Nourishment and obstruction. This was a paradox that I’d have to explore after I left the safe confines of Carol’s periwinkle office.
Every Thursday afternoon for nearly four years when I was in my mid-twenties, I met with a therapist in downtown Seattle. Her office was in an anonymous high-rise just north of Pike Place Market, a building I never even would have noticed if it weren’t for our meetings. There was a doorman and a large arrangement of fresh flowers in the lobby. Her office looked out onto Puget Sound. Many days it was a wall of slate gray sliced through with rain. The walls were painted a muted periwinkle and the matching sofas were taupe with periwinkle piping. The books on the shelves had academic pedigree. The art on the walls were professionally framed.
The office looked the way I was trying to make my life look—an orderly array of well-appointed items in a complementary color scheme.
I had left a graduate program in English a few years before and was drifting between temp jobs and restaurant work. It wasn’t how I’d envisioned myself “ending up.” At 25, I thought I was supposed to be somewhere – that I should have reached a destination. I didn’t realize that in many ways I was still so near the beginning. Nor did it occur to me until Carol, my therapist, brought it up, that I could look at life in a more circular way.
“You’re being very linear,” she said, in her prim gray skirt and neatly pressed blouse. “As though you start here and end up here.” She made a motion in the air with her index fingers drawing a diagonal line between two points.
Well isn’t that how it works? I longed to say that—it was my first and strongest reaction. But as is so often the case with therapy, part of me was thrown off her guard and was busy considering this new perspective. I knew immediately that there was something very true in Carol’s suggestion; life could ebb and flow, it could gyrate, it could serpentine. It didn’t have to look like the line graph of sales for a bestseller or a smash-hit movie. Nor, most likely, would it.
Two questions that were omnipresent during my Thursdays with Carol were whether I should have kids and what I should be. To both questions I was resoundingly unsure. And very uncomfortable with that uncertainty.
Whether I could have children and a career – some kind of career – wasn’t something I doubted. This strikes me as charmingly absurd and naive now. It was the early- to mid-90s. We were all under the collective delusion that we could have it all – and would. We’d had Geraldine Ferraro and we were about to have Martha Stewart. None of us had really awakened to the fact that “having it all” was not possible. Not in the way we were then conceiving it, at least. The motherhood versus work equation turned out to be much more complex than a set of labor laws.
But in my mid-twenties, I was grappling less with the theoretical aspects of work/life than with the personal yearnings. Did I want to be a mother? How did I want to spend my days?
Flash forward a few years and I found myself writing at Microsoft. Some of this was on the clock, but the writing that was stirring me was done whenever the company’s computer system would collapse – which happened frequently. I often needed to fill a half hour or even an entire afternoon, which is when I started writing essays. Although I got them published, it didn’t readily occur to me that I could be a writer.
Still, the experience of being published ignited something in me. It provided clarity that joining Bill Gate’s army was not what I wanted. Rather, I could glimpse a future that allowed for more freedom than my tiny office shared with a co-worker could ever give me. I could see the sliver of a future filled with more colors than teal and grey—Microsoft’s company palette that colored everything from screensavers to the trays in the cafeterias.
In an exercise with Carol, I imagined my perfect workplace. There were creative projects at hand – not entirely unlike the project-driven work I was doing at Microsoft. There were spirited co-workers who were well read and enjoyed interesting, diverse music – again, not unlike my co-workers at Microsoft. But there was a slamming screened door, a dog, chocolate and tea in a well-stocked pantry, and – most intriguingly – children who stopped by after school to share cookies and talk about the details of their day before leaving us to our project.
I was beginning to look toward a future that encompassed motherhood and creativity. It was a sunny, happy place – as all ideal worlds are. What I had yet to explore were the ways in which these two emerging parts of me, The Maternal and The Artist, would feed one another while also hampering one another. Nourishment and obstruction. This was a paradox that I’d have to explore after I left the safe confines of Carol’s periwinkle office. This was a paradox best explored, albeit painfully, with a baby in one hand and a manuscript under deadline in the other. It was a paradox that would soon be mine.