Choosing a Path Through A Myriad of Choices

EVERY DAY I confront a parade of decisions: books, food, restaurants, CDs, movies, TV shows, activities, magazines, vacations, and friends. I'm often so spent by choosing that I have no energy to enjoy my choice.

I went shopping for a new bathrobe last week. It was going to be a birthday gift from my mother, and the two of us went to the department store to select one. The robe in my closet was at least eight years old, and although it was still comfortable, I was growing weary of the drab teal shade.

As I entered the lingerie department, I knew this much: I wanted the same style - floor-length with snaps, buttons, or zipper, no wrap robe that invariably requires retying when I'm balancing the baby in one arm and a bowl of cereal in the other - and a softer, more uplifting color. There were 15 circular racks of sleepwear, a dazzling array of choices: basic cotton terry, patterned flannel, heavy plaid fleece, polyester blends, 100 percent cotton jersey, luxurious and impractical silk. Almost all in both designer label and store brand, in colors ranging from restful pastels to bold scarlet and jet-black.

Where to begin? Each style had its merits, and with each I could imagine myself taking on a different persona at the breakfast table. I looped around the racks, pushed apart the robes, and held several up to the mirror. Pale blue or pale pink? Perhaps they were too mundane. Why not a bolder color? I tried on a red velour robe with heavily padded shoulders and sharply contrasting lines of black. Not bad. In fact, quite nice, as were the emerald green with ties, the fuchsia lounger, and the dozen or so others in various styles.

My bewilderment must have shown, because a sales assistant appeared to redirect my focus back to the floor-length, pastel, untied robes. She pulled out half a dozen and, with her guidance on size, I managed - within 20 minutes - to choose a pale blue, floor-length, zipped robe, simply feminine, washable, and moderately priced. It came in two styles - jewel collar with snaps or shawl collar with zipper. I picked the latter.

Twenty years ago, I stood in my aunt's kitchen watching her peel potatoes. We were talking about my career plans. She must have noticed my ambivalence, because after a courteous period of nodding and listening she remarked, ``Young people are plagued by too much choice. I'm glad things were more clear-cut when I was young.''

Although I didn't fully understand her words at the time, they haunt me today. At the time, I was confused about selecting a major - economics or sociology. I chose economics, a ``more practical career'' decision, according to my mother. Five years later, I enrolled in business school. Eight years after that, I took a reverse turn to become a full-time mother, keeping my ``hand in'' with some freelance work.

Through circuitous twists and turns, often challenging, I've ended up in a fulfilling place. I agonized over my choice of economics - knew it was a bit too cerebral for my tastes - tried to blend my interest in people with a business bent and finally became a writer at home with children, where I write about my observations. After almost 20 years, I've landed in the right spot, having worn and rejected various styles, sizes, and colors of life.

Would I have found it easier without the choices? Yes. Happier? Probably not.

As I look back over my bathrobe experience, I think about my children. Every day, they are bombarded by an explosion of choices that tempt, yet often carry hidden ramifications. While a bathrobe is inconsequential, experimenting with drugs and relationships or selecting a career or marriage partner is not.

Since the choices won't go away, I've decided to help my children handle the uncertainty. They are in grade school or younger - not yet ready for the ``big'' decisions. But I'm already working with them to see both sides of a choice. Two dollars' allowance spent today means it's that much longer before savings can be accumulated for a bigger toy. I let them select their clothes at the store, but insist they wear them. And, when they make a bad choice, we talk about why it happened and how to move on from there.

I've also learned there's a fine line between guiding and making decisions for them. My father tried, but his directions were confusing. He urged my brother to apply to any college he chose, then assumed a disapproving frown when my brother didn't select his alma mater. My brother reversed his decision and followed my father's wishes, but he still resents the implicit lack of choice.

My husband, on the other hand, remembers his father gently encouraging him to explore various colleges and being available to help him evaluate the pluses and minuses of each school.

Last week, in the lingerie department, I was lured by rack upon rack of choice and momentarily lost my focus. I knew, months ago, I wanted a pastel, floor-length robe with no ties. But the greens and scarlets, with their frustrating ties, momentarily taunted me with their flattering lines and vibrant colors. Thank goodness the sales clerk gently guided me back to my choice.

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