Helping My Child Find His Passion. But First We Need To Find His Shoes.

Scan 3I am the parent of three still developing, learning and maturing young people. Certain requirements of the job have been universally recognized and accepted for decades. Probably centuries. I feel duty bound to be responsible for my children’s food, shelter, physical safety, education and even emotional health. Granted, I am fortunate that I can deliver these essentials when many parents struggle to provide one or more of these basic rights.

But with the essentials checked off, there is another round of more elusive and abstract responsibilities. Chief among them today seems to be helping your child find a purpose and a passion. Such talk and expectations sound grand and admirable when I let them simply wash over me (along with the intricacies of climate change and Syria). But when I actually think about the work involved and the expectation that I need to help my child find his passion, I feel my throat constrict.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a college counseling presentation for my 17 year old. Yes, I had gone out for a drink beforehand in preparation. The counselor – who is very good at his job – tried to calm the roomful of anxious parents by saying that a student need not be president of every club or start his own soup kitchen to get into college. It was more basic than that, he assured us, “Colleges just want to see that he has a passion.” And he got breathy and excitable like people do when they intone the word “passion.”

Passion is the buzzword of the day. The call for passion is everywhere. Magazine covers promise to help readers “find your passion” or “follow your passion” and for those who’ve lost their way “rekindle your passion.” Passion is a particular favorite of the TED Talks circuit, with nearly 45% of the available videos addressing it. Passion is, of course, the subject of hundreds of books and countless blogs. Though not this one.

In fact, I fear that “passion” is tossed around with cavalier frequency and potentially dangerous consequences these days. And I’m a stickler for proper word usage (and spelling). First and foremost, passion is defined as a powerful emotion. It is not until the fourth definition (or fifth or seventh, depending on your preferred source) that passion is used to mean “a strong liking or devotion” to some activity, object or concept. And the examples given? A passion for chess. A passion for opera.

But a passion is not a commodity to be plucked off a shelf. It is a mysterious result of interest, experience, enthusiasm, perseverance, success, failure and access. For Angela Duckworth, author of the bestseller Grit : The Power of Passion and Perseverance, passion is “that thing that takes you some time to build, tinker with and finally get right, and that then guides you on your long and winding road to where, ultimately you want to be. “

Some people – maybe most – never truly develop a passion in that sense of a driving devotion to something. And that’s okay. That kind of all encompassing fervor and commitment that college counselors, advice columnists and TED talks seem to be calling for is a big ask. It can be lonely, involve significant sacrifices and years of fitfully rewarding work.

During college in the 1980s, Tesla founder Elon Musk once said to a pretty girl at a party, “I think a lot about electric cars. Do you think about electric cars?” And that is a pickup line when you have a passion.

But headlines like “Learning to Love Ramen Noodles While your Passion Keeps You From Cooking or Making Money” do not sell magazines. Three minute quizzes on finding your passion do. Give it a try:

  • What would you do if money didn’t matter?
  • What do you stay up late at night doing?
  • What gets you out of bed in the morning?
  • Where does your spending money go?
  • What do you talk about most with your friends?

If you gave this quiz to a 17-year-old boy, these are the answers you would get:

  • Play FIFA.
  • Play FIFA.
  • My mom.
  • Chipotle.
  • Playing FIFA and going to Chipotle.

Sure, I could hope for more, but we can’t have it both ways. If we want a passion to be truly deep, abiding and rare, then we should stop expecting every teenager (and adult) to have one. Honors Biology is hard enough. Knowing your guiding purpose in life as a junior in high school might be too much.

And this is where I think the passion for passion is dangerous. The message our kids (and we) are getting is that everyone should have a passion that gives you purpose. The unintended corollary message is that if you don’t have a passion, you don’t have purpose. And I think that’s unfair. To both children and adults. People work really hard at the responsibilities in front of them. Every day. By saying yes to those responsibilities and following through on commitments, those “every days” add up to years. And just maybe, a passion. Maybe at the end, maybe in the middle. But definitely not at the beginning.

RegattaTwo 98The obsession with finding that one “true north” interest obscures the possibility of a series of changing passions. It also doesn’t accommodate the years that are required for a passion to germinate and bloom. And it misleads people into thinking that declaring a passion is necessary for professional or personal happiness.

This all out call for higher purpose passion drowns out the quieter, admirable path of the millions of people working in fulfilling careers and leading meaningful lives. Sure, the answer to the passion quiz question “What gets your blood boiling?” should probably not be “pharmaceutical marketing.” But maybe the answer should be that we stop expecting our work time, play time and family time to orbit around a single profound interest.

Wary that I might just be letting myself off the hook on behalf of my teenager (with no guiding passion as of yet), I decided to test a visceral childhood passion – to see if it met the high standards we expect of teenage and adult passions today. Maybe your child’s passion was dinosaurs, or horses, or Dora the Explorer. For my oldest, it was firetrucks, firemen, fire equipment and all things Kevlar. For a child, a passion means literally wearing it on your sleeve. Firetruck shirts, pajamas, backpacks, FDNY hats, firefighter raincoats (disappointingly, not Kevlar) and slippers. There is equipment to memorize, jigsaw puzzles to do, action toys to play with and books to read and carry around.

And sure, adults might conspiratorially ask a seven year old, “Do you want be a fireman when you grow up?” But no one asks a child, “What does your firefighter passion look like ten years from now?” “How will you translate your passion into action?”

Yet, it’s perfectly normal to ask a seventeen year old, “How are you using your passion to affect change in your community?”

I’m not sure what is supposed to have transpired between the ages of seven and seventeen that make that question seem routine, but it didn’t happen in my house. As Duckworth points out, in the early stages of trying different pursuits, our interests “are fragile, vaguely defined, and in need of energetic, years-long cultivation and refinement.” These nascent potential passions are not exactly something you want to offer up to an adult, who’s actual function is to tell you how other people will judge you.

But the message being delivered today is, “find a passion, and get into college.” And the next episode in that self-help podcast is, ”do what you love, and the money will follow.” I actually believe in neither of these mantras. Although I am a supporter of their distant cousin, “have some real interests and learn how to do hard things, or no one will want to spend time with you and no one will hire you.” Tough love is kind of my jam.

So in my house, there’s not a lot of waiting around for passion to strike. There’s frankly not a lot of time in the day for it either. But, I do feel it is my responsibility to expose my kids to a variety of pursuits and intellectual interests beyond what the school day requires. In addition to your job or your schoolwork and your sport, everyone needs an interest or a hobby. At this stage, I don’t expect the full body and mind commitment that a true passion might earn later. But you should always be pursuing and working on an interest of your choosing. Some pursuits will be short term, but if you’re lucky there will be one or two hobbies that are wonderfully fulfilling and enduring interests. And as your parent, I can start you on the process – but it will become a well-worn path under your feet, not mine.

And speaking of those feet, we’re still looking for those shoes, seriously. They’re yellow and black soccer cleats. Barely worn. If you find them, let me know.

Leaning Out

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Sure, there’s “getting the band back together.” This is “getting the blog back together.”

It’s been five years since my last post, and a few things have changed since then. I stopped writing for newspapers and joined an investment firm where I wrote about the stock market, software companies, the price of oil and Netflix and Amazon taking over the world.

Inexplicably, my boys have gotten bigger and older while I have not. My team at home has faced and survived many of the requisite milestones that would have provided ample fodder for Sylvia pieces. I’m not sure if writing about them would have made the experiences easier or more painful. We’ve passed the driver’s test. Twice. Though we failed the permit test. Twice. (It will be Thing Three’s greatest accomplishment to best his brothers in this regard. I’ll keep you updated.) There’s been the first speeding ticket, the first accident (the guardrail jumped out of nowhere), and even a night in the ER.

We’ve shepherded one child through the college application process. And I’m not looking forward to doing that two more times. We’ve watched our boys experience significant successes and visceral disappointments. They continue to make me smile and laugh and accept that my job is far from over. Thing Two recently told me he’d like to study astrobiology. Given the career applicability of pondering life on other planets, I’m thinking I could be at this parenting gig for a while.

So, as I resume writing professionally, I wanted to resurrect my blog as a repository for my writing, published or not. Because, apparently despite all of the management books that top the bestseller lists, no editor is interested in a screed titled The Four Hour Parent. So, to the blog I go.

As former readers will notice and new readers are now informed, the blog has changed. Originally, I wrote Playgroup With Sylvia Plath. But that was five years ago, which is forever on the internet. For the first few years, I would renew my domain name when GoDaddy sent me reminders. But then, at some point it felt like I was holding on to the prom dress from 1988. It was velvet, crewneck and long sleeved. Trust me, no high school girl is hoping to borrow that today. Have you looked at Instagram lately?

So, like the dress, I let playgroupwithsylviaplath.com lapse. I don’t know when, and I don’t know how, but like everything else on the internet, it was subsumed by a porn site. I kid you not. Seriously, there is no need for you to check. Unless you, also, want to hear one of your children say, “Whoa, mom!”

There are over one billion websites on the internet today. There were three named for the tragic American poet. One is written by her biographer, one is maintained in Germany, and the other is now a porn site. By some estimates, more than 25% of all internet searches are porn related. This is further broken down by most popular type. One of the biggest? Step mom porn. There is no category for literary figure or poetess porn.

As a trained reporter (actually covering the internet!), I did some investigating. It should come as no surprise that there are computer programs that buy domain names as soon as they expire. These names then redirect a user to an ultimate aggregator site. In this case (and probably most cases), porn. Apparently, I had the option of hiring a “domain broker” or bidding through a “domain agent” to get my name back. But let’s be honest, in me v. internet porn, where’s your money?

So it was time for a fresh start. I explained my dilemma to a few people and asked for help. After they stopped laughing, they offered up Sylvia’s Oven, Beyond Playgroup and Family Photos With Diane Arbus. (Let it be noted that the troubled photographer is known for works such as Child With Toy Hand Grenade In Central Park.) My youngest suggested “My Domain Was Taken Over By A Porn Site.” But I wanted to keep Sylvia. Over the years of writing the blog I felt I owed it to her and all the other women who are not trying to do it all. But women who are trying to do most of what is important to them and trying to know that it is enough. And then it hit me, Leaning Out With Sylvia Plath.

When Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In came out, a friend (who leans in and kills it) gave me a copy. I loved it. In it, the COO of Facebook details some of the factors that account for the leadership gap between men and women in so many organizations. She sums it up in the intro, “We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.”

Having decided on my new title, I went looking for my copy of Lean In. There are a lot of bookshelves in my house. Every year or so, I’ll do my best Mari Kondo and sort, discard and rearrange books by topic and strive to experience that life-changing magic of tidying up. But in the interim, books get stashed and squeezed in wherever I can make space. My copy of Lean In was wedged between a business book called The Hard Thing About Hard Things and four Sylvia Plath books. It was karmic awesomeness.

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(Please note in the photo of my bookshelf that my copy of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (which I read in college and adored, thinking it was a history book and would not apply to me) rests firmly on top of my boy’s high school English copy of Macbeth. Of course, Lady Macbeth is said to be Shakespeare’s most frightening female character. Critics say the play implies that women “can be as ambitious and cruel as men, yet social constraints deny them the means to pursue these ambitions on their own.” The play was written in 1606. Karmic awesomeness indeed.)

I reread Lean In during one sitting. It is still funny and honest. Sure, she has advised the U.S. Treasury Secretary and graduated summa cum laude from Harvard, but that’s not what gives her clout with her readers. It’s the very first paragraph that does it: “By my first trimester, Google had grown into a company of thousands…I gained almost seventy pounds, and my feet swelled two entire shoe sizes…” This is a teller of truths.

Her authority flags a bit midway when she writes about traveling to a business conference with her children on the eBay plane with the CEO and other executives. Just after take off, her daughter begins scratching. “Mommy, my head itches!” Brilliant. Billionaires get lice too. But then she stumbles. “We grabbed the shampoo that I needed to treat her…and spent the night in a marathon hair-washing session.” When it comes to lice, you’ve really got to lean in. Shampoo won’t do it. It takes picks, tweezers, a flashlight, multiple hands and all 121 minutes of Star Wars and half of The Empire Strikes Back.

But really, I highly recommend the book. Granted, she writes mostly for women who are in or have yet to begin their careers. I left mine years ago and I wouldn’t want to have to explain myself to Sheryl Sandberg. But on the very last page of her book, she let’s me know I wouldn’t have to. In thanking her key researcher, she concludes, “When my offer came, she had her own book to write and a second baby with food allergies who was not sleeping well.”

Those ten words in the acknowledgements section of a business management book had me in tears. Last page of Love Story sobbing tears. I think that despite the speeches, the Lean In Circles and the calls to action, she gets it. Sometimes women or couples or families don’t have the means, the flexibility, the desire or the emotional capacity to lean in.

When I tried the new blog title out on Slim, he texted back, “I get the reference, but how is Leaning Out different from Leaning In? Is it a message or just a play on words?” Hmm. Was Sylvia’s exit a message or was she just changing the light bulb in her oven? I texted back, “Leaning In is staying in the workforce and pushing harder to compete. Leaning Out is saying, F*#% it, I’m doing it my way.”

So I guess Leaning Out With Sylvia Plath is just my way of leaning in.

The Red Carpet

(Originally published February 24, 2012 at playgroupwithsylviaplath.com)
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I did it. I saw all nine of the movies nominated for Best Picture before this weekend’s Academy Awards. The last time I completed the feat was the year I had my first child. There were only five nominees and the statuette went to Titanic. Since then, the nominees have been upped to as many as ten, which let’s face it, is enough to drown in – even if Leonardo DiCaprio is holding your hand.

But I love the movies. Always have. I remember one of my best days as an investment banker in Manhattan was playing hooky to see a matinee with a colleague. (Of course that act of defiance was weakened when we found ourselves still at the office at 2 am). And Slim and I were at The English Patient with friends the night I went into labor with our first. Yes, we stayed for the whole thing and we had popcorn.

Two hours of entertainment and escapism for an afternoon or evening can’t be beat. (Or morning as the case may be – just ask my kids, whom I made see the 10 am showing of War Horse on Presidents’ Day.) But movies can be so much more – at their best, they help us make sense of the times in which we live.

This year’s films and their directors and writers say all kinds of things about the world around us. And now it’s my turn to say just a few things about them.

First, if the best picture nominees are any indication, it was not a good year for fathers and fatherhood in the movies. The Artist, Midnight in Paris and The Help can all pass go. But the others, sheesh.

The Descendants opens with George Clooney explaining that he is “the back-up parent” and that he knows very little about his own children or how to parent. Even as an absentee father, I wasn’t buying George Clooney as dad. But the casting of the history and scenery of Hawaii as a supporting actor in the film made up for his weakness.

Admittedly, I was also distracted for much of the movie thinking of the poor actress who must have gotten the “good news-bad news” call from her agent. “Good news, you are playing the part of George Clooney’s wife. Bad news, you’re in a coma for the entire movie. Oh yeah, and you cheated on him.”

Which takes us to Brad Pitt as father – in two of the best picture contenders. Being a father of six himself, no doubt makes him more believable in the role. And being a father of six himself, makes it believable that he would want to do as many films as he could in a given year!

In Moneyball, the storyline of Pitt as divorced dad trying to stay close to his daughter is really just a vehicle to get two of the only three female characters into a (great) movie about baseball statistics and objective and subjective value. The relationship also provides one of the best songs to come out of the movies this year. (With only two pieces competing for Best Original Song – from The Muppets and the animated Rio, at that – how can The Show by Lenka not have gotten a nod?)

Pitt’s role as father in The Tree of Life is far more demanding and complicated. He himself explained the part in an interview, “In the film…the mother represents grace and love, and the father represents nature – but nature as that oppressive force that will choke another plant out for its own survival.”

Which explains why nearly half the movie feels like an IMAX special about the creation of the universe, nature’s destruction and the origin of dinosaurs. Consider yourself warned. The movie does have a gorgeous soundtrack, as Pitt’s troubled character gave up his dream of being a classical pianist to become an engineer. (Like that’s not gonna come back and bite you when you’re dreaming of a future for your own children.)

I saw Hugo and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close back to back. The first is a visually delectable Brothers Grimm kind of fairytale about an orphaned boy looking for a key that he’s sure will unlock a message from his father who was killed in a fire. The latter is a visual and emotional scavenger hunt through New York City about a boy with a key that he’s sure will unlock a message from his father who was killed in 9/11.

Somebody, please, get these boys together!

I went to both movies reluctantly and they were my surprise favorites of the season. I don’t do kids movies that aren’t really for kids and I don’t do 9/11. My assumptions were wrong on both counts.

Much of the criticism of Extremely Loud has centered on the movie’s post 9/11 setting. It has been dubbed “Extremely, incredibly exploitative.” It’s unfortunate, because you don’t need 9/11 for a story about fear, courage, family, hope, healing, forgiveness and resilience. By all means go, but plan on a nap and a day or two to recover.

Hugo director Martin Scorsese said that he agreed to adapt the novel-meets-picture book when his wife asked him to make something their young daughter could watch. (It must be completely normal in Hollywood to be 69, married five times and have a 12-year-old.) He succeeded and then some – and he just may be thanking his wife and daughter Sunday night.

Steven Spielberg’s War Horse went the other direction. He adapted a children’s novel into a graphic World War I epic that should be subtitled, “Saving Joey The Horse.” The fact that the movie was released over Christmas, previewed with family movies, and marketed as “a boy and his horse” story perhaps contributed to my confusion thinking it was a kids movie.

During the movie, my own kids kept asking what time it was (never a good sign). And when it was finally over, Thing Two actually said, “I liked Saving Private Ryan better.” Of course, the sub plot is an alcoholic father who doesn’t have the courage to be a father to his son.

Lest you think the movies were just harsh on fathers this year, let’s finish up with Best Actress nominee Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher. First, having been an ardent fan of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher throughout my teens, I was unaware that not everyone felt this way. Well, the biopic of Britain’s first female Prime Minister is not in the hands of fans. A friend of the director even said to her, “I made a pact with a friend at university that we would party on the day of her death.”

The Iron Lady excoriates Margaret Thatcher as a leader, colleague, wife, boss, politician, and mother for the full hour and 45 minutes. The movie’s treatment of her as a mother was, to me, the most insidious. Thatcher’s children are shown in silent clips chasing her, grabbing her skirt, her car – anything to touch and have a piece of her. And the movie portrays Thatcher choosing ambition over her children every time.

The last scene shows an aged Thatcher looking out her kitchen window. She smiles as she hears birds and the laughter and voices of children playing. She tells her maid she’s not going out because she “has nowhere to go.”

Hmm. If the director wants me to believe that Margaret Thatcher blew it and has regrets about motherhood, I’m not buying it. I am certain the former Prime Minister has places to go. And so do I. I’m hoping to catch an early screening of 21 Jump Street.

Waiting For Leo

(Originally published May 3, 2011 at playgroupwithsylviaplath.com)

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When my children were small we read a lot.  It passed the time and there was less guilt involved than watching Teletubbies. (Not that I’m down on Teletubbies, mind you. Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Po and Laa-Laa will forever be the Fantasia chapter of my early parenting days.)

We started with the classics – Big Red BarnPat the BunnyPeter Rabbit, and our five copies of Goodnight Moon.  Note to any future baby-shower invitees – the Margaret Wise Brown book is charming, but as a gift it is not exactly original.

Over the months and then years, our shelves sagged with board books, Shel Silverstein collections, pop-up books, and the requisite Spanish picture books – because it’s never too early, just ask the marketing team at Baby Einstein.

We owned one book that irked me every time I read it.  Leo The Late Bloomer.  Sure, it was amiable enough. A book about a tiger that can’t read, can’t write, doesn’t speak and is a sloppy eater.  While all of the other cubs are hitting their developmental milestones, poor Leo is a late bloomer.

I remember thinking that this might be a comforting addition to the libraries of other parents, but it was taking up valuable space on my shelves from more sophisticated fare. My toddler spoke in paragraphs, would best any adult at jigsaw puzzles, and could hit a pitched ball while still in diapers. A first grade teacher recommended that he read books for blind children because his fluency and enunciation were so strong.

So when it came time to weed our shelves, I gave away our copy of Leo The Late Bloomer.  Little did I know that ten years later I’d be checking the book out of my local library – having learned yet one more lesson from a picture book. “Be careful what you think of others because it will turn around and bite you in the ass.”

Sure our little games of competitive parenting start small with comparisons of gross motor skills, potty-training, and baby teeth. And then one day, every kid can roll over but the comparing and judging don’t stop. It just gets more insidious. No one says to you on the soccer sideline, “Wow, his enunciation is really good for a 14-year-old.”

No, instead the acquaintance next to you asks, “Do you think he’ll really be able to compete, with his size?”

I resisted the temptation to reply, “Do you think reading will always be difficult for your child?” And instead said nothing at all.

She’s right; my child is small. And so am I. I’m not even big in the places it would be fun to be big. Slim is slim, but tops out at almost 6’3”. So if I want to take credit for my son’s agility with the English language, I’d better be ready to own up to my hindering his stature as well.  But the potential is there.

When you are a 14-year-old in our body and sports obsessed culture, potential doesn’t get you very far. There are mustache competitions for boys and bra shopping parties for girls.  And then there are the countless tales of the kids who skip the showers after gym and sports to avoid showing that they’ve nothing to show.

We try to be patient and wait for Leo to bloom. Recently, my son came home with his measurements from a school health assessment.  I held my breath waiting for Slim to say, “wow, I was over 6 feet in eighth grade.”  Yes, it is an interesting observation, but not a helpful one.

And my husband said to our son, “I was bigger than my friend Jamie all through high school. And now he’s taller than I am.” My son’s eyes grew huge and all he could say through the smile was, “Really?” I nearly welled with tears of pride. It was a parenting moment of clarity.

And I was served my moment while crawling on my knees in the children’s department at the library this week. Leo The Late Bloomerby Robert Kraus is of course shelved next to his sequel (who knew?) Little Louie the Baby Bloomer, which is next to The Growing Story by Ruth Krauss.  Seriously, I was just in the K’s – I was not specifically in the late bloomer section!  (And why are all these stories shelved with the picture books, and not in the juvenile and young adult sections?)

And there, next to The Growing Story was Krauss’ masterpiece, The Carrot Seed. Even though our copy was packed away in the attic with my other favorites, I immediately took the book off the shelf and read it. A simple story of a seed that no one but a little boy believes will grow. He waters it, he weeds it, and one day a carrot comes up, “just as the little boy had known it would.”

Leo and The Carrot Seed are essentially the same story. So why did I hold on to one and quickly shed the other? Granted, I don’t usually care for anthropomorphic tales, but it was more than that. The answer is in the colorful pages of the books and the competitive games parents play on the sidelines.

The little boy actively nurtures his seed and gets results. Leo simply waits with an expression of increasing doubt for 23 pages. “Then one day, in his own good time, Leo bloomed!”  He can do nothing to move the process along. More importantly, Leo’s mother can do nothing to force the bloom.

As a parent of a young child, it is easy to take pride in and credit for an early aptitude, rote memory or even a taught or purchased skill. But as our children get older and grow – or don’t grow – that competitive parenting game on the sidelines becomes one in which there are no winners. Every parent and child is waiting for something, or nurturing a seed of some sort. I can only polish my watering can and tend to my own weeding.

And just so you know, if Harper Collins publishes a new release, Leo’s Constitutional Growth Delay, it is not actually a new book. Or a new story. Or a new diagnosis. It’s just Leo.  And I’m trying to be patient.

 

What’s Yours Is Mine And So Is Mine…

(Originally published March 16, 2011 at playgroupwithsylviaplath.com)

When my husband and I got engaged, the subject of banking and checking accounts came up.  My happily married in-laws each gave us a piece of advice.

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My father-in-law said, “Absolutely have one account. It’s just so much easier that way.”

My mother-in-law said, “Absolutely have separate accounts. It’s just so much easier that way.”

The exchange went from comic to conviction when my own parents said exactly the same thing.

Like most in the honeymoon phase, I was sure I had won the husband-lottery.  The fact that we ended up with two bank accounts — “ours” and “mine” just confirmed it. I even kept my own Visa card that I had paid off monthly since I was 16 (and henceforth paid using the “ours” account.) For a time, I handled our banking, paid bills, and have some vague recollection that I even completed our taxes one year.

Watching my account accrue just compounded my pride in being a working, wage-earning woman in America. It was everything I had been raised and educated to believe was my right and duty. The “mine” account paid for dinners out with friends, our vacations and even a master’s degree.

But, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Rosie the Riveter needn’t have felt their feminist poster-woman status threatened. In just a few years time, we were fortunate enough to have three children and one career that funded the household. Somewhere in a fog of baby wipes and inertia, it just happened.  The “mine” account dwindled to almost nothing, while the pile of stroller accessories and Dr. Seuss books continued to grow.

Initially, it didn’t bother me.  Money has rarely been an issue in our relationship, and for that I know I am fortunate, but I will not call myself “lucky”.  I subscribe to the idiom, “as you make your bed, so must you lie in it” – especially when it’s a double bed. Sure, my marriage and our default roles as breadwinner and wife may be traditional.  But we both know that if I didn’t buy the pants, he wouldn’t have them to wear.

Most often, “our” money pays for something for “our” children – shoes, piano lessons, little league fees, or a new pair of ice-hockey goalie pads that rivals the price of my first car. If it isn’t for “our” children, it is likely for “our” house – new windows, an oil contract or the plumber.  And trust me, I have no feminist-angst over contributing to the family’s plumbing budget.

But, there is angst over a “mine” expense when there is no “mine” money. Conscious or not, there’s a momentary pause when I pay for something that is solely for me. Sometimes it can be as small as the new hardback book I want because I don’t want to wait for at the library.  Or it can be as major as the new 27” desktop computer I want because I want it.

Our media does a banner job of promoting a culture of “you earned it, you deserve it.”  But is the unspoken corollary, “if you didn’t earn it, you don’t deserve it?”  As a former “earner”, I struggle with this.  Because when you aren’t cashing a paycheck with numbers and a few zeros on it, it can be pretty easy to focus on just the zeros.

And I’m not the only one. Many women – whether wage earners or not – find ways to make peace with the issues of money and relationships: One acquaintance (a doctor) pays for her clothes half in cash and half in credit to avoid debates with her husband. Another writes checks out exclusively to “cash” to muddy the trail. A third takes out $100 cash on the debit card with every visit to the grocery store. My favorite is the friend who buys something for her husband every time she buys an item for herself, so that the charges are “commingled.”

Sure, the devices may be new, but these conventions have been part of domestic relationships for centuries.  Back in the 1500s, King Henry VIII’s fifth wife Catherine brought the fashion of decorative pins with her from France. Within no time, husbands across the Empire were handing over cash to their wives so they could buy the expensive pins without asking for money each time. Thus the behavior of don’t ask, don’t tell was learned.  And the term “pin money” was coined.

Frankly, a shiny cloisonné pin does nothing for me. I can even buy clothes and go to lunch with friends guilt-free.  But, every time I make an appointment to have my hair done, I pause. It is the one item for which I long for a “mine” account.  Sure, a girl can get a cut and blow dry at a strip mall Supercuts for $36. But if a girl wants to have any sort of, we’ll call them, “enhancements” along with that cut to feel like she’s come a long way, baby, well, baby’s going to have to pay for those.  As my mother-in-law warned, a “mine” account would just make it so much easier.

A Philadelphia real estate magnate recognized the need for such comely currency when he created the Henry G. Freeman Jr. Pin Money Fund in 1912.  The lucky lady recipients of his no strings attached $12,000 annual purse? The First Ladies of the land. Barbara Bush used her pin money to support a favorite charitable cause and “to do something nice for the grandchildren.”

There’s been no announcement as to what Michelle Obama will be using her pin money for. Sure, there’s the J. Crew card she could pay off and the organic fertilizer she needs for the garden.  But I would suggest setting just a little bit aside for a keratin treatment or a blowout now and then.

(This piece originally appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Women’s History Month Special Issue – March 16, 2011)