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October 13, 2012

Girlfriend Weekends

by Anne Paddock

Every year or so, I leave my husband and daughter (and the animals) for a long weekend with a group of girlfriends from college. The planning of the event starts a year ahead of time with primary consideration given to our geographic locations (Washington, Virginia, Florida, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts) and the ease of travel to the destination chosen. We all enjoy the outdoors and are drawn to places that offer hiking, walking, and sunshine – the Adirondacks in upstate New York, Tucson, Arizona, Newport, Rhode Island, and most recently, Portland, Oregon.

When we were in graduate school in the late 1980’s, there weren’t many women in our class (about 20% of the class) as we were clearly not following the traditional route of marriage and young motherhood. It wasn’t that we didn’t want these things; we just didn’t want them right away. We all figured we had time as those were the days when the media was telling us we could conquer the world and have it all – a satisfying career, a good marriage, and children. Somehow the media never told us how to do it but that didn’t matter – we would figure it out. Flash forward nearly 25 years and our perspective is different.

We all married in our 30’s and some on the cusp of 40. Children came in the mid-30’s to mid-40’s – a time when we knew the commitment an advancing career requires – but as the window of childbearing closes quickly, choices had to be made. By our early 40’s, we all dropped out of the fast lane for a variety of reasons with the overriding theme: the demands of having children. At one point or another, we all came to the realization that we couldn’t have it all; someone – be it the kids, the husband, co-workers, or us individually – was always feeling shortchanged and with children (unlike the office) every day is different and brings unforeseen challenges. There were simply not enough hours in the day to do it all well. With our lives getting busier and busier we found little time for friends and we missed each other. So, we decided to start a girlfriend weekend where we would all leave our husbands and kids for 3-4 days and hope everyone was alive when we returned.

Leaving our families for a weekend has been difficult at times, especially for those of us with very young children. Husbands don’t generally follow schedules or spend time cooking healthy meals. One member of our group spent hours preparing food and writing out menus only to learn her husband relied on pizza delivery, take-out, and restaurants for nourishment. Phones rang constantly with kids either begging their moms to return home or ratting on what “dad” was doing wrong. One crying child called complaining that her dad was serving cereal for dinner.

Our first girlfriend weekend was five years ago and since that time, we have gotten together four times. Over the years, we have learned several lessons including the importance of renting a house. We all like to have our own beds although we haven’t been adverse to sharing a bedroom as 6-bedroom homes are sometimes difficult to find. Also, having a comfortable family room area is essential as we need a place to congregate, hang out, and talk.

As with any group, compromise is key to the weekend working. The best weekends we’ve had are those where we go with the flow. Some factors – location, price, activities, restaurants, transportation – are more important to some than others and we’ve tried to limit our alpha tendencies to keep harmony but some weekends have worked better than others. We strive to be team players and work together to choose the location and take care of the logistics –  the rental house, restaurants, activities to plan, sights to see, coordination of flights and rental cars, grocery shopping – and some years have been easier than others.

When we are together, we talk about a lot of topics besides husbands and children. One evening, someone wondered if we shortchanged the women’s movement and the business school we attended (Duke) by dropping out of the workforce with most – not all – answering “no” believing that our choices reflect our personal lives and a firm belief that we have only have one run on this earth; at the end of the day our commitment is to our family and not to an outside movement or university. We couldn’t do both career and family well and sometimes wondered if we’re even succeeding  at the family thing as most parents, if honest will admit it’s a daily call.  The generation before us certainly paved the way and we benefited but our hope is that our daughters have choices, flexibility and an easier time doing what’s best for them and their families.

A few months ago, Anne-Marie Slaughter, a tenured professor at Princeton University wrote an article for Atlantic Monthly entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” that broke every on-line readership record for the magazine: most readers, most Facebook likes, and most comments.  One of the most important points of the article is that women need flexibility to have a career and family so choose wisely when selecting a career tract. The author chose academia which allowed her (along with a very supportive and involved husband who chose the same career) to “have it all” although she didn’t make a conscious choice to go into this field.  Slaughter readily admits her choice was the best career path for someone who wants a career and time with family because of the great amount of flexibility a teaching post at a university provides. When I was young, I never thought about a career in terms of work life balance but I counsel my daughter to carefully consider what she wants now and in the future.

Another perspective on this issue is offered by Marie Myung-OK Lee who teaches at Columbia University and wrote “What My Son’s Disabilities Taught Me About ‘Having It All.‘ Instead of asking if we can have it all, Lee suggests we should ask “Do we have enough?” She makes a strong argument that all too often we get caught up in what we should be doing and what we should have instead of being grateful for what we have even with the difficulties.

Some of us are dealing with aging parents and role reversal where we are taking care of those who used to take care of us. Others are in the midst of the first days of kindergarten and the demands of primary school schedules and still others are facing the problems of adolescence. As we approach middle age, some of us are finding ourselves at an entirely different stage in life. An empty or near empty nest has left us feeling a bit astray. Our children are growing more independent, preparing for college and yet, we’re not old enough to retire. But, neither do we ever want to go back to the rigid requirements and time commitment that corporate life entails. Back then, our jobs were our lives and that was great for then but it’s not what most of us want going forward.  Some of our husbands are also going through their own career crisis wondering what opportunities are left out there. No one ever said life is easy so we tackle it one day at a time and sometimes one weekend at a time where we have the support and help of each other.

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