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Archive for the ‘gender roles’ Category

Report Card_6Something has been nagging at me ever since I read Christina Hoff Sommers’ Opinionator piece in Sunday’s New York Times. Did you catch it? It’s yet another essay lamenting the disconnect between today’s school system and, well, the nature of boys.

Her piece, which links declining male achievement with grade school culture, is pegged to a new study that found that, despite the fact that boys do just as well as girls on standardized tests, they are less likely to “get good grades, take advanced classes or attend college.”

 No previous study, to my knowledge, has demonstrated that the well-known gender gap in school grades begins so early and is almost entirely attributable to differences in behavior. The researchers found that teachers rated boys as less proficient even when the boys did just as well as the girls on tests of reading, math and science. (The teachers did not know the test scores in advance.) If the teachers had not accounted for classroom behavior, the boys’ grades, like the girls’, would have matched their test scores.

Can we just stop with the “woe be the boys” bullshit?  Arrgh.

Before I go on, let me assert my bias straight up.  I myself am a girl.  My two children are girls.  All our pets, save one, have been female.  One of my daughters and I wrote a whole book about, and for, women.  And if you check the first paragraph of this post, you might surmise — correctly, in fact — that while most of you, my husband included, were watching the Super Bowl, I was snuggled up on the couch reading the newspaper.  How girl can you get?

And so, yes, I may well be looking at this issue through pink-colored glasses, but what rankles me is the timing of all this tedious “end of men” business. I have no problem with Sommers’ point that boys struggle with school, more so than girls, because classrooms are set up to favor kids who can sit still, do as they’re told, and work independently, skills that girls tend to develop before boys do.  In fact, I agree completely.

But hasn’t that always been the case? What creeps me out is my suspicion that the real reason we are so worried about boys of late is the fact that when it comes to college or grad school or scoring the job with the corner office, girls have started to catch up.  Did we ever worry about grade school culture when, not that long ago, the majority of college grads were male?  No need to answer.

I think back to my grade school days at a Catholic school in San Francisco taught by no-nonsense nuns who would put the fear of God into God himself.  I still remember the names of the class trouble-makers who were sent regularly to the principal’s office for mouthing off, who were stuck on the bench at recess, who routinely flunked their spelling tests and, by seventh or eighth grade, were the first to smoke cigarettes and drink beer. Boys, every one. The girls, for the most part, got the gold stars and rarely got in trouble for anything more serious than rolling up their plaid skirts.

And yet, a few years down the line, most of those naughty little boys graduated from college, grad school even, and grew up to be highly successful men, pulling down the big bucks.  As for the good little girls?  Either married to them or working for them.

My point being, we had no problem with the ways in which schools privileged girls back in the days when we knew that, sooner or later, the boys would grow up to assume their rightful place.  But now that girls have begun to hold their own, we wring our hands and kvetch about leveling the playing field.

As if anticipating my riff, Sommers ends her piece this way:

I can sympathize with those who roll their eyes at the relatively recent alarm over boys’ achievement. Where was the indignation when men dominated higher education, decade after decade? Isn’t it time for women and girls to enjoy the advantages? The impulse is understandable but misguided. I became a feminist in the 1970s because I did not appreciate male chauvinism. I still don’t. But the proper corrective to chauvinism is not to reverse it and practice it against males, but rather basic fairness. And fairness today requires us to address the serious educational deficits of boys and young men. The rise of women, however long overdue, does not require the fall of men.

I couldn’t agree more: The rise of women does not at all require the fall of men.  Where I part company with Sommers, and the rest of the end-of-men contingent, is with the  implication that the two are even related.

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thumbnail[2]If we want to close the ambition gap, a good first step might be learning how to shake our heads.

There’s this great quote from Feminist icon Germaine Greer: When we talk about women having it all, what they really have all of is the work.”  She was being somewhat facetious.   But then again, not so much.

Which leads me to wonder: Would women be more powerful if we could just say no?  A couple of recent studies just say yes.

Some say that women are hard-wired to please.  Others say we’re socialized that way.  In either case, we see it all the time:  Good little girls doing as they’re told at home, eager for the stamp of approval from mommy or daddy.  Older girls sitting still in class and turning in their homework on time to please their teachers.

But what’s surprising is that, according to a new study, even those of us raised with the “you go, girl” rhetoric never seem to outgrow our eagerness to please.  According to a piece in the Wall Street Journal, a paper presented at the American Economic Association meeting earlier this month confirms that even when we grow up, we’re much more likely to say “yes” when we want to say “no”.

The study focused on 47 business-school students who were asked to recall a time when they were asked to do a favor on the job when they really didn’t want to.  And guess what?

The female participants did the favor, even though they were five times more likely than males to report having felt worn out. Perhaps they obliged because they were also twice as likely to have been worried about the consequences of saying no.

Ya think?  The researchers further postulated that this willingness to do favors  “may lead them to become overburdened with low-skill tasks.”

In other words, when we find ourselves locked into a continuing chorus of “Sure, I’ll be happy to…”, it not only saps our time, but zaps our power as well.

So much for the need to say no when we’re at work.  Head on over to the homefront and you find another related power drain:  According to a new study out of The University of California at Berkeley and Emory University, women who rule the roost at home are less likely “to pursue promotions and other career advancement steps at the office.”  In other words, when you’re the CEO at home, you’re much less likely to ever come close to the C-suite at work:

“It appears that being in charge of household decisions may bring a semblance of power to women’s traditional role, to the point where women may have less desire to push against the obstacles to achieving additional power outside the home,” said UC Berkeley psychologist Serena Chen, a co-author of the study.

Despite the feminist movement and other gender equity efforts, women largely retain authority over child-rearing and household chores and finances, with men deferring to their expertise in these matters, researchers point out. This paradigm has had an impact on women’s career choices, the study implies.

Whether all this power over domestic decisions takes away our ambition by fulfilling our innate need for power – or simply drains our energy– who knows for sure. But, says Chen, when it comes to seizing power in the workplace, we ought to let some go at home. Women need to “at least partially abdicate their role of ultimate household deciders, and men must agree to share such decision making.”

In other words, there’s only so much of us to go around, and we should use ourselves wisely.  The first step might be to reconsider the messaging we’ve been raised with: As we’ve written here and in our book, told we can have it all, we heard we must do it all. Told we can do anything, we heard that we could do everything —  and we’d better do it perfectly. We are told to be grateful for all the choices we have, and, of course, we are, but the one crucial message that never got sent was this: every choice entails a trade-off.  If you’re doing A, you can’t be doing B.

Or, in light of the studies above, you can’t be doing favors for someone else at work, and still have time to charge ahead on your own projects.  Nor, apparently, can you run the household like a CEO — and have any mojo left when it comes to climbing the ladder at work.  Which is to say, we need to give ourselves permission to let go.  Or even abdicate.  Even if it means that some things get done less than perfectly.  Or not at all.

When you think about it, it’s all pretty simple.  All we need do is learn to say no.

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screen-shot-2012-12-15-at-7-07-49-pmDo not let the outrage die.

In the wake of the horrific mass murders in Newtown, Conn., we’ve read plenty of newspaper articles, listened to numerous TV commentators, read hundreds of Facebook posts, all with the same message:  we need to talk about gun control.

And yet. My biggest fear is that, once the grief and shock die down, so too will the resolve to take, in our President’s words, “meaningful action.”  As Huffington Post polling editor Mark Blumenthal wrote on Friday, interest in gun control spiked after the 1999 massacre at Columbine, but faded within a year:

“The post-Columbine bump faded about a year later, and support for stricter gun laws remained roughly constant over the next eight years. Following the 2008 election, however, it dropped off considerably. By April 2010, Pew Research found more Americans placed greater importance on protecting the rights of gun owners (49 percent) than on restricting gun ownership (45 percent).”

I beg you: Do not let the outrage die.

We know why politicians are often loathe to put gun control front and center, hiding behind the Second Amendment (which, for the record, was designed to allow citizens to arm themselves against tyranny, not each other): the NRA and the powerful gun lobby, as well as the overwhelming number of Americans who own guns.  (As Alex Pareene reports in Salon, America “is home to 310 million nonmilitary firearms. That’s nearly one gun for every resident of the country, or just about three for each ‘household’.”)

According to Sunday’s New York Times, after Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in 2011, the Justice Department made a list of measures to keep guns away from criminals and those with mental illness – a list that was predominantly shelved as campaign season approached.  And, as the New York Times’ Nate Silver reports, over the years the very rhetoric surrounding firearms has changed:

For opponents of stricter gun laws, the debate has increasingly become one about Constitutional protections. Certainly, many opponents of gun control measures also argue that efforts to restrict gun ownership could backfire in various ways or will otherwise fail to reduce violence. But broadly speaking, they would prefer that the debate be about what they see as Constitutional rights, rather than the utilitarian consequences of gun control measures.

Their strategy may have been working. The polling evidence suggests that the public has gone from tending to back stricter gun control policies to a more ambiguous position in recent years. There may be some voters who think that the Constitution provides broad latitude to own and carry guns – even if the consequences can sometimes be tragic.

Discouraging news.  But what I wonder is why we can’t follow the lead of another group of outraged women, Mother Against Drunk Drivers, and, if nothing else, make owning a gun as socially unacceptable as driving drunk. Both can kill.

Could Women Against Guns be as powerful as Mothers Against Drunk Driving?

Obviously, there are other issues at play when it comes to Newtown, where 20 children who still believed in Santa Claus were killed by multiple gunshot wounds from a semiautomatic weapon — some of them shot as many as 11 times — in slightly less time than it takes to read this post.

Yes, we need to talk about mental health, to recognize and treat mental illness, no matter the cost.  We need to remove the stigma around mental illness so that families are given the acceptance and understanding that would allow them to get their ill children adequate treatment and support.  We need to talk about the prevalence of violence in video games, movies and TV shows, and its effects. We need to tackle the problems of schoolyard bullies and young people’s alienation once and for all.

But above and beyond the why is the how.  What turns things deadly is America’s easy access to firearms, which makes acting on violent impulses quick, efficient and final.  Had Adam Lanza been armed with a knife or a baseball bat, or even a single Saturday night special, how many children could he have killed in the 15 minutes before he was stopped?

I myself have never seen a real gun, except on the belt of a police officer.  But I have been privy to the devastation they can leave:

• A neighbor’s twenty-something son, suffering from a severe depression, went up to his bedroom and shot himself in the head one evening while his mother was downstairs doing the dishes.

• A beautiful, ebullient, brilliant — and bipolar — young attorney, after a week of horrendous migraines, shot and killed herself one afternoon while her husband was at work.

• The young son of family friends was showing a playmate his father’s hunting rifle when it went off.  And killed him.  Though this happened before I was born, I heard the story over and over, a tale of heartbreak from which the family barely recovered.

In all these cases the firearms were perfectly legal.  As were the guns used by Adam Lanza. They were owned and registered to his mother, who apparently kept them in the house.

According to Sunday’s Washington Post, Calif. Sen. Diane Feinstein told “Meet the Press” that she would introduce legislation to ban assault weapons at the start of the next Congress. (She sponsored a ban on semiautomatic weapons in 1994, after a mass shooting in San Francisco’s financial district.  It expired in 2004). It’s a good first step.  But frankly, it’s not enough for me.  I won’t be happy until we consider owning a gun as socially suspect as getting behind the wheel after a couple of cocktails.  Especially if there are kids in the house, or anyone with mental illness.

I know what comes next: When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns. Who cares?  There will still be fewer guns on the street.  And, by all  definitions, neither Adam Lanza nor his mother were  outlaws.

We have no problem turning drunk drivers or even smokers into pariahs.  We would never let our kids hop into a car with an alcoholic at the wheel.  But what about playing at the home of a playmate whose dad keeps a gun beside his bed – a gun designed to protect but, as statistics show, is likely to put the household at greater risk.  According to Mark Rosenberg, president and CEO of The Task Force for Global Health, speaking on NPR this past August:

.. a study that was done to look at whether having a firearm in your home actually does protect you, or whether it puts you at greater risk, showed that families and homes in which there was a gun, not only were they not protected against homicide, but the risk of gun homicide to people in those households was 2.7 times greater than the households without a gun. And the risk of suicide in those households was 4.8 times greater in the households with firearms.

So what can we do?  Here’s a start:

• Put pressure on our elected officials to take “meaningful action”.

• Refuse to vote for any politicians, local or otherwise, who take money from the NRA, and let them know why you will not support them.

• If your community has a gun buy-back program, support it.

• Sign one of the many online petitions floating around the internet.

I’ve even heard, via Facebook, of the potential for a “One Million Child March on DC for Gun Control.” In the meantime, the most important thing we all can do is keep the conversation going:  Mothers were the driving force to get drunks off the road.  Can we women do the same when it comes to guns?

Those beautiful first-graders of Sandy Hook were America’s children.  We are all their mothers.

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I’m starting to wonder if this presidential election might hinge on apron strings.

In the wake of the last debate, we’ve all been caught up in binders and trapper-keepers and funny Facebook memes – along with some hijinks on Amazon, where a bunch of smartypants hijacked several binder pages.  I think we’re missing the point.

According to the New York Times, both Obama and Romney are in hot pursuit of the women’s vote.  Which is to say, they seem to think that Double Xers may determine the next president of the United States:

 … And on the campaign trail and on the air, the candidates and their allies argued intensely all day over who would do more to help women. At the same time, the topic of whether the heated encounter Tuesday night had alienated the very female voters they were seeking to connect with became fodder for cable TV discussions.

The level of intensity left little doubt that the election was coming down not only to a state-by-state fight for territory, but also to one for the allegiance of vital demographic groups, chief among them undecided women.

Whew.  Whether the chattering class is right or wrong, it appears we have a lot more power than we’ve had in quite the while.  Let’s think this through.

The bedrock issue in the debate over the women’s vote has had to do with reproductive rights:  abortion and contraception.  Key issues.  Agreed.  Especially because the next president will more than likely be appointing one, or maybe two, justices to the Supreme Court, who may hold the future of Roe V. Wade in their hands.

And then there’s the funding of Planned Parenthood, which not only provides family planning services, but also provides women without health insurance life-saving care for breast cancer, among other medical issues.  My friend was one of them.

But the real issue as I see it is the vision of women’s role in the workplace and the home.  I found one of Gov. Romney’s responses in the debate to be key.  The question had to do with inequalities in the workplace, including the pay gap — Go here for a state-by-state chart of gender pay inequity — which the Governor sidestepped with the unfortunate comment about binders.  What I found revealing, not to mention troubling, was the end of his response, which related to the woman he had hired as chief of staff while governor of Massachusetts:

 Now, one of the reasons I was able to get so many good women to be part of that team was because of our recruiting effort, but number two, because I recognized that if you’re going to have women in the workforce, that sometimes they need to be more flexible. My chief of staff, for instance, had two kids that were still in school. She said, I can’t be here until 7:00 or 8:00 at night. I need to be able to get home at 5:00 so I can be there for — making dinner for my kids and being with them when they get home from school. So we said, fine, let’s have a flexible schedule so you can have hours that work for you.

On the surface: flexible schedule.  Good.  One of the issues we’ve been writing about is the challenge faced by working women, who put in the same hours as their male counterparts, and then have to dig into the second shift when they get home.  But look again at the governor’s answer, then ask yourself this:  Where was the chief of staff’s husband and/or kids’ daddy at 5:00?

That’s it, right?

Why is it that in 2012 some folks still assume that household and childcare duties are women’s work?  And why, as one of the sources in our book fumed, do we plant work life balance smack in the middle of the “women’s issues” silo?  Shouldn’t this be a human issue?  A family issue?

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I cook dinner most nights, no matter what time I get home from work.  And I’m damn good at it.  No, scratch that.  I’m really good at it:  I inherited my culinary mojo from a long line of incredible Italian cooks (Ask me about my aunts’ gnocchi or cannoli sometime, or my mother’s ability to throw together anything fantastic without a recipe).  Plus, I like to eat good food.  But that’s my choice.  Proscribed gender roles have nothing to do with it.

The issue here, as the presidential election heads down the home stretch, has to do with perception as well as policy.  And I suspect that the nuances of the latter are often driven by the former.  And in this case, the perception in question is gender roles in the home as well as the workplace.

Cue the aprons.

The most recent time-use survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that women still own the second shift. Most telling stats?

On an average day, 19 percent of men did housework–such as cleaning or doing laundry–compared with 48 percent of women. Forty percent of men did food preparation or cleanup, compared with 66 percent of women.

All of which, presumably, is on top of a 52 hour work week.

Now, can a president do anything to change all that?  Probably not.  But given that I have been given a lot of power in this election, my vote goes to the guy who doesn’t assume my place is in an apron.

Speaking of which, my husband is wearing one right now.  I’ve got one eye on the Giants game as I write this.  He’s firing up the ‘que and throwing together a salad.

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It happened again the other day:  I was being interviewed by my introductory journalism class when I got The Question:

Are you a feminist?  Of course, I shot back.  Beat.  Are you?

The young woman was the tiniest bit flummoxed at being put on the spot.  Well, she said.  I guess it depends on how you define feminist.  “A human being,” I replied, as I always do, and then enumerated some of the issues:  equal pay for equal work.  Equitable division of labor at home.  Equal representation.  Blowing up gender stereotypes.

And then I said something like this:  How can anyone NOT be a feminist?

Cue the debate.  About the meaning of feminism.  About the bad rap the label has gotten.  About the fear some young women have in owning the term.  Finally, I asked for a show of hands.  How many of you consider yourself feminists, I asked.  Slowly, about half the class – including some males and the woman who had asked the question in the first place — raised their hands.

Whew. Better than I expected.

Anyway, I was reminded today of all the things I should have said when I ran into a video of a killer keynote address given by the glorious Gloria Steinem this week at the National Press Club in celebration of Ms. Magazine turning 40.  (Fun fact: Back in the 1970s, Steinem was the first woman ever invited to speak at the Press Club.  Like all the other speakers, she was given a necktie.)

The irony, as Steinem pointed out, is that public opinion polls show that the majority is on our side when it comes to any of the issues raised by the women’s movement.  (See?  We are all feminists.) It’s the power structures that are resistant to change.

Her take on equal pay?  Check it:

 …if we just had equal pay in this country, just the single thing of equal pay, which is what most everybody agrees with, right? We would have the single most important economic stimulus this country could possibly possibly ever have. It would be about $200 billion dollars more a year injected into the economy, about $150 a week more for white women on the average, for women of color something between $250 and $350. And it would be injected into the economy exactly where it’s most likely to be spent. We are not going to send it to the Cayman Islands, no! We are going to spend it and it is going to create jobs…

Awesome.  Hard to disagree.

She also talked about the backlash against feminism, and one of the most insidious strategies is telling us that the women’s movement is over and done.  Old news.  We’ve succeeded.  It’s one way to keep us from moving forward, she said, and to keep younger women from identifying as feminists.   She also noted that “women’s issues” – think childcare, for one —  often get siloed.  She said that for years, she’s been asked if she is interested in anything other than women’s issues.  Her answer?  “Can you think of one thing that wouldn’t be transformed by looking at it as if everyone matters?

Seriously.  She went on to discuss something else that had more than a little resonance with stuff we’ve written about here – and relates to one of the last questions I was asked in that classroom interview. A student asked if I thought I had it all. (Insert smirk here.)  I said absolutely not, that having it all is a myth, especially one that so many of them had been raised with, and rambled on about the expectations of what having it all means for today’s women:  smart, successful, skinny, sexy, great career, even better family, and granite in the kitchen.  I could go on, and I suspect I did, but let’s give Gloria the last word:

Can women have it all?  That’s not the right question.  Most women are asking – am I going to lose it all.  It’s a rarefied question.  The real question is why we’re asking it at all of the individual when we live in the only industrialized democracy in the world that doesn’t have child care, has more unfriendly work policies in terms of both parents being equal parents…  The ultimate answer is men raising children as much as women do and women being as active outside the home as much as men are.

And wouldn’t we all be better off?  I have this hunch my students would agree.

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Is it the end, or just beginning?

Ye olde End of Men is in the news again; this time, author Stephanie Coontz is weighing in on how the headlines proclaiming The End of Men might be a tad premature. It’s territory we’ve covered before, to be sure, but there’s a new turf worth tilling. Namely, when she writes:

One thing standing in the way of further progress for many men is the same obstacle that held women back for so long: overinvestment in their gender identity instead of their individual personhood.

Sorry to interrupt, but: DING DING DING!

Men are now experiencing a set of limits–externally enforced as well as self-imposed–strikingly similar to the ones Betty Friedan set out to combat in 1963, when she identified a ‘feminine mystique’ that constrained women’s self-image and options.

Clearly, it’s no longer 1963, but Coontz hits on something there that I think is still profoundly in evidence, particularly among the women we call “Undecided.” Yes, we have options the women who clandestinely passed The Feminine Mystique around may have only dreamed about, but that’s but half the story. We write often about how, somewhere along the timeline of women’s liberation, the message that we can have it all morphed into an oppressive belief that we should be able to do it all, and, when I read those above words of Coontz’s, I thought: Yes, yes, and yes.

Because I think, to borrow her words, a certain investment in our gender identity is what keeps us so dearly invested in doing it all. When you read articles about how to take the pressure off, among the tips will invariably be something along the lines of Ditch the stuff you don’t care that much about. Which is fine advice. (Um, we’ve probably offered it ourselves.) But it’s hard advice to follow. Perhaps you don’t give two craps about baking, yet you feel a bad mother if you send your little one to the bake sale with storebought (and Crisco-frosted) cupcakes. Maybe you don’t even want kids, but feel pressure tied to the belief that “real” women are maternal (and bake their own cupcakes). Perhaps you don’t care about clothing or makeup, but you feel you must look a certain way to be accepted as a woman. Maybe you’d rather take a stick to the eye than spend a perfectly good Saturday dusting, but you have friends coming over and you just know they’ll think a little bit less of you if they see how you really live.

Interestingly, I think that the more successful we are in the not-traditionally-female aspects of our lives (read: our careers), the more intensely we feel we must make sure we measure up on the traditional Lady-o-meter. Just last week, there were a couple of headlines about very successful women–Katie Couric and Stacy London–coming out about their struggles with eating disorders; in fact, among women, eating disorders have long been associated with an overachieving personality type. And have you ever noticed how rare it is to see a successful woman who is anything less than impeccably groomed? (Not least because when said grooming–or style; see: Hillary’s pantsuits–falls just a little bit short, the backlash is lethal.) Back in the 80s, when I was in grade school, my mom was in grad school “busting my ass,” she says. And yet, “I cooked dinner every night, drove the car pool AND was your room mother.” It’s as though we’re willing to push the envelope… but not too far. So we overcompensate, wearing heels that are lethal, killing ourselves to keep a house that’ll pass the white-glove test, and whipping up organic and healthy–yet impressively epicurean–delights for dinner. On a Tuesday.

It’s too tricky to offer a simple solution–and it’s made trickier thanks to the judgment women face from other women and society at large, of course–but surely there’s some wisdom in flipping Coontz’s equation and consciously putting more investment in our “individual personhood” as opposed to our “gender identity.” In worrying less about what it means to be a woman, and more about what it means to be our self. Or maybe just thinking a little bit about why you’re killing yourself over that dinner… and, perhaps, instituting a new tradition, called Take-Out Tuesday.

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So, the subject of our book is certainly in the air as of late. First, Ann Marie Slaughter, and now, a piece on The Daily Beast by Debora Spar, whose take on the issues of women chasing perfection, juggling roles and choices in a not-adequately-changed world was, frankly, so similar to the things we’ve written here and in our book, it took us a moment to realize it wasn’t our byline on her piece.

Ahem.

Now that that’s out of the way, as we noticed way back when we began writing Undecided in 2008, women today, blessed with the abundance of choices our mothers fought to get access to–and our foremothers might have thought impossible–are finding that this blessing is indeed mixed. That the messages on which we were raised, messages delivered with the best of intentions, have a flipside, as though delivered via an evil game of Telephone. Told we can have it all, we heard we must do it all. Told we can do anything, we heard that whatever we choose to do, it better be something good… and we better do it perfectly. We are told to be grateful for all the choices we have, and, of course, we are, but the one crucial message that never got sent was this: that every choice entails a trade-off. That we cannot be in two places at once. That, by definition (not to mention the basic laws of physics), if I am sitting here pounding out this piece right now, I am not taking my dog for a hike, or meeting a friend for happy hour, or cleaning out my closet as I’ve been meaning to do for weeks now. (Though, I am, as a matter of fact, simultaneously cooking dinner. And now my keyboard is getting sticky from the roasted garlic I just pulled out of the oven. Dear Multitasking: You suck.) There are only so many hours in the day. No one really clues us in to that one.

We set off, ready to conquer the world, as we believe we’re supposed to. And then we realize: Having it all is simply not possible. A high-flying career woman is not also a stay-at-home mom. A stay-at-home mom is not also a globe-trotting free spirit. A globe-trotting free spirit is not also putting down roots, and paying down a mortgage. Every time we make a choice in favor of something, we are by default not choosing something else. But the rub is that we think it’s only about us. That we’re not good enough. That if only we were ___er, we’d be able to swing it. But that’s a lie.

That the chorus is getting louder is good. Because there is so much that remains to be done. And that there remains so much to be done–on the public policy and workplace fronts, yes, but in the way we talk to (and about) our sisters, our girlfriends and our selves, as well–in no way diminishes all the work that has been done, all that’s come before. And that we don’t want to diminish all that’s come before doesn’t diminish what lies ahead. The world hasn’t caught up to what we’ve been told–that feminism‘s fight is over, the battles won–policies and structures are still evolving. And we’re still so very, very hard on ourselves. We worry we aren’t measuring up, aren’t successful enough or a good enough parent or pretty enough or in shape enough or organic enough. All while mired in the juggle!

As we wrote in Undecided, women today are experiencing a collective bout of growing pains. And one way to ease those pains is to give up the chase for perfect, the attempt to have it all, and focus instead on, well, finding the life that’s right for us.

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I had a serendipitous moment with Michelle Obama last week — just a few days before her transcendent speech at the DNC.  The occasion was an interview with the First Couple by Lynn Sherr and Maggie Murphy in Parade, the supplement that shows up in many local Sunday papers.

I almost tossed the magazine aside, but I was drawn in by the radiant cover photo of a smiling Michelle and Barack snuggling on a couch in the White House Map Room, and what I found in this exchange midway through the Q-and-A was an almost spooky resonance with what we’ve been writing about these past four years.  More about that below, but first, check this:

This year, there is once again a conversation about the superwoman.” Can women have it all? Is that even the right question?
MO:
I think that question limits us as women. I work with a lot of young women—we have interns coming in and out, and this is always one of the first questions they ask—and the thing I try to remind them is that we have fought so hard for choice and options with our lives, and we’re just getting to that point where we’re willing to embrace all the different facets of woman­hood. I know that when I came out of college, what I wanted and what I thought I wanted were very different things. Then I get married and have a career and, lo and behold, now I’ve got kids. And how you feel about motherhood when your children are small and when they’re teenagers, that’s going to change. I want to keep young women from thinking that there is one right answer. That answer is going to change every year, every five years.

Bingo.  That line about no “one right answer”?  That’s the point, isn’t it?  Young women — all women, really — need to make peace with the fact that there is no right answer, no one-size-fits-all approach to life, whether it comes to career or family or any combination of the two.  Nor, once we’ve made one choice or another, can we rely on sure-fire steps on how to get there.  Why?  Because it’s all too new. As women in transition, we’re adjusting to rapidly changing roles within a slowly changing society, and what we’ve found is that for many of us, the insecurity of making our way without a road map has left us all just a little bit, well, undecided.

But what the First Lady reminds us is that we’re all in this together. And hooray for that.

Still, the idea that there is no grand plan, no tried-and-true blueprint that can show us how to find our place in the world, is one scary thought. It’s also the idea that sparked our book — coincidentally, four years to the day before I picked up the Parade interview.  On that hot late-summer day, Shannon had talked me into tackling the notorious Dipsea Trail, a treacherous seven mile trek that ascends some 2200 feet up Mount Tamalpais, just north of San Francisco, and ends at Stinson Beach, a small town on the edge of the Pacific. The hike took all day, and later that night, over iced knees, a killer roast chicken and a few delightful glasses of Pinot, we began to brainstorm: Why was it that today’s women were so undecided?  What was the cause of the “analysis paralysis” that plagued so many young women?  The dissatisfaction that seemed to be so rampant in a generation of women groomed to have it all?  Shannon insisted there was a book in searching for the answers, and that we should do it together.

Together?  That’s all she had to say.  (Wondering what it’s like for a mother and daughter to write a book together?  Another story for another day.)

Anyway, in the process of reporting our book, we interviewed researchers, experts, counselors, coaches — and most importantly hundreds of undecided women, from their twenties to their sixties, who became the heart and soul of our book.  And what we found was shared experience, underlying issues in the workplace and the culture that have yet to be addressed, and a collective sense of growing pains.

What we didn’t find were any cookie-cutter answers.  Which actually, is the answer. In slightly more than a generation, our roles and our opportunities have changed dramatically.  And with all that change comes uncertainty.  Sure, we all yearn for those pieces of grand advice — once you do “A”, “B” will surely follow.  We want to know exactly what to expect behind Door No. 1 or Door No. 2.  But when you think about it, that’s pretty much the way our mothers or grandmothers lived their lives.  For us, however, life is much more complicated — and far more exciting.

What’s interesting is that when we speak in front of women’s groups or on talk shows, you can feel a strong sense of resonance in the audience. The women, they get it. They identify with the stories we tell of women whose lives are like their own. They get pissed off with the structural impediments that have held them back.  And yet:  there’s always at least one hand that shoots up, a woman pleading for some exact step-by steps.  And what we answer is that there are none — and that’s a good thing.

Back to that interview with the Obamas, the beauty of there being no one sure answer is the freedom that comes with it: The permission to engage in some trial and error, to define ourselves apart from the shoulds, to lead a life that is true to type, and to jettison once and for all the idea that we can have it all.

Sure, it’s hard.  Sometimes it’s scary.  But the good news is, we’re in it together.  Even the First Lady.

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That gagging sound you heard last week, when Ann Romney bellowed in her best Oprah voice, “I love you, womennnnnn!”? That was me.

And not because I don’t love women; I do. And not because I don’t believe that Ann Romney loves women; I’m sure she does. It’s because, at best, this sentiment is utterly beside the point. And at worst, it’s a cynical, calculated, transparent attempt to chip away at the current and sizable gender gap among voters.

My thoughts crystallized this weekend, while reading an adaptation from Hanna Rosin‘s forthcoming book “The End of Men: And the Rise of Women,” which ran in Sunday’s New York Times magazine. The piece–and Rosin’s book, which grew out of a much dissected article that ran in The Atlantic two years ago–focuses on several real-life families in Alexander City, Alabama, families who now rely on mom to bring home the bacon, a circumstance which leaves everyone puzzling over the reversal of roles. This change of fortune comes thanks to a confluence of factors including the disappearance of good-paying work in the manufacturing sector (jobs traditionally held by men), and the fact that the economy has changed, as have the types of jobs that are available, and the skills that are needed in order to land them:

These days that usually requires going to college or getting some job retraining, which women are generally more willing to do. Two-thirds of the students at the local community college are women, which is fairly typical of the gender breakdown in community colleges throughout the country.

These shifts represent a reality that bumps with the worldview there, informed by both Southern tradition and the Evangelical church. Rosin writes of a conversation with Reuben Prater, currently out of work:

Reuben has a college degree and doesn’t seem especially preoccupied with machismo, so I asked him why, given how many different kinds of jobs he has held, he couldn’t train for one of the jobs that he knew was available: something related to schools, nursing or retail, for example. One reason was obvious–those jobs don’t pay as much as he was accustomed to making–but he said there was another. ‘We’re in the South,’ he told me. ‘A man needs a strong, macho job. He’s not going to be a schoolteacher or a legal secretary or some beauty-shop queen. He’s got to be a man.’ I asked several businesswomen in Alexander City if they would hire a man to be a secretary or a receptionist or a nurse, and many of them just laughed.

All of which makes me chuckle a bit, when one considers this:

‘An important long-term issue is that men are not doing as well as women in keeping up with the demands of the local economy,’ says Michael Greenstone, an economist at M.I.T. and director of the Hamilton Project, which has done some of the most significant research on men and unemployment. ‘It’s a first-order mystery for social scientists, why women have more clearly heard the message that the economy has changed and men have such a hard time hearing it or responding.’

Why shouldn’t they have a hard time? We’re talking about nothing short of a wholesale redefinition of what it is to be a man. Or a woman. We’re talking about nothing short of a wholesale redefinition of what’s valued–and when, for centuries, to be a man was to hold power and make money, finding a woman to fill the role of “helpmate” along his ascent, I’d say it’s not mysterious at all that men are having a hard time hearing the message that things are changing.

Who wants to hear that their status is in jeopardy, their power no longer assured? Who wouldn’t find themselves at a loss?

And, as for the women, we’re taking on the challenges because we can. To earn a paycheck was not something expected of us as women; it’s something we’ve had to fight for the right to do.

And it’s not just the middle-aged men who have careers and lives to look back upon as they wonder what changed who are idling. Even young men seem resistant to what’s really going on. One family profiled in Rosin’s piece exemplifies it all: Rob Pridgen, whose job had recently been phased out; his wife Connie, a high school teacher; and her grown daughter Abby, who found Rob’s explanation of “man-as-provider” laughable:

At this point… Abby, who was then 19, piped up with her own perspective on the Southern code of chivalry, which she said sounded like nonsense to her, given how the boys she knew actually behaved–hanging out in the parking lot, doing God knows what, or going home and playing video games instead of bothering to apply for college…

[Another] afternoon, while Rob sat nearby, Connie and Abby were mulling over a passage from Proverbs that is sometimes read at church for Mother’s Day and that had come up in a Bible-study group.

The passage describes the ‘wife of noble character,’ who works with the wool and the flax, brings the food from afar, who ‘gets up while it is still dark,’ buys a field, plants a vineyard, turns a profit, and ‘her lamp does not go out at night’ because she’s still sewing clothes for the poor and generally being industrious while everyone else sleeps. Her husband, meanwhile, ‘is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.’

Traditionally the passage has been viewed as an elaboration of the proper roles of husband and wife. The husband sits in the dominant, protective role, watching his wife’s efforts on behalf of the family and taking pride. But in a town in which many men aren’t working steadily anymore, the words have taken on new meaning. There are people who have noticed that the passage never mentions what the husband is doing or what role he’s playing in providing food for his family, tilling the fields or turning a profit. And what’s dawning on Connie these last few months became obvious to Abby and Rob as she read the passage out loud. That noble wife is working from dawn to dusk. And the husband?

‘Sounds like he’s sitting around with his buddies shooting the breeze, talking about the ballgame and eating potato chips,’ Rob said.

Abby wasn’t surprised. Around Alex City, she said it seemed that it was the girls who were full of energy and eager to see the world. Her own brother, Alex, who was 17, seemed to want to stay in town forever and raise his family here. But Abby was enrolled in Southern Union State Community College, attending on a show-choir scholarship. Her plan was to go there for a year, as many girls in Alex City do, to save money, and then head to Auburn University.

Things are changing in major ways. And change is tough to deal with. But while we’re all puzzling over these seismic shifts is precisely the wrong time to accept blatant pandering with nothing of substance beneath it. And it makes such pandering even more offensive. Women are important to Republicans only in as much as a vote is a vote. But women are increasingly important to this economy, not to mention to the financial support of the typical family and household–we are, in so many ways, patently integral to the success of our society. And the outdated structures and policies we’re left with–and some are fighting fervently to preserve–are relics of a bygone era, useless as typewriters or VCRs. To refuse to recognize the changing times is the worst kind of denial–one that breeds backward-looking policies and irrelevant debate. Our society and our economy need us. To truly value women would be to prioritize policies that help working mothers, health care for everyone, reproductive rights. To patronize women by saying “we love you,” or “your job has always been harder,” is useless when it’s paired with a refusal to acknowledge who today’s women actually are, what they actually do. Because it’s not just women who depend on it.

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I think it’s time to send the Mommy Wars off to bed once and for all.

Best-selling novelist Deborah Copaken Kogan would definitely agree.  Kogan was one of the featured break-out speakers at last week’s Sun Valley Writers Conference and her talk on the myth of the mommy wars provided food for both thought and the soul.

Kogan, a former photojournalist who spent her twenties covering international war zones, is the author of Shutterbabe, a memoir she wrote after the birth of her first child, and The Red Book, a New York Times bestseller that catches up with four Harvard roommates as they struggle, twenty years later, with the challenges of adult life.  She told a rapt audience that the media-created war that, again and again, pits women against each other is nothing but a diversion that keeps us from the real work of changing a broken system:

Once women were seen pitted thus–working mothers versus stay-at-home mothers–instead of us discussing why we have no infrastructure for working families — the simple us versus them becomes insidiously ingrained.

The us-versus-them business: Kogan was preaching to the choir, as far as I was concerned.  But what was encouraging to me was the way the women in the audience, ranging in age from twenty-something to sixty-plus, grabbed her message and got riled up, ready to join the right kind of fight.

Kogan traced the origins of the Mommy Wars back to that ridiculous cookie contest between Barbara Bush and Hilary Clinton. (Call it the cookie wars.  Check Family Circle and you’ll see they’re still going on.).  She provided slides of the recent media flashpoints, stuff we’ve written about, here and here:  “Are you Mom Enough”, the recent Time Magazine cover story on attachment parenting, and Anne Marie Slaughter’s piece in “The Atlantic”, which set the bar so high for having it all, Kogan said, as to render the term meaningless.  The resulting brouhaha also led to a fake dust-up between Slaughter and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. What’s interesting, Kogan said, is that these images, these poster-moms, don’t look like any women she knows.

Most women are worried about how they can afford to buy that dinner; what if their husband gets sick; if the nanny makes $750/week, how can I afford to work?  What vacation?  AND being judged constantly.  By framing this as a war, the media sets up the idea that one side must win.  And that diverts the attention from the real issue through the juxtaposition of mommy plus war — without caveats.

Kogan provided charts and stats, comparing the support the U.S. offers working mothers versus the policies in other countries such as France or Sweden.  You can guess where the U.S. fell in most of those measures:  Off the charts, actually, and not in a good way (as we too found when we researched our book.)  Add in crappy vacation policies (versus France, she said, where five weeks’ vacation is the norm) and corporate work expectations that can top out at eighty hour work weeks.  And while the cost of child care have gone up, salaries have stagnated.

Read and weep.

What we need, Kogan said, is paid maternity leave (or parental leave, so pop can step in as well) to get the babies through that crucial first year of life without either making ourselves crazy by going back to work too soon — or staying home and going broke.  What we also need, she said, is “subsidized day care so one’s entire paycheck after year one is not going to the nanny.”

Amen to that.

And yet, we’ve all been conned by the subtext of the Mommy War meme:  it’s an either/or choice.  You stay home or you go gangbusters on your career.  Nothing in between.  All of which leads to a lot of judging.  But for most women, the choices are not quite so stark.

Kogan realized early on that motherhood was not compatible with war photography.  She moved to New York City, got a job at NBC, and with the birth of her first child took six months maternity leave and saw her family’s savings dwindle.  Twenty-one months later, she had her second child and, toward the end of her maternity leave, found herself called to Paris at the last minute – instantly weaning her daughter and without time to grab a breast pump – when Princess Di was killed.  Three years later, she asked her boss at NBC if she could cut back to a four-day work week.  Her boss said yes.  Her boss’s boss, a female VP, turned her down.  At which point, Kogan quit to stay home and write – and became a casualty of the Mommy Wars herself.

When “Shutterbabe” came out,  a memoir of her days as a photojournalist, she was called a sell-out, a “lactating nester,” a woman who had “left a brilliant career to be a soccer mom.”  Now, three books later, she is often asked, if she had to make a choice, which would it be:  Her children or her books?

I doubt that’s a question any male author has to answer.  I answer that I’d chose my children of course, but why on earth should I have to?

The real issue, Kogan says, is not the media-created catfight, but the fact that when (make that “if”) we end up judging each other for our choices, we’re fighting the wrong fight.

Toward the end of the session, a woman in the audience stood, asking if Kogan was doing anything herself to work on policy change.  Her answer? “No!  I’m too friggen busy. I always feel like one shoe is falling off.  And that’s at the heart of what happens – people who are affected by this, are just too busy.”

Later, I caught up with her for some additional thoughts:

It should really be us–all mothers–versus them–the men in Congress who keep trying to chip away, seemingly mercilessly, at the small gains women have made instead of pushing forward and rethinking the entire American paradigm, which is rotten to the core. So in that sense, it’s about controlling women: their access to birth control, family planning, and the normal benefits after the baby is born that all other developed countries take for granted. To me, the right wing Congressmen are just Taliban in suit and ties.

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