the piece of career advice I’ll never give my children, or anyone else

I’m a particularly sensitive person, and for many years I had a tendency to internalize advice I received, taking it quite literally. In addition to being innately sensitive, for a long time I didn’t have a strong enough sense of self to question the advice I received – I truly believed if people older than I was were sharing their proverbial pearls of wisdom, then these pearls equaled the truth. One of the bitchin’ things about growing older is developing a stronger sense of self and now I hear certain pieces of advice and roll my eyes, or scoff, or point out to my children all the ways the advice is wrong.

As it happened, I received the same piece of advice for the three areas of interest I was most passionate about growing up (writing, acting, studying English Literature). If I wanted to be a writer, or an actor, or get a Ph.D. in British Literature, I heard time and time again that I shouldn’t be able to imagine doing anything else with my life, at all. All three endeavors, I was told, were inherently selfish acts, not conducive to earning a living, let alone raising a family.

I was reminded of this bit of advice recently when I was listening to the Diane Rhem show on NPR on my way to the gym. She had a British actor on her program whose name I didn’t catch, and he was sharing this particular bit of wisdom with the mother of a daughter in a theater conservatory. Something along the lines of “just make sure it’s the only thing – truly the only thing – she wants to do – because she will sacrifice everything else for it.”

I just rolled my eyes. I mean, nobody saw me because I was alone in the car but if someone HAD been there? It was a pretty impressive eyeroll.

Because, yes. Acting and writing and dancing and playing musical instruments and studying English or history or the history of stage direction? Not terribly profitable careers, of course. We live in a pro-STEM world and the value we place on the arts seems to be dropping disturbingly quickly. Chances of succeeding as an actual working actor, or supporting yourself by your published novels alone, or even landing a tenure-track teaching position, are slim. But ultimately I’m just not sure how helpful this particular bit of advice is. For someone like me, who grew up in a house where the grown ups were constantly worried about money, the need to earn a living trumped my less practical dreams. I felt tremendous pressure, not so much from my parents but from society, generally, to succeed in areas I didn’t naturally excel in (calculus and chemistry leap to mind), that my failure in those areas constantly seemed to overshadow the fact that teachers thought I was a good writer and members of the community found me a talented actress.

I think the word “imagine” was the word that tripped me up time and time again. Not able to imagine myself doing anything else? Are you kidding me? I could imagine myself doing EVERYTHING else – law school with a dramatic career on capitol hill! Practicing pediatric oncology! Environmental studies and saving forests and rivers! Yes, I could imagine myself in all sorts of careers.

Admittedly I haven’t seen things play out well – financially speaking- for the writers, actors and Ph.Ds I know. They struggle mightily, some finally accepting the need for a day job, others allowing spouses to carry the weight of financial matters for the family. Many have limited the number of children they have not because they want to but because their financial situation has forced them to – others continue to work in hospitality industry to support their art. Still, there is a part of me that admires their commitment to their craft – not to what I consider a lack of imagination so much as fierceness, creative dedication and core beliefs held dear.

In writing this I can see how maybe I come across as unsatisfied or disillusioned with my own life – that couldn’t be further from the truth. I have a beautiful, messy, creative life with a job that could support my kids and me if anything ever happened to Sam – all of those things hold importance for me.

As Evangeline, Duncan and their friends grow up, at least some of them are bound to be less STEM-oriented and more involved in the arts. I know I won’t be the grown up to say “you should only pursue X dream if you can’t imagine doing anything else” but I hope I have the wherewithal and judgment to say “that sounds amazing! What do you need to do to achieve that?” or “becoming a prima ballerina sounds like an amazing goal – I once worked for a doctor who did so until she was 32 and then went to med school – she works at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill today!” Or “acting and writing can be tough but if you combine them you’ll have astounding success.” Or “I’m in complete agreement – very little is as fascinating at Restoration literature. And the study of history is a great way to learn to think critically, which is useful in all sorts of fields.”

I will not, as God and this blog as my witness, ever tell someone they’d better not be able to imagine themselves doing anything else. Because life is short, but it is wide, with room for so many reinventions.

This morning as I was dressing the kids for school, Evangeline asked me, since Duncan is turning more into a little boy and less of a baby, if I could give her another baby brother.

“Just a brother. Maybe a lot of baby brothers. NO SISTERS,” she emphasized. Since Sam and I have taken measures to control our family planning and will not be having anymore children, I focused the conversation on how much fun Duncan is becoming – how this spring she’ll be able to teach him to run and slide and swing at the park, how they’ll be able to watch movies together, build forts together and play games together. Evangeline agreed that this would probably be more fun than having another baby around because last year, our park trips and exploring were somewhat limited while we focused on Duncan’s newborn needs.

When she asked the question, I felt the predictable conflicting emotions I always experience when this subject comes up. On the one hand, I am so, so glad our family is complete. Celebrating Duncan’s first birthday felt like a true milestone for us – moving toward raising a toddler and an older child and away from babies. My body is changing and improving and I feel great about that, and frankly I don’t think we can afford more than two children – our budget is stretched, with little room for error, while we pay for the cost of two daycares.

There is very little that is rational about wanting another baby, though, so I spend a lot of time rubbing my cheeks against Duncan’s chubby ones, smelling his hair, letting him run trains up and down my arms just to keep him on my lap longer. The truth of the matter is if I was younger and richer I would probably have aimed to have four children, I enjoy mine so much, and since they don’t have any cousins there would have been something great about a nice big family under my roof. When I was younger I don’t think I understood how one person could house such contradictory emotions at the same time but the desire to have and not have one last baby sit next to one another within me, taking up equal space.

I actually spend several of my working days each week at the hospital where I delivered Duncan and Evangeline and it is there I feel the strongest pull to have another child. Even with each child’s attendant (minor) complications when they were born, and how taken to task my own body felt, the birth and subsequent early days of bringing each baby home are gold-shimmering memories for me, a time when our house became reverent – as close to holy as my home as ever felt. It’s so easy to forget, as I walk the halls of the hospital, the smell of antiseptic mingling with the wood-fired pizza from the cafeteria, the difficulties – the long late walks trying to soothe a baby who couldn’t tell day from night, the seemingly endless nursing in the early months, the sleep-deprived toddler who had to learn how to sleep with a baby in the house, waking up with me in the early morning hours to join us while I nursed – I swear, the only thing I ate for three months was toaster waffles with nutella and rasberries.

The whole business of making babies – who can and who can’t – who wants to, who doesn’t – is such a weird crapshoot, really. Those of you who followed me here from my old blog might recall the time a physician’s assistant in Detroit told me I would probably never have children, and the toll it took on me. As it turned out I was simply in the hands of a particularly poor PA at the time, but I remember how suddenly it seemed as though babies were turning up everywhere, and how painful it was.

I find it endlessly interesting, I admit, to watch the faces of the women who are about to be mothers come in and out of the hospital. Some seem so hopelessly young, others, with greying hair and lined faces, oddly old. Some have four or even five kids in tow behind them while others – I know – are desperately trying to hold on to the one they are carrying. I find it weird, I guess, to still technically be able to have children and make the choice not to, after so much of my life was defined first by trying to avoid getting pregnant and then by trying to have babies.

I’m not sure when or how you ever know, barring biology, if your family is complete. For me, the decision is a combination of finances, my age (carrying a baby at 36 was more difficult than it was at 33), and the understanding that having a third child would be more about me than it would be about my family. A friend of mine has written eloquently in the past about how her children’s birthdays are a time of meditation for her, and I understand what she means: both of my kids have February birthdays and I’m watching Evangeline fall down the beautiful worm holes of youth, obsessed with everything from ballet to basketball, while Duncan runs away from me as often as he does to me, and I can feel myself emerging, just the tiniest bit, and wondering what’s next – not in any kind of greedy, desperate way – but quietly, curiously – what comes next for the momma who has birthed and nursed and literally gotten these children to their feet? My babes are young and there is no hurry – most of what comes next is continued time with them, guiding their interests, keeping them safe, making sure they know they are loved – but still, the question is out there. I’m not having any more children, and so many of my friends and colleagues are moving on professionally and creatively, and I’m feeling the need to do the same.

I have friends and acquaintances who seem oddly relegated, in a way, to the idea that early middle age is a time for sticking with what they know, a time to pay down the mortgage, save for their kids’ college tuitions and dream of retirement, and I am doing all of those things as well. But since having children, I feel more creative, more ready for the next creative and professional move – more prepared than I’ve ever felt before. Also, I still feel an innate restlessness – a sense that what I am doing is not ALL I am supposed to be doing – and possibility shimmers ahead of me, not quite close enough to grasp just yet.

Saying goodbye to Parenthood

Prior to the series finale of NBC’s drama “Parenthood,” a couple of my friends and I spent quite a bit of time anticipating the ending. Would Zeke actually die? Would Amber have her baby? What the hell was happening with Hattie? I was (and still am!) sad to lose one of my favorite television shows, especially when I feet like there is so much more to tell. At one point during this text chain (which frankly warrants it’s very own post), my friend AW mentioned the possibility that one of the brothers could die in lieu of the expected death of the father.

I grew very upset and texted something back along the lines of “if that happens I will quit tv forever” which of course was absolute nonsense because as we’ve established I quite like a good television show. AW, who is something of an expert when it comes to television, did a lot of referencing and told me that the creative behind “Parenthood” was also some of the creative behind “Thirty-something” (which I am too young to have watched pleaseandthankyou and really she should be too) and “Thirty-something” had a shocking ending so the possibility existed that “Parenthood” could kill of the really only minorly troubled Crosby instead of the the heart-disease riddled Zeke.

I felt shaken by this possibility. In my defense, the finale came during a ten day span where at most I slept two hours a night – first Evangeline, and then Duncan, came down with the kind of chest-rattling colds that keep mommas up at night even if the children eventually fall asleep. Knowing there was no way I would manage to stay up until 10 p.m. to begin watching the finale, I begged AW to text me who died before I watched the episode the following day. She did, but from a cursory glance at social media channels the following morning I knew everything would be okay – there was wide-range internet agreement that the ending was lovely, and by the time I was lucid enough to agree with the general consensus.

This behavior was pretty unlike me – I have never, not once – read the ending of a book before reading the rest of it, or skipped to the ending of a movie, and while I do really enjoy television I don’t tend to take it terribly personally. I wasn’t, like some people I know, in mourning because of the way “The Sopranos” ended.

The idea I kept returning to was that, in its way, “Parenthood” had a contract with its viewers. From its inception, and even with the original movie so long ago, “Parenthood” has been about redemption and overcoming odds as much as it has anything else. From Sarah’s early, precarious return home to Adam overcoming the burden of responsibility to find a job he truly loved, the television show has been about struggling and overcoming. “Parenthood” is not “Lost” or “Breaking Bad” – death isn’t inherent to most of the plots. It would have been really hard for me to handle the loss of Crosby.

Of course, I took psychology 101 in college like every theater major did, and I know that part of the reason I’ve attached so particularly to this program is probably because I live so far away from my own family, and the life I live is pretty different than I how I grew up. I grew up close to almost my entire family, both physically and geographically. I really never thought, except in my more grandiose daydreams, that I would end up far away from my aunts, uncles and cousins and parents. In some ways, week after week, “Parenthood” echoed my visions of what I think family life should be like.

When I started to parse this out with my friends, I realized it was just that – a make-you-laugh, make-you-ugly-cry, somewhat sanitized version of real life. My own version of the movie would look terribly different – with Sam’s and my parents aging in tremendously draining and difficult ways, and siblings thrown to far-flung corners of the universe, not to mention the trauma potty-training Evangeline imposed on our house or Duncan’s determined death wish, the baby constantly doing his best to fling himself down the stairs or swallow Draino.

It was a great show. It brought Lauren Graham back into my life after losing the beloved “Gilmore Girls” (and can I just say I really really hope she has another show in the works right now?) and it grew Dax Shepherd’s range enormously. I’m going to miss it, but I’m glad it went out on a high note instead of spoiling. Well done, NBC.