Opting Out

I am the prototypical opt-out girl. With two graduate degrees, a handful of publications, and many assurances of some sort of pay-the-bills job in science or medicine, I waddled my 9-month-pregnant self right out of the workforce. The New York Times reminded me I’ve reached a decade of unemployment. And just as Brodie turns 10, Judith Warner revisited women, like me, who in the budding new millennium dropped careers in the name of Motherhood. With the luxury and support of their husband’s income, as well as a shared idea that this was the right choice for their diapered ones, these women might have blushed a bit about becoming June Cleaver… but it was with superior, Family First! aplomb. The article reveals that ten years hence, they want (need) to use their Ivy League brains for something more enjoyable (profitable) than manic volunteerism or soccer halftime snack planning.

In short (which the article is not), many of these women find themselves under-utilized, or unfulfilled, or divorced. Though not a single one of them regrets the opt-out decision, none mentioned the fate of the children they placed ahead of a paycheck. There was, however, a fair amount of bitching about the laundry. The article is well-balanced, and does feature stories of the genera of women I love interrogating over cocktails: the ones who have found a flexible career that celebrates their smarts without sacrificing “quality time”—whatever that entails for their family unit. These ladies often describe their new jobs as “falling into my lap…” which is how work feels when you don’t actually have to do it. These enviable women have the continued support of their husbands (in both a financial and a we’ll-outsource-the-laundry way) and happily traded their yoga pants for pencil skirts and are leading non-profit organizations and small businesses.

But there were more moms whose lives took another turn. As their kids reached less-likely-to-get-head-stuck-in-bannisters ages, they felt the need to redefine themselves as more than crust cutters. These same do-gooding mommies who devoted a decade to poo and Polly Pockets and Legos and laundry now find themselves unable to tackle all of that after an exhausting day in a pencil skirt. And because a woman who lands a demanding new job may occasionally want someone else to wipe the sticky counter, or an appointment to address her dark roots, the confused husband in the messy house sees it like this:

“Once she started to work, she started to place more value in herself, and because she put more value in herself, she put herself in front of a lot of things — family, and ultimately, her marriage.”

He sounds just like William H. Macy in Pleasantville: “… and there was NO DINNER!”

Honey... I'm HOME!

Honey… I’m HOME!

This quickly sums up why I found the entire article irritating and depressing. Though masked as The Plight of the Opt Out Mommy, the undercurrent through it all was The Erosion of Marriage as exhausted couples try to do their capital B best at everything, except being very nice to each other. Who would want to live in any proximity to a woman who doesn’t “put value in herself?” What a dick, right? Or, maybe just a sort of sad guy who got sidelined as Wife morphed into Mommy who then turned into Working Woman who isn’t getting the laundry done. (Maybe still a bit of a dick.) I’m stunned and sad. Also, smug and lucky.  I’m Smucky. After ten years, Bernie and I still have regular check ins: Do you care that I bring in not a single penny and yet stand here in Jimmy Choos? Do you want to stop stepping on Legos and finish a residency in critical care? The answers remain no, and no. And even as Bernie brings home the bacon, and I fry it up in a pan, we still keep tabs on The State of Us. Are you happy? Am I happy? Do we still like each other? Yes and yes and yes.

Annoying Smucky Girl might also be an anomaly among Opt Outs. I love the laundry. My favorite part of the day is when all of the beds are made and no one is hungry. I spend a ridiculous amount of time thinking about flowers. And when asked what I plan to do when the boys no longer require my immediate and unrelenting crust cutting services, I defer to my algorithm (which last night leaned heavily toward the >4 cocktails pathway). Opting out has never affected the value I put on myself because what I do will never be who I am. Also, even though I take pride in my folded fitted sheets and meal-making, these little boys benefit most from watching Bernie and me be nice to each other… which I hope would happen even if I decided to don a pencil skirt and bring home a paycheck.

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Cheaters

Maybe the other parents aren’t cheating. I suppose there is a possibility that a ten year old can score two birdies in nine holes. Maybe he had, like, a really good golf day. And maybe keeping score for your own three children who sweep the tournament isn’t at all suspicious or disheartening. Maybe your 8 to 12 year olds have been playing golf for an untold number of years, and a par three usually sinks in two shots. Maybe your kids are lithe, natural athlete types, innate competitors, and outstanding under pressure. (And maybe a bogey to these parents is like a report card “B” to a Taiwanese mom.) Maybe.

I was lucky to have Mr. Firefighter Dad walking the course with my boys and me.  Mr. Firefighter Dad wore the stereotypes as comfortably as his flip flops: manly, fit, strict but kind, competent, athletic, friendly. This is the Dad you want your kids to make eye contact with, shake hands, impress with the teeny man-in-training skills you hope they remember. Mr. Firefighter Dad and I watched our totally-not-sucking-at-golf boys hit a few over par but occasionally taking the maximum six swings as errant balls flew into gaping sand traps and ponds.

“Nice swing!”

“Hey, that one went straight down the fairway!”

“If you putt that one well, you have a chance at par!”

And also… a number of times…

“I’d rather you finish dead last than cheat.”

Mr. Firefighter Dad reminded his tiny son that the rules of golf etiquette were just as important as the game itself. We strolled the course together in perfect breezy sunshine, discouraging these polo-shirted boys against frustration, applauding each attempt, reassuring them that this sport is ridiculously difficult. How grateful we were for the day, for the luxury of time to walk a golf course on an afternoon with healthy, tanned kids. After the scorecards were signed, these boys removed their caps and shook hands. And then… there it was: the scoreboard.

A twelve-year-old boy wearing royal blue braces and look of disappointment and restrained tears told us he didn’t play well.

“Some of the holes were so fast, and some weren’t and I shot a 40.”

“That sounds good to me!”

“NO! It’s 13 over par.”

“But these are beginners. Half of the board will be 54s.”

“No… look!”

Royal Blue Braces was right. Not a single 54. Teddy came in ahead only of the small girl I had observed chipping in ten foot increments, and even her scorecard read 53. I wanted to shout, “It’s not fair” for Royal Blue Braces, and assure him that 40 is freaking awesome… and so was he for being honest.

We left the golf course before gigantic, shiny trophies were awarded to dubious “winners,” the director of Cape Cod Junior Golf muttering none too happily about needing to “check some scorecards.” But the results were posted today, with the unbelievable, unchanged, Rory McIlroy-in-2011 numbers. On the drive home we talked about all of the reasons the scores appeared athletically and mathematically improbable, that maybe some parents would rather fudge the numbers than risk no-trophy disappointment for their children, that maybe some people cheat all of the time even though it’s wrong… and that shooting a 40 in nine holes is freaking awesome.

Honestly adorable little golfers

Honestly adorable little golfers

Confessions of an Introvert, by Steve Safran

Steve, rather splendidly, invites you into the mind of the introvert.

Here’s what you might not know about introverts: we love to party. Man, we love a good party. Stock a room with a dozen friends, cold beer, cheese cubes and The Beatles, and we’ll have a blast.

But then we have to go. And man, do we have to go. It’s nothing personal. Introverts need to recharge.

And that is the best and most brief description of “introversion.” We’re not necessarily shy or aloof or jerks (although I’ve been called those.) Instead, we’re running our engines at a different RPM. We’re not anti-social. At least, I hope that any of my friends will tell you I more than occasionally RSVP, “oui” and leave the home. But after being social, what I need, desperately, is the opposite. My friends know this to be true: Steve needs recharging.

Here is what introverts are not:

1. Shy
2. Anti-social
3. Wallflowers
4. Hateful of large crowds
5. Unwilling to speak in public
6. Unhelpful
7. Self-centered
8. Scared to try new things
9. Lazy
10. Constantly on edge.

Here’s what introverts are:

1. Open to new ideas
2. Comfortable around friends
3. Often gifted public speakers
4. Sometimes stupid and thoughtless
5. Helpful, but needing a little reinforcement
6. In need of quiet time
7. People who get it the first time. Or don’t. But repeating won’t help.
8. Easily frustrated by people who assume them to be on the previous list
9. Loyal as all get out
10. Seriously, we’re not shy. But we like to observe.

In my days as a speaker on the topic of local television, I would often be invited to conventions or station group meetings. What I loved: doing my presentation. What I hated: the small talk before. The times I’d get in the night ahead of the talk and a group would gather were social torture for me. I’d feel obliged to chitchat, but was so awkward that I came across as aloof (possibly feeble-minded). “Who the hell is this guy? He can’t even talk while playing pool.” Give me an audience, however, and Awkward Guy disappears. It was, therefore, a great compliment when one of the station managers said to my boss “Steve comes across as this shy wallflower, but get him on stage and he’s a dynamo.” (His word.)

But when the talks were over, I’d need to go back to my hotel room. Need. Show me Vegas, and I’ll show you a guy happily entombed in room darkening drapery. Vegas is an introvert’s biggest challenge. It’s like our final exam.

The best of my friends are used to my unpredictable recharging requirements. I can’t say they love it, but they know it happens. The nights will come, and I simply can’t go out. I will happily host a small gathering, but a large room full of strangers with Solo cups is, unquestionably, my darkest hell. I don’t work rooms. They work me.

Which isn’t to say I can’t handle crowds. Take me out to the ballgame. Fenway Park is my second home. (It certainly costs a second mortgage.) It’s the context. If I’m at a function full of people I don’t know, I can be OK – and if I have a “party sherpa” who will stay with me, introduce me to people, and not leave me stranded with the closetalker, I may even enjoy this. But when I need to leave, I need to leave.

Introverts, therefore, present a conundrum to those who love them. How can someone who is so outgoing at times be so quiet? Why does he save his “Big Personality” for other people and not me? Isn’t it convenient to suddenly need to leave? The answer lies in what’s left in “the tank.” After about six or seven innings, a manager may ask a pitcher if he has anything left in the tank. If the answer is “no,” the pitcher is out – no matter how good a game he has been throwing.

Think of an introvert as a gas tank in a gigantic, earth-unfriendly SUV. We can be big and loud and charming right through the appetizers, but if used too fast, we’re going to need to fill up again. And we intend to do that. After a nap. Trying to keep us going on “empty” will be as difficult as trying to push the Land Rover to Citgo.

(Extroverts, I’ve noticed, don’t run dry. They have a tanker on standby ready to refill them in midair with high-octane jet fuel, Red Bull, another witty anecdote, and a “funny dream” to share.)

I can see why anyone involved with an introvert would find it challenging. I’m here to tell you: we’re worth it. We’re sensitive – and we’re wicked empathic. We feel. We feel like crazy. We feel our feelings and we feel yours, too. We’re friggin’ feeling machines. This isn’t plain old sympathy – “Oh, Kimmy… that’s so sad your Aunt Esther died.” It’s being sad, right there with you, going to your aunt’s funeral: “I can’t believe Aunt Esther died!” I’ll lament. People will console me.

There’s something about “coming out” as an introvert that surprises people about me. It’s right up there with telling folks I have depression. My personality type is not what people expect, and once, rather unkindly was characterized as a passive means of garnering attention: “You just want someone to sit there and hold your hand.”

But that’s exactly it. That’s how you deal with an introvert. No solutions, no cheap sentiment or chipper clichés. You hold their hand, find their coat in the pile on the bed, and then the door. Maybe you even draw them a bath, pull the shades, and leave them be. The down time passes. The battery recharges. The tank refills. And now we’re able to be your dynamo.

Time to go home.

Time to go home.