I Want It All

OK, with a title like that, I know I’ve created some expectations. So here it is, for your enjoyment:

Now on to the real content. I’ve realized something: I am Jay Gatsby.

The Great Gatsby has been one of my favorite books for years. I first read it, like so many other Americans, in high school, in my junior year English class, and I fell in love with the lushness of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prose, the elegiac plot, the picture-perfect depiction of the American Dream.

So I’ve read the book. I am the proud owner of a T-shirt printed with its text. I rushed to the theater when, last month, the new Baz Luhrmann version of the film came out, and I read the book again after, just to see how the two compared.

But it wasn’t til recently that I realized why, exactly, I loved The Great Gatsby — and, for all my English major-ing over the years, I have to say it wasn’t why I thought.

It was because I completely, 100% refuse to accept the ending as an ending. Because, optimist that I am, I saw the epic failure of the American Dream presented in the book as a failure, yes — but only for Gatsby. Of course I saw his personal failings; of course I saw the shallow opulence he so blindly followed after; of course I saw that what he was doing was wrong, and could never, and should never, succeed.

For him, that is. But for me? For me, it would be a completely different story.

I still believe in the American Dream. I still picture my future all in rosy hues, with me living the dream of the modern, educated woman in the post-feminist era: married, with kids, and flourishing at the top in my career. I, like so many others in my generation, have grown up being told that I could do anything I wanted, if I just tried.

And I have tried, and so far, it has seemed true. I sailed through college. I found rewarding (though unpaid) internships in my field. I landed a Fulbright scholarship. I  traveled. I  found at least a steady trickle of paid work in my field. I formed meaningful and loving relationships with some absolutely incredible people.

But the more I look around, the more discouraged I get about the future of my American Dream. I read articles like this one, which bring to my mind my college sociology professor, telling the class that women today absolutely cannot have it all — they always take a cut, either in family life or in professional life. It worried me then, but I pushed it to the side. But if, as recent studies show, even women in “liberal academia” get marginalized for having a family, how much worse must it be in the business community I hope to join?

Because, of course, I must join the business community. I am passionate about the publishing world, to begin with, and want nothing more than to join in; beyond that, though, it is equally important to me to have a career that I love as it is to be able afford to live the life of having a career and a family.

And being able to afford it is the trick: to have it all in today’s society, it’s generally accepted that traditional domestic roles will be, at least in part, hired out to others. Nannies will help with the kids; gardeners will help with the yard work; housecleaners will help with the chores; restaurants will help with the meals. I don’t want to be affluent for affluence’s sake; I want to be affluent so I can have a family as well as a career. As Nancy Folbre put it in her recent article in The New York Times:

Affluent couples are more likely to marry than other Americans, perhaps because they don’t need to renegotiate gender roles; they can purchase substitutes for wives’ traditional domestic work in the form of restaurant meals, child care and cleaning services.

The stakes, for women, are high. The choice is this: Have an incredible career which can support your desire for a family, or forget the idea of a career altogether. All or nothing. No pressure.

This is, I’ve realized, is one of the reasons I love Seattle so deeply: It shows me what my life could look like, if I get it right. I have spent the majority of my time in this city in some of its richest neighborhoods, working as a nanny, providing one of the many services that make it possible for the women here to have everything.

Here I see the rebuttal to the claim that women can’t have everything; here I see women who are succeeding in their careers and in their family. As a nanny, I have seen what a household looks like where both spouses have careers they enjoy and that pay well; I have even had the privilege of seeing families who manage to do that without sacrificing their children’s wellbeing. I’ve seen those who make it into that exclusive club; I’ve seen that it is possible for a woman to have it all.

And I want in. That is my Daisy Buchanon, with money in its voice, ever beckoning me on to an imaginary future. But will it be imaginary? Or will I make it in; find that elusive job that will allow me to work in an industry I love and succeed, even as I, eventually, have a family, too?

Am I as blind as Jay Gatsby, chasing an illusion that can never be caught? Or will I, as I have always chosen to believe, succeed in my pursuit?

Can the American Dream be caught? Is it possible, in today’s society, for a woman to have it all? It is; I have seen it — but will it be possible for me?

These are unanswerable questions, I know. The only way to answer them is to stride forward, pursuing my dreams in the best way I know how — and hope there is no Nick Carraway lurking around the corner, ready to document my hopeless chase.

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Being Present

Everyone’s been there. You’re in the room, but you’re not really there. Your friends are around, but nobody’s talking. Instead, you’re all staring into little, colored screens.

I’ve been thinking of getting a smartphone for a long time, now. It’s been on the top of my to-buy list since early 2011, and my contract’s been up for nearly that long, too. So why haven’t I bought one?

There are dozens of reasons for me to buy a smart phone. They’re convenient. They give directions. They make it so you never have to plan ahead again. They settle any argument in a heartbeat. And with them, you never make real, human contact again.

Because, after a full year spent as one of the only ones in my friend group without a smartphone, that’s what I’ve seem the most of: smartphones, not faces. When you’re immersed in updating your status and posting your meal to Instagram, it seems like the most natural thing in the world. When you’re the one in the room with just an average intelligence phone, though, seeing everyone else glued to their phones is just plain strange.

I’ve been learning a lot in the last couple years about living in the moment, even without the distraction of a smartphone. See, naturally, I’m a planner. I think things out way in advance, and set in place any number of plans to get me from A to Z.

But, when you plan your life eons in advance, a couple of things happen:

  1. You get fixated on your plans, and suddenly any variation from them is terrifying and world-shattering, whether it should be or not.
  2. You live in your dreams, and forget about what’s happening right now.
  3. You put important things like friendships and relationships on the back burner in favor of where you want to be in 5 years.

That last one is what killed it for me. I love people, and I have a very high value for relationships. If you’re my friend, I will defend you to the death. And oh, if you’re not sure if you fall in that category or not, because we used to be friends back in the day but it’s been so long and I just don’t know–STOP. I will still defend you to the death. Just TRY to shake my loyalty. It won’t work.

And so I’ve been learning. Learning how to put people first; how to put first the people I am with, in this moment, right now, and how to put my goals on the back burner when necessary. My friends this year may still describe me as a workaholic, but the truth is, over the last 10 months, I’ve chosen friends over future more times than I can count.

I’ve learned to healthily compartmentalize my life: over here, friends. Over there, goals. To the side, things that must be done immediately. And yes, those do still get done immediately; I am not describing my slow descent into lethargy and a poor work ethic. Instead, I am finally learning what can be described as a good work-life balance, one in which there actually is a balance, instead of a weird overemphasis on the work/school/goals bit.

I’m learning to be present in the moment, rather than get a jumpstart on the future. If I’m working, I’m working. If I’m with friends, though, I am with friends. They are more important to me than anything else that could come creeping into my mind. Being there and fully experiencing our time together matters more than any thoughts I would have been giving to the project I have sitting on my desk at home, or the email in my inbox, or the blog post in my drafts, or the text on my phone.

And when you make it a goal to be fully present in every situation, you suddenly realize just how disconnected our connectedness has made us. It’s amazing to me that, in our world of immense connectivity, we so often lose track of the person in front of us. Nothing is official until it’s been Facebooked and Tweeted and Instagrammed, and everyone ends up crowded around phones, too busy documenting their lives to live them. 

Now that I’ve begun to kick the habit of living in the future, do I dare to tempt myself by living in the uber-present, the present of media at your fingertips with such ease that you can’t tear yourself from it long enough to be present with the people you are with? I might. But it’s tempting not to. The present is here for a reason. Why shouldn’t we live it?

Brothers

I have dozens of brothers. No, not biological brothers–I’m not a part of one of those 20-person families that get reality shows based around them; of biological brothers, I have just two. But men who I care about deeply and who I know care about me? Of those, I have dozens. If only I hadn’t wasted nearly 20 years getting back here…

This is decidedly NOT my family.

I started out alright. Growing up, I was a tomboy. I had two brothers, no sisters, and we lived in the country and were homeschooled when we were young–what else was a girl to do? (For the record: NO, I did not get to do school in my pajamas, and NO, we were not one of those families who dressed in matching denim and never left the house. See caption, above.) But as a result of hanging out with my brothers a lot, for the first many years of my life, most of my close friends were boys. It just wasn’t a big deal; we had a lot of fun together, and that’s all there was to it.

Until I reached 2nd grade, that is. In 2nd grade, my already-logical mind came to an apparently logical conclusion: I was a girl; therefore, my friends should be girls, too. So one Sunday after Sunday school, I marched up to my best friend at the time, Micah, and told him I was going to start hanging out with girls instead of him.

Sooooo, never speak to me again. Mmkay?

Potential psychological scarring to Micah aside, I was pretty happy with my decision for the next couple of years. I became more “girly”–though not much, as my hatred of dresses, pink, and other stereotypical “girl” things proved, together with the “tomboy tests” I put my friends through–and pretty much avoided the boys who had been my best friends before. I learned to live in a world where girls were friends, and boys fell into one of three categories: relatives, cute boys, and my brothers’ friends. (For reasons related to the growing up and ew-gross-my-brothers’-friends-have-cooties process, those two last categories were–usually, though not always–kept pretty separate.)

This lasted for far too long. I kept guys in boxes well into high school; looking back, I can think of one good male friend from high school (another Micah, oddly enough), and just a few male “friends” of any sort. Mostly, the guys I was friends with were my friends’ boyfriends.

And then we would stand around posing for color-coordinated group photos.

College was hardly better. Like many small liberal arts schools, my university suffered from an ever-increasing gender inequality, by which I mean that when I entered school, the women-to-men ratio was roughly 60-40; when I left, it was rounding 70-30. Then there was the fact that I was an English major, further skewing the numbers to the point that, as my floormates and I joked in an on-campus skit competition, I would see more male landscapers on campus than male students.

Add to that the fact that it was a small private Christian school in which a good portion of the women attending (not me) were determined to get a “ring by Spring,” and what you got was not exactly a healthy environment for making male-to-female friendships. Any contact with the opposite gender had the question of a romantic relationship implicitly present; I rarely saw girls and guys hanging out together for any other reason, though I was jealous of those who did. And, as in high school, most of my own male friends were my friends’ boyfriends.

It’s only awkward if you make it awkward!…or if they break up during the photo shoot and you’re left just standing there…

As an upperclassman the dynamic shifted slightly, as I drifted into a few extracurricular activities where there were–gasp!–men involved, but in general, my paradigm for male friendships was very much as it was when I was 7: I was a girl (or “woman,” as I would now be quick to point out), so obviously I hung out almost exclusively with other girls.

As it happened, this was one of the only areas in my life that was not shifted by my time in Taiwan. Our group of ETAs in Fulbright consisted of 12 people, of whom just two were men–and I rarely saw them. Apart from them, my friends and I had a guy friend in Taipei we would visit occasionally, but that was it. My co-workers and roommates were all women, and so were the vast majority of people I got close to there. No brothers to be found.

A small portion of our group. Note the overwhelming female majority...

A small portion of our group. Note the overwhelming female majority…

Then came this year.

I spent the year (after much deliberation) at a ministry school in California, and my one year there taught me more about having brothers than I had learned in my previous 23 years of experience with *actual* brothers.

It’s odd, really: ministry schools are notorious for the same spirit that permeated my university; even the school I was at is jokingly called a “school of marriage” instead of “school of ministry” by some of its attendees.

But that was not my experience. No; instead, for my nine months at school I was surrounded by hundreds upon hundreds of some of the most quality men I had ever been in contact with–truly incredible guys, who were confident in who they were, knew how to take responsibility, knew how to respect and love others well, were proactively improving themselves, and were incredibly attractive, to boot–and I wasn’t dating them. Any of them. Ever.

Instead, I was forming some of the deepest and best relationships of my life. I was learning to be a sister, and learning what it was like to have men who valued me deeply for who I was, no strings attached. And I learned how incredible it is to have wonderful relationships with men–to have brothers. If any of them were interested in me, I don’t know, and to a larger extent than ever before in my life, it didn’t matter*: I just loved, and love, these men, regardless, and I knew they loved me.

And they just kept adding to the ranks. There were the guys from my “brother” house, an obvious addition. Then the guys from the newspaper crew we formed. And the guys from our core group of 70. And friends of friends. And friends of roommates. For the first time in my post-7-year-old life, the men in my close group of friends may actually outnumber the women.

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A few of the amazing men (and women) in my life…

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A few more of my awesome friends…

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…and a few more!

And that’s just a small sampling of the many, many incredible men in my life. Men with whom I can hang out, and with whom I can share life, and whom I love and know love me, no matter what. And having those friendships, those brothers, is one of the best things I’ve ever discovered.

So, to my brothers: thank you! Thank you for being you; for being my friend; for teaching me so much about what real men look like, and what it looks like to have healthy relationships with them.

And, to my seven-year-old self: What were you thinking?!?!

*A post for another time: why the “friend zone” doesn’t, or shouldn’t, exist.