Leaning Out

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It took three years of infertility and two miscarriages to realize I couldn’t have it all.
Growing up, I was told that I could do anything I set my mind to. I am from the generation of young girls who were encouraged to do well in school and play sports. One of the few pieces of advice my father ever gave me was, “Go to college and don’t get married until you are thirty.”

This coming from a man who was married and had his first child at nineteen and earned his college degree in nine years while working full time.

Like the women in my generation, I was raised to do more, want more, and achieve more. Raised to want, have, and take it all. We are a band of warrior women, “leaning in” and “breaking glass.”

As a teenager, I looked at my mom and judged her, just as most girls do their mothers. Here she was a housewife that had one daughter:  me. She worked as a receptionist only when I was in high school and made sure the house was clean and dinner was on the table every night. I vowed to never be like her.

When I graduated from college, I moved away from home as quickly as I could. In my twenties I wore my barely-held-together Bebe suit to work and traveled the world during my free time. I worked hard to get my corporate job and was eager to climb the proverbial ladder. Soon I realized the ladders for men and women were different, and it made me work that much harder. I put aside my creative dream of writing a novel because I had to pay the bills. Besides, I liked making money and buying my cheap suits while drinking wine with my friends at happy hour.
I was determined, like so many women today, to be independent and successful on my own. I didn’t need a man to pay my bills, and I certainly didn’t need him to carry my skis (as a date tried to do one winter).

Failure was not an option.

But something happens as you get older. The years start moving more quickly, and you realize time is not infinite.

After investing too many years with men who weren’t right for me, I finally found the one that fit me. As grateful as I am for him, I was also grateful that I hadn’t settled down and had babies with the wrong ones.

But through all of this living and achieving I had become older, and that posed its own set of challenges.

I experienced second child infertility after having my son at thirty-six. I did not get the chance to repeat the life-altering experience of opening myself up to a child and becoming more vulnerable than I had ever before thought possible.

Encouraged by my husband, I went back to pursuing it all. I was a mother, career woman, and wife. And when I could squeeze in the time, I pursued my creative dream of writing — even though that meant writing only a few pages a month.

We struggled to get pregnant naturally for a year and finally embarked on a two-year-long journey of IVF. Twice we were told we were pregnant and cried tears of joy. We waited those long three months to make it through the “danger” zone. We smiled during the ultrasound when we saw the little life before us on the screen. Relief washed over us when we saw a heartbeat. It’s working, I said to myself.

And then the cramping started. The first time slowly, so very slowly I could feel the pregnancy leaving my body. Then it came on with an overwhelming rush that wouldn’t stop. I tried to rest much too late. I put my feet up. I took the Valium the doctor said would help. But then the blood came. So much blood.

The second time it was later on in the pregnancy. He was a boy. He was growing and he had a heartbeat. I was eager for my weekly ultrasound to see how we were progressing, see the little body taking shape. This one is different, I told myself. And then, during one of the ultrasounds, the doctor said, “The baby is small. I need to prepare you that he might not make it.” Off with the latex gloves and out of the room she went.

I called my husband, who was on a business trip, and told him there might be a different type of tears now. We canceled our plans for the next week. I lay in bed, waiting.

At the next ultrasound, the heartbeat was gone. The screen had faded to black and stillness.
I swore off IVF for good. I was drained. I had given it all I could. I had turned my life over for two years and I wanted it back. Two months later, I turned forty.

Leave it to a big birthday and incredible pain to make you stand up and take notice of your life. Something happens when we are gutted. When we are raw. Through the pain comes clarity.
I realized I already had everything I needed. I had a beautiful young boy and a wonderful husband. I had a great career. I had proven myself.

Then a funny thing happened. I no longer needed that career. I no longer wanted to climb the ladder. I no longer wanted it all. I no longer wanted to lean into my ambitions. I wanted to lean out and simply enjoy what I had. And I began to wonder: Why did it take me so long to realize that having it all meant missing out on the little things?

Sometimes what drives us is what we have to undo. As much as my ambition has been my friend and collaborator, at times it has been my undoing. It has been all of our undoing at times.

I witness my band of female friends and I am overwhelmed by their success and their courage. I am blown away by what they achieve, and am even more impressed when they let themselves fail.
This isn’t a dress rehearsal, I tell myself. And for my friends who question if they are right for the VP position or if they should leave a terribly unhappy marriage, I tell them the same. This is not a dress rehearsal. Follow your voice and believe in yourself.

For as much as we encourage each other to step up and achieve as much as we can, we need to also start encouraging one another to step out. To breathe. We simply can’t do it all, and we aren’t supposed to.

We have choices now, ladies. Let’s make them. There is power in choosing, and the generations before us wish they’d had as many options as we do. Because the true beauty in life is not all the things you achieve but the little moments you enjoy. And perhaps, if we begin to measure our success in enjoying the little things, all of us will be that much richer.

This is what my lost pregnancies taught me. And those are the rules my beautiful four-year-old deserves for me to live by.

So, in the end, I left that successful career and I didn’t look back. And now I raise my pen to paper every day, and I will finish my novel even if it is terrible and nobody reads it.

When I am finished with my book I will dedicate it to my son and to those two quiet voices that never came to be. They are the ones cheering me on.

A brief encounter with a woman with cancer recently reminded me to slow down and acknowledge what is before us — even if what we see is hard to accept or comprehend. It was Sunday morning and I was walking through the Berkeley Rose Garden with my husband and son. I saw a woman sitting on a […]

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