Tuesday, November 24, 2015

"A Window Opens": Family and Career Turmoil

I always believed I would be a high powered executive somewhere.  Then, during my senior year of college I took an internship in Public Relations and realized that the cube-ville universe was not for me.  I can't stand talking on the phone, and I've never fallen in love with fast paced, stressful environments.

After having my first baby, I struggled with the decision about going back to work.  I was lucky I could make the decision as many moms don't have a choice.  I chose to go back to work as a full time high school English teacher.  When I got pregnant again, I wanted to choose to stay home, but due to finances and timing, I had to go back to work to help support our family.

And now that my girls are both in elementary school, my husband has a job that allowed me to make the choice to work from home on our independent business, to book blog and to teach yoga classes.  For the first time in my life, I feel balanced in both my professional and private lives.  I have time to be intellectual, time to enjoy being a mom without the pressure of work stress all the time, and time for myself.

It's a delicate balance, but a good one.  For now.

If anything, Elisabeth Egan's debut novel 'A Window Opens' teaches that life can change unexpectedly especially when you are comfortable in your daily existence.  The story centers around Alice Pearse, the books editor for 'You' magazine who loves the balance in her life.  Eagan took the inspiration from her own job as books editor for 'Glamour' magazine. In the book, Alice works three days a week, has time for "momversations" with the neighbors and school moms, has time to spend with her kids and her husband who she adores, and has time to go to spin class.  Even her suburban New Jersey neighborhood seems ideal.  Admittedly, she chose it for the proximity to the train and the adorable independent book store called Blue Owl.

When Alice's husband comes home and tells her he angrily quit his job at a prominent law firm because he was passed over for partner and that he has decided that he wants to go into business for herself, they both decide that she will need to go back to work full time to support the family.  Alice lands what she believes to be her dream job at a new Starbucks meets Barnes and Noble meets Google retail book experience called Scroll.  At Scroll parents can spread out on chaise lounges and browse ebooks and purchase first editions while enjoying organic coffee and gluten free snacks.

But not all is picture perfect or balanced.  Alice quickly becomes sucked into her demanding job where things are never what she thinks they should be, her husband unravels into depression and drinking, her father's health declines, and her kids are changing faster than she can keep up.

I loved this book at first.  I related to the balanced life that Alice lived, but once things started to unravel for her, I didn't feel that same kinship, and I started to feel very little at all towards her.  The problem with Alice is that she wasn't a very vibrant character.  Even more, it was hard to picture her or her husband, Nick or any of her children even though she throws around suburban mom brands and details like they are going out of style.

The unrest in Alice's life stressed me out and although I was stressed, it was hard to tell if Alice was stressed.  The most touching moments were the scenes with Alice's dad whose throat cancer returns, and with her children and their babysitter, Jessie.  The scenes with Alice and her husband always fell flat for me.  I didn't sympathize with either of them.  They fought a bunch.  They stressed each other out a bunch, but they chose to resolve very little together. Maybe it isn't my place to judge someone else's messy life and say how they can handle it, but when their kitchen designer says, "You know, Alice, this is one of the ten happiest homes I've worked in." I couldn't help but echo Alice's response, "Really?" How could a house torn apart by a dad who drinks too much, a mom who works too much, a death, the departure of a beloved babysitter, and marital stress be that happy? The rest of the book didn't really support that notion, so to see it at the end made me sad for the modern family.  Are we all so stressed out and time obsessed that the definition of "happy family" has changed?

After saying all that, I must admit that I still enjoyed reading this book.  Is that weird that I didn't love the main character, but I still enjoyed reading the book? I loved Egan's detail driven style.  I loved that I could see pieces of myself in the narrative - a mom who loves books and her daily conflicts with family, technology, workplace rules and protocol, mean bosses, and the push pull of old school vs. new school.  Even if Alice came across as bland, there is plenty to like about this novel.

Alice, like many of us, didn't have all the answers and she had to go back into the work force to see that providing for the family doesn't mean compromising who you are.

I know I certainly don't have all the answers.  I think women who want to work full time should work full time.  I think that women who want to stay home should stay home.  I think that women who want a little bit of both should have a little bit of both.  I think even more that it would be great if everyone had the opportunity to make those choices, but the reality is that not all women are so lucky.

For now, I will enjoy my balanced life knowing that it may not last forever.

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