Despite our annual spring cleaning ritual— dutifully dragging out industrial-sized garbage bags of each year’s detritus— the Elisofon family nest has accumulated way too much, well, stuff. After over 20 years in the same apartment raising our twins, our nest has become cram-packed and full to the brim. Even though I summoned the Salvation Army with alarming frequency (to pick up dozens of shopping bags filled with old clothes, books, toys and sports equipment) a tsunami of clutter still covered every flat surface, filling bureau drawers, crowding cabinets and bookcases until every nook and cranny overflowed with objects some family member couldn’t bear to lose.
For many years, cleaning up had seemed like a lost cause. But last September Max spread his wings and flew out of the family nest to live with his girlfriend in Brooklyn. Would we leave Max’s room as a messy shrine to our son’s childhood? (I have a friend whose mom maintains her brother’s room the way he left it more than 3 decades ago!) Or would Henry and I reclaim the precious, newly vacated space in our compact apartment and convert it into something new and shiny that we could actually enjoy? With no debate, Henry and I rolled up our sleeves and began to clean and clean. . . .
Finally, the room was ready to become a cozy den (see “Nest Lift,” 11/14/14). We repainted, bought a new rug and a sofa bed, (in case Max needed to stay the night). Then we felt inspired to give the rest of our nest a quick upgrade too. At this point our rehab project took on a life of its own. Replacing our dining table (ruined during one of Max’s high school science projects) was at the top of our list. In addition, our dining chairs were literally on their last legs; one had already collapsed under me— to uproarious laughter—during a family dinner three years ago. (That chair went to furniture heaven after 22 years of faithful support). Henry and I found a new (nearly indestructible) granite table and six bright red chairs. Wow! I could finally sip my coffee in a chair that didn’t wobble, and look up from the newspaper without seeing the razor slashes across my dining room table top. And Henry got to watch the Super Bowl in the den on the new 48” TV that arrived just in time.
Reading through my long-lost words took me on a journey into the mind of the young woman I’d been so long ago, before meeting Henry and creating a family. I’d forgotten how lonely I’d felt for so many years. I’d forgotten the taste and flavor of coming of age in the 1970s, when “first wave” feminism was transforming women’s roles. Back then magazine covers proclaimed that women could (and should!) “have it all:” husband, family and career. What those glossy pages failed to mention was that women were being paid half men’s salaries for doing the same jobs, while we were expected to work twice as hard (to prove our worth!) and continue cleaning, cooking, entertaining and networking with our spouse’s clients and – oh yes, having hot “free sex” with our husbands on a regular basis!
Am I the only woman who noticed that it was horribly unfair—not to mention exhausting—that we’d been assigned mission impossible? I was smart enough to know my anger was very uncool, so I kept my head down and my chin up. (How is that even possible?) I followed the new and many splendored path American culture had laid out for me. I looked for a job, (a career, even) and dated as much as possible (and palatable). Even now (more than 35 years after graduating from Vassar), I can’t help noticing that angry women are still perceived far more negatively (think: hysterical, depressed, whining, irrational) than angry men (think: righteous, aggressive, strong, and reasonable). And I was supposed to feel liberated?
Somewhere in my early 20s—around the current age of my twins, Max and Sarah—I tried to develop a sense of humor about my confusion over finding my place in the world. Amongst my many unearthed papers and teenage creations, I discovered the beginning of a book—The Career Handbook—a subject about which I knew virtually nothing at the time.
“Is there life after college?” I’d written. “And if so, how do you enter it and where? What happens after they hand you a diploma and tell you to go out and conquer the world?”
“If you are one of the ‘lucky’ ones who decided to become a lawyer, doctor, or banker, your career path—if not easy—is at least clear. But if you’re an artistic type, thinking of film-making, advertising, or writing, the road to success may well turn into a bewildering labyrinth, unless you’re aware of the many monsters that await you.” (Really, how did I know such things)?
“However, anyone who’s not sure about a career and tries to synthesize their interests with a job that sounds glamorous or lucrative in the spirit of ‘life-is-a-giant-buffet-and-I’d-like-to-taste-different-dishes-before-I-commit-to-lobster-fra-diavolo’ is in for a bad case of indigestion. I know because I’ve been to the buffet table.” (No doubt, I was referring to my early disappointment with low-paying jobs in publishing and public relations).
Ever whimsical and determined, my 20-something self continued: “I also like to write about what I like to write about: this subject of careers for example. Or maybe I should say I write about what I care about. Of course, in some ways I wish someone else had written this career book about ten years ago.”
Probably someone else DID write that career handbook, long before I’d thought of the idea and long after I’d abandoned it. The truth, according to the psychotherapist I’d seen at age 24, was that Michelin’s guide to my life had been torn up (if, in fact, it had ever existed). Now, all these years later, I’m thinking that there is no Michelin’s guide— not for me and not for anyone. We all plan our paths, and then life hijacks us in new directions. Giving birth to pre-mature twins? Raising a child on the autistic spectrum? These weren’t my choices, and likely they wouldn’t be yours either. But who you become grows out of what you do each time life offers you a fork in the road or an uphill journey. Even in my 20’s, I got that part of The Career Handbook right: moving forward with your life and becoming your best self is up to you.