“Having it all” means different things to different people, and your own definition has likely changed over time. For Laurel Hermanson, it once meant being rich and famous, but today it means being able to work in bed in her underwear.
When I was a kid I watched the Merv Griffin Show every day. Glamorous celebrities graced the lush set at Caesar’s Palace. Presidents, musicians, actors, comedians, writers, athletes—all the most famous personalities of the ‘70s and ‘80s talked to Merv. I didn’t care much about politics or sports, but I was enthralled by the women. Sophia Loren, Zsa Zsa and Eva Gabor, Farrah Fawcett, Charo (remember her?), Whitney Houston, Brooke Shields.
Afterward, I went to my room and pretended I was sitting next to Merv, talking and laughing about my fabulous life as a famous person. I don’t recall what talent I believed would catapult me to superstardom. My dreams of being an Olympic gymnast were crushed when my coach looked at my budding breasts and shook his head. At 5’1” I had accepted that I would never be a model. I thought I might be able to act, but I never tried out for school plays. I could sing, sort of. I do remember what I dreamed of wearing on the show: Halston’s ‘70s silk evening gown with that dramatic, plunging V-neck. All the better to show off the boobs that scuttled my shot at Olympic greatness.
Just to be clear, I did not have a high opinion of my looks or talents. I was the smart kid, the shy kid, the invisible kid. But I convinced myself that if I did all the things I read about in magazines—Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, Glamour—I would undergo a magical metamorphosis once I got out of our rural town and into college. The future me was a completely different person, and that person was going to be somebody.
My vision of college life went something like this: I would go to classes and study hard all day. At night I would whip off my glasses, shake my hair free of its ponytail, put on a party dress, and go dancing. The dancing was important because I wanted to be super fit, and my packed academic and social lives wouldn’t include time for a traditional workout. And after college, I expected to have it all: fame, fortune, family, friends. Merv Griffin-caliber fabulousness.
I wanted to go to Berklee College of Music in Boston. My parents promptly put the kibosh on that, the smartest decision they ever made that I hated. My father insisted I go to business school, so I started telling all my friends that I would major in international business. I didn’t know what that meant—maybe I made it up or maybe I heard someone say it to Merv—but it sounded fancy and glamorous. I imagined myself in a power suit, jetting from Switzerland to Japan to Brazil closing multimillion-dollar business deals.
2. College and its aftermath (math!)
Once I settled in at Washington University in St. Louis’ John M. Olin School of Business, I did not go to classes and study all day, nor did I spend my evenings getting super fit on the dance floor. Freshman year I gained weight, started smoking, drank too much, slept around, and skipped classes. Sophomore year, I smoked a lot of weed and maintained my academic mediocrity. I was lost for two years, playing a game to which everyone but me seemed to know the rules. Little country fish in a big urban sea.
Even worse, it turned out I had no interest in business. My favorite classes were art history and anything involving reading or writing. I did OK in business classes that allowed me to memorize stuff and regurgitate it on exam day, but calculus and statistics broke my spirit. Maybe I killed too many brain cells, but business school was harder than I expected. Despite my 4.0 high school GPA and my grand ambitions, I wasn’t willing to work that hard at something I didn’t like.
I pulled it together junior and senior years and graduated with a decent GPA. I took a marketing job in the fine wine department of a liquor wholesaler while my classmates went on to become doctors and lawyers, commercial bankers and investment analysts. I was humbled. On a positive note, I got to eat and drink free of charge at all of St. Louis’ fanciest restaurants, organize high-profile wine tastings with suppliers from Italy or France, and enjoy the occasional limo ride. I sometimes felt like a big shot. A little big shot.
As a naïve kid, fantasies of having it all probably kept me from getting pregnant in high school. But for almost 10 years after college, I could no longer entertain those dreams without feeling like a failure.
It must be nice to have a career, a recognizable label to trot out when someone says, “So, what do you do?” Oh, I’m a cardiologist. I never had that. Instead, I had a series of unremarkable jobs with no deliberate or defined career trajectory. Marketing, accounting, software development. Somewhere along the way I forgot about becoming a somebody. At the time, even I didn’t know who I was, or how much I had.
There came a time when I once again dreamed of being somebody. I had married. My husband and I were financially comfortable. We had a lovely home and a fun social life that sometimes included…dancing! I was thirty-something and a bit of a babe. I was doing lucrative freelance work that I enjoyed. We were planning to start a family. We traveled. Wait a minute, did I have it all? Not yet, because there was no baby and I still wasn’t famous.
Back when I was a little big shot in the St. Louis wine business, I realized I couldn’t keep up with the big boys when it came to drinking. I was often late to work because of apocalyptic hangovers, and I didn’t see a future in that. I had a little sit-down with myself. Singing was a high school hobby that never would have made me a superstar. But after a good deal of drunken brain activity I remembered how I had often dreamed of being a writer. This didn’t come out of nowhere. When I said to my inebriated self, “I want to write,” it felt like a confession.
So when I had a lot—but not all!—I flashed back to that moment. I had been tinkering for years with an idea for a novel when I read that Jacquelyn Mitchard received a $500,000 advance for The Deep End of the Ocean. I read the book. I thought I could maybe write something that good.
I discovered writing a novel is hard and takes a really long time. I was in a hurry to make a name for myself, so I needed a quicker way to make my mark on the world. I had an idea for a screenplay that I was certain would sell. I wrote it quickly and confidently. Since I had connections in the movie business from one of my McJobs, I did none of the pesky legwork of looking for an agent. I went straight to producers, directors, even actors. I got lots of positive feedback (yay me!) but no takers.
I told someone that if my screenplay didn’t sell I would never write again. Of course I kept writing, because I needed to. I did end up writing that novel when my daughter was 2 and I was still working freelance. This time I did my homework, methodically searching for an agent, but after 60 or so rejections, I self-published. Readers loved it. Writers did not. Whatever. I wrote a novel.
I could argue that I had it all then. I was a wife and mother, working for pay, pursuing my passion, being fabulous, albeit beneath the public radar. The catch? I wasn’t happy.
After a divorce and a scary bout of downward mobility, I started a second novel. (Again, yay me!) Eventually I married a super cool dude whom I totally love, and I began writing and editing for paying clients. I write everything from personal essays to SEO web content for compounding pharmacies (penile injection therapy!). I’m doing all the things—working from home, setting my own hours, being with my family. And did I mention I get paid to do what I love?
For me, having it all right now means working in bed in my underwear on a hot summer day with the air conditioning blasting and my daughter lying next to me playing Minecraft on her iPad while my husband works downstairs. I’m not rich or famous and I probably never will be, but I consider each day a huge success if everyone I love is healthy and relatively happy.
Having it all means different things to different people at different times in their lives. My idea of success shifted over the years to reflect my changing priorities—and to accommodate reality. I will likely never grace the stage of a talk show in a vintage Halston dress, but if I do I will certainly mention how much I love going to work without wearing pants. (And RIP, Merv Griffin.)
Role/Reboot contributor Laurel Hermanson is a freelance writer and editor in Portland, OR. Her first novel, Soft Landing, was published in 2009. She is currently working on her second novel, Mommune. She blogs about almost everything at Grace Under Pressure. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.