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Archive for the ‘the ticking clock’ Category

Gift Boxes and BallSanta, make it stop!

My inbox, which has exploded exponentially every day since Thanksgiving rolled over into the Season of  Shopping, has sent me on the fast track to crazy town.

Among the fifty-odd messages that popped up since I went to bed last night are emails from everything from Bloomingdales to the Stanford Wine Club to Toys “R” Us, each and every one of them with urgent subject lines, imploring me to get on the stick before it’s too late:

Final Hours:  30 percent Off!
Friends and Family!  Sale Ends Today!
1 day only: Free Shipping!
Shoes and Bags, Starting at $49.99
Up to 35% Off! Cybersale ends today!
Top Foodie gifts!
Last minute holiday deals!

Last minute?  Gulp. The silliest offer, who knows how they found me, was for a half-price gift certificate at the local batting cages.  Go figure.

So crazed was I the other day, in fact, that I misread an email from a local retailer that one of my kids happens to love offering a 24-hour-40-percent-off sale.  I rushed to the mall, only to find out that the sale was online only.

You would think that a smart person such as myself – and one who genuinely enjoys Christmas shopping – should be immune to all this insanity.  And yet, I succumb each year to a ridiculous sense of panic starting a few days before Thanksgiving is in the books:  All these options, all these sales!  Get it together before it’s too late.  Decide, decide, decide!

As in shopping, so in life?  As we’ve written before, choices are hard, and time pressure makes the decision-making process a hundred times worse.  Add in the constant barrage of information (thank you, interwebs) and we’re headed for a serious case of analysis paralysis.  In fact, what we learned in the research for our book is that the greater the number of options, the less likely we are to choose one, whether we’re Christmas shopping — or more importantly, trying to figure out what to do with our lives.

It’s not unlike choosing between the red sweater for Aunt Jean or the blue one — or no sweater at all.  Because, as we learned from Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of “The Paradox of Choice’, one of the insidious effect of having too many choices is that you naturally expect that one of them will be perfect.  And so you search and search until you find it.

Or you don’t.  Cue the holiday shoppers wandering through the mall with the thirty-yard stare

This analysis-paralysis business is especially strong for women when it comes to career decisions.  Consider the newness of it all.  Back in the day, college-educated women were routinely told they could be a teacher, a nurse or a secretary.  (Until, of course, they stayed home to raise the children).  Now, young women know from the earliest age that they can do or be anything – with or without kids.  That freedom is what we’ve fought for, but with it comes a mountain a stress.  There’s an added wrinkle, too, which is what I hear from so many of my female students:  Before they’re legal to order a cocktail, they feel pressure to decide on their life’s path: Choose the right major! Get an internship! Build a resume!

Before it’s too late.

But anyway, back to me.  As background, I rarely start Christmas shopping until I get Fall quarter grades turned in, sometime around the second week of December.  And you know what?  Santa always comes.  I know this, truly I do.  And yet: with stacks of final papers awaiting my red pen, I am making a list and checking it twice, in a total twit because, you know, I haven’t bought one thing.  And with all those emails, all those sales, all those choices blinking at me from my computer screen, I can’t help but thinking that the perfect gift, at the perfect price is out there waiting for me.  But I had better act now.

So here I sit, with a terminal case of the head spins.  That cute little pencil skirt?  You can never have too many.  Or, um, can you?   The Northface half-zip?  But wait, doesn’t he already have one?  So maybe the cashmere V-neck would be better after all.  Just not quite sure of the color.  Good price, though.  Sigh. At least for today.

But hold the phone: What about the batting cages?

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The other day, in the midst of a meeting of my paper’s editorial staff, I found myself waving my Feminist card in a manner reminiscent of when I used to referee kids’ soccer games, and had to deploy the whistle-yellow-card combo. (More often than not, the recipients of said cards were not kids at all, but the grown-ups coaching them. But I digress.)

Anyway, back to the meeting: that week’s cover story was about the local congressional race, which is hotly disputed, and heavily watched, as recent redistricting means the seat is decidedly In Play. The longtime incumbent is a woman, a Democrat, in her 70s. And the race has been a slugfest. Thanks to the flow of cash from corporations — um, I mean people? — special interest groups, the national parties, and the campaigns themselves, one can hardly catch a post-season baseball game (go Giants!) without being subjected to a slimy back and forth of ads. (Is this what it’s like to live in a swing state? My deepest sympathies.) So, long story short: this particular cover story was about this race, and the cover design, in lieu of photographs, used an illustration — two toylike robot bodies throwing punches at each other, with caricatures for heads.

Stay with me: point coming soon.

We were discussing the story when an editor, a man I deeply respect and tend to agree with on most issues, said, “I have a problem with the cover. She looks so young! It’s like we’re showing favoritism.”

It was at this point, dear reader, that the whistle was deployed. “Would you say that about a man?” I asked — at which point a chorus of rabble-rabbles erupted, ultimately resulting in my never getting around to making my point. (I should add: I enjoy a hearty rabble-rabble session as much as the next editor. In fact, I brought it up precisely because I love a good rabble-rabble. You know, and because I did have a point.) The caricatures made both candidates look cuter, more cartoonlike, and yes, younger, than their real selves (such is the destiny of a caricature), but what bothered me was the implication that to make a woman look younger is to give her an advantage. Not an actress or model, mind you: a politician. (Nor, I suppose it’s worth saying, a woman in a political battle against another woman. Her challenger is a man.) That, for women, what trumps everything is appearance. That age can only be a disadvantage; that to look old is the worst handicap of all. And that, if one wants to help an older woman out, give her the proverbial leg up, the kindest thing one can do is to deploy Photoshop’s airbrush tool.

Now, I don’t think this editor was actually saying any of those things, but I do think that within his off-the-cuff remark was crystallized the message women are getting, at all times and from every conceivable direction. There is an entire industry devoted to the “fight” against aging. (As though there’s a chance of winning that battle. And when you consider the alternative–um, death–do you really want to?) And that industry is a big one. And it is aimed at women. (For aging men, marketers offer Viagra, and pretty much leave it at that.) And it is insidious. Because, for all the newfound opportunity and the plethora of options women now have open to us when it comes to answering the rather significant question of “What Do You Want To Do With Your Life?” (a bounty which, as we’ve written, is generationally new, leaving us without much in the way of roadmaps or role models), we are left to figure it all out against what amounts to a soundtrack of a ticking clock. (Ask any game show or action movie producer how to create suspense, and the tick-tock is it. In real life, instead of suspense, we get stress. Which, you know, leads to premature aging. But I digress. Again.) As I’ve written before, I believe it all comes together in a most counterintuitive way: our fear of aging is almost worse the younger we are. After all, when we’re told that our value does nothing but go down as our age creeps up, every day that passes is a marker on a road to invisibility. Irrelevance. Tick tock.

Is it any wonder preventative Botox is a thing?

A couple of weeks ago, I was hanging out with a friend of mine, who was talking about how she’s taken to pointing out men who are aging badly–“dumpy looking dudes,” I believe were the words she used–to her husband, because it irked her how much pressure women are under to look good and “age well,” and she wanted him to share in the misery. While I wouldn’t say that’s the best strategy I could conceive of, it’s certainly… a strategy. But I’m not sure a redistribution of the pressure to Anti-Age is the best we can do. What is the best we can do? I’m not sure. None of us wants to look old; and I have no doubt we all appreciate a photo–or drawing–of ourselves that makes us look younger than our years. But it’s worth thinking about why. And surely blowing the whistle every once in a while can’t hurt.

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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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Face it, fellas. She’s hot. You’re not. Walk away. Right?

Nope. At least, that’s what an upcoming study in Psychological Science suggests.   In a study of 200 undergrads at University of Texas, lead author Carin Perilloux found that the least attractive men were the most likely to think that the attractive women in a “speed meeting” exercise were the ones most interested in them.

The research involved 96 male 103 female undergraduates, who were put through a “speed-meeting” exercise—talking for three minutes to each of five potential opposite-sex mates. Before the conversations, the participants rated themselves on their own attractiveness and were assessed for the level of their desire for a short-term sexual encounter. After each “meeting,” they rated the partner on a number of measures, including physical attractiveness and sexual interest in the participant. The model had the advantage of testing the participants in multiple interactions.

 The results: Men looking for a quick hookup were more likely to overestimate the women’s desire for them. Men who thought they were hot also thought the women were hot for them—but men who were actually attractive, by the women’s ratings, did not make this mistake. The more attractive the woman was to the man, the more likely he was to overestimate her interest. And women tended to underestimate men’s desire.

Go figure. According to the researchers, it’s all about evolution. Or the mating opportunity, especially for all the nebushy guys who are out there trying to get laid.  Overestimate your chances, and sooner or later, you’re likely to score.  And procreate.  (In Darwinian terms, this may not necessarily be such a good thing.)

But let’s move on.  Now that the planet has hit 7 billion, one would think that the rules of attraction had evolved beyond the need to reproduce.  But the culture — and society itself — seems to tell us that a woman is only as viable as her uterus.  You can scarcely buy a loaf of bread without witnessing the parade of baby bumps blazing from the covers of the checkstand magazines.  And look no further than Hollywood, where the old, fat or bald guy (pick one) often gets the girl young enough to be his daughter, and where most women actors have a shorter shelf life than your average jar of jam.

All of which could be a buzzkill, but as counterpoint I offer my late Auntie Margie, who was deep into her 80s when she once regaled a tableful of my girlfriends with tales of her love life.  “I don’t really need the sex anymore,” she said somewhat pensively.  “But I do need a man to take me out to dinner, now and again.”  And dinner dates, she had.

Auntie Margie was always something of a mystery to me when I was growing up.  In an era when most mothers wore dresses and aprons, she wore wool suits.   She was a single mother — often “between husbands”, as she put it — who proudly worked as a bookkeeper to support herself and her daughter at a time when most women her age listed their occupation as “housewife.”  She drank Manhattans, and she told fortunes with a deck of cards, always predicting that you would meet a M-A-N within three days, three weeks or three months.

The last time I saw her, at a family party, she was sitting on a sofa when she asked me to fetch her purse.  I lugged it over to her — you know the size of those handbags — she fished out her lipstick, and without bothering with her compact, applied those red lips perfectly.  At which point I said I was amazed she could put on lipstick without a mirror.  She waved her hand at me dismissively.  “Honey, if you’d been doing this as long as I have, you wouldn’t need a mirror either.”

Even on her deathbed, well into her 90s, she was still the coquette.  She had been hospitalized for several days, the story goes, when a handsome young resident stopped by her bedside for a quick exam.  “How are you doing today?” he asked.  My aunt, who hadn’t spoken a word to her family in days, looked up at  this dashing young doc, and fluttered her lashes like a teenager.  She looked into his eyes, broke out a smile, and said, “I’m just fine. And how are you?”

She was probably my first encounter with an independent woman, though Auntie Margie never would have recognized the word “feminist,” much less ever used the term.  But she was something more.  Marge was a woman who thumbed her nose at convention.  Who didn’t cave when it came to societal expectations or, more importantly, age.

Which leads us back to that study.  Maybe, in terms of evolution, the men amongst us are looking to score.  And maybe that’s necessary.  But just maybe, we girls are into a whole lot more.

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Surely you’ve heard about that million dollar lawsuit against Amazon filed by an anonymous actress who claims that Internet Movie Database (which is owned by Amazon) damaged her ability to get work because it published her age.  According to the Daily Dot, the lawsuit claimed:

“If one is perceived to be ‘over-the-hill,’ i.e., approaching 40, it is nearly impossible for an up-and-coming actress, such as the plaintiff, to get work as she is thought to have less of an ‘upside,’ therefore, casting directors, producers, directors, agents-manager, etc. do not give her the same opportunities, regardless of her appearance or talent…”

I know nothing about the woman, other than that she is an Asian from Texas who claims to look young for her age.  I know nothing about her resume.  I have no idea whether she has talent.  I don’t know whether it’s a legitimate lawsuit or she’s just out to make a quick buck.  I don’t even know how old she is.

But what I do know is this. Put a man of a certain age up on the big screen and he’s not only viable as an actor, but might generate some fantasies: George Clooney is 50.  Richard Gere is 62.  Pierce Brosnan: 58.  Sean Connery was named the sexiest man of the year by people magazine back in 1999 when he was, I believe, 68.  Viggo Mortensen is 58. Colin Firth and Hugh Grant: Both 50. And Jeremy Irons?  You may not find him especially sexy, but as Pope Alexander VI in the TV series The Borgias, he gets more than his share of action.  He is 62.

Now let’s turn the tables: Who are the leading ladies of the same age, with the same kind of currency, the same box office draw?  Can’t think of many, can you?  Not necessarily because they aren’t equally talented as actors, or equally sexy, but because they just don’t get the parts.

There could be any number of reasons for this, none of them especially pleasant to contemplate, but what we want to focus on today is just one of them: the gender make-up of Hollywood itself.

For years we have decried the fact that the old guy always gets the cute girl in the movies. We have for years ranted: about the schlubby guys on TV who have the slim trim wives; about the loser guys who end up with, you know, Katherine Heigl; about the sweet young things who are wooed by the guys old enough to be their grandpas.

You have to ask yourself: who writes this stuff?  And the answer, as we discovered when we researched our book, is this: predominantly men.  Back in 2009, the Hollywood Writers Report found that women and minorities had not made any significant hiring gains since 2005, with women writers making up roughly one-quarter of the field: 28 percent of TV writers and 18 percent of film writers.Their salaries also showed a discrepancy: White men $98,875, versus women $57,151—for a whopping wage gap of $41,724.40.

When we checked in with the their latest report, released a few months ago, we found that women’s share had actually declined:

 The present report shows that women writers remain stuck at 28 percent of television employment, while their share of film employment actually declined a percentage point since the last report to 17 percent. Although the minority share of television employment increased a percentage point to 10 percent (matching the shares evident in years immediately prior to the 2007 nadir), the group’s share of film employment declined to just 5 percent – the lowest figure in at least ten years.

Another study, this one by the Center for the Study of Women in Film and Television found that:

In 2010, women comprised 16% of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films. This represents a decline of 1 percentage point from 1998 and is even with 2009 figures.

Women accounted for 7% of directors in 2010, the same percentage as in 2009. This figure represents a decline of two percentage points from 1998.

Likewise, a 2011 study by USC’s Annenberg Center found that when it came to creative positions in general, including directing or producing, women were again grossly outnumbered.  In a piece on the study for the Women’s Media Center, the researchers for that study, Stacy L. Smith and Marc Choueiti, wrote:

Turning to behind-the-camera employees, the gender gap is far more problematic.  For every one working female director, writer, or producer, there are 4.9 working males in the same above-the-line gate-keeping positions.  Stated in another way, only 8 percent of directors, 13.6 percent of writers, and 19.1 percent of producers were female across the 100 top-grossing films in 2008.  These numbers are unsettling, as one way to diversify images on screen may be to vary the personnel responsible for making the content.  In fact, this is exactly what our results showed.  When one or more females are involved directing, writing, or producing, the number of females on screen increases substantially (see Figure 1).  In the case of screenwriters, the presence of at least one female on the writing team was associated with a 14.3 percent increase in the percentage of female characters on screen.

All of this has an impact — three words for you:  The Playboy Club, which fortunately just met its timely demise — as the reseachers noted, not the least of which is the fact that when there’s no diversity behind the camera, the women we see in front of it are not only showing a lot of skin, but often unrealistically young.  (Backstage reports that women over 40 account for a mere 8 percent of characters in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 TV seasons to date).

That impact goes far beyond the silver screen, as Jennifer Seibel Newsom, producer of Miss Representation points out:

And really what our culture is communicating to us is vis-a-vis the media, which is this pedagogical force of communication in our culture, is that a woman’s value lies in her youth, her beauty, and her sexuality and not in her capacity to lead…

Back in 2010 when Meryl Streep — the exception who proves the rule? — made news by starring as a sexual being in “It’s Complicated”, she was the subject of a cover story in Vanity Fair, which dug into the stereotypical way in which the media treat women of a certain age:

Any inhibitions notwithstanding, a vibrant sexuality has remained a crucial aspect of Streep’s appeal, despite her advancing years and the limitations that others might try to impose in response. When Clint Eastwood cast her to star opposite him in The Bridges of Madison County, which won Streep an Oscar nomination for best actress, in 1996, his reason was simple: “She’s the greatest actress in the world,” he said with a shrug.

That said, Streep reports, “There was a big fight over how I was too old to play the part, even though Clint was nearly 20 years older than me. The part was for a 45-year-old woman, and Clint said, ‘This is a 45-year-old woman.’”

Old news, perhaps.  But have things changed in the past 15 years?  Probably not, which brings us back to that Amazon lawsuit.  Frivolous or not, it makes you wonder about the biggest question of all: Does Hollywood reflect our reality — or determine it?

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If a feminist worries over her worry lines, frets over getting fat, or lusts after lipstick… but there’s no one around to witness it, can she still call herself a feminist?

They’re questions we all ponder at one time or another, I suppose. Is buying Spanx buying into an oppressive ideal? Does dabbling in fillers make one a tool of the patriarchy? Does plunking down your VISA at the MAC counter mean you’ve forfeited your feminist card? Who among us hasn’t felt that guilt, that shame, keeping your head down while silently praying no one spots you–enlightened, intelligent, feminist you–shelling out fifty bucks for two ounces of eye cream? Who hasn’t wondered: Are a touch of vanity and an ethos of empowerment mutually exclusive?

Sure, maybe we can coast through a couple of decades, smug in our certainty that we’d never stoop so low. And yet. Once we start to age, once it’s our forehead that’s lined, our jawline that’s softened, the tug-of-war becomes urgent. As Anna Holmes, founder of the pop-feminist website Jezebel, wrote in the Washington Post:

‘Wow. You’re really looking older,’ says the voice in my head as I peer into the bathroom mirror. Then another, this one louder and more judgmental: ‘Who are you that you care?’

Who am I indeed. The fact that I can be so profoundly unsettled by the appearance of a few wrinkles on my forehead doesn’t say much of anything good about my sense of self as a whole. In the same way that I’m sort of horrified at the increasingly unrecognizable face that stares back at me in the mirror, I’m equally unsettled that I’m horrified at all.

Who couldn’t relate? Internal debating (and berating) aside, though, the thing I’m left thinking about is how much this sounds like yet another false dichotomy. Virgin/whore, pretty/smart, plastic/natural, young/irrelevant. As though a woman can be either a gray-haired intellectual frump or a Botoxed blond bimbo, as though there were nothing in between. As though any person could be so simply defined. One or the other. If one, then not the other.

While my fear of needles (and, well, poison) precludes me from even considering Botox, I have no problem admitting that some of the hairs on my head have gone rogue (by which I mean gray)–and that I pay someone good money to make it look otherwise. I happily incur the expense of continued education, and of shoes. I giggle, and I engage in heated intellectual debates. I spend time pondering the meaning of life–and the size of my pores. I proudly call myself a feminist, and, yes, I shave my legs. What box do I fit into?

Perhaps the goal is not to worry so much over what one decision means for the label we’ve happily slapped upon ourselves, but to realize that a label is only part of the story. Maybe the goal is to forego the labels altogether, to open our minds, broaden our thinking, be a little more forgiving of ourselves, a little more accepting of each other–and do something a little more productive with all that reclaimed time and brainspace. Or perhaps the goal is simply to remember to think outside the box.

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At long last: your birth control pills will finally be covered by insurance! The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has announced sweeping new guidelines for women’s health care to take effect Aug. 1, 2012. Among other things, these new guidelines will classify birth control pills as preventative medicine, meaning they’ll be covered without co-pay or deductible. “Victory!” the email from Planned Parenthood cried. Huge news, hugely important — and it has us thinking about something else. Something that might surprise you.

With the co-pays soon to be off the table, we got to wondering about the real cost of birth control.

It’s tricky territory, touched upon in a recent issue of New York Magazine, which screamed from the cover: Fifty years ago, the pill ushered in a new era of sexual freedom. It might have created a fertility crisis as well. And again in the form of a personal essay by Elaine Gale, called Breaking up with feminism: A heartbreaking loss led to a new and deeper relationship–with the Feminine.

At issue: the not-so pleasant side effect of the power to impose a little control over our reproductive lives: that while we indeed have incredible control to suppress our fertility (while still expressing our sexuality) while we establish ourselves professionally, or financially, or just allow ourselves to get the sowing-of-the-wild-oats out of our systems, well, we don’t have control over when our reproductive systems time out.

Just typing that out loud feels like we’re traitors to the cause. Because, you know, the Pill is a good thing, as we’ve mentioned before. As Vanessa Grigoriadis writes in the NY Mag piece,

…the Pill, after all, is so much more than just a pill. It’s magic, a trick of science that managed in one fell swoop to wipe away centuries of female oppression, overly exhausting baby-making, and just marrying the wrong guy way too early.

True, dat. Quoting Kelli Conlin, president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health, Grigoriadis goes on:

“Today, we operate on a simple premise–that every little girl should be able to grow up to be anything she wants, and she can only do so if she has the ability to chart her own reproductive destiny.”

…These days, women’s twenties are as free and fabulous as they can be, a time of boundless freedom and experimentation, of easily trying on and discarding identities, careers, partners.

And, you know, why shouldn’t we take equal part in that experimentation–a time that’s become so fundamental to the American experience, science types are trying to get it distinguished as an entirely new life stage? The Pill gave women power and freedom and equality — and what could possibly be more empowering than that? These very things were the great promises of feminism.

Which brings us to Gale’s story:

I loved all the things Feminism whispered to me at night when I couldn’t sleep:

“You deserve the world on your own terms.”

“I will take care of you and make sure that things are fair.”

“You can have it all!”

…Meanwhile, my life had a repeating narrative: professional success, romantic mess. There was Mr. Right Now, Mr. Adorable Slacker, Mr. Too Bland, Mr. Has Potential, Mr. Too Old For Me, and then Mr. Artistic But Unstable.

I always thought that I had plenty of time to get married and crank out some children. Women can do anything they want when they want, right? That’s what feminism was always whispering in my ear.

Then, at age 36, she married her husband. She writes:

We decided that we wanted to have a child, although at the time, I partly saw it as another box to check off. After the miscarriage, feminism and I had our falling out.

What’s feminism got to do with it? Here’s Gale’s take:

Feminism was always going on and on about the importance of having choices. But I found that my biological choice to have a child was snatched away from me while I was being liberated.

I had been told that I could have my career first and have children second. That it wasn’t either/or. I thought that it was going to be better for us than it was for our mothers. But my mom ended up with a wonderful career as a university professor and had three children.

Confused, I rued the day I fell under feminism’s sway. How could I have been so naive? How could I have put off having children so late that I have possibly missed the opportunity to have children at all?

Tough stuff. And props to Gale for that kind of blunt honesty. And, in terms of delaying pregnancy, she is hardly alone.

The CDC, which surveyed data between 2007 and 2009, found that the birth rate for women over 40 in the United States rose steadily in those two years. In other age groups, it fell by 4 percent. Researchers claim that it is the sharpest decline in three decades.

…women aged between 40 and 44 experienced a 6 percent increase in births. Meanwhile, women aged 20-24 (“peak childbearing years”) apparently decided to put babies on hold, as birth rate in that age range plummeted 9 percent.

One analysis attributes this phenomenon to fertility medicine. Makes sense. The study itself draws a link to the economy. That makes sense, too. And, when looking at such steep changes over such a short period of time, those things are likely no small part of the story.

But. We think there are other factors at play here, too, part of a larger trend. The same kind of things that we believe to be behind the Extended Adolescence phenomenon, the same kind of things that we believe to be behind the kind of commitmentphobia New York Magazine and Lori Gottlieb have written about.

Namely, that having a whole lot of options (or being told you have a whole lot of options) breeds a certain reluctance to commit. And what could possibly be more of a commitment than a baby? Real estate? Marriage? A job? A move? Bangs? Please. With the possible exception of a tattoo (although I hear they’re doing impressive things with tattoo removal technology these days), a baby represents the ultimate in commitment. Women today have been sent out to conquer the world. We’ve been told we can do anything, that we can have it all! And that we are so very, very luckyto be able to do anything, to have it all! And, given those messages, is it any wonder we’re a little gun-shy when it comes to commitment? Is it any wonder we want to get our fill of the world and it’s opportunities before we sign on to settle down?

But it’s more than that. A baby represents a far greater lifestyle change for a woman than for a man: even if the woman and the man are parents to the same child. In all likelihood, it’ll be mom who’ll take a time-out from the working world (and she’ll probably–and by “probably” I essentially mean “most definitely”–get dinged for it)–but most families today can’t afford to have one-half of the breadwinners at home forever. Especially with a bonus mouth to feed, a mouth which may one day need braces, a mouth in a head that will one day require a college education… So it makes a lot of sense that a woman might want to wait until she gets a little more established, professionally, before she takes herself out of the game, even if its only temporarily. Because once she jumps back in, she’ll find she’ll be paying a price.

Back to Grigoriadis:

The fact is that the Pill, while giving women control of their bodies for the first time in history, allowed them to forget about the biological realities of being female until it was, in some cases, too late… Inadvertently, indirectly, infertility has become the Pill’s primary side effect.

And ironically, this most basic of women’s issues is one that traditional feminism has a very hard time processing–the notion that this freedom might have a cost is thought to be so dangerous it shouldn’t be mentioned.

And that, we tend to think, is the real trouble here. Not the cost itself–but the reluctance to admit to it. It seems to me that we’re shying away from what may be the biggest challenge for women today: admitting that freedom might–no, does–come with a cost. In the reproductive realm, yes, clearly — but in the larger sense too: We’re missing the rather nasty message that every choice entails a trade-off. That we can’t have it all.

You read that right, sister. You can’t. I can’t. No one can. It’s an ugly message, so is it any surprise so few of us want to go there?

So often, when we talk about “choice,” we focus on all the options, and the things that we choose. But, by its very definition, making a choice entails not choosing something else. (It’s no coincidence that the word “decide”, the very word we use for making up our minds, ends in -cide — which means to kill.) We just like to leave that part out; we don’t talk about it.

But we think we should talk about that. Not least because there’s something about talking about stuff that makes even the suckiest of stuff suck a little bit less. Seems like Grigoriadis might agree:

Sexual freedom is a fantastic thing, worth paying a lot for. But it’s not anti-feminist to want to be clearer about exactly what is being paid. Anger, regret, repeated miscarriages, the financial strain of assisted reproductive technologies, and the inevitable damage to careers and relationships in one’s thirties and forties that all this involve deserve to be weighed and discussed. The next stage in feminism, in fact, may be to come to terms, without guilt trips or defensiveness, with issues like this.

The reluctance to discuss the very real consequences of putting off getting pregnant because we’re afraid doing so would somehow discount the very important freedom that comes with being able to put off getting pregnant does us a disservice. Is that freedom of any less value because it comes with trade-offs? When we talk of choices only in terms of what we choose–and never with a nod to our feelings over what we consequently choose to leave behind… well, how empowering is that, really? (And when we talk of “having it all” as though all “all” entails is a big bowl of cherries, how are we to feel when we realize that, in aiming to have it all, what we’ve really wound up with is all of the work?)

They’re tough questions, and they require tough honesty. Isn’t there some kind of pill for that?

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