My high school class celebrated its thirtieth reunion last week. I didn't go to the festivities at the school, but I attended a cocktail party at a private home, and I was delighted to see all my classmates. I went to an all-girls' independent school in Manhattan, so the gathering was exclusively female. There were forty-one of us in the graduating class, but we include in our reunions anyone who was a part of the class at any point, and that encompasses about fifty women in all.
I'm not going to lie and say that we were all the best of friends back then. We had our squabbles and our cliques and our difficulties, like any group of teenaged girls. What pleases me now is the sense I get that, having reached midlife, we are all friends. We're like sisters; we can criticize each other, but as against outsiders, we will defend each other to the death.
I arrived at the cocktail party drenched, as I had walked through Union Square in the rain without a coat or umbrella. (I haven't really matured that much in that regard since twelfth grade. I still do the quintessential New York squint-and-dash, which my mother used to call "dodging the raindrops.") I was greeted at the door by a classmate who quickly poured me a glass of wine. I looked around the room and was instantly calm; I knew exactly who everyone was. No one had changed so much that I didn't remember her, or didn't know her name. They were all there, these old friends, and they hugged me warmly, not caring about my frizzy hair and damp sweater.
Some of us are still married (or married again), and some are divorced. Many never married. The group included both mothers and women who never had children; among the mothers, some had college-aged children and some had children who are still quite young. In addition to having handled pretty complicated private lives, every single one of these women is professionally accomplished in some way. Artists, musicians, writers, doctors, executives, teachers, scientists - you name it, and there's one in the group. In chatting with them, though, I heard a recurring theme: in our mid-forties, we all feel like we are at a turning point, either personally or professionally, and we aren't sure about what comes next.
I had an English teacher in high school that I didn't like particularly at the time. She called me out once on writing a first draft of a paper about a book I hadn't read; my cocky sixteen-year-old self was supremely annoyed at her power of perception and her insistence on confronting me about it. (She ended up giving me an extra week to read the book and resubmit the paper, and she didn't penalize me. Having been found out was punishment enough, and I learned the lesson.)
That same teacher, in a conversation I had with her years later at a school-related event, listened to my tale about leaving the workforce to care for my small children, and my doubt as to whether I had done the right thing. She responded with something I would never forget.
Women, she told me, live their lives in cycles. We are designed that way. Everything about us follows a curving path: our bodies, our careers, our thoughts and perceptions. We start out in one direction, pursue it to a turning point, and then cycle back. When we cycle back, we sometimes think we have lost ground, but in fact we have covered more territory than our male counterparts, who tend to live their lives in a more linear fashion. To someone with less acute perception, we don't seem to be making forward progress, but later in our lives, having accomplished so much - relationships, families, careers, and other contributions to the world - we can be astounded at how far we have actually traveled.
At the reunion last week, I repeated this wisdom to one of my classmates, a beautiful woman in her mid-forties who, having given up a career as an accomplished and acclaimed musician to raise her sons, is now wondering what comes next. She e-mailed me the next morning to thank me. I know she can accomplish anything she wants to accomplish, whether that includes putting out another album, taking up some other form of art, or waiting until her young men are fully grown to begin cycling around again. Many paths are available to her, and the choice is exclusively hers.