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Lisa Nowak seemed to have it all under control. She was the girl in her Rockville, Md., high school who earned the top grades. She was smart and nice. After she won admission to the U.S. Naval Academy, she got on the fast track to become an astronaut. She had the right stuff. And she also met the traditional standards of achievement for women — she is married to a fellow Naval officer with whom she has three kids, including 5-year-old twins. In addition, since we’re talking about female standards, Nowak is slim and pretty and everyone’s good friend. According to reports from classmates and other associates, she was the sort of person you could call in the middle of the night when your world was crashing down because you knew that hers never would. She was a rock. At least until it all exploded. We’ve been riveted by the story of Nowak, 43, her “boyfriend,” William Oefelein, 41, and the boyfriend’s newer, younger girlfriend, who managed to send lusty e-mails to Oefelein even as he orbited in space on the shuttle. “Will have to control myself when I see you,” wrote Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman, 30. “First urge will be to rip your clothes off, throw you on the ground and love the hell out of you.” Getting past the “eew” factor, let’s imagine Nowak’s reaction when she apparently came upon that sexy love note. (According to one report in the Orlando Sentinel, Nowak had a key to Oefelein’s apartment and the password to his e-mail.) Because this is where the story moves past the sordid world of affairs to the creepy element of obsession, “Fatal Attraction” style. Next, of course, came the 900-mile drive, the adult diapers, the pepper spray, and the arrest photo that clearly showed a woman far off on some crazy edge. She wasn’t in control of anything at this point. So what happened to Nowak? More important for the rest of us, is she the canary in the coal mine? Can this story do anything more than evoke disgust and a need to unearth every last prurient element? In other words, is there something flawed in Nowak’s world that is also flawed in ours? GOOD GIRLS Women talk about these sorts of crashes all the time — at dinner parties, in book clubs, waiting to fetch their kids at school. We’re all familiar with what might be called the Good Girl Syndrome: A girl grows up wanting to please people. She earns good grades to please her teachers; she eats her vegetables to please her grandmother; she takes piano lessons for her parents; she joins the clubs that will help her to get into a good college. She does everything she’s supposed to do. She’s so busy meeting other people’s expectations that she never has time to stop and ask herself what it is, exactly, that she wants. This path carries her on into adulthood. Sometimes it means she marries the wrong guy because he’s in the right place at a time when she’s supposed to be getting married. Sometimes it means she chooses the wrong career: She may, for instance, end up at law school because she’s bright and verbal and because Harvard accepts her. Whether she wants Harvard is a question she doesn’t ask. And sometimes it even means she has children for those same reasons: It’s what she’s expected to do. As she moves through the years, everybody considers her a role model, the perfect example of someone who can balance it all. Indeed, in an interview posted on the Ladies Home Journal Web site in February, Nowak almost seems to flaunt her ability to juggle it all: “When I was going through some of my Navy training and meeting various women in the Navy, it seemed to me that there weren’t a whole lot of examples to follow. That [if] somebody had proceeded in a career and made it pretty far, either they weren’t married, or things didn’t work out, or [they] didn’t have any kids.” Of course, it’s easy for us now to see the warning flags scattered all over this tarmac. But Nowak certainly wasn’t the first woman to ignore the signals, to keep pushing through even when it might be time to reassess. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, author of the bestseller Women Who Run With the Wolves, wrote, “The modern woman is a blur of activity. She is pressured to be all things to all people.” And then one day she reaches a breaking point. ARE WE HAVING FUN YET? Sometimes that breaking point has a sexual side (as it apparently did with Nowak). Maybe the woman marries on the young side, has a child or two, and settles in. One day she hits midlife, and she asks herself: Am I having fun yet? And she meets a handsome co-worker, and they spend time together. Eventually she starts planning to divorce her husband and be with this guy. And then — ouch — he drops her. Ellen Ostrow, founder of Lawyers Life Coach and a licensed psychologist based in Silver Spring, Md., says she has seen more than one woman crack up this way: “They have kids and a husband and a job, and all of a sudden they have an affair with somebody completely inappropriate, and they say, �Screw you.’ “ In other cases, the breaking point is related to unhappiness with career choices — or the lack of them — and it manifests itself in less destructive ways. Some women reach a point where they realize they’ve been treading water in the wrong job. Last month’s column took a look at those who have opted out of the law. And some women figure out that it’s the right career but time to lose the single-minded focus. Ostrow recently coached an attorney in her early 40s who was very successful professionally and happily married with no children. She was certainly busy enough. She spent a lot of her personal time reading up on changes in the law. One day the woman was playing with a child. When the child left, she started weeping. She was astonished. Ostrow says the woman called her and said, “What is going on with me? I don’t understand why I’m crying.” She was still comfortable with her decision not to have children, but, at the same time, children represented something else that seemed to be missing in her life. The woman realized that although she liked her job, it used just a small part of her talents. She asked a profound question: Whose life was she touching? Ostrow says, “There’s this whole other person there, a spiritual person, an artistic person who cares deeply about other people.” That part did not fit into the world she had built for herself, the career expectations she had tried to fulfill. This woman, in other words, had made herself into the Good Girl, superachieving career version. Rather than bring the wrecking ball down on her life, the woman, with Ostrow’s help, hit on another solution: She got involved in volunteer activities with children. It helped her exercise other, more creative elements of her personality, and she didn’t have to lose the job she actually enjoyed (as well as its nice salary). That’s a mentally healthy response, of course, and one that poor Lisa Nowak may have been too far gone to consider. THE ROBUST WOLF Author Estes argues that the answer to plodding along on the Good Girl path is to release the inner Wild Woman: “A healthy woman is much like a wolf: robust, chock-full, strong life force, life-giving, territorially aware, inventive, loyal, roving. Yet, separation from the wildish nature causes a woman’s personality to become meager, thin, ghosty, spectral.” Purple prose, to be sure, but maybe Estes has a point. Maybe some other sort of acting out, something that met no other expectations than her own whims, might have been a solution for Nowak. Maybe she needed to goof off and waste a little time. Maybe she needed to explore other elements of her personality. Nowak flew one space shuttle mission in 2006 and was supposed to be the lead Mission Control communications officer for the next shuttle trip. But did she find the time to sit down on a Saturday morning with the Play-Doh, a pile of coloring books, a video of “Dumbo,” and her five-year-olds? To spend an afternoon reading a romance novel and working her way through a box of Thin Mints? To dance on a table or climb Machu Picchu or play the flute? Today, poor Nowak wears an ankle bracelet and will probably never again see our planet from space. Maybe she needed to tap just a bit more into her inner wild woman, before the wild woman turned around and bit her in the ankle.
Balancing Act, a column exploring the lives of women in the law, appears in Legal Times each month. Debra Bruno can be contacted at [email protected].

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