Finding a balance between 'I' and 'we'

On a Friday evening in mid-August, spirits run high as 10 women, friends since junior high school, gather for a mini-reunion. It marks the first time everyone has been together since high school. Relaxing in one woman's large ranch-style house, they - we - talk fast and late, eager to catch up on several decades of news.

We have come here from eight states, from California to New York, Florida to Minnesota. Only one member of the original group of 11, now living in Georgia, isn't here.

On the most basic level, reunions offer a memorable way to renew acquaintances with long-ago friends and to observe, firsthand, the fascinating variety of choices and opportunities that shape marriages, families, and careers. At the same time, reunions can serve a deeper purpose, measuring larger social changes as decades roll by.

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For our generation, those changes have been profound. On this particular evening, we look back in awe at the stability and relative innocence of our 1950s Midwestern upbringing, before the tumultuous changes of our college years in the 1960s, including Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique," began revising the social order.

As a warmup, we share pictures of our families. We laugh as we thumb through a photo album dating back to junior high. We also study yellowing copies of the high school newspaper, which several of us edited.

But reality proves more interesting than reminiscences. Lighthearted "Remember when?" stories give way to more serious conversations about marriage, divorce, children, and especially the well-being of our parents.

Again and again we come back to the subject of marriage. We also reflect on the differences between our parents' unions and our own. Among our parents, only one couple was divorced - an amazing record by today's standards. Four of those couples celebrated golden anniversaries. Within our own group, four women have been divorced. Three have remarried. One was widowed in June.

In a voice still filled with amazement, one friend measures changing patterns of marriage by saying, "My parents always did everything together." Others nod in agreement. Retirement intensified that generation's togetherness. The main pronoun in their vocabulary was "we," even though it sometimes subordinated individual interests or desires for the sake of family unity.

That impressive devotion created a closeness, but it also fostered a dependence that in some cases exacerbated the challenges of retirement and widowhood. One woman explains that her mother, widowed at 50, had never driven a car. Astonishingly, another friend had to show her father how to write a check after the death of her mother, who had always taken care of the family finances.

Today those rigid roles have all but disappeared, replaced by a more egalitarian approach. For better or for worse, "I" ranks as a valid pronoun, too. The Californian in our group, an artist, tells of her recent 10-day trip to Italy to paint. Her husband stayed home. Every third weekend, he goes fishing with other men. The couple enjoys vacationing together, too, of course. But, as she explains, "You have to have your own identity, your own life. This way you walk side by side, instead of leaning."

As those in our group look ahead to eventual retirement, we and the baby boomers behind us face a challenge: how to balance togetherness and independence, preserving the best of our parents' approach to marriage while finding our own satisfying blending of "I" and "we."

That could be the subject for another mini-reunion a decade from now.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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