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Archive for April, 2012

I don’t know about you, but I am unbearably tired of phrases like “aging gracefully.”  Or worse yet:  “Embracing your age.”  Define please, could you? And while you’re at it, please tell me why such phrases are often accompanied by a photo of a woman with white hair.

It seems the last bastion of socially acceptable stereotyping is Age with a capital “A”.  Especially when it comes to women. You’ll have to excuse my attitude, but today I am wearing some serious cranky pants.

I confess.  I am a baby boomer.  Where once we boomers were stereotyped in terms of sex, drugs and rock and roll, today it’s old age. And what riles me up is this:  Rather than being defined by our birthdays, why the hell can’t we just be? Whether I look my age, or younger or older, is immaterial to me.  What matters is the way others treat me, and it’s been my experience that older women begin to lose credibility when they hit middle age — an ugly term if ever their were one.

It’s not our age per se that does us in; it’s the expectation of what a woman of a certain age is and is not, can and cannot do, should and should not look like, that gets us.  Age itself may not matter.  But the way we are pigeonholed certainly does.

The other day, a professor friend told me about a comment she heard in class from one young women who declared that a woman’s life is over at menopause, and that starts at 50.  Do we ever speak of men that way. Ugh, right?

For years,  I have set myself up as guinea pig for my journalism students to practice interview techniques. Back when, I would tell them my age — if they asked — and the response was often a gasp.  At first, I thought it was flattering.  But then I realized.  It was all about the stereotypes. I didn’t conform to their image of what a woman my age was supposed to be like. What, I asked them: should I be sporting polyester and humming show tunes?

What I really wonder is why this is predominantly a women’s issue.  Men grow older, more distinguished.  They run for political office.  But women? With a few exceptions, we exhaust our shelf life.  We’re assumed to be no longer vital.  Relevant.  We become redundant.  Invisible.  Not supposed to care what we see in the mirror.  At least that’s what the media, and society itself, tells us.

Today in class, to test a point, I put my students on the spot:  Let’s take our president, I said. He’ll be 51 this summer.  Do you think of him as middle-aged — or four years away from his AARP card?  Most of them laughed.  Now, I said.  Take a woman that age, maybe your aunt or someone else.  How do you picture her?

For the one or two kids who still didn’t get it, I pushed a little bit further:  Name some women actors Brad Pitt’s age — or older — who still get starring roles.  (Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren don’t count.  They are the exceptions who prove the rule.  And Julia Roberts?  America’s former sweetheart is now playing the evil queen in Snow White.)  Silence.

This week I caught a piece in Salon by a thirty-something writer I happen to like.  The essay was about taking a water aerobics class at her local YMCA with a bunch of “old women”. She thought they’d love her, embrace her, make her feel young.  Instead, they aimed a bunch of jokes in her direction, laughing like the mean girls in junior high.  Cute story, but what got  me was the description of the women:  

My poolies, the ones at my gym, had necks that had long since defied definition. Massive freckled cleavage became neck became chin became face and so on. They wore bathing caps with plastic flowers and swim suits with pointy foam bra cups. Underneath, their hair was teased and thinning in shades of copper and yellow.

And then, the way she categorized them:  old ladies and elderly women.  But never mind. What had gotten the writer’s goat, she realized, was the fact that these feisty chicks didn’t “fall into the role I assigned them, because they were busy being their own people.” Good point, but what I wonder is whether she realized how she had loaded her piece with stereotypes. Which is, after all, the most insidious thing about the damage they do.

But back to this aging business: The topic has fast become a staple of women’s media – by women, for women, about women.  Surely, for example, you’ve noticed an upwelling of articles and broadcast pieces – many of them just a little smug  — about going gray as a way to embrace one’s age.   Now, don’t get me wrong – if you love your gray hair, more power to you.  I’m certainly not going to judge you for refusing to color your hair.  But please, by the same token, don’t judge me for choosing to color mine.

I started coloring my hair when I was in my mid-thirties, when a much older cousin took me aside and said, “Oh, sweetie.  You’re way too young to have so much gray in your bangs.”  I’ve been coloring since.  It’s not to pass for  young.  Or keep my job.  Or, for the love of God, please the patriarchy.  Nope.  I color my fair for the same reason my twenty and thirty something sisters do:  vanity.   I like the way I look, especially with my copper lowlights.

But I digress.  I’ve noticed that a lot of what we read about aging is written by women who aren’t even close to the cut-off line and that the subtext is fear, which seems to be enabled by the messages themselves.  The irony is that the media tell us that younger women are supposed to fear getting older — while their older sisters should put away the women they thought were and just fade to, you know, gray.  It occurs to me: maybe one of the reasons certain milestone birthdays are so scary for younger women is the assumptions they make about the women who have already reached them.

And could that focus on the ticking clock be one reason why, as we found in the research for our book, women agonize over their life choices?

Many smart women have suggested that one way to ditch the stigma is for all of us to claim our age — to show that, no matter how many fingers we are, we are still smart, vital, productive, funny and, what the hell, stylish, too.  I for one would be happy to do it, so long as you promise you won’t frame me in terms of my birthdays.  You know, patronize or marginalize me.  So I’ll do it, pinky swear.

But only if you go first.

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Last Sunday, after a particularly wild weekend out of town weekend with family and friends, a small group of us convened for brunch before going our separate ways. I looked at the menu, and while the chilaquiles softly called to me, I opted for my standby: huevos rancheros. But when the food came out I was consumed with regret. I should have ordered the friggen chilaquiles.

Regret. Such a miserable feeling. If only! I should have! Why didn’t I? When you’re deep in the throes of a musing over the road not traveled, it’s hard to imagine two uglier words that these: What if? 

Ugly, and seemingly unavoidable. Every choice entails a trade-off, right? But a recent study shows that those unpleasant feelings of regret ease as we get older. That, indeed, what age takes in collagen and hangover resilience, it gives back in the form of a certain kind of contentment.

From Scientific American:

The latest research suggests that young people tend to fixate on their regrets, whereas older adults generally learn not to waste time wallowing in remorse about past circumstances they cannot change. A new study demonstrates that these cognitive differences manifest themselves in brain scans and physiological responses, revealing that, unlike healthy adults, both depressed adults and young people treat missed opportunities and genuine losses as equally regretful events–even if they were not directly responsible. Taming such ruefulness appears to be crucial to emotional stability and happiness in old age, and related therapies could help with depression. For the young, however, a little regret might be useful, motivating them to learn from their mistakes.

The study in question involved a simple gambling video game, played from within the comfortable confines of an MRI machine. On the screen, participants saw a row of eight unopened boxes that they could open one at a time, from left to right–and were told that seven of the boxes would contain gold, and one would contain a devil, who would steal whatever gold had been amassed. Devilish! Participants could quit at any time, but once they did, the contents of all the remaining boxes would be revealed–so they’d get a good look at what they missed out on.

And the brain scans showed that–if you’ll allow me to paraphrase–realizing they’d bugged out before collecting all of the gold there was to be had only bothered the young adults and the depressed older adults. The healthy older adults’ brains showed hardly any change. In other words, healthy adults don’t moon over the road not traveled the way their younger counterparts do.

Regret is a huge topic in our book, because it’s so inextricably tied to making choices, and taking chances. We fear being left with regrets almost as much as we fear failure. Because that feeling is just so awful–the wondering about what we’re missing out on gnaws, and the gnawing saps the joy out of whatever it is we are doing, you know, instead of that thing we’re not. But, it seems that, as is the case with failure, perhaps there’s a bright side to regret: it, too, can be a teacher.

Brassen further proposes that disengaging from regret is a protective strategy that kicks in sometime in old age, preventing the elderly–who do not have as much time or opportunity to make amends–from needlessly feeling sorry about things they cannot realistically change. In contrast, young people have their whole lives ahead of them–plenty of time to repeat their mistakes if they do not learn from them.

Wrosch says he thinks about regret similarly: ‘If someone in their 70s regrets that they never had the education or job they wanted, there’s no going back to change life circumstances. But if a similar regret happens to someone in their early 20s, they can use that information to turn their life around.’

Kind of a sad spin on what’s really going on with the, um, more mature among us, but also, I suppose, reassuring: our trusty brains will shield us from the dark feelings of regret once it’s too late to make changes. Which might also mean this: if you’re actively feeling regret, perhaps it’s possible that it’s not too late yet.

Bring on the friggen chilaquiles.

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More than likely, you are too.

Give it a try:  n-n-n-n-n-ooooooooooooo.

Can’t say it, can you?  Like me, you are probably over-extended, over-committed and over-booked. Which makes me wonder: Why is it that we can’t give ourselves permission to ever respectfully decline?  And, while we’re at it: why do men have an easier time with the n-word?  Are there, for example, any show tunes about a guy who can’t say no?  Right? Are they the more evolved of the species?  ( I’m sure we’ll find out in the comments section.)

This comes up because, as I write this, I am looking forward to a toxic tomorrow, when I have three major commitments that, had they been on three different days, I would be gladly anticipating.  And, to be sure, each is a case of my, a while ago, saying: Yes, absolutely!  But then, calendars rearranged.  Life intervened.  The calendar went haywire.  And here I am.  Wondering how I will make it through the day.  Or put all those miles on my car.  Could I have declined anywhere along the way?

Of course.  But I did not.  Which is why, as Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote– albeit in an entirely different context — I’m in a terrible fix.

This whole issue of saying no came up in class today, when one of my students, talking about the over-extension of today’s college students, talked about an invitation to participate in something (probably spectacular — she’s that kind of kid) where she had just said no. Can’t do it.  And the response from her friends was disbelief.

Part of this is the fact that as women we are raised to please.  It starts early.  When writing our book, we talked to a counselor at a prestigious all-girls high school, who told us that when she talks to many of the girls in her school the main topic of conversation is stress.  They admit that a lot is self-induced, but when she asks them, “Well, do you really need to take six honors courses?” the answer will be “But I want to.” What they really want, she told us, is to please:

“Studies show girls have so many more problems than boys— depression, eating disorders, migraines—because girls will stick with the craziness a lot longer than boys will. Girls are hard-wired to please, which makes the pressure even bigger. They won’t give up, because to do so would be a failure. And they don’t want anybody to feel they’re a failure, because then they’d be letting people down.”

Not sure that need not to let people down ever quite goes away.  (Myself?  See above.)  We are loathe to say no.  (And, as we’ve noted before, damn quick to apologize.)  Is it a question of self-worth?  That we still see ourselves as not worthy? This gets compounded when we get into the real world of work by the fact that we’re so new to the game that, when we get invited to the table, we end up feeling grateful.  Take the case of a woman we met after a speech we gave at a conference not long ago.  She came up to us afterward and told us that the president of her company had called her during the middle of the previous day’s session and offered her a new position, with a new title and a bump in salary.  The call took her by surprise, she said yes, and the call ended.  Bang. But what she said to us a day later was this: shouldn’t she have negotiated her salary?  Wouldn’t a man have done that?

Shouldn’t she have made the big ask?  Probably, yes.

Maybe it’s we haven’t yet learned that it’s okay to be ourselves.  To be true to our very own wants and needs. To be authentic. To ditch what we call the iconic self. To live up to no one’s expectations but our own. And sometimes that means to, well, just say no.

But what the hell do I know.  Here I sit, eating my dinner (burned the crap out of the organic carrots, by the way), finishing this post.  I’d have another glass of wine but, you know, tomorrow is a big day.

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So, the Mommy Wars. They’re back. Again. Or still.

A superquick recap: As you’ve undoubtedly heard by now, last week Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen said on CNN that Republican Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s wife Ann, a stay at home mom, had “never worked a day in her life.” Naturally the Romney campaign latched on to that one with the sort of ferocity that would make a pitbull (lipstick-wearing or not) proud, and the media has been all over it since.

While “Can’t we all just get along?” is my immediate, reflexive thought in the face of such firestorms, I realize that it’s just not that simple–and that, as Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams recently wrote, The Mommy Wars are real. In her smart and honest piece, Williams writes of her experience having a foot in both worlds–she’s a mom and a freelance writer who works from home. Here’s a taste:

We as women spend our whole lives being judged, and never more so than for our roles as mothers. We suffer for it, and frankly, we dish it out in spades. We park ourselves in separate camps, casting suspicious glances across the schoolyard. And it sucks because the judgment is there and its real and it stems so often from our own deepest fears and insecurities. We pay lip service to each other’s “choices”–and talk smack behind each other’s backs.

Yep, we’ve got each other’s backs theoretically, but when it comes down to it, Williams is pretty much right about what we’re doing behind them. But what is it really about? Why are we so defensive? So eager to judge each other for doing things differently? I’d argue its because, sometimes, we worry that we’re doing it wrong — and that the easiest, most comfortable defense in the face of that kind of worry is often a good offense.

And it’s not just stay at home moms versus working moms. It’s working moms versus their non-mom, on-the-job counterparts. It’s moms versus women who don’t have kids. It’s singletons versus coupleds. It’s pro-Botox and anti. It’s Tiger Mom versus Bringing Up Bebe. It’s gluten-free/organic/vegan versus chicken fingers and tater tots.

The other night I Tivo’d a show on OWN: it featured Gloria Steinem in conversation with Oprah, and then the two of them speaking at a small gathering of Barnard college students. At one point, Oprah asked Steinem about being attacked by other women, and then cut to a clip of Steinem on Larry King’s show. King thanked Steinem for being with him, she smiled hugely, and King went to a call. A woman’s voice came through, and she said, “I’m so glad I get to talk to you, Ms. Steinem” …and then went in for the kill. “Why are you trying to destroy families?” she asked in a voice so hostile it made me shiver. “Are you even married? Do you even have kids?” she demanded accusingly.

So, here’s the question: why are we so quick to perceive someone else’s doing things differently–or simply fighting to get access to those different things to do–as an attack on what we’re doing, a statement on our choices? As though there can be no other explanation for why we’ve taken the roads we’ve taken than that the road we didn’t take is wrong.

If we go out for ice cream, and you get chocolate, and I get vanilla (okay, I never get vanilla–I will always get pralines’n’cream), can’t the reason we’ve ordered differently just be attributed to the fact that we have different taste, like different things? Must I interpret your taste for chocolate as some sort of implicit judgment of mine for caramel? An attack on pralines? Surely, that would be chock-fulla-nuts.

What would I get out of criticizing you for your choice?

Perhaps if I was a little unsure that I’d ordered correctly, or perhaps if your choice was looking kinda good, enumerating all the ways chocolate is bad and pralines are good might help to stave off the self-doubt.

When it comes down to the Mommy Wars and all of the other crazy Us-vs.-Themmery we women put each other through, isn’t this kind of what we’re up to? After all, what, exactly, does my choice have to do with yours? Or yours, mine?

Well, there’s something: your choice has to do with mine in the sense that you’re showing me what the road not traveled looks like. If there’s only one way to do something, you’re spared the worry that you’re doing it wrong. There is no right or wrong, better or worse, there is only the way. But, the more options there are, well, the more options there are. And none of them is gonna be perfect, because nothing is. And when we come upon the bumps in our road, we wonder about the other road–and we worry that it’s better. And then, in our lesser moments, we seethe. We judge and we criticize in an attempt to stave off our doubts. If we can make the case that we are right–or, perhaps more to the point, that the other is wrong–we can seize on that little boost of self-assuredness to carry us through for a while.

So I guess what I’ve come up with is this: the moments when we feel like we need to make the case that that other road is wrong are probably the moments when we need to look at ourselves. Honestly. Perhaps we’re frustrated, or overwhelmed, or insecure or unhappy, or–and my money’s on this one–just having one of those days.

And women still have a lot of those days: that we have these choices we’re so quick to do battle over is new. We face structural inequities, lesser pay, the bulk of the burden of the second shift — and all of that second guessing. While we do indeed have access to a ton of paths that were blocked to us just a generation ago, we haven’t yet had the chance to make them smooth and pretty. They’re unpaved and overgrown and difficult to find. Of course we will have moments of self-doubt and envy and insecurity and frustration. But sniping at and about each other does no good for no one.

Last night before I went to bed, I was flipping the channels (it was a big weekend; I allowed myself some serious couch potato time once I got home–don’t judge!) and stopped for a quick second on CNN, because the ticker below that said “Mommy Wars” grabbed my attention. Four commentators went back and forth and around and around about the Mommy Wars: they were all men.

We are all doing the very best we can, in a world that it’s up to us to change, to make room for us. Every last one of us, no matter what path we choose to take. We’re all travelers–and we should do what good travelers do. Greet each other with a smile and an open mind. Share our stories. And, then before heading our separate ways, we should wish each other happy trails.

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I’ll bet you do.  That’s right: you, over there.  The one who just fished a shirt to wear to work out of the pile of dirty clothes on your bedroom floor.  Trust me, I do not judge, having worn the same running clothes for three days straight.  (Right.  Ew.)

Seems to me, if we’re in the workforce, we could all use a housewife at home to pick up the groceries and fold the clothes.  But whether we’re married or not, with or without kids, said housewife is likely to be you. No matter where you work, or how hard, when it comes to the second shift, ladies, we own it.

Which is something, says Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, that needs to change if we ever want to cut into the so-called ambition gap.   Sandberg has emerged as a leading voice in the quest to make life more doable — and the ladder more accessible — for those of us (read: most of us) who want the space to pursue both a career and a life.  And what she suggests is that if we ever want to get to fifty-fifty in the c-suites, we need to get to fifty-fifty back at home.

Unless, of course, we can hire a housewife.

In an interview for the Makers series from PBS and AOL, Sandberg spoke on a number of issues related to the difficulties women face in the workplace, from work-life balance (no such thing, she says) and the division of household labor.  The interview is broken up into mini-soundbites for quick hits of inspiration whenever you might need one, and at approximately 1:57 in this particular cut (scroll to the video at the bottom of the page) what she says is be careful who you marry (Cogent advice: we heard the same from Stanford economist Myra Strober, in an interview for our book):

The most important thing, I’ve said this a hundred times, if you marry a man, marry the right one.  If you can marry a woman, that’s better because the split between two women in the home is pretty even, data shows.

 But find someone to marry who’s going to do half.  Not just support your career by saying things – oh, of course you should work –  but actually get up and change half the diapers, because that’s what it takes.

Her overarching point? If women ran half the institutions, and men ran half the homes, the world would be a better place.  Hard to argue with that one, especially when you consider that, for most of us, the economy doesn’t allow for many single income families.  (And then, of course, there’s  the structure of today’s workplace that demands a 52 hour workweek.  But we’ve covered that.)

Anyway, I thought of all this housewife business the other day, after a class in which a student pitched a story on the lack of women in leadership positions in corporate America.  While we were brainstorming a fresh angle for the piece, one student brought up the issue of stay-at-home dads as one way to close the gap.  Good idea, right?  Especially in a classroom of forward-thinking millennial kids.  And so I turned to the men in the class and said, “Okay, how many of you would consider being a stay at home dad?”  Answers ranged from a reluctant “well, maybe” to “no way” to clearly the most honest answer of the bunch:  “I hate children.”  Which if nothing else was good for a laugh.  Then that student who had brought up the issue in the first place asked how many students had had stay-at-home dads.  Not quite radio silence, but close to it.

What struck me was the fact that here in 2012, a conversation about shifting gender roles seemed, to a classful of kick-ass college seniors, so, you know, quaint.  And so I brought up the topic again today, and one female student voiced a collective worry: I want a career and a family. But when and how do I make it  fit?  From the men, again, radio silence. What was interesting, but not entirely surprising, was that this was something none of the guys had ever considered.  Or, probably, would ever have to. You can be sure I pointed that out.

But then it struck me.  Is the issue the fact that we still define work outside of work in traditional gender terms? The most recent American Time Use Survey found that 20 percent of men did housework on a given day compared with 49 percent of women. Forty-one percent of men did food preparation or cleanup, compared with 68 percent of women.  And then there’s this: back in 2008, the Gallup Lifestyle poll (the most recent one) found that married couples still maintain a traditional division of labor:  men did the yardwork and took care of the car, women did the dishes and took care of the kids.  (Which often makes me wonder how the division of labor breaks down in, say, Manhattan, where folks don’t have a lot of cars, and even fewer yards.  But, anyway.)

So maybe that’s our first step:  letting go of traditional gender expectations, especially at home.  I myself just dragged myself home from work.  My husband, who was watching a hockey game, greeted me at the door with a glass of Pinot. Much appreciated. We’re having leftovers for dinner.  And everyday, he packs my lunch.

My students think that’s cute.

As for my running clothes?  Sigh.  Don’t ask.

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One of the problems with decisions is we sometimes make them before we’re ready. Sometimes we’ve forced ourselves into a box. Sometimes we entered that box with a skip and a smile. Sometimes it’s been a full-court press to please the iconic self. But as the saying goes: Decide in haste, repent in leisure. Quite possibly, a few years down the line, we’ll look over our shoulders, second guess ourselves, and wished we’d opted for Door Number One, wondering what for the love of God were we thinking.

I bring this up not because of that Hefty bag full of extremely unfortunate clothing I donated to the Good Will this weekend — but because of the renewed debate about the value of college.

Education or occupation?

Yes, I agree: Tuition is rising out of control, even in public universities.  Then there’s the economy, which results in a number of graduates of high priced universities spending the equivalent of a “gap year” brewing lattes and living back in their high school bedrooms because they can’t find a full time job.  And then there’s the campaign chat from presidential candidate Rick Santorum who suggested that President Obama’s talk about giving everyone the opportunity to pursue higher education was elitist.

All of which has led into an unfortunate conversation about economics:  the cost-benefit ratio of tuition versus paycheck.  And the point that many folks are suggesting is that, maybe the best plan before you go to school — or decide not to — is to figure out right quick what you want to do with your life and head off in that direction. Choose your path, put on your blinders, and then steamroll ahead.

Think about that.  Did you know what you wanted out of life when you were 18? 20? Even 30?  When I was that age, my life plan was to have seven kids and write the great American novel.  Marrying into a family of, well, seven kids — where my mother-in-law once told me that for ten years of her life she remembered nothing but driving car pools and doing laundry — quickly disabused me of that notion.  And the great American novel?  To this day, I have yet to come up with a plot.

But that’s behind the point.  Seems to me that this rush to adulthood, to forge ahead with the five-year plan before you’re even legal to order a martini or sign a lease on your own apartment is a recipe for a lot of indecision down the line, especially for women who are new to this game of figuring out what to do with their lives.  For men, maybe it’s different.  For generations, they’ve known that their purpose is to provide.  To go, seek and conquer.  And maybe that makes the decision making a little bit easier.  But for us?  Suddenly all the doors have flown open:  we can be anything, we can do everything, we can have it all.  Or so we’ve been told.  And based on that, what we’ve found is that those choices are incredibly hard.  Especially without the generational role models men have had for years.

So what I wonder is, why the rush?

But back to school: Is higher education just an expensive form of job preparation?  Or is it about learning about the world and about yourself: figuring out who you are, how to make your way in life, and edging your way through what has been dubbed “emerging adulthood“?  And so my question is this:  how can you choose what you want to be in life when you’re barely out of your teens, don’t have the role models to forge the trail, and, given good health, you’ve probably got 60 years of adulthood waiting at your doorstep?

And then there’s this: while you’ve been diligently following the five-year plan, what might have you missed out on along the way?

I’ve been teaching at the college level for 15 years, and I see the effects of choosing too soon all the time among my women students.  The trigger for our book, in fact, was a conversation with a young graduate we called Jane – a rockstar by any definition – who entered college with a firm plan in mind, yet shortly after graduation was so overwhelmed by the choices that lay in front of her and her dismay that she might not have chosen the proper one, that she confessed that she sometimes wished she had been born into a culture where everything — from what she did with her life to where she lived to whom she married — was chosen for her.

And what we wondered, again, was why the rush?

And so, I was so heartened when I ran into an interview with Columbia professor Andrew Delbanco over on salon.com the other day.  His  book, “College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be,” is a defense of liberal arts education, and when he was asked why college is necessary, what he had to say was this:

… I understand the reasons students feel compelled to specialize early, but I think there is something valuable lost when we give in to these pressures — namely, what college has traditionally provided: the opportunity for young people to make a pause between adolescence and adulthood, to reflect on life, on their choices, on who they are or want to be. We don’t want to lose that precious chance — what the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott calls “the gift of interval.” In my mind, that gift is the essence of the American college and what has made it an important institution in the world.

Bingo. The point is not necessarily that everyone needs to go to college, though it would be great if everyone could.  But what I think is that, one way or the other, all of us need to allow ourselves the space to embark upon some trial and error.  To expand.  Grow. Find our gifts.  Get to know who we are and what we want.  After all, we’ve got plenty of years ahead of us.

Why rush?

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Everyone else seems to be. They’re talking about women and sex and “Girls” and sex and feminism and sex and HBO and sex and the sexual revolution as failure and the sexual revolution as success.

It feels a little weird to be writing this, honestly, being that it’s 2012 and all. But with whom and where and how and how often women are doing it remains a hot topic. As it should. Sex, after all, is hot. And our sex lives are as integral to who we are as our professional lives — and collectively, every bit as much of a barometer as to what’s going on with women as salary surveys and graduation rates and polls about who’s doing the housework.

Of course, as is generally the case in discussions about women, women and our changing place in the world, and/or women and sex, there lurks just the faintest whiff of  judgment. In a piece entitled “The Bleaker Sex” in Sunday’s New York Times, Frank Bruni takes to the Opinion pages with his thoughts on Lena Dunham’s upcoming HBO series “Girls”:

The first time you see Lena Dunham’s character having sex in the new HBO series “Girls,” her back is to her boyfriend, who seems to regard her as an inconveniently loquacious halfway point between partner and prop, and her concern is whether she’s correctly following instructions…

You watch these scenes and other examples of the zeitgeist-y, early-20s heroines of “Girls” engaging in, recoiling from, mulling and mourning sex, and you think: Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this? Salaries may be better than in decades past and the cabinet and Congress less choked with testosterone. But in the bedroom? What’s happening there remains something of a muddle, if not something of a mess…

In a recent interview, presented in more detail on my Times blog, she told me that various cultural cues exhort her and her female peers to approach sex in an ostensibly ‘empowered’ way that she couldn’t quite manage. “I heard so many of my friends saying, ‘Why can’t I have sex and feel nothing?’ It was amazing: that this was the new goal.”

First, not so fast, Bruni: while salaries may be better and Congress less choked, the numbers are still far from impressive. While clearly we have made progress on those fronts, I challenge anyone to make the case the work’s been done, equality achieved. The numbers certainly indicate otherwise, as we’ve pointed out from time to time.

Now to the sex: While yes, I’ll give you that sexual scenes painted in this and other previews of “Girls” (I haven’t seen it; the show premieres on April 15) do indeed indicate a bit of a muddle, if not a mess, I don’t see that as problematic. On the contrary: I’d argue said muddle makes perfect sense. And I’ll raise you one: I think said muddle is an apt metaphor for what women are going through in every realm.

Women today are raised on empowering messages: from the time we’re little, we’re told girls can do anything boys can do. (As we should be.) We come of age in the relatively safe, comfortable confines of school, believing in this message and in its natural conclusion–that feminism‘s work if over, its battles won. So too do we believe in the natural conclusion of that other message–that “girls can do anything boys can do” also means that we should do things the way they do.

And then, buoyed by the beliefs that feminism is old news and that men and women are not only equal but basically the same, we smack up against the realities of the real world: the judgments, the biases, the roles that don’t fit, the obstacles to changing them. The inequities. The shoulds. And we think there must be something wrong with us–that we’re alone in the muddle. When the reality is that the world still has not caught up to the messaging we’re fed, nor does the messaging necessarily have it right. Women are wandering uncharted territory. And, without a map, everything looks a muddle. We’re feeling our way through.

As Hanna Rosin wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal,

The lingering ambivalence about sexuality is linked, I think, to women’s lingering ambivalence about the confusing array of identities available to them in modern life.

Exactly (and I’m not just saying that cuz I wrote an entire book about it). The doors have opened, but the trails have yet to be cleared.

And then, of course, there’s this (I can only imagine the backlash I’m gonna take for this one, but I’m gonna say it anyway, because I make the point often in the context of work): women and men are different. There’s neurobiology and all kinds of research to support this idea–and yet, it’s an idea that’s traditionally been seen as dangerous. And it’s seen as most dangerous by women: the worry being that to say that men and women are different, we do things differently, we experience things differently, must necessarily mean that one way is better, one’s worse. As though to claim a difference would be to set us off on a slippery slope of regression, inevitably sliding right back onto Betty Draper’s miserable, unempowered couch. Or as though to recognize a difference is to divide everyone into two overly simplified extremes, opposite ends of a spectrum–men are dogs and women just want to be monogamous. People are too complex for generalizations (generally speaking). So I guess my real question is this: Why is sex without feeling anything the goal? What exactly are we aspiring to there? Who decided that’s what empowerment looks like?

I mean, isn’t feeling something kind of the fun of sex?

And back to those messages: isn’t it ironic that women today are raised on the message that it is their right (hell, their responsibility) to (enthusiastically!) embrace their sexuality–and that one’s sexuality is indeed one’s own for the embracing–even while this very notion is again (still!) under attack? Not only is our sexual and reproductive freedom–the freedom to express our sexuality outside the confines of marriage without threat of banishment (let alone death by stoning, a freedom not shared by many women walking the earth) or biology–staggeringly new, it’s tenuous. Something we’re raised to take as a given is something that still needs fierce defending. Every step we take, we battle anew.

It’s tempting to buy into the idea that the fight is over, as tempting as it is to put a cheery, tidy spin on what came before. In that piece of Rosin’s that I mentioned earlier, she refers to the success of the sexual revolution, attributing it to, among others, “sex goddess Erica Jong.” Jong penned a response at The Daily Beast, which she kicked off with a quick anecdote and the line, “That was the way we weren’t.” Here’s a bit from her piece:

Of course I was delighted to be called a sex-goddess and bracketed with Dr. Ruth Westheiner, whom I adore, but when Rosin said the ’70s were all about the sexual revolution and that the sexual revolution was one of the props of women’s current success, I felt a chill run down my spine. ‘Dear Hanna-you just don’t get it,’ I wanted to say. ‘If only you’d lived through some of the things I have–being trashed as the happy hooker of literature, being overlooked for professorships, prizes, and front-page reviews because it was assumed I was–’tis a pity–a whore, you might see things differently. And then, if having lived through that, the pundits now said you were rather tame, you might wonder whether women could ever be seen for what we are: sexual and intellectual, sweet and bitter, smart and sexy. But I am grateful to be a sex goddess all the same.’

…As a young and even middle-aged writer, I used to attend pro-choice rallies with GOP women. No more. Will my daughter’s generation now believe that feminism, like democracy, has to be fought for over and over again? We cannot be complacent about birth control, abortion, the vote, or our daughters’ and granddaughters’ future. Just when things look rosiest for women, a new Rick Santorum will be waiting in the wings. And his wife recruited to put a new spin on his misogyny. Just when colleges graduate more women than men, and women are beginning to be paid a little more than a pittance, the press and publishers trot out female quislings to announce that the woman “problem” has been solved. Rubbish.

The fight goes on. There’s plenty to battle against. So again, that muddle? Seems pretty clear to me.

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