Talking about middle age with Caitlin Flanagan
Photo: Amanda Marsalis
Caitlin Flanagan invited six 40-something friends to spend an evening taking stock of their lives. The result: juicy, grown-up girl talk that could have gone on all night.
The panel:

Caitlin Flanagan, writer and host

Lynn Laws, stay-at-home mom

Andrea Williams-Green, entrepreneur

Sandra Tsing Loh, performance artist

Sarah Minot Gold, organizer

Jody Horowitz Marsh, TV personality

Christina Schwarz, novelist

The plan:
I asked some of my most accomplished women friends over to my house so that I could ply them with wine and hors d'oeuvres and ask them about their lives. Specifically, I wanted to know if they, too, had run out of dream, or if they still indulged in the kind of big, visionary thinking that comes so naturally to young people. And I wanted to know about how the daily traction of their lives—marriage and money and sex—shapes their ability to keep dreaming. It was going to be like a consciousness-raising session, except with catering and mood lighting and party favors in the form of fabulous $6 bath soaps from Target... Read more  

The questions

I. When you were 18, what did you imagine your future would look like? How close does your life today come to that vision?

II. What is the one piece of advice you wish you'd been given as a young person?

III. What was the best money you ever spent?

IV. What was your biggest financial mistake—the complete waste of money that haunts you to this day?  

V. Is sex with your husband a pleasure to savor or just one more item to check off your to-do list? If the latter, when did that change take place—and do you actually care?

VI. What has been the best surprise about married life? And the worst?

VII. What is the best thing about being a woman? The worst?

VIII. At this point in your life, is there a dream you will never get to fulfill? What is it—and what makes you so sure it's out of reach?

Last year, at the age of 44, I published my first book, To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife. I had been planning to write a book ever since I was 19 and blurted to a boy I knew that I was going to become a "published writer." He was impressed and I was surprised—I wasn't majoring in English or turning out short stories or doing any of the other things that the future writers were doing. But come to think of it, writing seemed like something I probably could do—it wasn't as though I had said I was planning to climb Mount McKinley or become a lingerie model. I liked to read; I had a lot to say. How hard could it be? So I mentally added "write a book" to the to-do list I was making for my life. That's how it was when I was young: Everything seemed more or less possible. There was world enough, and time.

I got older, and my horses started coming in—or not. I never did get to have a job like Carol Merrill's on Let's Make a Deal or Betty Furness's on the Today show. But many of the other things I wanted to do—work in a museum, teach school, get married, have children—I've done. And with the arrival, one sunny day last spring, of the first copies of my book, the last of what my father used to call my "hopes and dreams" panned out.

Did I feel exhilarated, joyful, tickled pink? I did not.

I set the book on the edge of my desk, and then I propped it up on the living room bookcase, and then for a few months I wandered around in a funk, until I realized what was the matter: I had run out of dream.

For the first time in my life, I didn't have the pounding, driving sense of ambition that had always propelled me forward, the feeling that way up ahead were some things I wanted and was going to spend a lot of time lunging toward. It was as though I'd been in a speeding car that had suddenly stopped short. Here it was: middle-age. I know there are exceptional people who don't even get started on the great work of their lives until they're past the midpoint. But that's what makes them the exception.

Being Irish, I know a thing or two about how to deal with an identity crisis, or indeed any kind of crisis: Throw a party. And so I did.

I issued invitations to a stay-at-home mom, a novelist, a performance artist, a television personality, a professional organizer, and a sidelined entrepreneur. Then I pushed my living room furniture around until it formed a big circle, and waited for my guests, who arrived promptly, grabbed glasses of wine, and started singing like canaries.

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.

Jody Horowitz Marsh has been a television personality (she had a program called Jody Horowitz Reports on Showtime Networks for seven years), a humorist, and a correspondent for CNN, and is now a stay-at-home mom. She's so talented and accomplished that it was reassuring to learn she wasn't always that way. "It's the opening of Dr. Spock's book," Jody said about the advice she wished she had received as a young person. "'Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.' It's a great piece of advice about going with your instincts rather than relying on others for validation. I wish I'd known that all my life—not just when I became a mother." Everyone nodded; it seemed that so often in our younger lives, the force we'd lacked wasn't ability or talent but simply the confidence to swagger our way into things.

On the other hand: "I never took anyone's advice about anything," Sandra said, and we realized, of course, that what we really wished was that we'd been able to distinguish good advice from bad, and learned how to act on the former. But who can do that at 21, when the mind is consumed by the world's great questions, such as how to fit into size 6 jeans by the weekend?

"The best money I ever spent was maybe on tooth whitening," Sandra said (we all leaned forward and realized anew how dazzling her teeth are, and I could sense six women secretly vowing to stick on their Crest Whitestrips before going to bed), "but probably the best was on my coat." Sandra has a fierce, black shearling coat that everyone admires; she bought it for $600, she told us, just before she had to go to the Sundance Film Festival one year. It's a coat that "raffishly and bad-boyishly covers a sloppy host of 40-something-mother fashion ills."

As the impartial moderator, I was abstaining from answering the questions, but when Sandra told us about the coat, I thought immediately of the dress I wore to my second wedding. It cost me most of a paycheck, and better money has never been spent. It was a Carmen Marc Valvo beaded cocktail dress that fit like a glove and banished forever the memory of myself as an '80s bride drowning in yards of tulle and marching purposefully toward a union that nobody was giving very good odds. That second dress rocked.

Then Jody averred that the best money she ever spent was on fertility treatments, and many of us hung our heads in shame. "Oh, yes, definitely!" I said, thinking of my own little boys and how they almost edge out that dress.

 Lynn is the sort of prudent at-home mother who never makes a financial misstep, but just once she wanted to live as though money were no concern, and so it was that she revealed the shameful tale of her Anthropologie splurge. Just once, she wanted to buy an outfit—a whole outfit, not just a skirt or blouse—from her favorite store, and furthermore she didn't want to wait until it went on sale. She picked a beautiful green and yellow sweater with a matching skirt, but when she got them home, they never fit quite right, and she just about never wore them, and they're still hanging in her closet, compounding the misery.

Likewise, when Sandra was pregnant with her first baby, she came into a windfall, which she spent on a pair of expensive teak lawn chairs, on which she planned to sit while breastfeeding. But the chairs proved more demanding than the newborn; they were like a pair of young lovers who expected Sandra to be their handmaiden, oiling them and protecting them from any violation (sun, rain, a sweating glass of iced tea) that might in any way cause them harm. She ended up rarely sitting on them, and regretting every penny they'd cost her.

Now that we were letting our hair down, Jody made a confession: "I hired a decorator to do my house once. I hated everything he suggested, and while I was mustering up the courage to fire him, he quit! Unfortunately, not without first cashing my check." ("I realized that if you loathe someone, no matter how cleverly you think you're disguising it, the odds are they loathe you, too!")

Most of us know a lot about money, including how to manage it. When I was a schoolteacher, splitting the rent on an apartment and chronically broke, I nonetheless forced myself to put aside the maximum contribution to the school's pension plan—and it was that set-aside money that helped my husband and me, eventually, buy our first house. Sandra is on a one-woman mission to get parents to stop sending their children to ruinously expensive private schools, a mission that is helping thousands of families stay out of debt, and Sarah has hit the ground running after her divorce. We can all take care of business when we have to. But still, when we talked about money, the first thing that popped into our minds wasn't savings plans and investment strategies; it was dresses and lawn chairs. If we knew the answer to why women so often think about money on the small scale, we'd be...Suze Orman. And unfortunately we're not, so I changed the subject.

Oscar Wilde is credited with saying there are no indiscreet questions, only indiscreet answers, and so it was that I asked my group of married ladies to tell me about the old hanky-panky. Jody, mother of a ten-month-old, said that sex with her husband is "definitely something I savor...when I remember I have a husband."

"You always hear stories of married women going to the doctor because their libido is too low," Sandra said. "But how come you never hear about married men going to the doctor because their libido is too high?" At first some of us didn't quite take her meaning, but then she spelled it out: "Why are men's desires considered the norm? Maybe instead of us going to see doctors, they ought to see doctors to get their testosterone lowered!" It turned out that Sandra was reading a book—I'd Rather Eat Chocolate: Learning to Love My Low Libido—whose author, a married woman, had brazenly decided she wasn't very interested in sex, and had announced the same to her husband, who is apparently willing to put up with a greatly reduced schedule of amorous activities. There was, to put it mildly, a lot of interest in this idea. However, revolutionary though it sounded, it was far too depressing to consider at length. 

For Jody, the best surprise about marriage was how quickly arguments—the very same arguments that would have been grounds for a breakup in a dating situation—could be resolved, and that a marriage can move forward strengthened by these negotiations. Her worst surprise was the one every wife in history has had to face eventually: "discovering that everything I thought I could tweak and improve in my husband remains untouched and the same! I adore him, but somehow I always thought I'd be able to mold him to my will."

Lynn said that what had surprised her most was how expensive it is to raise a family on one income. "Even if your husband has a good job, and you send your children to public school, it still takes so much money to keep up a normal, nice, middle-class lifestyle," she said.

Sarah said she had never imagined that she'd get divorced, and I told her she was so much better off that she ought to write her ex-husband a thank-you note. Then there was a round of the kind of conversation that happens among women when a husband jumps ship. (Just because Sarah and her ex are being perfectly civilized about the whole thing doesn't mean the rest of us had to be. Take a side and commit to it—that's always been my approach to friends' divorces, and I'm not about to change it.)

Jody said that the worst thing about being a woman is being judged so heavily on appearance, a truth so universally acknowledged and despised that we could have spent the rest of the evening expanding upon it. But then Christina brought up an idea that caught our attention even more forcefully—that the best and worst things about being a woman are the same: the way we feel drawn to caring for others, and the way this impulse becomes so much larger and stronger and more consuming once we have children. It's one of the truths at the center of my book: Motherhood brings with it a clear and compelling awareness of human vulnerability, and a sense of having been charged with the care of others. The dream that most women have—of having children someday, of being at the center of a family—is one of the most powerful impulses in the world, yet it is also a destroyer of dreams, of ambition, and that fact is a hard and sometimes bitter truth about being female. Fortunately, there was more than enough Chardonnay—not to mention some sensational crab cakes—to take the sting out of the human condition, and we shored ourselves up, as women always do.

So then I asked them the big one—what were their new dreams? What great, visionary things did they have in mind to do next?

Let this be a lesson: Don't get a group of mothers together, spend two hours talking about the hard work and exhaustion of raising children, keeping husbands satisfied, and balancing the books—and then ask them about the amazing, inspiring things they're planning to do with their lives. It's not going to go over very well.

Nobody was willing to call herself a woman without a dream; the very notion of doing so was deeply objectionable. But nobody had any dreams that they wanted to talk about, either. Maybe, as Jody suggested, part of getting older is learning to keep your trap shut until something actually comes true, so you're not left having to account for all your wretched failures and false starts.

I gave them their bath soaps and sent them home and felt a bit better for having seen them. And then Lynn sent me a photograph of some beautiful flowers arranged in a vase. It turns out that she is starting a little floral business, Posy, whose motto is "affordable style." She will undercut any other florists' prices, and stay up half the night arranging blooms she buys from the wholesale flower mart in downtown Los Angeles—if customers will only take a chance on a mom with no references. "It's just a little thing right now," Lynn admitted, almost bashfully, "but if I get a few more orders, I might buy a refrigerator for the garage so I can keep more inventory around."

Now, the reason this news got me excited was, number one—cheap flowers, hallelujah. And number two, I had just read an interesting statistic in Jack Canfield's book The Success Principles. Apparently, venture capitalists rarely invest in business start-ups because so many start-ups fail. But there's one exception: If the entrepreneur is 55 or older, the business's odds of success skyrocket. "These older entrepreneurs have already learned from their mistakes," writes Canfield. "They're simply a better risk because through a lifetime of learning from their failures, they have developed a knowledge base, a skill set, and a self-confidence that better enables them to move through the obstacles to success."

Lynn is 15 years short of an infusion of venture capital, but Canfield's observation captured my imagination. Maybe, as patched together and diminished by age and babies and grown-out roots as we are at this point—maybe we actually know something by now. Maybe all we need are a few years to get out from under, and then, just possibly, we'll be ready to take flight again. I tacked a picture of Lynn's flowers to my bulletin board, and next to it I put a picture of a beach I want to visit someday—and I found one that didn't have a 22-year-old bikini model ruining the view. Right next to that picture, I pinned up a photograph of the most beautiful older woman I've ever seen, the writer Alice Munro, to remind myself that whatever my next big venture is, I'll be doing it as a grown woman, not a youngster. And then, right before I left for carpool, I thought: Maybe there's some dream in me yet.

Caitlin Flanagan's book, To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife (Back Bay), is now available in paperback.


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