A singular woman prepares to divide her life with a child

September 03, 1995|By SUSAN REIMER

Elsa Walsh leads a singular life. Smart and graceful, loved and in love, accomplished yet endearing. Her mother is her best friend. Her husband was smitten with her instantly and loves her still.

She jumped from the campus of the University of California at Berkeley to Pulitzer finalist for the Washington Post so quickly she might have suffered vertigo.

She works long days in the upstairs office of a historic Georgetown home but restores herself and her marriage each weekend at a waterfront retreat, where she sculls, reads and entertains luminaries in journalism and politics.

Her husband might be the best selling nonfiction author since St. Paul, but thinks her first book is more meaningful than any of his.

"Divided Lives" is Elsa Walsh's poignant study of three uncommonly talented and ambitious women and the conflicts with which they wrestle. Work and children. Work and husband. Work and sexism.

Walsh, writing with the attention to detail practiced by Bob Woodward, the dogged journalist who is her husband, records the reflections of each woman during a crisis or transition in her life. And she does it with a clarity that will make you suck in your breath with the sharp pain of recognition.

Many more women than these three revealed to Walsh, in confessional conversations that, meeting her, you know she invites, the pulls and tugs in their lives. The result is, these three profiles are fuller and more informed.

Walsh writes without whining or polemics. She keeps a cool distance as she describes the the divided lives of these women. So it is against all presumptions that we read, in an intimate afterword, that Walsh, now 38, has decided to try to have a child.

Elsa Walsh, whose life is so singular, has made the decision to divide it.

"I have lived my life saying I never wanted to marry and I never wanted to have a child," says Walsh, whose decision to violate that first sacred promise is, she says, the best thing she has ever done.

"I thought having children was like pulling your finger out of the dike. Every good thing in your life would be disrupted."

Walsh grew up in an immigrant Irish Catholic family of six children, but it was not scenes from her mother's day that charged her vision of a childless life. It was the radical politics and feminism of the Bay Area, where she grew up and went to college.

"The leaders of the feminist movement were really attractive to me. Smart and independent. Children seemed to be the antithesis of that.

"I was afraid I would completely invest myself in a child and not in the other goals I'd set out in my life. I knew from my friends, once you bring kids into the mix, what happens."

Walsh watched the marriages of friends suffer through children. Lovers and mates became "managers of the day," she says. "These were really successful people, and nobody was getting it right. How was it going to be with me?"

Walsh's tender investigation of the life of television newswoman Meredith Vieira, who gave up her position on "60 Minutes" because she could not release the care of her long-awaited children to a sitter, should have reinforced that.

But Vieira is the only woman in "Divided Lives" with children, says Walsh. Conductor Rachel Worby is torn between her music and her duties as first lady of West Virginia. And Alison Estabrook, a breast surgeon at New York's Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, is battling powerful male chauvinism.

"I realized, doing this book, that children were not the unsettling factor, because two women didn't have children.

"And I had heard enough from enough women to think that I shouldn't be so blithe or so arrogant about this decision."

Woodward, 52, has a college-aged child from a previous marriage, and he has left this decision up to Walsh. Writing this book has given her a kind of surrogate hindsight. She has seen, more clearly than we can see, what life and career are like with children, and without. She has seen, in the many women who have opened their deepest hearts to her, what we cannot describe, the answer to a question we cannot answer:

"What would your life be like without children?"

In writing "Divided Lives," Walsh found that she could not demand complete honesty from her subjects and not ask it of herself. So she examined her own life. And found in it a place for a child.

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