When I was in my late 20s yearning to find a serious relationship, my psychotherapist sensibly suggested that I find my own identity first. Back then, I worked in financial public relations and had grown to hate every minute of it. I’d always wanted to be a writer, but never landed a writing position that could pay my rent AND my psychoanalyst. Like many creative women who graduated from college in the ‘70s, I had to start out as a secretary, euphemistically described as “assistant editor” at rock bottom pay. Financial public relations—in which I had zero interest—paid the bills and allowed me to be an account executive (whom all the young female secretaries envied and resented). Let’s not even discuss the sexual harassment I suffered from my male clients and bosses, in the days when small sexual assaults—both verbal and physical—were the permitted cultural norm. (If you don’t remember that culture, watch an episode of Mad Men.)
Hearing that I had to “find myself” before I could marry was infuriating. Especially since my analyst sounded right. However, I wasn’t clear which sort of writing career I wanted. But after many years of dating, I had a very clear picture of the kind of man I desired. Why couldn’t I find the love of my life first, have a family and figure out the rest of my identity later?
That’s exactly what I did. Feminism means choice, it is not simply another set of standards and lifestyle demands decided by someone other than me. I was never seduced by the illusion that a woman could “have it all.” Working twice as hard and earning substantially less than a man doing the same job was not appealing. Career women of the 70s’ and 80’s were also expected to do the lion’s share of housework and child care. At the same time, we were still supposed to look sexy and be energizer bunnies in the bedroom.
Instead, I became a wife and homemaker, that uncool, old-fashioned combo. But I was NOT your average mom. Life threw me a curve ball when I gave birth to pre-mature twins, one of whom was on the autistic spectrum and the other had ADHD and a heart defect, which required pediatric open-heart surgery. All my friends who got married and had young children bought apartments or houses in suburbia. Our family wanted the American Dream too, but we couldn’t afford it. We had to choose between mortgage payments and costly therapy, tutors and expensive special education for our daughter. We prioritized Samantha (along with private schools for both kids) and stayed in our current rent stabilized apartment for 30 years.
I didn’t start writing until my kids were in college and I was 53. I began blogging for The Never-Empty Nest about my daughter Samantha and disability related issues. I published my first book at age 60 and left a copy for my psychoanalyst of long ago, with a little note to her about how I had lived my life backwards. I brought her up to date on both kids. We also agreed to meet as a mutual healing experience, since we hadn’t parted on good terms. One of my therapist’s final comments to me was that she thought I’d done very well with my life living it backwards.
Thanks to the coronavirus, it looks like I’m going to live backwards again. Real estate prices have finally dropped enough so that Howard and I can buy an apartment. Instead of retiring and moving to Florida, we are poised to buy our very first home as senior citizens! Most people buy when they are young and sell when they are older, but not the Elisofons! As a young couple, we were investing in our daughter’s life. Oddly, we are STILL investing in her life as well as our own. Late in life, we will have our version of the American Dream while doing some necessary estate planning.
Night after night, we have worried about where Samantha will live when we’re gone. If she doesn’t become a successful actress, she will probably never earn enough money to rent her own apartment. Now, finally, we can protect her from ending up in a group home or living in the streets. We are going to buy an apartment and include her in the lease, so she can live with dignity and independence for the rest of her life. (Amen!)
Living life backwards hasn’t been so bad. Everyone must navigate life’s challenges and prioritize what is best for them at different times. Maybe there’s no such thing as a life lived backwards.
For us, buying our first home is a big step forward.