Monday, July 14, 2014

Not What I Expected


Sometimes I feel like a traitor to my gender. I have become exactly what I did not intend to be: a wife and stay at home mom.

What I was supposed to be is editor in chief of the New York Times. I should be living in Manhattan, by myself with a dog perhaps. I should still be eating macaroni and cheese from a box and quaffing the finest diet Dr. Pepper. I should not know how to cook, speak French, operate a sewing machine or change a diaper. I should not know how to run a bake sale, fix a clogged sink or diagnose an ear infection. I am doing all of these things under an assumed name, having given up hyphenating my last name when my oldest child went to school. At that time, it just seemed pretentious and complicated. I don’t claim to do any of these things well, but I am certain that I was not really supposed to be able to do them at all.

I went to a women’s college in the 1980s and even that was a surprise to me. From the time I got my first typewriter, I knew I would be a reporter. It was red plastic, manual of course, and I kept track of important things in my 7-year old life. I was always taking notes. From middle school, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. Going to college was never a question as both my mother and her mother had gone to college. I truly believe that my early life was so much richer for their experiences and insights as educated women. I graduated from the same school my grandmother attended. I even lived in the same dormitory, 50 years after she did.

When I was in college, I enjoyed participating in student government and of course, the campus newspaper. At that time, my classmates and I were directly benefiting from the women who brought the ERA and NOW and ideas of gender equality to work, politics, life. I had the distinct honor of being sent to pick up Bella Abzug at the airport. Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinam and even Phyllis Schafly visited our campus. We were empowered, emboldened, and encouraged to ask questions, question authority and think big. Throughout the campus, we ran the show, unimpeded by male perspective. We celebrated the tremendous achievements of the mothers who went before us, creating a path for us to continue the fight. We respected our place in history and felt ready to take on the future as fully functioning workers. It never occurred to me that there would be any issue of my gender as I looked to the future. Then I graduated. Once we got out there, however, we discovered that despite the gains, there was still a long way to go.

As I moved from one job to the next, I realized that my gender worked for and against me. I know that I was hired at a technical magazine because they needed another girl on the editorial board. I took that job because I wanted the experience. Looking back, I am sorry that being female counted for so much on my resume. Naively, I thought my writing skills were what they wanted from me. Once I got pregnant, it became clear to me that my gender was indeed in the way. It was a tough pregnancy and I got no support from my all-male colleagues. The other girl on the staff was still out on maternity and would come back just in time to take my place.

When I finally met my son, I changed my plan to leave him at six weeks and return to my real life. I realized that it would be better for him and me if I stayed home with him. I got a part time job and thoroughly enjoyed learning how to be a mother. I realized, that I am grateful for the ability to make that choice. In the long run, I believe that my education and work experience are not wasted on my work as a stay at home mom. I believe my children are richer for the things I have learned and our family has benefited overall.

I was reminded of this recently when I read Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean In.” My first reaction was to feel insulted. I could not believe that she was so arrogant as to believe that women today are just not trying hard enough. I got the message that we still need to advocate for ourselves and stop being so tentative. It seemed that she was dismissing decades of progress. Who the heck does she think she is? When I discussed this feeling with my college roommate, who does not consider herself a feminist and is working as a corporate executive, I began to see another side. She sees the message in this book as giving a push to the younger women who may not appreciate how they got to where they are today. We both agreed that the possibility of choices – choosing family over career or career over family – are a direct gift of those women on whose shoulders we stand. There is no shame or obligation in either choice.

Now my children are grown and I face a crossroads. I am looking in the mirror and not sure who is looking back. I have time and I have choices and for that, I am truly grateful. Another thing for which I am grateful is that I have raised an intelligent, self-confident daughter, who, at the tender age of 20, is involved on her own college campus with women’s issues. Unlike me, she already knows how to cook, and even made her own prom dress in high school. She recently observed that, “It is not the question of what we can do, but what we choose to do,” when it comes to contemporary gender issues. I am happy to see that perhaps I am not a traitor at all, but a teacher and a leader, in my own small way.

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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Posie Paralysis


Our eyes met briefly across the top of thousands of geraniums in a rainbow of colors. We bumped into each other about an hour later. We collided, back to back as we focused skyward on the hanging baskets obscuring the sun. She laughed and patted my hand. “You have it too?” she asked conspiratorially. Yes, I nodded wordlessly. We agreed that we were trapped in the complete inability to make a decision at the garden center and had no idea how to get out.

Every year it is the same: I am paralyzed by choice. Methodically, I visit my favorite local garden centers, spending hours among the hydrangeas, coleus, petunias and begonias. I am fond of making matching pots or baskets for the front porch and the back deck, so I find it challenging to search out the plants and flowers that complement each other. In the beginning, it was simple red geraniums. Everywhere. Then one year we went on vacation and the neighbor who was supposed to babysit my floral friends got distracted and the poor things withered and died of thirst. When I went to replace them, I discovered very little choice so late in the season and ended up with some winsome, miniature petunias. They were white and had sweet potato vines growing among the flowers in the pre-planted pots. End of summer sale – loved it! That fall, I discovered that those vines were not just decorative. We found frozen sweet potatoes in the pots when we went to empty them for the winter.

So, one would hope that after decades of this game, I would have learned sooner to overcome this ridiculous habit and make confident, speedy, pre-planned annual choices. Alas, it was only last year, but the trick I learned then reduced this year’s agony by weeks.

I had been prowling around Locust Glen Garden Center and was finally down to the last two baskets for my deck. I found one that had already been made up – with red geraniums, blue petunias and white lantana. It was festive and bright and perfect for July 4 decoration. Just when I thought I had gathered enough plants to create a matching basket, I spied some amazing purple and yellow flowers in a smaller container. I wavered, as I always do. After I put down the red, white and blue basket, I gathered the purple and yellow, but needed just one more yellow to make my matching set. Minutes turned into an hour and I still could not find the right plant. As I made my way around the corner of the building, I came upon a woman wearing work gloves, surrounded by hundreds of potting plants. She was elbow deep into a large, stone container, reaching for one of my yellow plants, when she noticed me watching her. I expressed complete envy of her eye and skill in putting those containers together to look so artful and unique. She smiled, handed me the yellow plant I needed from her already finished pot and said these three words: “thrill, fill, spill.”

Like so many things in life, the concept is simple and makes perfect sense. As with algebra, physics and the metric system, I would never have figured it out without help from a patient professional. Here is the key to potted plant perfection, the garden center goddess explained. This one, she said, is the tallest element in the pot and provides the thrill, the focal point of the arrangement. Next, you fill in the middle area with smaller scale plants, and finally, you add a plant or two with a horizontal habit so that it spills over the edge of the pot. I was elated to discover that I could easily duplicate her creations at home while chanting thrill, fill, spill, quietly to myself.

Now back to my new friend with the geraniums. She saw the lack of conviction in my eyes and tried to help. She pointed to a hot pink geranium that would have contrasted nicely with the yellow strawflower I was clutching. I thanked her for the suggestion and admitted that all I needed was a “spill” to complete my task. She stepped back a tiny bit, and hesitated before asking, “huh?” I explained the garden center mantra and she raised her hands in victory. I can do that, she told me. Indeed, I agreed. Wishing each other good luck and good gardening, we parted ways.

I left that place without my spill but found it on the way home while stopped at a traffic light. I saw the missing element to my container masterpieces through the fence but had to make plans to return. That second garden center was closed for the day. This year, I have added another helpful habit for myself: I draw a simple sketch and label the plants, including the year and location of purchase. Who knows, I might be able to get it all done in one day next year.

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