Subject: Emily is one of my closest college friends, and to any passing acquaintance, we could seem the same person: ambitious young women who’ve always had a taste for more—more than our home towns, more than our mothers, as much as we can get. In every way though, Emily has always carried a bigger brand of ambition than me. She went to law school, and I went abroad; she targeted wealth and power, whereas I targeted culture and esteem. Prim in appearance, crude in humor, top in every class, Emily is a series of contradictions that those who know her best understand least.
Angle: Emily was the only person I could even consider writing this about—between her extreme work ethic and love of a good time lies a sort of impenetrable unknowability. But in approaching the subject, I realized that though Emily’s extremities and tendency toward the manic—sleeping for 16 hours straight, obsessing about fiber, telling us all about the gastronomic results of obsessing about fiber—have calmed with age, she’s become no less baffling. The singular thing that’s always grounded my perception of Emily is her unwavering ambition. She’s the most driven, academically dedicated, and singularly ambitious friend, not just to me, but to most who know her.
And yet, halfway through her time in law school, the place where she would cement the foundation for the political and financial aspirations she’s had since elementary school, Emily started curbing her ambitions in consideration of having a family in the future. And with the addition of a boyfriend, a few years on her adulthood card, and the question that ambitious women in groups like law school can’t seem to avoid (you know the one), everything I knew about Emily—there are very few things you can know—changed.
She’s perfectly coiffed in an emerald pencil skirt, patterned sweater-set, and an ID that declares her a Junior Associate with the U.S. GAO. Though her outfit wasn’t chosen to flatter her particular coloring or body type—dirty blonde and straight lines all over—it’s the uniform of a laid back modern lawyer, out for Happy Hour after a day at the D.C. office. In five years’ time, she’ll have added a diamond to her left hand, a child to her right, her name to an apartment lease in DuPont, or if she completely sells her soul, Georgetown.
That’s the hope, at least: to hang khaki-and-oxfords beach photos on the wall with her degrees. But hopes for Emily aren’t like hopes for other people. For others, hopes are wishes or dreams, maybe prayers. For Emily, hopes are certainties—in fact, “hope” isn’t really a word she’d use at all. Hope is for the weak, the less talented. Hope is for unambitious people.
I met Emily the second semester of our freshman year of college when we pledged the same sorority. To say that she had wanted to be in that sorority since she visited Furman University her senior year of high school, and went on to become its President four years later, would be to say what is obvious to anyone who has ever known Emily on even a surface level: she sets goals and she marches decidedly toward them.
What I know about Emily is that every day of our Sophomore year, she used a paper bowl and a plastic spoon to eat instant oatmeal for breakfast, then licked both clean and stashed them in her desk drawer to be used again the next day…and the next. Two years later, at graduation, she was awarded the most prestigious honor at our university for student leadership and academia; and for as long as I have known Emily, she has called me “Chode-i.” (A chode is a penis that is as long as it is wide that also happens to rhyme with my name.) But the most baffling thing about Emily is no longer her trend toward the eccentric, a confusing combination of manic misbehavior and calculated ambition.
In her first year of law school, Emily—this lover of sexual innuendos, this woman capable of anything and determined to achieve all of it—began speaking of a family.
There is an impenetrable unknowability about Emily, and yet everything I have known about her for the last nine years has led me to understand that she would put her own tangible success above all else, that familial joy would happen if the time ever became right. From the very first prize she ever won, a grocery store coloring contest for a Barney plushie, Emily has made her own joy; she carves it out of text books, and hangs it in medals and tassels around her neck.
She can only recall failing once in her life and she thought it might kill her. The day that Emily received her LSAT results—for which all practice tests had indicated her destiny to be an Ivy League—she found the score lower than expected.
“I took a nap and told myself that it was going to be fine. And then I convinced myself that I had a chunk of chicken lodged in my esophagus.”
I remember this, baffled but not surprised that the chicken thing wasn’t just a result of Emily’s famously hurried eating.
She called a doctor who told her that her vomiting, chest pain, and inability to swallow were likely due to something she’d eaten getting lodged in her esophagus. But when she went to the university clinic, “the nurse knew immediately: ‘Honey, you probably had a panic attack. This will go away.’”
It went away. Emily adjusted. She changed with her circumstances, went to an almost-Ivy, and realized that a powerful lobbyist career or maybe something more in the Rodham-Clinton-realm was still very much within her grasp.
When I ask Emily what drives her most, she only hesitates slightly in responding, “This is ugly, but I care most about the way people perceive me.” I already know this. Emily’s concern with others’ perceptions sneaks out all the time: her almost clinical dispensing of niceties like Christmas cards and birthday calls. The trait used to make Emily’s vulgarity and crude humor confusing. Now, it sends me into a baffling feminist crisis trying to sort out her decision to reroute her career goals to make her future more conducive to a family.
What will people think of that?
In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg sites a study by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce from Harvard Business Review that found "43% of highly qualified women with children are leaving careers or off-ramping for a period of time." Emily has read Lean In—she has it on a bookshelf in her new office at the GAO. She has read this very passage in Chapter 7 where Sandberg goes on to say, “Of all the ways women hold themselves back, perhaps the most pervasive is that they leave before they leave.”
“It makes me feel like a bad feminist,” she says, knowing exactly where my mind went when she told me why she’d really found herself “a glorified bureaucrat” her first year out of law school rather than the originally intended big firm lawyer, for which there had been offers. Neither one of us wants my mind to be there. Emily plans to parent equally with her male partner, after all. What could be more feminist than that?
Having it all, the phrase that plagues ambitious women everywhere, rattles around my head while Emily tells me about the comfortable life she’s settled into, as I buy a $1 slice of pizza for dinner so I can make my New York City rent this month. I scream into the vortex of my future with my heart unattached and my career barreling ahead, “YES, OF COURSE, I CAN BE AN AMBITIOUS PROFESSIONAL—and when the time comes—AN AMBITIOUS PARENT!” Emily, rather, has decided to redefine her “all.”
Maybe one day, Emily will let me come to the house that she owns, and play with the children she’s been able to raise and spend time with and I’ll wonder, What is the price of ambition? She’ll probably wonder the same thing. Or maybe our diverging paths can both lead toward the same end: a life with unique ambition and a clog-free esophagus.