Monthly Archives: March 2014

10 Things Never to Say or Do to a Cancer Patient

I wrote this in honor of my 30th year being cancer free. In April of 1984 I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. Luckily it turned out alright and here I am 30 years later to tell you that cancer is not an automatic death sentence. I have since gone through cancer diagnoses and treatments of my husband, my mother, my brother and my father-in-law. Additionally, my mother-in-law and my aunt are also both cancer survivors. Here are my 10 things never to say or do to a cancer patient/survivor. Next post will have ideas for how to help friends and family members going through a cancer episode.

1) Don’t act like it is contagious because it isn’t. This is less of an issue now, but when I was diagnosed in 1984 many people actually took a step backwards when they found out, as if the cancer was contagious. By the time my husband had his cancer in 1997 and my brother had his in 2003, this reaction had mostly gone away. Thank goodness, because the last thing cancer patients need is to feel more isolated or alone.

2) Don’t take a huge gulp of air and squeal as if it is the end of the world. This reaction is scary to everyone and especially cancer patients. We are already frightened out of our minds and worried about it being the actual end of our world. Your reaction could scare people. So don’t over react.

3) Don’t start telling stories about how someone you know (or read about) healed their cancer just by thinking positive thoughts and meditating without other treatment. This really happened to my husband. A good friend told him that if he meditated correctly his cancer would just go away. One of my biggest fears was that he would decide to wait on having his cancer treatment to see if meditation would work first. Thank goodness he was realistic. He opted for surgery to remove the cancer AND meditation to feel better AND ayurvedic treatments for healing AND to give up red meat because he thought it would help. Telling cancer patients that they should be able to meditate their cancer away is patronizing; it blames them for their own illness by implying that their negative thoughts cause their cancer. Now I am a big believer in positive affirmations and that a positive outlook can bring about positive things, or at least make dealing with the negative ones a bit better. BUT making cancer patients feel worse for their own illness is not helpful and in fact can be dangerous. Anxiety, fear and depression are secondary cancer symptoms; you don’t need to make cancer patients more anxious fearful or depressed.

4) Don’t start telling stories about people who died from cancer. Really, this actually happened to me, and in fact still sometimes does when I reveal that I had malignant melanoma. I have heard about all sorts of people who died, or almost died, or had to have crippling surgeries. These are all fine stories to tell, just not to people going through a cancer adventure. Tell the stories to someone else or better yet, save these horror stories for campfires.

5) Don’t ever ask a skin cancer patient/survivor to look at a mole on your body that has you worried. This one happened to me from the world’s most self-centered women I have ever known. I revealed to her that I had had malignant melanoma and she actually pulled up her shirt to show me a mole that she was concerned about. There are important skin cancer signs that everyone on the planet should know about. The skin cancer community calls them the ABCDEs of skin cancer and they stand for Asymmetry, Border, Color, Diameter, Evolving. No matter where you live, it is worthwhile to check out your moles and/or skin growths using your ABCDEs or with a dermatologist. But don’t ask skin cancer survivors to look at, diagnose or assure you that you are cancer free.

6) Don’t go to cancer patients for comfort and support about their cancer. If you are upset and need comforting, find someone else to go to. We had several people fall apart when my husband was diagnosed. They wanted us to comfort them. We were just barely holding on ourselves and had no reserves to comfort anyone other than each other and our kids.

7) Don’t prescribe treatments. Unless you are a physician, this is not your place. Second guessing cancer specialists is a national pastime. I am a huge believer in second opinions, alternative treatments, taking mega doses of vitamins, eating and drinking organic, practicing yoga, chiropractic, acupuncture, homeopathy and meditation. I do all of these things to help me feel in control of my health and well-being, which is what cancer patients/survivors need. Let’s face it, cancer is about cells in your body out of control and anything that helps cancer patients feel more in control is good in my book. For my husband’s cancer we had to choose between two different surgical options, one of which was more experimental at the time. We got a second opinion, made our choice and then went on from there. Having people want to revisit our decision was disheartening.

8) Don’t insist that they get seen by “the best” doctor. This one really burns me as if there is only one doctor in the whole world who is the only expert. I don’t buy it. There are lots of great doctors out there and there are also lots of crap ones. I don’t believe that there is only one expert. I know of plenty of people who have been treated by “the” experts and they still die or have negative outcomes. Don’t make cancer patients crazy, trying to get seen by someone in another city when they probably have doctors in their own backyard who are saving people’s lives every day.

9) Don’t tell cancer patients that they caused their own cancer. This one happens all the time and it is ridiculous. Telling people that they should have slept more, exercised more, eaten less, breastfed for longer, gotten married, gotten divorced, etc. is not helpful. All cancer patients spend some time thinking about what caused their cancer, most of us never really know. Personally I blame a very bad sunburn from when I was nine. It makes me feel better to think this and it doesn’t hurt anyone. But I bristle when anyone else tries to tell me why this happened to me. If you feel the need to analyze the source of someone’s cancer, become a wellness coach and give advice to people who will pay you.

10) Don’t do nothing or pretend like everything is alright. When I was diagnosed it was all I could think of, and when we were going through my husband’s cancer, again, I got obsessed. Ignoring what we were going through was strange. Our family was in crisis and we needed support. It felt like a huge drain of my energy to be with people who wanted to pretend that everything was all okay, because it wasn’t.

I always tell people that belonging to the cancer survivor club is one of the best clubs ever–it sure beats the alternative. Look for my suggestions on what to do to help your friends and relatives going through cancer diagnosis, treatment and recover in my next blog post.

Have you had a personal experience with cancer? Would love to hear your stories about what didn’t help in the comments section.



As a blogger, I enjoy sharing my ideas and thoughts with people, and I get a special thrill when someone leaves a comment. When you share my posts on social media sites, I jump up and down doing a happy dance. So thank you!

In this I will Find Beauty

On February 14, 2010 Tom Townsend’s son was killed in a traffic accident. He was young (just 21), creative and had his whole life ahead of him. When a young person dies it make everyone who knew him and his family have to rethink how they see the world and approach life. This was certainly true with Alex’s death 4 + years ago. Tom spent the first year after Alex’s death writing a series of emails to himself as he tried to reconcile his deep love for his son with the ache in his heart for his loss. I was privileged to be able to read all 465 emails and found myself alternating between laughing out loud and sobbing. The emails are moving and meaningful to anyone who has suffered the loss of a young person.

Alex hugging his dad

Alex hugging his dad

One email in struck me as particularly tender, although there were many others also I found heart touching. I have Tom’s permission to share it with you. This email is a letter he had written to his son after Alex had to cope with a particularly difficult time in college, just four months before Alex’s death. Mothering comes in all forms and this letter reflects a poignant example of mothering from a father to his college-aged son.

Email 265 

I was at the work today looking for a certain document related to work, when surprisingly a different one appeared — a correspondence I had with Alex a few months before his accident. I don’t know how that happened. I had written to him knowing that he was really down on himself. He had gotten into trouble here or there, and would beat himself up when he found himself in situations like this. He felt he had lost some good friends, and that he would just chalk up this particular year at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) to one in the loss column. 

Here is the email I sent to encourage him.

October 2009 

Subject: Hey Alex

I just wanted to tell you a few things. 

1) Don’t be too hard on yourself. Now that you’ve made a commitment to getting things right, forgive yourself and move on. Once you get some days and then weeks under your belt without being so hard on yourself — once you get distance from the past few weeks — the sun will come out brighter and you’ll feel better. Give yourself a break, you deserve one. 

2) I know you feel stupid, like you keep screwing up, and on and on. Sure, you’ve made some mistakes, and some pretty serious ones at different times. But having made those serious ones, don’t lump the everyday ones into the same bucket and become overwhelmed by them all as if they’re all equal. If you only know how many times a day I make stupid mistakes, and get made fun of for them. So much so that if I was your age, they’d be saying “what a screw-up.” But since I’m 50, it’s “just Tom.” I can get away with it because I’m not under a microscope. You are, because of the other mistakes you’ve made. So every little thing, even everyday human ones, looks like more of the same. But you know better, so separate them in your own head. You know that car bumps and scrapes happen to everyone. From stoners to boy scouts, preachers to presidents. Don’t add that to your reasons to feel bad. It sucks when that happens, but that’s all.nIt just sucks. It doesn’t mean you keep screwing up. Same for running late, losing keys, misplacing something. 

3) BUT one of the causes of your inability to get back on track as fast as you could is your lateness; so do work on that please. You’d be surprised how fun, yes, actually fun, it is arriving somewhere early and just chilling there. 

4) While on one hand you are old for a college freshman/sophomore, you are young in the  scheme of things. So don’t let your view of yourself, that of a 21-year old, be the one that you think the rest of the world has. In 5 years nobody, including you, will think of yourself as an “old freshman” anymore. Once you’re out of school, people stop counting age and applying the year to what you’re supposed to have achieved by then. Obsession with age falls apart after you graduate. You are very young and have more time than you think to get yourself on track. 

5) A lot of people struggle with what they want to do with their life at this stage. Just because this or that kid seems to know, don’t think you have to know. What you do instead is lay the groundwork so that once you do know, you can jump on it, because you’ll have had college, you’ll have learned Photoshop, or ProTools, or whatever software and skills you MUST get at SCAD. So until you know what you want to pursue specifically, pursue the groundwork. Otherwise you’ll only lose more time starting over again once you do know. 

6) You’ve made some great friends who you will have for life. That’s awesome, and just think about how 5 years ago your biggest complaint was not having friends. You have no issues there anymore. BUT if when you graduate, you haven’t expanded on that base of friends, you will have lost a lot of the opportunity SCAD, and any college, is all about. You’re supposed to add, pick up, and gather contacts, friends, associates, all of the above, over these years. These people will be your clients later, or your bosses, or your  employees. Start networking now. Everyone else is. Don’t let them, the rest of your generation, get such a head start by being slow to venture out. 

7) Sometimes I look at people who don’t have as much as I do and envy the ones who are at a stage where they’re getting their act together in order to get in a position so they CAN have more. Or start over. Or clean up their lives. And I’m not talking about people just starting out their adult lives. When I see someone who’s said, “okay, I’m starting fresh, here’s what I’m going to do differently, and we’re going for it,” I’m jealous sometimes. Because they’re experiencing the excitement of trying something new, setting a plan, going for it, keeping track, measuring how they’re doing according to their plan and all. It’s like a life-size equivalent to when you clean your desk and room and organize all your papers and homework and books and pens and paper and computer stuff, then sit down to get work done. It’s a cleansing of the mind and soul that you can will into being, and that brings on its own sense of confidence and excitement about what’s to come. Then you get a little success, and then a little more, and you see what you’re capable of. You got a taste of that when you started at the restaurant in Orlando, had a paycheck, bought groceries, watched gas prices, and balanced all of that with Chelsea and her family in a whole new city you had to yourself. You had a new venture that was fresh, exciting, and had nothing to do with past failures, guilt or regret. 

Well, that’s what you have right now, this week, at SCAD. You’ve had some ups and downs, and now tonight you’re at the library with your homework, and as you told Mom, you’d never been in the main library before. So be excited by that. Study, talk to your teachers, ask for help, make them want to help you and give you a break. Get to know them. Learn to admire them for what they know. You’re not in High School anymore with teachers you might not be impressed by. These are accomplished people. Get them on your side. Then watch them start to like you, want to help you, and take you under their wing. Then watch your grades improve. Remember that year at Oliverian School when you kicked ass in awards? Feel that again. And while you’re at it, find different places on campus to hide out and be by yourself, or hide to do homework, or sneak to see great art, or a place to chill in the sun, explore the places you have never seen there. So when you take your kids there when they’re looking at colleges, you can show them more than off-campus houses, neighborhoods, dorms and more. Get into that campus. It’s one of the most famous in the world, and in a city that’s loved around the world.  

8) You have ambition. You have desire. What you don’t have is inspiration. Sometimes you have to look for that just like anything else you want. We’re not all lucky enough to be inspired coming out of the womb. So LOOK EVERYWHERE FOR WHAT INSPIRES YOU. Is it animation? Painting? English and writing? Is it a craft? Is it to start a business you think would be cool? Is it not artistic at all? Is it history? Is it social work? Is it just being respected by others? What is it? What makes you feel good? You have to examine that in yourself, watch for hints in your own behavior and reaction to things, and you have to LOOK for it. Go hear the speakers who come to campus. I heard Martin Luther King’s dad, and many others just because they were there on campus to talk. Look for more events than concerts. Speakers, not just bands. Go to an art gallery like you and Amy did last summer. Draw. Think. Discuss stuff that’s intellectually challenging. When you find what inspires you, all the work required to pursue that ceases to be work anymore. I never knew Mondays from weekends when I got into advertising. It’s all I wanted to do. You’re at that age. So find what that is so your sense of work isn’t separate from your sense of pleasure and excitement. 

9) It’s a fact that you are the most vulnerable to getting in trouble when you’re feeling recently accomplished, or excited, or like you’re really succeeding at something. It’s then that you feel you deserve to take a break and you lower your guard, or take some chances, or you get hyper and then impulsive. So when you do start to see yourself succeed, know that about yourself and keep yourself under control. Don’t fall for your own dirty tricks again and again. When you’re feeling down, lighten up some. And when you’re feeling great, bring it down some. Find that calm, cool medium. Like anything else, that takes practice. Practice it, practice it, practice it. 

10) Take a history course. Georgia history, local history, southern history. That’s your other interest beyond creative things. And you can be creative with history. And you’ll see Savannah completely differently once you know more about it, and that alone makes other people see you positively, and differently, as well. 

11) Try to stop smoking. If cigarettes are a crutch to help you avoid other stuff, it’s preferable of course. But as long as you’re in start-over mode, try gum, or lifesavers (I’m pounding Gummi Bears just because of nervous energy). You said it yourself — even if it didn’t ruin your lungs, breath, clothes, cost money, and make you look less intelligent than you are, do you really want to grow up to be the uncle who always has to sneak away for a smoke at Christmas?  

12) Take a step back and see where you’ve succeeded over the past 10 years. Middle School and High School can be a bitch socially, and that’s where you had your greatest weakness during those years. That’s history now. You’ll get past this stage too, if you keep wanting to. But you have to want to. And I know you do. So then how do you keep that desire alive? BY REPLACING THE TEMPTATIONS OF OTHER THINGS WITH AN OBSESSION WITH WHATEVER INSPIRES YOU. Find what inspires you, then jump into it, and that will become your temptation instead.  

13) Two more things — like I said before, you are younger than you might think sometimes. It’s never too late to start fresh. Take it at your pace, don’t beat yourself up, take it one day at a time, give yourself a pat on the back for every little step, and then step-by-step, that momentum grows. Don’t bring yourself down. Bring yourself up. And find friends, in addition to the ones you have (not instead of ), who inspire you, and they will help bring you up themselves.  

14) Lastly, remember this — the reason you’re capable of breaking our hearts is that we love you more than you will ever know until you have a first born child. The other side of that love is infinite affection for you and desire to be with you. So in the end, there’s nothing you can do that will ever separate us. Our door is always open, phone is always on, and interest always intense in being with you. So no matter what, who knows, maybe you and I can start a company one day. Think of that as your back-up. You will always be able to come home, where you are always loved and the center of somebody’s life — my own. And Mom’s. And countless relatives and friends everywhere.  

Love you, drive carefully, don’t drive sleepy. PLEASE. Say hi to Chelsea and her parents and grandmother. 

Love,

Dad

Tom has self-published his series of emails to himself titled, In This I will Find Beauty. Additionally he has created a blog in which he is sharing the emails he wrote to himself after his son’s death. These emails documents his struggle to accept his son’s death and what it means to go on without his son living and breathing in the here and now. In order to honor Alex’s life Tom and his wife Jeanne have started several meaningful projects in their son’s name.  If you are interested in reading more from In This I Will Find Beauty, please visit In This I Will Find Beauty on Facebook or directly on his blog at I Will Find Beauty.



As a blogger, I enjoy sharing my ideas and thoughts with people, and I get a special thrill when someone leaves a comment. When you share my posts on social media sites, I jump up and down doing a happy dance. So thank you!

Blessing for my Daughter

Six years ago my daughter had her Bat Mitzvah. A Jewish celebration of a coming of age when a teenage girl starts to take responsibility for her own spiritual life. On that day in April 2008, she stood before the congregation, of the synagogue that we belonged to at the time, and led a Shabbat service that included the prayers, reading from the Torah and a commentary about the meaning of her Torah portion. It was a beautiful ceremony that was especially meaningful to our family as we knew we were moving back to northern California after living in St. Louis for nine years.

At that congregation, parents give their children a blessing during the service.

 Heidi BK Sloss

My dear Kamala,                                                                                         April 2008 

It is with great pride and pleasure that I stand here before our family and friends to offer you my congratulations on doing so well on your Bat Mitzvah and to give you my blessing.  

From the moment you were born, you have been a special child to us. As some here know we discovered during my pregnancy that I needed abdominal surgery, which threatened both our lives and the possibility of my ever having another child again. This scary time was hard on all of us and made you truly a miracle to our family. As you know, your birth was one of the highlights of my life and since then, being your mother has been a true gift. So thank you for being the wonderful, strong and brave daughter that you are. 

Kamala, in your commentary this morning, you mentioned some of our family values and I want to talk a little bit more about this in my blessing to you. When I first became a mother, having a son totally threw me off in all that I had thought I would be as a mother; I had to start from scratch with your brother. This made me a much more open and accepting mother than I would have been otherwise. Even so, I have always wanted to raise a strong, independent and courageous daughter, so I am thrilled that what I hold dear and valuable is being passed on to you. 

My work with leadership development for women has been influenced and transformed because of watching you grow and mature as a young woman. When working with individuals or groups of women in either my real estate or consulting practice, I think of how much I have learned from being your mother so my blessing to you today is to wish for you to continue on your journey being the powerful leader that you are becoming. 

Kamala, there is more to my blessing for you.  When you were born, a dear friend predicted that you would find your own path and that at times I would find that challenging. My blessing for you today is that you continue to find your own path, regardless of who it pleases. 

When your father and I were first married, we had no plans to join a synagogue, much less to raise our children to become B’nai Mitzvah. While both of us were raised in Jewish households, neither of us found much meaning in our religious upbringing. However, we listened and learned from our children, both of whom led us to this congregation and both of whom desired to learn how to read from the Torah. 

I couldn’t be more proud at the hard work, dedication and commitment you have shown to accomplish this task. By becoming a Bat Mitzvah, you have made your own path—one that differs from mine. My blessing is that you continue to accomplish goals that give you and your life meaning—regardless of whether it pleases me. 

Kamala, the mother daughter relationship is complicated. Too many daughters spend much of their precious time and energy trying to please their mothers to gain approval and love. Sweet daughter, you have my approval and love unconditionally. Use your energy to focus on something more meaningful to you. 

As you continue to grow to being the beautiful, strong, fierce, independent woman that I see emerging, I hope that you continue to find your own path. Life is short and you have a rich life ahead of you. Make the most of all the moments you can. Continue to be the person you are by remaining true to yourself. The only approval you’ll need in life is your own, not mine and not your father’s. And if you are successful in this, you will have become the kind, considerate, sensitive and amazing woman that I see in you today. 

Love,

Mom



As a blogger, I enjoy sharing my ideas and thoughts with people, and I get a special thrill when someone leaves a comment. When you share my posts on social media sites, I jump up and down doing a happy dance. So thank you!

Serendipity

When I get on a plane, one of my favorite activities is to bury myself in a book. From my perspective, one of the perks of long plane rides is uninterrupted time to read leisurely. I rarely talk to the people around me. It just isn’t my style. But with our sabbatical in Australia, I find myself taking a new outlook on life and this means changing my behavior as well as my outlook. So the other day, on a flight from Los Angeles to Washington DC, I next to a woman and made an exception to my rule. We started talking at take off and then spent the rest of the 4+ hour flight connecting on all sorts of issues.

Turns out that she is the New Yorker staff writer and former Washington Post reporter, Elsa Walsh. We talked about the books we had each written as well as feminism, Hollywood, the Academy Awards (she had just attended), fashion, books we loved, traveling, family dynamics and of course motherhood. We compared notes on raising our daughters. We also talked about how we never talk to people on planes, but were making exception for each other and how much we enjoyed our connection.

Later that night, I looked her up (as I often do with people I meet) and came across a op-ed piece she had written for the Washington Post last April, “Why Women should embrace a ‘good enough’ life.” I found myself agreeing with her thoughts on motherhood, priorities and feminism.

Her article reminded me of books like Arlene Cardozo’s “Sequencing Having it All But Not All At Once”  that I read when my son was first born and of course the more recent debate with Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still can’t Have it All” in The Atlantic and all of the pieces I have written in my head over the years, while I reconcile being the mother I want to be and living up to my professional potential.

I received her permission to share it with you and I welcome your comments on this debate. How did/do you deal with the motherhood-work dilemma? Did it affect your career choices? Your motherhood choices? What would you say to young women now, just starting their professional lives on this whole issue? Here is Elsa Walsh’s opinion and I look forward to reading yours in the comments section on my blog.

Why women should embrace a ‘good enough’ life

By Elsa Walsh, Published: April 18, 2013

In my years as a journalist, I have written and spoken a great deal about women’s lives and struggles, and wrote a book about the conflicts facing successful female professionals. But today, 16 years into life as a working mother and 23 years into a marriage, I’ve come to question many of the truths I once held dear. The woman I wanted to be at 22 is not the woman I wanted to be at 38 — not even close — and she is certainly not who I am now at 55.

Every few years, America rightly plunges into a public and heated discussion about women and feminism, work and family. The latest round has been stoked by Sheryl SandbergAnne-Marie Slaughter and Marissa Mayer, who have become symbols and participants in the argument over what women want. Yet, I find it to be a narrow conversation, centered largely on work, as though feminism is about nothing more than becoming a smart and productive employee and rising to the top.

Parenthood and family are much more central to our lives than this conversation lets on. The debate has become twisted and simplistic, as if we’re merely trying to figure out how women can become more like men. Instead, let’s ask: How can women have full lives, not just one squeezed around a career?

It helps to take a longer view of a woman’s life.

I was born in 1957 and raised in a town called Belmont, just south of San Francisco. I am one of six children, five girls and one boy. My father was an engineer and my mother a housewife; indeed, growing up I had not a single friend whose mother worked. During my high school years in the early 1970s, revolution was in the air. Across the bay was Berkeley, the home of free speech. Twenty miles up the road was Haight-Ashbury, the home of free love. And almost everyone I knew was protesting Vietnam and embracing civil rights.

But what really excited me was the women’s movement. It’s hard to grasp now just how intoxicating it was as a young girl to hear Gloria Steinem tell us we could be anything we wanted to be. Or to read, during freshman year at my surprisingly progressive all-girls Catholic school, Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” eight years after it was published, saying we could find meaning outside the home.

All this seemed possible because the pill had just become widely available, and for the first time women had control over whether and when they had a child. (I will never forget finding that oddly shaped, Pez-like dispenser in my mother’s bedroom right after the birth of my youngest sister; my mother called her “That’s It” for weeks before giving her a name.)

If the pill didn’t work, there was Roe v. Wade, which became law when I was 15. And I don’t know a single woman my age who did not have her first gynecological exam at a Planned Parenthood clinic — with or without her parents’ permission. It was a glorious time to be a young girl with ambition. Who would want to be a man when you could be a woman?

So, when I enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley in 1975, I held three truths to be self-evident: I would never marry. I would never have a child. And I would have an interesting job, as a writer or a lawyer. I wanted to be independent and self-supporting. I wanted love, but I wanted to be free.

A year later, right after graduation, I moved to Washington and got that interesting job — as a reporter at The Washington Post. I embraced my feminism proudly. I always wore pants to work, and I swore off (stupidly, I recognize now) reading any fiction by male authors. I loved reporting. I loved working. I loved making my own money, even if, two years later, I discovered that a newly hired and less experienced male colleague was making more money. (When I quizzed him, his answer was simple: He had asked for more. No one ever takes the first offer, he said.)

Not long after arriving at The Post, I met a man who also was a reporter and editor there. Instead of hindering me, he helped and encouraged me. A year and a half later, we moved in together. Still, I announced — to my parents, my friends and yes, to my boyfriend — that I was never getting married. Marriage was a patriarchal system, and I wanted none of it. We would stay together because we wanted to be together, I said.

Seven years later, I married him. And I was happy. Instead of feeling trapped, I felt liberated and secure and protected — not by patriarchy but by love. He had a young daughter whom I adored, and of course, seven years after our wedding, I had a child. I’d been wrong about that, too.

The feminist battles in those years were over Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, Susan Faludi’s “Backlash”  and Naomi Wolf’s “The Beauty Myth.” After leaving The Post and before joining the New Yorker magazine as a staff writer, I entered the fray with my book, “Divided Lives: The Public and Private Struggles of Three American Women,” an intimate look at three accomplished women in turmoil: a broadcast journalist who landed her dream job just around the time she gave birth to her first child after several miscarriages, a symphony conductor who was married to a governor, and a breast cancer surgeon who had been passed over for a top job in favor of a man. I chose women in their late 30s and early 40s who seemed to have all the advantages of wealth, education and opportunity and who had broken through gender barriers in their professions. I concluded that if even women of privilege were struggling — and they were — then we still hadn’t figured it out and perhaps had not come such a long way after all.

Nearly two decades later, Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook and the author of the best-selling “Lean In,” laments that far too few women are in positions of leadership — they make up only 4 percent of Fortune 500 chief executives — and that the numbers are so small because women hold themselves back. Too many women, she says, curtail their ambitions in anticipation of having a family and are not as aggressive as men in how they approach their careers.

As I read “Lean In,” I nodded in agreement with much of what Sandberg says: Negotiate your salary, take a seat at the table (and when you’re there, speak up), don’t reflexively turn down opportunities, and choose your mate carefully because that is the most important career decision you will make. It is.

But with other passages, I found myself shaking my head. By the time I reached the end, I felt deeply ambivalent, particularly on three points. First, Sandberg does not seem to get just how hard it is to have a demanding job and a meaningful family life if you cannot afford child care and other help. (She criticizes the lack of family-friendly policies in the workplace and recognizes that some women may find more meaning in staying home, but those small sections read like afterthoughts, or as if someone advised her to include them.)

Second, I suspect that she would probably have written a completely different book if her children were older and she were facing their imminent departure, rather than worrying about their bedtime. (With my daughter poised to leave for college, all I want is to have more time with her, not less.)

And third, I have to wonder if Sandberg does not realize that she is going to die someday. There is so little life and pleasure in her book outside of work. Even sex is framed as something that men will get more of if they pitch in and help their working wives.

Success, particularly the kind Sandberg calls for, requires ever more time at the office, ever more travel. It requires always being available, always a click away. Sandberg is almost giddy when she describes getting up at 5 a.m. to answer e-mails before her children wake up and getting back on her computer once they are asleep. “Facebook is available 24/7 and for the most part, so am I,” she writes. “The days when I even think of unplugging for a weekend or a vacation are long gone.”

Imagine what that life looks like to a child. Imagine what it looks like to yourself when you are 80.

That is not how I want my daughter to live, and it is not how I want to live.

In my lifetime, very little has changed to improve the lives of working parents and their children. In fact, almost all of it has become worse since I was a young woman of 22, then a new mother of 38. And this is the most depressing measure of the women’s movement. Women like myself thought we had won feminism’s big prize — equal opportunity. But in our excitement and individual victories, we failed to demand the structural and cultural changes needed to make it work. In that, we have failed our daughters.

There is no real safety net for working mothers.

The vast majority of American women do not have a choice about whether they will work. They will, and most will have to work full time to support their families. Full-time work in America today is, for the most part, not compatible with family life, especially if you are a professional and have ambitions. Today, almost 40 percent of men in professional jobs work 50 hours or more a week; the average working woman with a graduate degree works almost as long. That’s five 10-hour days, not counting the commute.

When it is time for my daughter to make her way through this culture of overwork, I hope she follows some of Sandberg’s advice. I will tell her to work hard and take a seat at the table, speak up and, of course, always negotiate her salary. But I will also tell her to set her own course and follow neither my model nor Sandberg’s. I will remind her of the time when she was barely 2 years old and ready for her first real Halloween. I thought I had the perfect outfit for her — hand-embroidered Chinese silk pajamas in turquoise and matching slippers with gorgeous feathers — until her father took her to Kmart,where she bounded over to a red Teletubby getup. I balked when they brought home the cellophane package. “In her own image,” her dad gently told me. I keep a smiling photo of her in that costume on the table next to my bed as a reminder.

I’ll also tell her to make time for herself. Unplug from the grid. Carve out space for solitude. Search for work you love that allows flexibility if you want to have children. And if you do, have them when you’re older, after you’ve reached that point in your career when you are good enough at what you do that you will feel comfortable dialing back for a while. Don’t wait until it’s too late to start planning, because no one else is going to do it for you. And don’t quit completely because, as wonderful as parenthood is, it cannot and will not be your whole life. Learn how to manage conflict, because the greater the level you can tolerate, the more freedom you will retain. Making compromises is a healthy approach to living.

For a woman to say she is searching for a “good enough” life is not failure — it is maturity and self-knowledge.

I’d also tell her, if she marries, to work hard on her relationship. It’s not only much easier than getting divorced, it’s more rewarding and more fun. Love. Full stop. That’s what matters.

When my daughter was 4, she came up to my home office one evening around 6:30. I was on a deadline and had been for days. She had two big bags filled with her stuff, her pajamas tucked in her backpack. She declared that she was not leaving the room until I came downstairs and played with her. I was frustrated and told her I was never going to be able to finish unless she left, and then I marched her down to her father.

The next morning I wrote a letter to myself. I recently found the note, dated Feb. 8, 2001: “Today is the day I decided to change my life.” My solutions weren’t perfect, but I tried to rearrange my work life so that I would be available when she came home from school. (I knew I had it better than most women. I had full-time help and could afford the changes, too, a luxury not available to all.) I had been in such a hurry for such a long time that “no” had become my default answer to her. Now it would be “yes.” I wrote less and cut back on traveling for stories. I turned down assignments and job offers. I adopted a slower pace. It was not always easy, but it was the right choice. It did not matter much to the greater world when my next article appeared, but it did matter to my daughter that I was nearby. And it mattered to me.

A couple of years later, my daughter came home from school one day and announced that she’d had the best day of her life. When I asked what had happened, she said it was just an ordinary day. I pressed — certainly something different must have occurred? She shook her head. Intrigued, I called her first-grade teachers and asked if anything special had happened in class. No, they repeated, it was just an ordinary day.

It took a minute or two to sink in. All this effort to create the big moments that working mothers everywhere strive to produce, all the bells and whistles I was madly trying to clang, and my daughter said the best day of her life had been an ordinary day. A good enough life.

Motherhood is not a job. It is a joy. 

Elsa Walsh is a former staff writer for the New Yorker and the Washington Post and the author of Divided Lives, named by Entertainment Weekly as one of the 10 best books of the year. She lives in Washington, DC with her husband the writer Bob Woodward and their daughter Diana. 



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