To a woman, we could trace our current lives to the ideas we had about ourselves when we were very young. Consider Sandra Tsing Loh, a half-Chinese, half-German girl who grew up in Malibu in the 1960s and '70s and who was possessed of an unwavering conviction—unshared by anyone else—that she was born to perform. If there was a play, a ballet, a grade school staging of Winnie the Pooh, she was first in line for auditions and first to press her eager little face against the cast sheet, only to discover that once again she had been passed over. Her relieved father packed up his brainy daughter and sent her to Caltech, where she majored in physics. But a funny thing happened on the way to the jet propulsion laboratory. Sandra started performing. She played the grand piano by the side of the freeway during rush hour in Los Angeles; she serenaded spawning fish on a Malibu beach at midnight and a thousand people showed up to watch. She realized maybe ensemble productions of Winnie the Pooh weren't her thing; maybe she was more of a one-woman-show type. So far, she has written and appeared in six of them.
Christina Schwarz's dream was more vague but equally compelling. Her parents let her go far from home to college, but every vacation they reeled her back to Wisconsin, where she had a job at a big printing company just outside of town. The summer before her senior year, her boss offered her a full-time job, a career, really, with the company, when she graduated. "I was flattered and immensely excited at first," she said. "Here were all my scary questions about the future answered. I would live in the place my family had cleaved to for generations; I would surely rise into respectable middle management; and, since much of what I'd be doing would be technical writing, I'd technically be making my living with words." Maybe it wasn't glamorous, but it was serious and substantial, and it was real—unlike her niggling, unformed, and, to her mind, utterly unrealistic desire to experience new places and to write fiction. And yet in the end she decided to spin the wheel on something more exciting. "I knew that if I took that job, I'd be closing the door on every vista I'd ever imagined. I couldn't do it." Since turning down a real career, she has lived in six cities and written three novels, one of which, Drowning Ruth, was an Oprah's Book Club selection.
My mother used to say, "Be careful what you wish for," and it did seem that some of our dreams, once realized, had not been as wondrous as imagined. Lynn Laws, a stay-at-home mom of three young children, says that she is living exactly the life she pictured for herself, "but I always thought I'd be more satisfied with it." She wouldn't trade it, but the days do not always unfold the way she had hoped. "There's too much time to think," Lynn said, "but not enough time to do anything besides take care of everyone. Your mind is always half on one thing—like folding the laundry or loading the dishwasher—and half on something else." Sarah Minot Gold, who imagined being a mom and staying home with her child, achieved both of those goals, but failed to factor divorce into her future: "I have never once regretted staying home with my daughter," she said. "But I wish I hadn't had to become dependent on a man to do it."
It was clear that the one thing none of us had fully been able to foresee when we were young was the ability of motherhood to reroute, fulfill, diminish, and improve us. "There was no way I was going to stay home with kids," said Andrea Williams-Green, who describes herself as "type A, type A, type A all the way." She attended UC Santa Barbara when only 2 percent of the students were, as she is, African-American, and she studied math and economics when even fewer women were enrolled in those classes. She roared out of college, worked in retail, then took a flier on something wonderful: opening her own shoe company. And then she had a baby. After which, the air began to leak out of the balloon of her professional life. She started going to the office less and less; the business began to falter and ultimately failed. It was a high price to pay—the loss of a dream and with it financial independence—but that's how babies are sometimes. They come in trailing clouds of glory, with havoc on their minds.