The “save the Date” postcard for my 15th Barnard Reunion startled me last June. Fifteen years?! Soon a letter arrived asking for nominations from our class for various awards—professional achievement, academic excellence, feminism... I laughed when I read it—a laugh embodying both humor and humility, with me standing at the kitchen counter waiting for pasta water to boil, and my kids, then 3 and 6, sitting at the table munching carrots. Although I wouldn’t—couldn’t— nominate myself, no one else could either. With the letter’s innocent request to celebrate my classmates, I would acknowledge my utter lack of professional accomplishment since graduation.
I didn’t plan it. From 1994 until 1998, I was immersed in the working world: My first job out of Barnard was at a nonprofit cultural center, with amazing people and a steep learning curve; the second was copy editor of a national magazine, my “break” into publishing. But I was miserable there, and 18 months later, four years into my working life, I left to work part time at two more magazines and to freelance as a copy editor. My quiet desire to edit more substantively and write did not compete with the fact that copyediting was paying my bills and I was enjoying the freelancer’s lifestyle. And my personal life was thriving.
In these same years, I fell in love, adopted a dog, and co-signed a mortgage. In 1999, my future husband and I sublet our apartment and took a detour from our working lives for six months to drive across the country with our dog. We married the following year. (Indeed, I fulfilled the women’s-school joke of yore: I got my MRS, marrying a man with those very initials.)
In 2002, I had my first child. Still freelancing, I had an easy segue into stay-at- home motherhood. My second child was born in 2005. I have continued to freelance, just enough, I often joke, to keep my brain from complete atrophy.
Professional achievement? Does copyediting a college course catalogue during my kids’ naptimes count? Academic excellence? My avid listening of NPR in the car does not apply. Feminism? I’ve got that one covered. My husband did 50 percent of the diaper changes and does 90 percent of the dishes. (Some MRS!)
Still, this Barnard grad has no choice but to acknowledge that, professionally speaking, the last 15 years have yielded nothing notable. Through the prism presented by last year’s milestone reunion, I see where those years have gone and the realization is not a self-deprecating one. I am okay with it. For now.
Before I had children, I read in the pages of this magazine an article about women who take a number of years out of the workforce to raise their kids to school age and then return, even a decade later. “Sequencing” (Fall 1999), it was called. This word appears during my inner dialogue, and I have always appreciated, sometimes clung to the concept, that what I am doing has been given a name. I am in the throes of completing an eight-year sequence. As I see it, professional achievement is still out there, waiting for me, mine if I want it.
One of the earliest things I remember learning about my mother was that she was one of five women in her medical school class of 1968. Her parents had wanted her to be a teacher, and she hid her plans from them until she received her acceptance letter, scholarships, and was as good as on her way. She had wanted to become a surgeon, but was discouraged, and instead chose psychiatry. She still tells us, wistfully, about her impeccable sutures, a skill that went unrealized but for her gender. Growing up, I had no notion of what I could or could not do based on gender. Accomplishment was simply up to me, not as a girl, not as a woman, but as a student, a person, a member of society. To this, my four years at Barnard added constant reinforcement. Such an ingrained understanding has allowed me the freedom to be comfortable in my choice of focus these past years, as I have never believed anything but my own ambition is required to pursue my professional aspirations when the time is right.
A college, understandably, celebrates its most successful graduates, those who are recognized for professional achievement, academic excellence, and more. I write this piece simply as a gentle lifting of the hat to the rest of us, in the midst of professional and personal lives, just perhaps less print-worthy and with quieter purpose.
Next fall my youngest child will begin kindergarten and I will begin a new sequence, one rippling with possibility and expectation. I am approaching 40, not 25, yet I feel very much as I did at graduation 15 years ago. I now have a family, a dog, a house, but certain questions are the same. What will I do? Who will I be? My mind is gleefully awhirl.
-by Jessica Stolzberg '94, illustration by Peter Arkle