December 20, 2005 | I used to be highly ambitious in the traditional sense of the word. When I began working for the Los Angeles Times after graduate school, I looked at the top female editors with respect, admiration and longing. Someday, I thought, I will reach that level of power and expertise. I'll make big decisions, and important people will come to me for my opinion.

Well, important people do come to me for my opinion, although they're under four feet tall, and I make decisions every day that affect the health and well-being of these same little people. I guess you could say my priorities—and indeed my definition of self—has changed dramatically since those days at the newspaper.I now look back on those women in power suits with huge offices and wonder what made them seem so special. My full-time job now, one I could never have imagined I would value or even much want, is as a mother and wife. It's the most rewarding job I've ever had, and the most challenging, though I don't have a byline or the prestige that goes along with it.

I still work as a writer and I enjoy it—but it is no longer an indicator of my self-worth. And I still often find it easier to work on a story than to engage in the dynamics of my family—a screaming baby or my three and five-year-olds fighting over puzzle pieces. I was well-prepared for a career as a journalist, but I was sadly ill-prepared for a career as a strong, solid woman, with all the gifts and capacities that that word once implied. The character traits I should have been cultivating were neglected in favor of ever-stronger intellectual skills, and as a result I've spent the past few years playing catch-up.

While there is value in higher education, it doesn't teach the most important life tools—how to be a nurturing, kind, patient individual. It doesn't teach you how to be a mensch when you're sleep deprived or running a fever. It doesn't teach you how to be loving or lovable. These days, my ambitions are to acquire and internalize these qualities, and to strengthen myself as a woman, internally—not vis-a-vis what I look like through the eyes of a man, or how "successful" I am by society's standards. And the more I cultivate these inner qualities, the deeper and richer my life and my relationships become.

In addition to my ambitions as journalist, I had spent years striving for the perfect body, the perfect clothes, the perfect apartment—in short, all the external trappings of what I thought would make me look and feel good about myself. Needless to say, none of it ever worked for long. I still enjoy intellectual conversations; I stay in shape and I appreciate nice clothes, good food and beautiful things. But I no longer confuse my essence with my looks or my accomplishments. I think of my sense of selfhood as resembling a circle—the essence, which is at the center, and the other facets of who I am moving toward the periphery. I attach value in ascending order, moving toward this center—and those aspects of my life that are closest to the core are my priorities.

I have found that the private moments are truly the most significant, and self-actualization has not much to do with a successful career or other talents, but with how much of my self is present and available for those in my life. And to me. This internality is the essence of what a woman is—though our masculinized culture has convinced us that only publicly recognized work and a publicly-seen body is of value.

When I smile at my three-month-old and she smiles back; when I nurse my three-year-old through an ear infection; when I speak to my husband softly and gently even though I'm annoyed and want to snap at him; these are the moments that mark me as a success. You'll never read about these accomplishments or see them on television. But the truth is, controlling my temper and smiling when I want to sulk is far more difficult than writing a story on deadline or satisfying a demanding editor. And watching my children jumping through piles of leaves, giggling with joy, or laughing and talking with my husband is far more life-affirming than interviewing an attitudinal celebrity or seeing my name on the cover of a magazine. Less glamorous, for sure, but at the end of the day, where will all those newspapers and magazines be? Wrapping fish.

Andrea Kahn lives in New York with her husband and children.




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