. They’re a lovely couple, best friends really. They’re also both smart, funny, and driven career people. I admire them.

Marriage is an interesting thing. It changes everything. About a week ago, my friend’s new wife launched a call for help on facebook:

“To my ladies: do you think it is possible to have it all, amazing career and family life? Cause I really don’t see how one or both won’t suffer. Send some tips my way if u have any.”

We’re all her contemporaries, women in our late 20s, so most shrugged but praised their own mothers for somehow managing both a career and motherhood. Someone shared the famously talked about article in the Atlantic. Appropriate. I shared some advice I had heard a few days earlier from the keynote speaker at a luncheon…

Cut to the buffet spread in an upper crust Westchester suburban yacht club. Enter Judge Judy Sheindlin.

Judge Judy had some advice for the young women in the room about “having it all”

Yea, that’s right. THE Judge Judy.

I was at the Her Honor Mentoring 2012 kick-off luncheon. I had just re-met my mentee, a 17-year-old high school senior with a passion for all things art and aspirations to travel in adulthood. My fellow Mentors were the county’s leading businesswomen and government leaders. What was I doing there?

No matter. On to the speech:

“You may hear that you can’t have it all – a career and a family. But I’m living proof that you can have it all… if you learn how to negotiate…

In my day, you only left the house in either a white dress or a pine box. But I’m telling you that you don’t have to get married as a high school senior. Or as a freshman. Or as a sophomore or junior. Maybe, by the time you’re a senior you can start to look around to see if there’s anyone you find appealing. But just remember: you may have your act together when you’re 22, but they, well, they may not have their act together at 55.

So have your career. Set the bar for your career high and go out and achieve it. And then, and then start to look to have that family.”

It was a message I was surprised Judge Judy would share with a room full of college seniors yet to make their way and professional women who had all pursued unique paths in their lifetime. On the subject of “having it all,” it was surprisingly pragmatic. As I chuckled and applauded (I was the soul “ain’t that the truth, sister!” shouter in the room), it occurred to me that I was the youngest mentor.

I’m just starting in my career. Sometimes I feel like a little girl trying on her mother’s shoes…

Unlike the other “dynamic,” successful career women in the room, I was really just starting out.

My mother married my father when she was 17 and he was 21. Two weeks ago they celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary. If you do the math, that means they were married some 24 years before I was born. Over that quarter century, my mother made a career for herself, allowing her to retire as a top banking executive when I was starting high school.

Since the Atlantic article came out, there seems to have been another resurgence of feminist talk — or maybe it’s more of another re-evaluation of feminism.

Did you catch this Sunday NYTime’s Opinion piece by Alissa Quart? The one about women hiding their pregnancies in the professional world?

What about the brief speech by a new character on the Good Wife?

What about that other op-ed piece about the “Myth of Masculine Decline” in the work place?

I guess I never questioned the idea of “having it all.” I grew up with Judge Judy’s advice as my own game plan because it was a successful path I had watched unfold.

But then my own life began to happen.

I don’t have an answer for my Californian friend. Or for any young woman in our position. Frankly, no one really does.

Here’s what I can say…

The women of our generation are lucky because we have choices. We can choose to be career women. We can choose to be career mothers. We can choose to be both careerwomen and mothers. None of the above paths are easy — none are achieved without sacrificing or without negotiations.

As for me, well, the question of “having it all” isn’t as relevant now as it will be later. But I will say Nicole Sheindlin’s words from that luncheon have stayed with me.

A career is a woman’s insurance policy for independence and self-confidence.

True that, sister.

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Promises to My Future Fiance

It’s wedding season, and that means my weekly serving of Sunday Styles is healthier that usual. It’s also the year of my first milestone college reunion. This means I’m officially hitting that life phase when it’s not only strangers announcing their marriages in the Sunday Styles, it’s my friends.

As I watch more and more people I know prepare to “take the plunge” and as I plan my dress-rotation for the upcoming onslaught of receptions and nuptial exchanges, I’ve decided I’d better take note and make some lists for when it’s my turn…

Dear Future Fiance,

I will not make you sit through a staged engagement album photo-shoot that makes us look like a straight-from-the-pages-of-a-Brooks-Brothers-catalog-couple named Chip and Muffy.

This will just never be us.

I mean, yes, it would be nice to have some professional, candid photos of us for the requisite “save the date” cards or NYTimes wedding announcements, but none of that jumping in the air, fake laughing at something “cute” the other person said while wearing polo shirts, khakis and pearls stuff.

Let’s keep it real, baby.

I will not post every dress/hairstyle/shoe idea for our wedding on a board on Pintrest.

My Pintrest page is for everything, except my wedding.

I’m kinda obsessed with Pintrest. That recipe for the “skinny” chocolate-chip scones. The Burberry Prorsum dress I dropped 2 paychecks on. My favorite painting in that exhibit I went to last week. Sure — that’s all fair game. But when it comes to weddings, it’s about decisions… and excel spreadsheets or powerpoints are more useful for that. Besides,  if you can’t see my wedding dress until I walk down the aisle, no one can.

I will ask your opinion about the color scheme. And what color tux you should wear. And where we should have the reception… but I’m not asking for your opinion on the flowers.

You’ve never been great at buying me flowers, so let me pick those out for our wedding.

Let’s be honest — whether the centerpieces are cascading roses or submerged orchids probably doesn’t matter all that much to you. I organize events,  so those sorts of details do matter to me — whether it’s a wedding or a gallery opening. But it probably does matter to you where we celebrate with our guests — our friends and our family — and what breed of penguin you look like.

A wedding is about Us, after all, not about a 5-year old girl’s fairytale fantasy.

I won’t partake in the annual “Running of the Brides.”

Even though I’ve been contemplating joining the roller derby, this will not be me when I go wedding dress shopping. I promise.

As endearing as you find my competitive streak and my knack for trash-talking opposing teams, the last thing you want to see me do is shop for my wedding dress roller-derby style.

I won’t give you “that look” when you tell me the “boyz” have booked tickets to Vegas for your bachelor party.

That’s fine. I’ll even pack the suitcase for you. Because, baby, I’ve got plans of my own…

Just don’t come back married to someone else, with a tattoo on your face, or with anything communicable. If you don’t remember what happened, that’s probably for the best… but please check in with our GP before our honeymoon.

With Love,

Kathleen

Insert Groom Here

“Married women don’t get enough credit,” my mother said one afternoon a few weeks back. “Marriage is all about being able to deal with assholes.”

I don’t know what my father had done that day, but clearly, it wasn’t good.

With my great-grandmother's wedding ring in hand, I suddenly felt the weight of the generations.

My mother’s wisdom is always appreciated, but that day’s insight may not have been what I should have heard the night my cousin Julie arrived from Canada with my Great-Grandmother’s wedding ring.

Julie passed the generations-old, Irish-made gold band on to me in an understated ceremony in my kitchen, over a beer. I think the theme from Riverdance was playing from the Bose in the background, then again, my memory could just be over-romanticizing the significance of the scene and the transcendence of my Celtic heritage.

“I don’t doubt you’ll put it to good use,” she said as I slipped the ring out of the silk sack and onto my finger.

Mistake. I was stuck with it as we headed out the door. Cute waiters were no longer fair game – I was, for the night, a taken female.

Starring down at the ring through dinner, watching my finger change colors from peach to blue, I grew strangely sentimental and slightly anxious. Few things have been passed successfully through the generations in my family – a blue vase and a fetish for hats – and to have my great-grandmother’s wedding ring bestowed on me was to have an unexpected amount of pressure on my shoulders.

I guess I was going to have to get married after all.

Another Blue Moon and a bar of soap when I got home made removing the ring somewhat less painful than I had anticipated.

A week later, my friend Julia posted on my Facebook wall: “I had a dream you were engaged!” And then last week a woman stopped me at the cross walk for a chat. She was eager to make a friend and seemed slightly crazed from the hot summer sun. Midway through my story about my hat, she interrupted me: “You’re going to get married. I just know it! You’re going to get married.”

It seems the voices have changed their tune from prescriptions (you need to find a nice rich husband) to premonitions. Luckily, I don’t put much weight in the predictions of raving women on crowded street corners.

Then again, the soothsayer in the crowd advised Julius Caesar to beware the ides of March… and, well, we all know how that turned out.

I don't necessarily put much weight in the perdictions of raving women... but then I remember Julius Caesar

No, I’m Not Engaged. It’s Just My Class Ring

My college class ring has gotten me into a fair amount of trouble. It was probably the most expensive pieces of jewelry I had ever bought for myself — I even had to pay for it in installments as if it was a refrigerator. But flat-lining my bank account is not the sort of trouble I mean.

Picking the right style is always a challenge. Old and signet? Modern and bejewled?

I’ll always remember my friend’s brother Tom, Tom’s class ring, and Tom’s first job out of college. When Tom graduated from Cornell, he ordered an old-school signet ring that rivaled an NFL player’s Superbowl “bling.” He wore it everywhere. One day, at the coffee shop, an older gentleman noticed the ring and launched into Cornell talk with Tom. Eventually, the man asked him if he had a job yet.

To cut a long story short,  Tom got a job offer from the man — a job way over his head at a major investment firm way above his aspirations with a salary and sign-on bonus way beyond his wildest dreams — and it was all because of his class ring.

The way I saw it, a good class ring was a great door opener.

A size too big, my feminine and apparently bridal class ring got me into trouble

Torn between something heavy and traditional and something small and modern, I settled on what I felt was an attractive compromise — a feminine piece suitable for day-to-day wear with a white gold band and Columbia’s crown strongly embedded in a blue stone. It was a fantastic conversation starter.

For a while, it was a guy-magnet. From close range, it was clearly a statement of my education, and it seemed to give suitors an excuse to touch my hand, to get a little closer, to cross that threshold. So while the ring wasn’t opening the door to high paying dream jobs, I can’t say I minded the attention it did bring. But there was a problem. A size too big, I could only wear it on the middle finger of my left hand.

It was all fun and games until someone assumed I was married… to my fencing coach.

When I graduated from college, my mother and I were both taking fencing lessons from the same tall, boyish American man who was quickly adopted into the family as a missing son/big brother. That year, my mother was on the Veterans World Championship team and the three of us spent a weekend in Bath, England. Mother was the child I was living vicariously through. I was the sport parent. He was the moral and tactical support.

“It’s so wonderful your husband is your mother’s coach! Is he your coach too?” One of her teammates said as we sipped cocktails at the Assembly Rooms. You could hear the clunk as my jaw hit the floor.

“We’re not married.”

“Sorry, your fiancé.”

“We’re not engaged. We’re not sleeping together. We’re not dating. He’s my mother’s coach. He’s my coach.”

“Oh! Sorry! I saw you two together… I saw the ring…”

“It’s a class ring.”

It’s a flaw of social convention that a white band with a light stone on the left hand implies marriage. It’s a bigger flaw of social convention that when a man and a woman are seen together, having fun with a clearly close connection, the assumption is “couple.”

The ring didn’t go back on my finger for the remainder of the trip. In all likelihood, I won’t be wearing out again until I get it resized… if I get it resized. When it was time for my grad school class ring, small, feminine and bridal just weren’t viable options. I ordered a man’s ring. Bigger, bolder, and shinier, it’s luckily turned out to be the better dude-magnet.

This time, there would be no mistaking it -- this IS a class ring. Luckily, it's still a guy magnet.

Give a girl an education…

“Give a girl an education, and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one but she has the means of settling well, without further expense to anybody.”

— Jane Austen, Mansfield Park

Once upon a time, we members of the fair sex could content ourselves with a surface knowledge of history, geography, romance languages, and poetry. We were amusing, nay, enchanting, if in addition to a knack for sketching, we also had a good command of the pianoforte and a hefty repertoire of sing-along ditties. A penchant for witticisms were a plus, but not requisite.

In short, dear ladies, had we lived in the age of Auntie Jane, we would have earned the esteemed and coveted epithet of “accomplished” by the age of 13. But as women of the 21st century, we know the Austen-ian accomplished just doesn’t cut it any more.

If you want to be accomplished in this day and age, you need a Pulitzer.

The T.W.I.T proudly points to her MA thesis title on Commencement day

In May 2009, I attended my second Columbia commencement ceremony. This time I was graduating with a master’s degree in Art History. For several months before starting my MA, I felt the need to apologize when I told people what I was studying as a graduate student. “I majored in Economics in college” was the footnote added to most conversations about my future academic plans. Eventually, to combat the tilted heads, puzzled stares, and “whatcha gonna do with that?” I tried self-effacing humour: “I’m going back to school to become a trophy wife.” A book about women painter-etchers of the late 19th-century wasn’t going to get me a Nobel Prize nomination, that was for certain, nor was it likely to earn me much of an income. But people found my declared T.W.I.T status (Trophy Wife in Training) both amusing and acceptable. It was fine that I wanted to write about obscure American artists, if doing so meant I would be a good adviser/cocktail party hostess to my art-collecting mogul husband.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman, in possession of a good education, must be in want of a husband.

Apparently, “settling well..without further expense to anybody” still doesn’t mean settling on my own bank account.

A week ago, I ran into Amanda, a woman who has known me since I was 14 and who thinks of me as existing in a constant state of studentdom. She asked me if I had finally graduated. Yes, I told her. A year ago, with my masters.

“Oh, no! You poor thing!” she exclaimed. “You’ll never find a husband. Half the men in the world will think you’re too smart for them and won’t want you. And the other half… well, they’re just smart enough for you.”

I told her things were only going to get rougher for me — I plan to get a doctorate.

I may not win a Nobel, but goddammit, I want a Pulitzer.

Maybe then I’ll be able to settle well on my book deal, without further expense to anybody.

Sorry, I can’t date you. You’re the kind of girl I want to take home to Mother

“The problem with you,” a mother of a guy friend once told me in conversation, “is that you’re not the type of girl guys want to date. you’re the kind of girl they want to marry.”

the glass of champagne in my hand tipped sideways, and a few precious drops fell to the floor before i chug-a-lugged the remaining contents in an attempt to mitigate her revelation. I didn’t really know how to respond. Had she just uncovered the source of all my men “trouble”? Certainly, she had just dealt me a new out for the question “why aren’t you seeing anyone?” She meant her comment to be complimentary — I’m a nice girl, who “deserves to be treated well,” she explained when she saw my jaw drop. Guys my age, despite their other shortcomings, are at least sensible enough to realize that they’re not ready to be in a “grown-up” relationship with a girl “who has her act together.” They don’t want to make girls like me cry.

By the time I got home, I had decided it wasn’t important if I was “one of those girls.” The more important question was: Do guys under 35 really approach women so sensibly? Do they really separate girls they want to sleep with from girls they want to have children with? I was skeptical. Maybe, I’m not giving the opposite sex enough credit.

Indeed, maybe I’m not. Recently, I read an advice column that claimed to shed light on “What it Means if He Doesn’t Call You Back.” It corroborated my friend’s mother’s observation — sometimes guys “go poof” because they meet a girl that deserves more commitment than they’re willing to give. It’s not that the fellas are commitment-phobic; it’s that the girl is the kind of girl they marry, not date.

I then recalled a conversation with Generically-Named-Male-Friend. He told me that within the first 5 minutes of meeting a girl, he  shuffles her into one of 4 categories: one night stand, short-term dating, long-term dating, friend. The “one night stand” category wasn’t a surprise. However, the 2 dating categories, short- versus long- term, were.

But despite these assessments/confessions, my questions remain. Is Generically-Named-Male-Friend an anomaly? Was that column really written by a woman whose girlfriends all tell her that every time her date goes AWOL? Was my friend’s mother’s comment based on a story her son wove when she asked him why he and I weren’t dating? Or, when it comes to girls, do guys use more of their northern brain than we give them credit for?

Fellas, enlighten us. Please.