“Alison, Rachel, Nicole, Elizabeth…”
First love and first loss

Turkey-Pond_Andrew Wyeth

Remember how exciting it was, when you were a kid, to like someone – like like them, that is – and find out that they liked you back? Steph and I have been talking a lot about podcasts ever since doing our last one, and one of the topics we both wanted to address was love. In this episode, I interview someone very close to me about it – my husband, Tim. Tim can remember the names all the girls he had crushes on, going grade by grade, from 1st to 12th. I wanted to know more about his memories of first crushes, and first love. When does infatuation turn in to love? What does love feel like? How does it change as you get older?

In talking about these topics over a series of conversations, though, we found ourselves drifting in to discussion about Tim’s mom, Jamien. Jamien, with whom Tim had a difficult relationship, died of breast cancer when he was 17 and she was 48. About a year after she died, Tim fell in love for the first time. Three years later, as he coped with the break up of this first real relationship, Tim realized that feelings he’d suppressed about his mom’s death were coming back to him powerfully. “It felt like going through mom’s death again, only way worse this time.”

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Siblings: Only 20 Percent Similar?

Four_Sporting_Boys_Basketball_Norman_Rockwell

When I was little, I tried to do everything that my older brother did. I wanted to make his interests my interests and his strengths mine as well. My tactics didn’t evolve with age. At thirteen I was devastated when I didn’t get accepted to the same high school he did, and at seventeen his college was my first choice too (I ended up going elsewhere). He loved languages and so enjoyed studying abroad in Germany during his junior year that he unexpectedly stayed on an extra semester; later he moved to Berlin for a year after graduating. I studied abroad too, but with less enthusiasm and overall enjoyment. My brother’s choices formed my roadmap, but not because they were a fit for my strengths and interests. My efforts to do what he did often left me feeling frustrated.

When siblings are similar, we think it makes sense – and when they’re not, we’re puzzled. Most people assume that they share more personality traits with their siblings than they do with strangers, but according to recent research this isn’t true. In fact, we are similar to our siblings only about 20 percent of the time. Since siblings share both genetic material and a household environment, how can an 80 percent occurrence of substantially different personalities be explained? According to research by Robert Plomin, our home environment – long assumed to be something that makes people similar – is actually partly responsible for creating difference. There are three theories why.

1. Competition through difference

Children differentiate themselves to their parents, and make competition indirect, by focusing their energy and talents in unique areas. For example, if your brother is a really gifted artist, you may choose to focus on writing or math.

2. Siblings actually grow up in different families

So you share the same house, the same toys, the same parents – maybe you even share a room. But sibling experience of the home environment varies in subtle but significant ways. In the time between having two children, one parent may no longer be working or may have transitioned to a very demanding career that keeps them out of the house more, the socioeconomic status of the family may be more or less secure, or the parents may no longer be married. Think of the emotional experience that a 12 year old whose family loses financial stability will have compared to her 5 year old sister.

3. Parents exaggerate differences

This one needs no explanation. The clinical term is comparison theory, and it describes what many of us have experienced firsthand: being evaluated relative to your siblings. If your sister is a voracious reader and you merely like to read, you may be described as less academically inclined, for example. Whether or not this label is objectively true, it will influence your decisions. According to Susan McHale, a researcher at Pennsylvania State University who was quoted in a piece by Alix Spiegel for NPR, this can have far-reaching consequences: “… we pick different groups of friends, we spend our time in different ways that only reinforces what may have been a very small difference to begin with… And, you know, once you get these forces feeding on one another, differences escalate over time.”

I consider myself similar to my older brother (age difference: five years). Yet I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that all three theories described here apply, to varying degrees, to my own experience growing up – and those created some important differences between us as well.

A major undercurrent of these theories is a foundation in the expectation of similarity. An understandable assumption, but also a complicating one. It can take years, even a lifetime, to understand ourselves as individuals; for many of us that process begins as we differentiate from our identity within the specific context of our families. What if we created families without any assumption of deep similarity? How would that change interpersonal dynamics and the way we develop our personality and sense of self (leaving aside for the moment that if this were the case, presumably many fewer people would choose to procreate)?

Having no expectation of similarity in a family context isn’t realistic for most people, maybe for anyone. But I still find it helpful to consider the ways in which our shared home environment affected who I am today and made me different from my brother. Sometimes I think about my childhood interests and perceived traits and see if they still apply. Is there room for me to be different from how my family thinks of me – and therefore how I think of myself?

Eventually, as I got older, I felt more comfortable with myself. I started to let go of trying to emulate my brother so directly, and in the process found that we genuinely shared a lot of the same interests and liked to talk about and do many of the same things. In a few important ways, we are also very different. Being similar to him no longer feels as important to me (although being close to him does). For most people, their relationship with their siblings will be the longest one of their lives. In the end, comfort with who we are – whether we’re similar to each other or not – may be the factor that is most influential in making it an enduring and meaningful one.

Image: Four Sporting Boys, by Norman Rockwell

Growing Old Without Aging: 3 Secrets to Longevity

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A couple years ago, my grandmother renewed her AARP membership, paying in advance for three years. “I figure I can at least make it to 100,” she said at the time. Last month, my grandmother, Edith, turned 99. We all call her Edie, but don’t be fooled by the sweet nickname. Edie – or Grandma E, as my sister and I call her – is the most determined person I know– one of three key characteristics that I believe enabled her to get to 99 without seeming old.

Determination

Since the early 1960’s, she has lived in a DC townhouse spanning three floors. Every day for many decades, she climbed up and down two sets of stairs– from her bedroom on the top floor, down to the kitchen on the bottom and spending most of her day in the den on the middle floor. As she got older, a set of stairs became painstakingly slow, but she kept at it. We’d warn her when dinner was 15 minutes away so she could start making her way down to the dining room. Clutching the railing and moving slowing, she knew that this was the only way to make sure that she could continue doing steps. It was only within the last few years, well past the age of 95, that she stopped climbing the stairs, and only under much duress (and concern that the automated stair chair lift was unsightly).

Curiosity

During some of our visits in recent years–when she was still climbing the stairs herself, but after she had relinquished cooking duties to my sister and me–Edie would come down to the kitchen and keep us company while we cooked dinner. She’d pepper us with questions: what is that? How are you cooking it? What are those spices? Where did you get this recipe? Since she’d pretty much stopped cooking, I used to wonder at these questions. And it isn’t just about food, anything and everything is interesting to her.

My sister once asked our grandmother if she thinks of herself as smart. “I don’t know if I’m smart,” she replied, “But I am curious.” I think Edie’s curiosity keeps her engaged in the world. She always wants to be in the know. Last year, she was thrilled when we bought her an iPad for her birthday. “What’s the difference between an iPad and an iPhone?” she immediately questioned. She doesn’t care about most of the apps and can barely read the text, but she wanted to understand what all of the buzz was about. Edie recently counseled me to say yes to everything, “If you say yes, you keep doing new things.”

Her curiosity has led her to travel in almost every country. When she came to visit me in California many years ago, my mom remarked about how nice California is and suggested that she and Edie come back. “But I’ve seen California now!” my grandmother protested, “Let’s go somewhere new.”

My mom’s theory on Edie’s curiosity is that she is bored by herself since she already knows what is going on in her own life. She wants to learn new things, so she peppers people around her with questions. I think this curiosity about others has meant that she gets engaged in people’s lives– not with a desire to fix or change people, but merely to understand them, probably the most flattering form of attention.

Willingness to Forget

When I visited Edie this past Thanksgiving, she said, “It’s taken me a lifetime, but I’m very grateful for what I have.” I think she was considering our family, her comfort in life, and perhaps her longevity. But the gratitude that she was expressing is a state of mind for her, not just an appreciation of her situation in life. She is always one to make the best of things, to keep moving, and perhaps to ignore some of the bad things.

It drives my mom crazy: she’ll have some memory of a family vacation, a time in high school or a small incident where she felt wronged. Without fail, Edie’s response is, “Really? I don’t remember that.” She is not only unwilling to dwell on the negative, she literally doesn’t remember it. She doesn’t dwell in the past either. When I recently asked her about what her neighborhood was like when she first moved there more than 50 years ago, she spent only a few minutes reminiscing, quickly cutting herself off with a, “well, that’s past. Let’s talk about what’s happening now.”

Though frustrating, it’s core to her youthful, curious spirit. To Edie, the world is pleasant, still full of things to be learned even- or perhaps especially- at the ripe age of 99. This, along with her sheer determination, might just be the secret to a long life.

 

Photo: Edie a few decades ago.

I Never Regretted Being a Working Mother

ann and her sons

Ann with her sons, Andrew and John. “I loved being a mother. I also loved being a lawyer.”

I have been practicing as a lawyer for 40 years and am now basically in the final stages of that practice, i.e. retirement. Recently, a dear friend of mine sent me a news article that discussed the attrition of women from the workplace when they become mothers. The women cited in the article were leaving jobs they had worked hard to get because they felt they couldn’t balance career demands with family. I was distressed to read this – I fervently hope that women do not feel the need to leave their careers because of the challenges of working while having a family. As I look back on my career, during which I had two sons, I realize how key my profession was to my quality of life. I can say without hesitation that I have never regretted being a working mother.

As a young woman, I questioned whether or not I wanted children, but not because of how I would manage balancing motherhood with work. I was just never someone who was very interested in babies. However, around age 30 my biological clock did begin ticking, and I suddenly thought having a child would be a good idea. My parents had given up on our having kids since my husband and I had already been married for eight years by that time. When we called them on Mother’s Day and chorused “Happy Grandmother’s Day,” there was a dead silence, and then my mother said:  “Oh, is one of the cats going to have kittens?” They were overjoyed when we explained that we were expecting, and my mother called back fifteen minutes later to be sure she had heard the news correctly! I was 32 when my older son, Andrew, was born, and I was 41 when my younger son, John, was born. Despite my earlier uncertainties, I loved being a mother.

I also loved my work as a lawyer. Right out of law school, I clerked for two years (from 1973 to 1975) for the Federal District Court for the Northern District of California. I was the first woman law clerk that my judge had hired after 23 years on the bench; one reason that he was incented to hire me was that his daughter was just starting law school. I then moved to a private firm to do antitrust law. At that time, the firm was not friendly to women in litigation in general, and certainly not to women lawyers with families. The senior woman partner at that time basically told the younger women coming in that they would have to choose between work and family. I felt fortunate that my supervising (male) partner was a wonderful mentor who in fact encouraged me to develop my own style and not be bludgeoned into changing it to fit a more “male” profile.

Still, there was an overall prejudice against women in the firm. During my first year at the firm, my husband was out of the country for a good deal of the time, so I had nothing to do but work. I worked hard, usually leaving about 6 or 6:30 pm, and I never had any problem in getting my assignments completed on time. But unlike most of the young male associates, I did not linger about until after 6pm, have dinner on the firm, and then “work” some more. What I thought was perfectly reasonable conduct had repercussions: during my first year review, much to my astonishment, I was told that my work was good but that I didn’t seem entirely committed or devoted to the firm!

Despite these issues, I gained wonderful experience at the firm, and, equally importantly, my partner there was instrumental in getting me my next position; the “old boy” network, in this case, operated to help a woman get a job.  So, four years later, I moved to a transportation company as their in-house antitrust counsel. The company had only very recently hired women lawyers, and I was the first woman in management to have a baby; the company had no maternity plan at the time, and we simply winged it. The great advantage of being in-house at that time was that the hours were very reasonable: everyone, including the lawyers, left at 5pm on the dot. I ended up spending most of my career as  in-house counsel in a corporate law department, and this was a very good way to combine work and family. I was able to attend virtually every school event for both my children, participate in field trips, and be a room parent without feeling that I had to sneak away to these events. The basic rule was that if you got your work done, being away from the office occasionally was acceptable. I was fortunate in that I almost always had weekends free.

Ann with her husband and two sons.

Ann with her husband and two sons.

I kept a bright line between work and home. I did work at work only. I did not give out my cell phone number or allow people from work to call me at home. I was quite rigid about this separation, often to the annoyance of my colleagues, although they got used to it and eventually accepted my choice. I think this line made a huge difference to our family life. It certainly allowed me to enjoy my children and their friends without tension or guilt.

There were other factors that allowed me to balance work demands with family time. Quality childcare is key, and I was very lucky that way. My husband and I were able to share a child care person with another family and therefore we could both work full time while also keeping our sons at home before they went to preschool. Of course, having quality childcare shouldn’t be a matter of luck; it should be available to all. Structural changes need to occur on that front. And yes, husbands/fathers should share in parenting and household duties, they as often do nowadays. But does it have to be 50-50? Is that essential in order to combine work and family? I would say that, desirable though an equal split might be, a more skewed arrangement between the spouses, with the woman taking the greater share, should not in and of itself stop a woman from combining work and family. It may cause tension between the spouses, but that is a different matter.

Did working full time affect my ability to be the kind of parents my sons needed, and that I wanted to be? I don’t think so. I spent a great deal of time with my sons and never heard them indicate frustration, anger, or regret about my working; it was a given in their world. And, as I said, I was able to be at almost all school functions and other major events in their lives. I attended Little League practices and games, spent hours on the golf course with my younger son, helped with school projects, and spent many hours with each of them on homework and high school and college applications.

Ann and her father. Together they authored a book, "Mental Disabilities And Criminal Responsibility."

Ann and her father. Together they authored a book, “Mental Disabilities
and Criminal Responsibility.”

My work also enhanced my quality of life tremendously. It was intellectually stimulating; I loved research, writing briefs and motions, and understanding the world of business. I gained increased confidence as I began to master both the relevant areas of law and to really know the industry I was in and to gain the respect and trust of my clients. Work provided me with an opportunity to interact with a diverse group of people, none of whom I would have met but for the job. My job also allowed me to work with other lawyers, brainstorming and learning from them. Equally important, I enjoyed being able to support my family. I have a real sense of why men like to be breadwinners; one can take great pride from that role. I wanted to set an example for my children, especially since they were male children, to show them that women are able to work professionally while still spending plenty of time with their families. I can say in all honesty that I believe that my sons have taken something centrally important from my being a working mother: I believe it is a given for each of them that they expect that their partners will be people who have their own careers and interests and that part of the relationship will be balancing the professional needs of each other.

Here’s the thing that worries me: my generation of women lawyers worked hard to be able to enter the practice of law fully. My friend’s son was famously asked when he was four whether he wanted to be a lawyer when he grew up, to which he responded, “ I thought all lawyers are women!” But he was in the rare position of being surrounded by female lawyers because of his mom and our friends. The change from the time I clerked in federal court, at the beginning of my career, and saw a total of ten women lawyers to now, when a courtroom could very well have a woman judge, bailiff, and lawyers, is huge.

The atmosphere has changed radically as well. When I began in the transportation industry, I was usually the only woman present, and I, like many women of my era, had to deal with crude jokes and crude language; part of that was due to the fact that the men were unused to working with women as equals and certainly were unused to taking advice from women. But all of that has disappeared; a new generation of men has been trained, whether officially or unofficially, to treat a meeting as a place where people are civil to each other, respect each other, and where women and men are on an equal footing. I am absolutely of the view that “equal” is not necessarily the goal – being “equal” to the way the men operated in those days was something that we realized was not a valid or valuable goal. But I just hate reading or hearing that young women today feel they must choose between a legal career – or any career – and having children. That takes us backwards, and I find that sad.

I have loved working as a lawyer, I have loved being a mother, and I have not found those two things to be incompatible. I never questioned – or regretted – my choice to be a full time working mother. It always seemed the right thing to me and for me. I loved what I did, and I think that made me a more interesting person for my children and my spouse. And I hope fervently that young women today who wish to combine these two things can find the combination of jobs, support, and determination to enable them to do so.

All images are from the author’s personal collection

“You Can Go Now”
Politeness vs. directness in close relationships

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A few weeks ago, we got the idea that it would be fun to explore some of themes of this blog in a more dynamic format by using interviews and conversation. So today we’re trying something new – a podcast! In this episode, we tackle direct and honest communication in close relationships.

This type of communication feels risky — it leaves us vulnerable to be open, to share our true selves. We risk offending and somehow being rendered less lovable. Yet, this is also where trust and intimacy are built. Why is it sometimes hard to be clear and straightforward about how we’re feeling with close friends, family, and partners? Is politeness a barrier to closeness? What are the risks of leaving politeness behind and instead opting for gentle candor? And, who is Invisible Script’s cousin? Click below to listen to the discussion.

Image:  Harold Edgerton photograph