Heart & Sold: How to Survive and Thrive in Real Estate by Valerie Fitzgerald

Heart & Sold: How to Survive and Thrive in Real Estate by Valerie Fitzgerald

Heart and Sold is an insightful journey through the emotional and tangible challenges of regaining one's personal power while building and maintaining a...

Product Details

ISBN-13:9781439163993
Publisher:Atria Books
Publication date:05/19/2009
Sold by:SIMON & SCHUSTER
Format:NOOK Book
Pages:320
Sales rank:427,659
File size:274 KB
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Overview

Heart & Sold: How to Survive and Thrive in Real Estate by Valerie Fitzgerald

Heart and Sold is an insightful journey through the emotional and tangible challenges of regaining one's personal power while building and maintaining a successful business -- regardless of the country's economic situation. Valerie Fitzgerald, one of the country's leading real estate agents, candidly recounts her personal journey from unemployed single parent to entrepreneur, philanthropist, and renowned corporate executive.

From beginners just getting started in residential real estate to seasoned agents -- or anyone in business looking to take their game to the next level -- this step-by-step guide teaches readers the art of selling. With her personal touch, Fitzgerald shows readers how to manage clients with style, choose the right company and the best mentor, establish a stellar reputation in their field, develop a daily schedule for running a home office, and maintain a successful attitude every day. With all of her tools at their fingertips, readers will also soon be shooting for the stars. Heart and Sold shares the mind-set of a respected businesswoman who gracefully balances the demands of an empire with the intimacy of her family, and is a model for working and living that can be applied to any desire or discipline.

Product Details

ISBN-13:9781439163993
Publisher:Atria Books
Publication date:05/19/2009
Sold by:SIMON & SCHUSTER
Format:NOOK Book
Pages:320
Sales rank:427,659
File size:274 KB

About the Author

Before Valerie Fitzgerald began her real estate career, she was an unemployed single parent. Yet over the last fifteen years, Valerie Fitzgerald has single-handedly managed to build a multi-million dollar real estate business, establish her own charity foundation, speak around the country at numerous business conventions, appear on television shows like "Entertainment Tonight" and MTV's "Cribs," rank among Coldwell Banker's Top 10 agents nationwide, and earn the attention of the Los Angeles Business Journal for the highest sales volume in L.A. County for residential real estate in 2000 (she was also recently nominated for the publication's 13th annual "Women Making a Difference").

Read an Excerpt


Chapter One

My Story: The Will to Survive

The room was plain and sparsely furnished. A borrowed couch, a small bed, and a crib sat forlornly on the bland beige carpet. A blond woman sat quietly, her thin back poised against the borrowed couch while her three-month-old daughter kicked and squirmed on the floor beside her. This woman had fled New York to start a new life in California. Her apartment in New York City had been sublet for two years. She had left behind a violent ex-husband, her luxurious belongings, and her former life as a model. On the floor of her closet behind a box of diapers was a wrinkled leather bag containing all the money she had in the world, raised by selling the jewelry she had acquired during her modeling days. She had no skills outside modeling, no higher education, no backup plan. She was a woman of a certain age and wasn't a valuable commodity in the fashion business anymore, and the prince on the white horse who was going to save her had ridden off long ago. She was alone. She was poor. She was afraid. She picked up her daughter and held her close to her heart. She closed her eyes and inhaled the wonderful scent of baby powder, baby clothes, and the delicious baby smell every mother recognizes instantly. It calmed the woman's fears. She looked down into her baby's clear, wide blue eyes. "I'm not going to fail you," she said. "I don't know how, I don't know what I'm going to do, but I'll figure something out. I'll make a good life for us. I promise."

Today that same woman is an entrepreneur, a philanthropist, and a corporate executive. This was not by chance or coincidence. It was because of determination, the drive to overcome, and just plain hard work. I know a lot about that woman, because that woman who made the promise to her tiny daughter is me, Valerie Fitzgerald.

In the beginning of this journey, it never occurred to me that my life would be inspirational to anyone else. It really wasn't so much that I had the desire to be successful -- I had to be successful. There was no other choice for me. But back then, I was consumed with thoughts about how I was going to pay my bills and make a great life for my daughter. So you can only imagine that when I hear the words "entrepreneur," "philanthropist," and "corporate executive," there is still a part of me that says, "Who? Where?"

I look around the room and am surprised that they are talking about me. When I was approached about writing a book about my life, I was a little nervous. I think I made every mistake it was possible that a woman could make with men, with money, and with friends. If there was a bad choice to be made, I made it. If there was a bad investment, I put money into it. If there was a bad guy lurking in the shadows, I ran up and introduced myself.

It's just the way I am, or at least it was the way I was. It's not that I was dumb, but I was young and naive. I was also inexperienced. I was a little girl born in South Dakota whose parents left for the bright lights of Hollywood. When I was fifteen, I got my first modeling job. I had taken Polaroids of myself and wearing my Sunday best dropped them off at Teen magazine. That first experience in modeling ended up with me being on the cover three times. I was so excited to have a career! When I was in my late teens, one of the friends I met modeling told me all about New York, her boyfriend, and the fantastic people she'd met there. To the ears of a nineteen-year-old it sounded like heaven. So off I went to New York and my friend's studio apartment on the Upper East Side.

Imagine a young girl with forty dollars in her pocket, a few modeling pictures, and some clothes landing in New York amidst skyscrapers and taxis blaring their horns in the constant noise that can only be described as the music of New York City. When I arrived at Maggie's place, my new home, I was in for a shock. The room could barely be called an apartment. It had no closets or kitchen, just a hotplate and a small refrigerator next to the bathtub. Glamorous? Exciting? More like horrifying! I walked around the place, which took about fifteen seconds, and I realized there was no bed. Where was I to sleep? Was this a joke? It took me about twenty minutes to realize the room came with a Murphy bed -- the kind that pulls out of the wall. Well here I was in the glamorous city of New York in my own "place."

It's not that I was ungrateful. I was so thankful to my friend for subletting her apartment, but the whole experience was foreign to me. No matter what, I was happy to have a place to stay, but the rent was steep -- I had to pay Maggie six hundred dollars each month. Since I only had forty dollars in my pocket, somehow I needed to figure out right away how I was going to come up with the money for living expenses and another five hundred and sixty dollars. Mind you, this was New York in the 1970s, and six hundred dollars was a fortune to me -- especially when I didn't have a job. I took my portfolio and pounded the streets.

There was no Wall Street look for me in those days. I was a California girl -- blond hair straight down to my waist, cork platform shoes, and a dress...well, a dress that could only be described today as a muumuu. There I was, calling modeling agencies straight out of the phone book. With every call I made, I knew I couldn't keep letting them hang up on me. I had to find something to say that would get their attention -- something that would get my foot in the door.

There was no way I was going to fail based on a phone call. So I dialed the next number and said, "Hi, I'm Valerie Fitzgerald, and I'm in New York only for a few days. I'm from California" -- which I knew might make them hang up on me. "I'm the Coppertone Girl and..." The names of other campaigns I had done flew out of my mouth.

I had to get an appointment, and not one three months later, from those phone calls. I charmed, laughed, joked with everyone on the phone. Since I didn't physically look like a New York model with my waist-length hair, I was slightly nervous about what they might think when they met me, but I didn't give up. By the end of the day I ended up with appointments to see three of the top modeling agencies in New York.

I remember vividly my first few days in the city. It was early September, and the heavy air stirred as a cool breeze with the hint of fall swept by. People poured around me as I strolled down the streets. The pungent smell of hot dogs and roasted nuts washed over me. I felt so small. The lights of the tall buildings glittered overhead like watchful guardians of my fate. I was hypnotized by how fast everyone and everything was moving.

After several days of taking subways and often-missed buses to meet modeling agents, one in particular made me feel as though she believed in me. It was Eileen Ford at the Ford Modeling Agency. I clearly recall going into their offices on Fifty-eighth Street and First Avenue. It was a small brownstone building. At the time, the Ford Agency was the most prestigious in the world, and Eileen Ford was to be feared.

I walked up the steps to the small reception area, where there were at least thirty girls waiting to meet their fate. I was scared but not deterred. To be there, we all had to believe we had "something" the Ford Agency would want -- and soon we would find out if we really did have it. Modeling agencies are very busy places. They have a million phones ringing at the same time, and when you meet the agents you are never quite sure if they will ever remember your name once you leave.

Well, I did end up signing with the Ford Modeling Agency and will forever be thankful to them for their guidance and the opportunities they presented to me. Unlike on the streets of New York, where people would stop and look at me, in the modeling world I was nothing exceptional. Everything from my head to my toes was scrutinized by the agents. One day after I signed the contract to be represented by Ford, one of their senior agents said to me that I was just one more girl from California with hair to my waist. So what made me so special? This person threw me off track so badly that she made me question my self-worth, and all I could do about it was go to my studio apartment, pull down my Murphy bed, and cry. It seemed like a long cry, but this girl from California wasn't going to let anyone get to her. So I got up -- my bed sprang to the wall like a salute -- and off I went for a walk down Second Avenue in my muumuu.

It was around this time that I met a guy named Joe. Joe is not his real name, but the story is true. I met him at a cocktail party, and I distinctly remember having an ache in my body when I looked at him. Not a good ache, mind you, but a visceral response that was alarming and a bit frightening.

Remember what I said earlier about the girl who held her hand out to the bad guy? That was me! The whole night was so surreal when I think back to it. Here was this man, clearly powerful and in control. I was curious about the small group of people who had gathered around him. I did not join the group. I felt more comfortable standing on the other side of the room, chatting and laughing with my friends, but all the time watching him. His energy was magnetizing.

The men listened attentively, eyebrows furrowed. Women swayed in anticipation of what he would say next. Eventually they all erupted in laughter at something he said. A friend of mine who knew the man offered to introduce him to me, but I declined. I was still feeling a bit weird about the whole thing.

"Oh you have to meet him!" she gushed. "He's great! He's charming and he would totally take care of you." She winked and I plastered a fake smile on my face. My body was wiser than her words. I felt uncomfortable, yet fascinated -- almost like the way you feel when you see a car accident. You know it is most likely a bad situation, but you look anyway.

I had such a strange response when I was introduced to him that I excused myself to go to the ladies room because the feeling was so odd, so foreign. Today, I recognize that feeling as a warning. But, at that time, naive Valerie was curious. Joe pursued me for about a year. After our initial meeting, he had taken an obvious interest in me and would often call to invite me to exciting things he was doing. After every date, he would send me flowers. It began to feel good, and I enjoyed his attention.

Meanwhile, rain or shine, I rode my bike to go-sees with my modeling portfolio strapped to my back. Many times when I parked my bike, I would have to detach the front tire and take it with me along with my portfolio to the photographer's studio. Otherwise, the bike would likely not be there when I returned.

One day, while I was riding my bicycle to one of my shoots, a taxi sideswiped me. I skinned my knee and scraped my palm but was otherwise unhurt. Unfortunately, I could not say the same about my bike. It was destroyed.

When Joe found out, he gallantly offered the services of his limousine. It was a little awkward at first. I didn't want to accept anything from him, but he persisted. I was nervous, but not foolish. Who on earth could turn down the services of a limousine from a handsome rich man who persistently pursued her? His car was thrilling and handy, but a bit pretentious for transportation to a modeling shoot that paid only a hundred dollars. So when I used his car, I had the driver drop me off a block away, like a kid embarrassed by her parents at school. There were times I would have this car drop me off at the subway. I admit, I wasn't strong enough to say no to this powerful man. I came up with every excuse in the book not to have dinner with Joe until I finally broke down and agreed. From that dinner on, it was like getting on a roller coaster of luxury. He showered me with gifts: fantastic designer clothes, trips I could only have dreamed of before, and rides in his helicopter.

Despite my earlier feelings, I thought I had finally found my prince. I was totally overwhelmed. No one had ever shown this kind of interest in me. No one had ever been so generous with me. No one could be this wonderful. Joe became my world. I began laughing at his stories. I had stepped from one world into a fairy tale. I was Cinderella. I swallowed that nagging feeling of fear with glasses of expensive white wine. The gifts and trips he gave me silenced that part of my mind. I was in love. I was in love with him, with his life, and with his things. He was everything to me. As my life with Joe unfolded, I was paraded here and presented there. Every single day I experienced amazing things I never had dreamed about as a girl from South Dakota.

You would think I would be excited and energized by all this. You would think I would be on top of the world. I wasn't. I felt smaller and smaller, dwarfed by this lavish lifestyle. I ate dinner in places where the prices made my head reel. I went to parties where the chandelier alone could buy my childhood home ten times over. I listened to Wall Street power brokers spar, each man attempting to trump the last statement made.

While on one of our exotic trips to Haiti, Joe proposed to me out of the blue. We married the next day. At the time, it felt so right to be with this man. But eventually I began to see my life for what it was. I was a prop. I was a toy. I was the beautiful service platter that completed the set of Joe's dishes. That was me. Beautiful trophy wife. Only I didn't fully understand my role then. I remember one time when we were having dinner with friends at a very exclusive restaurant in New York. I was eager to get involved in the conversation, which revolved around the men and their business dealings. I was tired of sitting like the other wives and girlfriends in admiring silence beside their man. I thought I would just dive in with a question, to open up the conversation to all of us. "Gee, isn't it interesting that the Wall Street market is experiencing a steady climb to profit," I said.

I knew this to be true because I had read it inTime magazine. I was feeling excited to participate in the evening. I was sure this would impress the men, involve the women, and make my husband proud. There was silence. Ed, one of the men at the table, started laughing. One by one the other men began to laugh. The women just gaped at me in horror. Joe reached over and patted my hand. "That's adorable, honey, now shut up and let the men talk." I was humiliated. At that moment, I could have dropped through the floor from embarrassment. Not one woman uttered a word of support. Not one man defended me. The silence was deafening.

I felt dizzy and sick at the same time. The annoying voice of self-doubt, which I call the "monkey on my shoulder," began screeching. "You did it this time! Too bad you're worthless. Just shut up, smile, and look pretty." I never again opened my mouth at that dinner or any other dinner with my husband. It was more than just my words that fell silent. There was a part of me that went into hibernation that day. I won't say it died, because it was still there. It was just buried under layers of hurt and humiliation. My marriage to Joe continued, a predictable whirlwind of status. I withdrew more and more into myself, becoming a person I hardly recognized. I was beautiful and silent, like a statue. The only time I felt like my old self was when I was away from my husband. But even that was to change.

One night, I came home from a modeling job. My husband was angry. I had never seen him lose his temper before. His face burned scarlet and his eyes glittered like bright angry chips of steel. His body was stiff with rage, coiled tightly as he paced the floor with eerily measured steps. I was scared. I didn't know what had happened to make him this angry. I wasn't privy to any of his thoughts, his fears, his stresses, or his work. Without warning his knotted fist struck my face. My eye exploded in pain, and I fell to the ground. All I could think of was how to get away. I wanted to run, but all I could do was cower in fear and drag myself away to the farthest corner of our closet. I hid under the hanging clothes, sobs erupting from my chest in great waves, choking and crippling me. I pulled my legs tightly into my chest, crying until I couldn't cry anymore.

There was nothing left of me. My fairy-tale husband and life had shattered on the marble floor like a fallen mirror -- the razor-sharp shards of glass lacerating my hopes, my dreams, and my heart. The next day he sent me roses with a diamond bracelet dangling off one stem. To him it was his way of saying I'm sorry. Little did I know, it was a handcuff hiding amid a floral bouquet. The next day, and for many days after that, I told the Ford Modeling Agency I was sick. I couldn't show up to work with bruises on my face. My face was my currency; without it, I was of no value to them, let alone to myself. But I had fallen in love with Joe. He was my husband. I was supposed to stay with him for better or worse. I had had the better. Now I was experiencing the worse. But it got worse, far worse. In my unsophisticated and inexperienced view of life, I was sure our marriage would improve. We were even talking about having children, even though I had been told many times by doctors that I would probably never be able to conceive.

At one point in our tumultuous relationship, I must admit that I wasn't sure I wanted to have children with Joe. When I told him how I felt, he exploded. The face that I had known to be red with anger became purple with rage. I ran to the bathroom and locked myself inside, but he broke through the door easily. He threw me to the floor, sat on my chest, and pounded my face. I was bleeding so badly, he took me to the hospital, where he dumped me in the parking lot and drove away. I crawled on my hands and knees into the emergency room. My eyes were swollen shut. I had a concussion and a fractured jaw.

I remember a woman in the hospital pressing a piece of paper into my hand. On it was a phone number -- a help line for battered women. That was the first time I ever thought of myself as a battered women.

Through all the physical abuse, I never thought of myself that way. In those days, you did not talk about what was happening in your marriage, much less that your husband hit you. First, there was nothing anyone could do about it. And second, the first question from most people was, "Well, what did you do to deserve it?" No woman deserves to be hit, and fortunately today there are both better public awareness and agencies to assist battered women.

Today, charges can be pressed against the abuser based on injuries alone, but in those days, the police needed my consent. Being a good little wife, and a broken woman, I refused to press charges against my husband. I wanted him arrested for what he did to me, but I was afraid of what he would do. So I did nothing.

After I was released from the hospital, I went to stay with friends. The secret was out and I felt ashamed. My self-esteem was a shambles, and my face was not much better. My mind was spinning with a million questions. Where am I going to live? What if he comes after me? Will my face return to normal so I can work? What am I going to do? He has everything. While I did make some money in modeling, I had put everything into our joint account. Joe said he was investing it for me. I had never seen this account, although I inquired many times. When I tried to return home to pick up my personal possessions I discovered that he had changed the locks. He had closed our joint bank account and canceled all our credit cards. Because I was leaving him, I was walking away with nothing but my freedom. After several years of bitter divorce negotiations I received a nominal amount of money, which could never replace everything I had left. However, there is no gem, no coin, no fur that could ever take my freedom again. I was no longer naive. I was no longer unsophisticated.

I was no longer the open-hearted, fairy-tale-believing young girl who had handed over her money, her life, and her heart. I would never again be seduced by a man's wealth, power, or influence into selling my soul. I would never again ignore the warning signs I felt that day when we first met. I would get back on my own feet and live on my own terms. No one would ever leave me homeless and penniless again. I was never going to give away my power like I did with Joe.

It took time for my face to heal, but it did. It took a lot longer for my heart to heal. Modeling was all I knew how to do, and my husband had kept and probably destroyed my modeling portfolio. That book of photos was what landed me work, and I never saw it again. The Ford Modeling Agency had enough of the drama and told me I needed to find another agency. I had no clothes, no money, and no pictures. A year had passed and things had changed, not only within me and my life, but within the modeling industry as a whole. I found myself at auditions with girls in their teens. I was slightly past the age of thirty and might as well have been a dinosaur. So there I was in New York City, alone. I took my share of meaningless jobs and floundered around in business until I discovered something with the help of my friend, Michael. He was in real estate, converting multistory brownstones into condominiums. At that time, a lot of partnerships were being created between developers and financial backers. It was a busy time in New York for this type of business. Michael offered me a small job with a smaller salary, and I was thrilled. The office was just around the corner from my apartment. I had recovered enough from my relationship with my ex-husband to start dating again.

Life was looking better. I had started a long-distance relationship with a man named Robert, whom I had dated a few times before I was married. He was a nice man, and I was hopeful that we might have a future together.

Six months into that relationship, I discovered I was pregnant. Me, the one with the tubular issues! I was so excited, I could hardly contain my happiness that I was to have this child. I knew in my heart this was a miracle. I remember walking into the brownstone-conversion office after suffering from a bout of morning sickness. I opened the door to the office and was surprised when I turned on the lights to see one of our clients, a Hassidic man named Ben, sitting in the waiting area. Ben had a habit of arriving thirty minutes before his appointment.

I sat at my small desk across from him as he waited on the bench. He wanted to talk, and I wanted to call Robert and share my news. The minute hand on the clock crawled by as Ben spoke in his soft direct monotone. I prayed that my boss would come to work early so he could take Ben off my hands. He arrived after what seemed a lifetime, and I practically pushed the two men out of the office so I could make my important call.

My heart pounded as the phone rang. After rive rings, Robert picked up. "Hi," I said, barely able to contain my news. "What are you up to?" he said, sounding groggy. He was at home in Colorado and the two-hour time difference meant it was a little after seven in the morning there. I took a deep breath. "I think I'm pregnant." Silence. It was so quiet I could hear my own heart beat.

"Are you sure? Are you sure?" He shot the questions out rapidly, like a machine gun. My head started to spin and I fumbled with the words. "Um. Yes, I think so. I'm going to the doctor today," I stumbled. "I'll pay for the abortion," he stated flatly. My heart collapsed. The fact that I was pregnant was an absolute miracle. I had been told for so many years by doctors that my chances of having a baby were very low. So for me to find out I was carrying a baby after all the physical problems was the most exciting news to me. Instantly I knew I might not have another opportunity to be a mother if I agreed to terminate my pregnancy. I wanted this baby so much. "What? No, I don't think so," I responded. "I want to keep this baby." "Go see the doctor and call me back," he ordered. I didn't say anything else, just softly hung up the phone. I did go to the doctor that afternoon and I was pregnant. I called Robert back later and he insisted I come to Colorado so we could talk things out and "go through this together."

When I got to Colorado I was so relieved to see him, and it felt like we were going to work things out. The first thing we did was go to see his family's doctor. At some point I had the feeling that they were not checking out the pregnancy, but checking to see if I was indeed pregnant. This was not a good sign. When I left Colorado to go see my mother in California, Robert told me we would talk about it. While I was staying at my mother's home, he called me. "If you want to have this baby, I can't stop you," he said, his voice hard and cold. "But I want you to know if that's your decision, then I want nothing to do with you and the baby."

"Are you sure?" I asked. "Maybe you need some time -- "

Before I could finish, he cut me off. "Val, I don't want kids. I'm too young anyway, and I'm not ready to be a father. You're on your own if you do this." I hung up the phone. He never spoke to me again. In that moment I wasn't scared. A feeling of peace washed over me. I was actually relieved. I was going to have this child. I was going to raise him or her on my own and on my terms. The freedom was almost giddy. For what felt like the first time in my life I was completely naked to the truth of who I was and what I had to become. I had a miracle growing inside of me that meant more to me than anything.

Once I settled down emotionally, the fear set in. I wasn't doing that great a job of supporting myself, so how was I going to do it for two? You can't do this, the monkey on my shoulder screamed, in the way only he can. "You are not going to be a good mother. You're going to screw this up." Deep down, I knew none of this was true, but it was easy at that moment to let the Monkey run wild in my brain.

I knew I had to get a handle on my thoughts. I knew I had to choose to think positively, but I didn't know how. I struggled with the Monkey. At times, I still do.

While I stayed with my mother in California, my feelings ran the gamut from fear to elation back to fear again. My mother was not in a position to help me financially, and she was no June Cleaver. I was on my own and I knew it. I flew back to New York. My mother had filled my head with warnings. "It's going to be hard," she said. My mother knew how hard it could be, as she had raised four of us on and off on her own.

First, I needed to find a better job. I would need extra money to make it through the first few months after the birth, to pay for my living expenses. I knew that I would need much more money to raise my child, but I tried not to let that completely freak me out. I was offered a job at a large cosmetics company. It was scheduled to begin just after the baby was born, and it would have regular hours so I could manage raising my baby with the salary. There was just one thing; it was in California. I'd like to say I didn't have a choice, but I believe you always have a choice. Even though I didn't want to move to California, I had to choose the right thing for myself and my child.

While I was still in New York, waiting for the baby to be born, I often walked over to this little church on Sixty-second and Park. It always comforted me to be there. I used to love to sit in the far corner, where I could see the stained glass windows. I would sit and listen, close my eyes and feel my child move inside me. I felt we were a twosome already. I made a promise before God that I would protect this child and do everything in my power to provide him or her with the best life I could.

I would leave the church, and the Monkey would start chattering in my head again. "What are you going to do?" he'd screech. "You're running back to California because you couldn't make it here!" "Oh shut up!!!" I blurted out loud. The critical voice in my head spoke to me often. For years I heard it, until I realized the only one who could quiet that voice in my head was me.

It was a Thursday when I went into labor. I took a shower, put on my makeup, curled my hair, and headed to the hospital. After all, I wanted to look good for the birth of my baby! I didn't know what to expect. (As you can imagine, I didn't look so cute by the end of the birth, believe me.) I called Kathleen, my best friend, and she stood there waiting for me at the hospital when I arrived.

Kathleen is one of those women who worry about everything. She is wonderful to have around because she does all the worrying for both of us. Kathleen is the type of friend I could call up at one o'clock in the morning and she would meet me anywhere. One time I called her in the late evening and she had a man in her bed. I asked her to meet me at a party anyway. Twenty minutes later, Kathleen shows up at the party in a ball gown. I asked her what she did with the guy. "Oh, he's asleep," Kathleen shrugged. I laughed. That's Kathleen.

While all the other women had their husbands at the birthing classes, I had Kathleen. "We're going to be parents," she would say to the other couples. The others in the room probably thought we were lesbians. She would just flash this bright Kathleen smile that I still love today. We didn't care. We laughed about everything.

One time I had the opportunity to go fox hunting in Ireland with a man I was dating. I invited Kathleen. "I swear you are Lucy," Kathleen said. "This sounds like another one of your hare-brained adventures." "That makes you Ethel," I replied. And forever more we have become Lucy and Ethel. We did go fox hunting, complete with the feathered hats, jodhpurs, and shiny boots. The men in our lives have come and gone, but our friendship has endured.

My water broke shortly after I reached the hospital, and I was certain I was going to deliver at any moment. However, after seven hours they sent me and Kathleen home because the baby hadn't dropped. My doctor told me to go have a drink to relieve the pain and wait for nature to take its course.

That would never have happened today, but that was the 1980s. At my doctor's suggestion, Kathleen and I headed to Rosa Mexicano on First Avenue, near my apartment. We ordered margaritas and waited for nature to take its course. I felt pretty good after the margaritas until the real labor pains started. I was doing what we learned in birthing class, huffing and puffing -- only it was in a bar.

Through the joyous birth of my daughter and the following days, I was always aware of what I would need to begin to consider a life for us. At the drop of a hat, our small apartment in New York was leased to other people and all of a sudden we were on our way to California. That's how I ended up back in California in that little apartment with the borrowed furniture. I learned a lot from that point in my life, but I still had many things to learn, many mistakes to make. And true to myself, I made them all! When I finally left New York, I knew that I wouldn't return for a long time. The one thing that I did know was that I didn't want to return to New York and have people say, "Oh, look at poor Valerie. She lost everything. She can barely make it." Or, "She married some old goat to save herself."

As I sat on the airplane looking out of the window with my baby, Vanessa, on my lap, I knew I wouldn't return until I could hold my head up high. I wouldn't return until I could be someone I was proud of. There are few times in life when you have the luxury to explore fully what you want. As women, we are constantly helping, fixing, nurturing, mending, minding, tending, or being someone or something. Then life hands us an unexpected event -- usually a painful one, emotionally or physically.

That is the moment when time stops and for an instant everything is still. It is then that the awakening of the self begins. At first that feeling is fleeting and unfamiliar, but as you nurture it, you grow more powerful by the day. Two events in my life profoundly awoke me to myself -- the ending of my marriage and the birth of my daughter. Both experiences created 180-degree shifts in my life and who I thought I was.

Like a diamond in the rough, thousands of pounds of pressure beat away at me until my new self could emerge -- shiny, beautiful, and strong.

Copyright © 2009 by Valerie Fitzgerald