Okay, I know that this is the time for holiday office parties and I usually enjoy them. I have worked at the same insurance company for twenty years, climbing from receptionist to sales agent. I am proud of my rise and I am comfortable with everyone at the firm. I know them all really well and by now I am considered "one of the old-timers." Everyone always tells me their problems - not just here in the office, but their conflicts at home as well. And, naturally enough, what I know about them, they know about me, my husband and my children.
So for me the annual office Xmas party is really just another family party - this one, though, without the tensions and grudges of actual family parties. I always bring along my husband and two college-age kids and we all look forward to the party. It has always made me proud for my office family to see my home family and, I guess, vice versa. In a way, I always thought of myself as doubly-blessed.
But this year is different. I don't want to go to the office party. Or if I do go, I don't want my husband and kids to come. I didn't mention it to them, but lately they have started to ask. I've told them the economy is forcing cutbacks in the office and the first thing to suffer is the holiday party.
I don't want them to come because I have been having an affair with one of the new agents who started this summer at the company. I am afraid that if they see us together they'll guess what's happening. I wouldn't do anything to hurt my family or break it up and I feel terrible about lying to them.
Let's get something straight: You've been working at the same place for 20 years. Every year there's a Christmas party and every year you and your family go. For the last year, I imagine you've been selling insurance at a pretty good clip -- at least, you've haven't complained about how bad things have gotten. (Have you?) But, all of a sudden, things are so bad that there is nothing in the kitty for an office party. So bad, you and your colleagues can't even chip in and buy some cola and chips? You want your family to believe that--the same family you've been proud of for the last 19 years? Who do you think you're fooling? Perhaps, yourself?
Let's be honest here. Anyone with an ounce of psychological knowledge has already guessed that what you are really feeling bad about is having an affair. Do you remember the question several weeks ago in this column about the young woman who wouldn't have sex with her boyfriend because she feared that by exposing herself to him she was exposing the truth as well? By withholding sex, she was keeping her options open--short-time lover and long-time boyfriend.
Similarly, you fear exposing yourself to your family. You fear they will spot your attraction to your new colleague. You don't want your husband and kids to find out about your affair nor, I would guess, do you want your lover to meet your husband - a possibly awkward moment - that, in its own way, could expose you in more ways than one. Suddenly, you will no longer be a single entity, but someone tied to someone else and to a family, the mother of two grown children!
So, you have to ask yourself why you want to have this affair in the first place. From what you've told us, it doesn't seem that you've questioned it any. It's possible you're ducking the question because you don't want to face the ultimate choice -- between family on the one hand and sexual freedom on the other.
Frankly, I love that this situation is being faced by a middle-aged woman. Until recently, most of the literature - -both academic and mainstream -- has been about the male's mid-life crisis. Explanations abound about ruing the path not taken, the loss of power in one's career, and fearing death is closer. For a woman, occasionally you would read about her discomfort and sadness about the prospects that her nest was about to empty. Nothing about power. Nothing about careers.
Well, here you are, a vital woman who has had a career while raising children and, moreover, built a work life that complimented her home life. To anyone working in an office for a long time, the office and its people become a second family. They are important to you in the same way, and you play out various roles within that structure as you do your own family.
Up until this time, you were able to keep it all in place. I suspect you did so by seeing everyone as children. You maternally concerned yourself with their needs and with their successes. You were proud of all your children and you enjoyed bringing them all together for a big holiday party. Now the road begins to fork, choices have to be made, and we have to compromise or let go of some of our needs.
For whatever the reason, you are at a point in your life where the future doesn't seem as appealing as the past. It is much more fun to go back to adolescence, to feel the freedom of no responsibility, to once again experience total sexual freedom and experimentation, and to respond to whatever one is feeling at the moment without any editing. It is becoming increasingly difficult, if not downright painful, to combine your two separate families because with one (your husband and children) you can only go forward and with the other, your lover, you want to go back the other way.
Your choices? You can try to respond to your divergent needs and compartmentalize your worlds. Of course, you run the risk that this won't work, that you will be hurting or harming your family - and that you're not much good at leading a double life.
Or you can work on your own transition to the next stage of your life by accepting reduced expectations, reduced vitality, reduced importance at work, and, yes, the nest that will, probably, soon empty. This choice runs the risk of a sad period of letting go. Neither choice is precisely what you want, but my obligation to you is not tell you which choice to make, only to get you to understand why you are making them. The rest is up to you.