Like you, I’ve experienced both friends and family passing away. Some very young, others at very ripe old age. Either way it’s never emotionally easy. It doesn’t matter if they were old and had very rich lives or were young and taken too soon. We always look back at their life and try to comfort ourselves with their accomplishments, achievements, and experiences. We look at what they had, both the tangible things as well as the experiences they had that we both witnessed and those which became tales told over and over again. Losing someone you care about is never easy.
My mother passed away when she was 47. Her only brother, my uncle Harvey, was 44. My grandpa was 75. There have been aunties and uncles who were well in to their 70s and 80s. My friend Sally was in her 50s, with a 9 year old son.
As I help my grandma move into the next phase of her life, leaving her home, I’m struck by so many things. It didn’t help that while up late packing up her house I stopped to read an article shared by my friend Lisa entitled Why Women Still Can’t Have It All by Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former director of policy planning at the US State Department. Pretty high powered job. Which she left because, well, she had to get back to her job at Princeton University or risk her tenue status. In my opinion that’s not really “giving up a career for my kids” kind of move. But that’s a bit how she characterized it.
As I sat for hours with my grandmother at her nursing center, I kept wondering if any of the women propped up in their wheelchair were sitting there thinking about work-life balance or how they made sacrifices for their family 40 or 50 years ago and that it was worth it. I wanted to ask these women if they worked while raising their kids. I wanted to know if they sit there for hours on end doing nothing, all alone, paying for someone else to care for them because their daughters and granddaughters are “having it all” just like she told them they could when they were all younger.
Instead, I say hello and ask how they’re doing. In less than 10 minutes I know a lot about them and their family. In what is an informal survey, it turns out that about 90% of the children visiting and caring for their aging parent are daughters. The son? Well, they have “a good job” or “travel a lot”. So much for that idea that little girls were taught they could have it all. Sure, we can have it all. That is only until our kids or our elders need us. Then, all that ALL gets pushed aside because no matter how much of the ALL we’ve got it is trumped by one thing – the traditional role of caregiver.
One of the women I spoke to never married. She was an air traffic controller for the US Military in World War II. Her niece moved her from her home state to be nearby her so she can help manage her aunt’s care. She has a nephew, but, as she said, “he’s got a good job and I didn’t want to bother him.” Hmm, bother him. This is a woman who bucked tradition 50 years ago. But still holds on to traditional ideas of gender roles.
There was another young woman sitting near by. We exchanged glances a few times. Each time as if to say, “I’m a granddaughter, too.” Her mother was there with her grandmother. The “young girl” had come in for the weekend, the end of a business trip I found out. She’s about my age, early 40s. But her kids are older and more self sufficient, she tells me. She said that makes it easier. Her mother retired to take care of her grandmother. She has an uncle, but “His wife doesn’t like when he’s away too long.”
One thing that struck me was that none of the elderly women I spoke with talked a lot about their jobs. All of them had jobs, in addition to being mothers (except for the one woman who never married). Instead, they told me about places they visited and people they met. It struck me that all of them (OK, so it wasn’t a huge sample but it was 7 women) had at one time in their life met a sitting US President, or two or three or four. They all volunteered that information. Most of the women traveled abroad extensively. I heard stories of island visits, touring Russia, visiting ruins on several different continents and more about meeting people. I found out that most of these women considered themselves pretty good cooks and talked about the food they missed being able to make. I learned about the volunteer work they’d done and the awards they received for their 30, 40, 50+ years of service.
I sat alone for a few minutes, just processing all of this. Where were the stories about rushing home to see the school play? About helping with homework or struggling to get dinner on the table every night? Why didn’t they talk about having to “sacrifice” at home so they could work?
Maybe none of that was important to them. As I pulled out my notebook, a woman that would be about my mom’s age sat down next to me. She asked if I was a reporter. No, I told her. Just taking care of my grandma and wanting to take time to let the other women know they are valued as well. We spoke for a few more minutes, she asking questions and I answering. Then she told me her mother was a corporate executive, having started as a seamstress and working her way up through the company. She retired as the CFO, having received both an undergraduate and Master’s degree while working and taking care of her family. Why hasn’t her mom mentioned it, I wondered to myself? Why was it important that her daughter mention it?
While I didn’t have time to explore the answers to all these questions (or get a Ph.D. in psychology to study this topic), I have come to my own conclusions. Not haphazardly. Not without reflection. Not without using my knowledge of psychology and sociology and cultural anthropology.
At the end, I don’t think the sacrifices we make for our family which result in missing our kid’s events and programs really matters. It won’t matter that we cooked every night, or didn’t. It won’t matter that we got promoted or feted at our job. Most of the sacrifices we make just won’t matter in the end.
What will matter are the memories. Memories of the people we love, of the joyous occasions we hosted and attended, of the funerals of our friends. It will be the trips we take. The people we meet and the experiences we have. The babies we hold, the games we play with our kids and grandkids and the cards we write to cheer up our ailing siblings and friends.
Will work and that success be part of it? Maybe. Because in our jobs we inevitably get to meet amazing people. In our jobs, many of us get to travel to places we may never have gone on our own.
But it’s not the job we’ll talk about. It’s the people. The co-workers who become friends. The business travel destination that becomes a place we take our loved ones. The life experiences. The laughter.
I voluntarily chose another path for my life after I had BabyGirl. There are times I see my peers and wonder what could have been. I’ve altered my trajectory, yet I still manage to hit a bullseye. Each and every time I’m fully present for my family, my friends and myself I know I have it ALL. Just not the ALL some others may have or think I’m missing out on.
There will always be regrets in life. Over the past 6 months I’ve spoken to many whose sunsets aren’t too far off. They all had regrets. Regrets about not spending more time with their children and grandchildren. Regrets about not traveling because they wanted to leave money to their children, and yet now there will be little money to leave anyway. Regrets about not visiting their friends and relative across the country when it was easier for them to get around. Regrets about not telling people they love that they really love them. Regrets about not helping more, not laughing more, not smiling more. Not saying hello just to say hello.
The ALL that we’re supposed to have doesn’t matter at the end. But if it does, shouldn’t we each get to define what ALL means to us?