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The woman Mediaweek says "could very well be the next generation's Anna Quindlen" steps out from behind her celebrated New York Times column in a book about the intersection -- or more accurately collision -- of life and work.
A few years ago, award-winning reporter Lisa Belkin left the office to work from home, amid the chaos of two young children, writing deadlines, and everyday domestic details. She began writing a very personal column for and about people trying to "balance" their lives, but hundreds of columns later, she noticed that she had not heard from a single person who had everything under control. Then she realized: Nobody can do it because it simply can't be done.
Life's Work is the story of modern motherhood, where true happiness is often reached when you finally give up and give in. Belkin's is the funny, poignant, and always dead-on story of trying to do it all...and learning that doing just some of it is enough.
LOVE (AND WORK) AND MARRIAGE
For Love or Money
By Any Other Name
Pregnant at Work
LOVE AND WORK AND MARRIAGE AND BABIES
The Grapes of Marital Wrath
Broccoli and Sauce
Take Our Daughters to Work, 2000
Take Our Daughters to Work, 2001
Take Your Parent to Work Day, 2002
BRINGING LIFE TO WORK
Sick at Work
The Child Is the Father of Man
Crying at Work
Stress and Chocolate
BRINGING WORK BACK HOME
Going Home Again
Life Is a Swivel Chair
Trying to Connect
Friends at Work
(Lack of) Exercise
Riley, the Dog
GIVING IN TO WORK
The Internet Baby's Birthday
Random Thoughts from the Middle of the Night
When the Muse Goes on Strike
Working After Work
GETTING BACK TO WORK
My New Computer
Life from a Pay Phone
Home Office Charades
Back from Lunch
Change of Life
When We Grow Up
September 11, 2001
I used to think that life was linear. A straight line, from A to Z, mailroom to CEO, the first day of work to the gold retirement watch. You decide what you want to be and then you make a beeline in that direction. Simple.
I also used to think that life could be "balanced" — a word that I have come to hate. It sounds like some sort of tantric yoga position, a contorted pose that others on the mat can do because they are really trying. As you might have guessed, I'm not very good at yoga.
This book is the story of how I gave up on straight lines; how I learned to zig and zag, to leapfrog and jump backward. It's also the story of how I gave up on balance and decided to settle for a close approximation of sanity, instead. (Disclaimer: I have not actually attained sanity yet, but am ever hopeful.)
There was a time when I didn't think about any of this. I was single in Manhattan back then, a brand-new reporter at the newspaper of every reporter's dreams. I spent all available moments at the office without feeling that I was giving up any part of my life. This job was my life. Then I met Bruce, and the office didn't seem quite as interesting anymore. A doctor-in-training, he was moving to Houston months after we met to complete a four-year fellowship program. I knew nothing about Houston, except that it was hot and I hate the heat. In a decision that was anything but logical or linear I quit my dream job at The New York Times, married a man I'd known for less than a year, and moved to Texas.
New city. No job. A new husband who not only worked all day, but sometimes all night. The best way to meet new people, I'd learned, was to interview them, so I began freelancing for the newspaper I'd just quit and stumbled into the best professional experience of my life. I discovered that I was jazzed by a kind of work I had never had a chance to try — dashing around the state, using Southwest Airlines as though it were a taxi service, hopscotching from one story to the next. I learned I had a knack for longer, more thoughtful writing, too. I wrote some of my first magazine articles while in Texas, and my first book.
But the most important things I learned didn't become clear until I had returned to New York, to a full-time job in the newsroom, with my husband and three-month-old child in tow. The first lesson Texas taught me was that editors don't have to see you in order to edit you. I had answered copy desk questions from pay phones from Lubbock to Brownsville, and it made no difference where I was. This was back in the dark ages, when cell phones were the size of those crank-up models used in the Korean War and only a few show-offs carried them around. But I insisted on one and smugly sat on the train each evening at six instead of seven, answering questions from the copy desk in a rolling extension of the office.
When I became pregnant with my second son three years later, I decided to leave the paper completely. It was a decision that made as little sense as my decision to move to Houston, but one that made me just as proud of myself. Look at me, I crowed silently. Aren't I just the essence of modern motherhood? I'll freelance from home. I'll write another book. I'll nurse my newborn with one hand and type an article with the other hand, all while a nutritious family dinner simmers on the stove.
I certainly used both my hands. The problem was, I needed four or five more. I had changed the location of my juggling act, but not the juggling itself. Here are just a few of the highlights, seared forever into my memory:
Since I am such a healthy example of balance, the editors of the Times asked me to write a column. We called it Life's Work, and what you are about to read includes many of the columns I think say it best, along with lots of new material about what I learned while writing all those columns. Think of the columns as the pineapple, and the whole of my life story as the Jell-O. I've kept each chapter short because, if you're like me, there's only time enough to read a few pages between sliding into bed and collapsing into sleep.
My editors say Life's Work is about the intersection of life and work. I say it is about the collisions that happen daily at that intersection. Either way, the subject appealed to the many parts of my fractured self. The reporter in me understood that this emotional and economic tug-of-war is the central story of our generation. And the conflicted parent in me — the one who thought working from home would be the solution but found it only created different problems — saw a chance to get advice. I envisioned Life's Work as a kaleidoscope of voices, sometimes mine, often strangers I met along the way. It would be an ongoing conversation on the page, and maybe it would offer me some answers. So please feel free to talk back to the book. That's part of the point.
We reporters always believe we will change the world through our work, when the truth is our work inevitably changes us. My first columns reflected my life; soon they began to shape my life. I did find answers — surprisingly simple answers — but they were not at all what I'd expected they'd be. In part they came from noticing truths and shadows in my world that had been there all along: the intricate legacy of work, for instance, that my family had passed down through the generations and which was an unseen hand behind choices I'd thought were uniquely my own.
Most of the answers, though, came from listening. My E-mail address ran with every column, and over time I heard from thousands of readers — women and men, married and single, parents and nonparents. There were notes from a couple of newlywed workaholics who were determined to make time in their day to meet each other for lunch. There were letters from a CEO father-to-be who was trying to restructure his entire company so he would have time to see his baby. There was a cry for help from the divorced mom who thought she might have to give away the family iguana because the store that sold live food closed before she got home from work. (Their stories are all in here; read on.) Yet in all that electronic conversation, over all this time, one letter never arrived. I have yet to hear from anyone who feels they are doing everything right.
So it's not just me who can't do this — and it's not just you, either. Not a one of us seems to be able to give 100 percent of themselves to their job and 100 percent of themselves to their family and 100 percent of themselves to taking care of themselves. Small wonder. Yet we all seem to think someone (else) out there is getting it right; people who work full-time think people who work part-time are doing it, and people who work part-time think people who don't work at all are doing it, and those who left the office to tend to home think that if only they could escape back to an office, they might find sanity. But all of this misses the point. No one can do it, because it cannot be done.
Read that last sentence again. It cannot be done. This book you are holding, filled with the tales of my life and the lives of all those strangers, is crystallized around that simple thought. It cannot be done. So let's start forgiving ourselves when we can't do it.
On the day of the pivotal doctor-visit-with-shots, I looked up from my galleys, my cell phone, and my whimpering son and saw a woman on the other side of the waiting room glaring at me. I wanted to march over and say, "At least I'm here, aren't I?" But I stayed put and tried something I had never done before. I simply shrugged. This was not a metaphorical shrug, but a physical one. And it felt good.
Go ahead. Shrug. Lift those shoulders. Breathe deep. Raise your hands in mock surrender toward the ceiling and repeat after me: "So what?"
So what if the house isn't as clean as it could be?
So what if that last business report was not the best you have ever written?
So what if you're eating takeout for the second night in a row, or haven't been to the gym in weeks, or sent your children to school in crumpled shirts on school picture day?
So what if you have to answer questions from the copy desk while at the doctor's office?
I am not saying that none of these things matter. They all matter, but not all the time. I am as bad at math as I am at yoga, but even I know that 100 percent plus 100 percent plus 100 percent equals more than any one person can do in a day.
Copyright © 2002 by Lisa Belkin
Posted February 10, 2010
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