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Archive for the ‘the ticking clock’ Category

Clicking through my Facebook friends, one could be forgiven for assuming I do a lot of socializing at preschools. One would be wrong, of course: the truth is that countless of my pals have replaced their profile pics with snaps of their wee ones; their status updates with diaper-status updates. Continuing along, one might also assume that, somewhere in my travels, I infiltrated a tribe of Carrie Bradshaw clones: beautiful, successful folks living the life, traveling to important places to do important things, wearing fabulous clothes while hanging out with fabulous people.

On the surface (and what is Facebook if not surface?), everyone’s having a dandy time living the lives they chose. Which is dandy. But how real is it?

We’ll come back to that. First, though, let’s take a look at an interesting piece on Salon.com entitled “How Facebook can affirm a woman’s singlehood.” In it, Tracy Clark-Flory makes the point that, for many women, spying on their married-and-mommied friends via the ‘book makes them feel validated to have put career first. Here’s a bit:

My friend Katherine is successful, dynamic, and fiercely intelligent–but, unmarried and childless at 32, she feels pressure from some to hurry up and achieve something that really matters: settling down and having kids. There is nothing new about a woman wondering if she’s sacrificed her love life for her career–but what is new is how Facebook is allowing these women to compare how their life choices have panned out with those of their peers, and sometimes it’s actually validating.

Katherine recently told me, ‘I go on there and I see these beautiful, intelligent women that I grew up with and they’re all married to these accountant types who wear polos and golf on the weekends. Yes, they have kids, a home and a husband — but it just looks so painfully, unbearably boring.’ Granted the whole truth is that she also sometimes feels jealousy — for instance, when a friend who is married with a baby posts about ‘drinking a glass of wine and eating oysters with her husband at their cute house with the bathroom they just remodeled themselves.’

…Despite all the choices available to women today, many still fret that in putting their career first and worrying about marriage and kids later they will ultimately miss out on the latter. There is a biological reality behind those concerns, but there are also plenty of cultural myths and trumped-up anxiety — the lonely cat lady who dies without anyone noticing and ends up being eaten by her hungry companion, for example — that serve as cautionary tales. The warning, of course, is that we will be punished for being too ambitious and going against our basic nature. Given the high stakes, it’s no surprise that this often leads to comparison and competition — and Facebook serves as a virtual looking glass through which to explore the path not taken.

So interesting isn’t it, how even here, life is presented as either-or for women. One path or the other. Career or love. Driven or domesticated. And if that’s the case, no wonder we have such a hard time making the choices that will take us down one road or another: they mean too much. And they’re too narrow. What if we want some of one, but more of the other? Where’s the profile for that?

And speaking of profiles, perhaps all of this angst–and uncertainty–over whether or not we’re making the right choices is why we’re so compelled to present ourselves so charmingly. We all have doubts. Do you think Katherine’s oyster-eating DIY couple posted the fact that they nearly killed each other while drywalling their new commode? Or the flipside:

‘Here I am, sitting in traffic, getting home to my tiny one-bedroom apartment, and eating macaroni and cheese after an 11-hour work day,’ [Katherine] says. ‘But I don’t post things about traffic, or sitting in my pajamas watching ‘Top Chef’ on Facebook! I write status updates about attending premiere parties and meticulously select profile pictures. I have to believe it’s all relative.’

Of course it is. Women today have every choice–and every one of us is, at some point or another, terrified we’ve made the wrong ones. Is it any wonder, then, that we treat our public personas like we might a disssertation: something we must present and defend? Here is my choice, and look how great it is! I have achieved the American Dream–witness husband and spawn! Or: I’m single and successful and fancy-free–witness the world travels and amazing fun! When in reality, of course, both are bullshit. Because life is life and it’s fabulous at times and at other times there are diapers to change or douchebags to date, and either way there’s bills to pay… But just because we’ve come up against yet another dirty diaper–or douchebag–does not mean we chose wrong.


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Oh, Tina Fey. How do I love thee?

In the current New Yorker, Tina Fey lays it all out there, as only she can. Work. Parenthood. Guilt. Aging. Enjoy:

The writer’s daughter recently checked out a book from the preschool library called “My Working Mom,” which depicted a witch mother who was very busy and had to fly away to a lot of meetings. The two men who wrote this book probably had the best intentions, but the topic of working moms is a tap-dance recital in a minefield. What is the rudest question you can ask a woman? “How old are you?” “What do you weigh?”

No, the worst question is: “How do you juggle it all?” The second-worst question is: “Are you going to have more kids?”

Science shows that fertility and movie offers drop off steeply for women after forty. The baby-versus-work life questions keep the writer up at night. She has observed that women, at least in comedy, are labeled “crazy” after a certain age. The writer has the suspicion that the definition of “crazy” n show business is a woman who keeps talking after no one wants to fuck her anymore. The fastest remedy for this “women are crazy” situation is for more women to become producers and hire diverse women of various ages. That is why the writer feels obligated to stay in the business, and that is why she can’t possibly take time off for a second baby, unless she does, in which case that is nobody’s business. Does the writer want to have another baby? Or does she just want to turn back time and have her daughter be a baby again? That night, as she was putting the witch book in her daughter’s backpack to be returned to school, the writer asked her, “Did you pick this book because your mommy works? Did it make you feel better about it?” Her daughter looked at her matter-of-factly and said, “Mommy, I can’t read. I thought it was a Halloween book.”

Funny, in an idiot-shivers kind of a way. First: A kids book called “My Working Mom” in which the working mom is a witch was actually published? Just… wow.

Then, of course, there’s Fey’s disturbingly pithy definition of the word crazy. (I read another interesting piece about aging while female in Hollywood this weekend here.) Sure, Hollywood–especially writers, especially comedy writers–is kind of the worst of the worst when it comes to sexist work environs, and it’s a relatively small sample. But. It’s disturbing when you consider what Hollywood writers do. They, quite literally, create the cultural myths that haunt and inspire us. And “they” are over 80% male in movie writing, 75% male in TV. Never wonder again why fat old men are consistently paired with beautiful twentysomethings.

And then, there’s the motherhood question. What will a baby mean for my career? What will another baby mean for my career? We’re often nearing a critical patch, professionally, at the very same time that our fertility takes a dive. Which leaves us with a choice–Ramp down the career?–and, often, a compromise. Questions and choices that are damn near universal for women. But for men… well, not so much. It’s like they wrote the script for corporate culture, too. Oh, wait, they did: they built it.

But, like the rest of it, the question of what’s at stake if we leave is universal. Don’t get me wrong: I realize Tina Fey is Tina Fey, and you and I are, well, not. But, whether we want to see Hollywood’s definition of “crazy” get a makeover, or our employer’s (not to mention our government’s) policies made over to accommodate the reality of working women’s lives, we have to stick around.

Just one more thing to juggle.


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Today’s post is one of those ones that I’ve thought about writing often, but been happy to shy away from. It’s tricky territory. But over the past week, fate intervened: first, in the form of the New York Magazine in my mailbox, 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 then, in the form of a headline on one of my Google Alerts, 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 I’m a traitor to the cause. Because, you know, the Pill is a good thing, as I’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. 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, I 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?

It’s funny, the other night, I was out to dinner with some friends, and one was asking me about the book. And I said something that left him stunned: that 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. We just like to leave that part out.

And he looked at me with his mouth open for a minute or two, and said, Holy Crap! That’s so true, but you’re right, no one ever talks about that.

I 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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So I was roaming around The Daily Beast yesterday — ahem, looking for intellectual commentary — when I was sidetracked by a Popeater link entitled thus: Betty White: You’re Never Too Old for Sex.

And so of course I clicked.

What I found was a little riff on a cover story from AARP magazine in which, among other things, Ms. White — who at 88 is onto yet another stage of her career as a star of the new movie, “You Again” — talks with her costars Jamie Lee Curtis and Kristen Bell about sex:

I don’t have a fella, but if [her late husband] Allen [Ludden] — or Robert Redford — were around, we’d have a very active sex life.

Gotta love it, right?  All of which made me think of 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.”

Auntie Margie was always something of a mystery to me when I was growing up.  And in all honesty, sometimes an embarrassment.  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 worked as a bookkeeper to support herself and her daughter at a time when most women her age proudly 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 looking back, I realize she was something more.  Like Betty White –  Hollywood’s newest “It” girl who hosted SNL back in May and is now costarring in a TV sitcom, “Hot in Cleveland” — Marge was a woman who thumbed her nose at convention.  Who didn’t cave when it came to societal expectations or, more importantly, age.

And bravo for that.

Because here comes the point: How much of our angst and worry over  life decisions relates to the ticking clock?  The idea that there is some iron-clad time line, etched completely in stone, that dictates when we are supposed to reach certain milestones?  That once we hit a certain age, we should not only have checked X number of items off the to-do list — but must eliminate those for which society says we are just too old?  The lesson we should learn from these cool old broads is this:  it’s never too late.

Which brings us back to the words of wisdom Betty White shared with her costars:

“”Does desire melt away with age? I’m waiting for that day to come? Sexual desire is like aging, a lot of it is up here [points to her head.]“

True words, never spoken.  Especially what she says about aging.  Our favorite Golden Girl, like Auntie Margie, is a lesson for us all.  We are who we are:  stereotypes, society and above all, age, be damned.

After all, no matter how old we are, something new and unexpected could be waiting for us.  In three days, three weeks, or three months.

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Men are single. Women, on the other hand, are unmarried. And that, ladies, is how language screws us once again

All of which came to light Wednesday via Maureen Dowd, who used the current flap about the sexuality of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan to note how quickly women go from “single” — read: sexy, fun and available — to “unmarried,” a fate somewhat akin to that of Mary in “A Wonderful Life” had George Bailey never been born. (That’s her, up in the corner. Note the glasses.)

In case you’ve been hiding under a rock this past week, it’s been suggested that Kagan, 50 and never married, must then be a lesbian. The WSJ even went so far as to use a page one photo of her playing softball, wink wink. All of which prompted Kagan’s friends, the White House, and Kagan herself to assert that she is straight.

At which point, she became unmarried. As in, poor thing. Now, take a man in similar circumstances. He, of course, would still be single. Or better yet, a bachelor. We all know what that means. He doesn’t even have to be remotely attractive — Henry Kissinger, anyone? — for the girls to come flocking. But without addressing the double standard because, you know, it makes us too angry, let’s go straight to Dowd, who is herself, by the way, single:

When does a woman go from being single to unmarried?

As my friend Carol Lee, a Politico reporter, observes: “It seems like a cruel distinction and terrifying crossover.”

Single carries a connotation of eligibility and possibility, while unmarried has that dreaded over-the-hill, out-of-luck, you-are-finished, no-chance implication. An aroma of mothballs and perpetual aunt.

Men, generally more favored by nature as they age, can be single at all ages. But often, for women, once you’re 40 or 50, or simply beyond childbearing age, you’re no longer single. You’re unmarried — meaning it isn’t your choice to be alone. There are post-50 exceptions. Consider celebrity examples: Samantha in “Sex and the City,” Dana Delany, Susan Sarandon and Madonna are seen as sexily single.

But if you have a bit of a weight problem, a bad haircut, a schlumpy wardrobe, the assumption is that you’re undesirable, unwanted — and unmarried.

All of which leads to the current Kagan narrative, writes Dowd:

Kagan has told a friend in the West Wing that she is not gay, just lonely. Even so, that doesn’t mean her sherpas in the White House, in their frantic drive to dismiss the gay rumors, should be spinning a narrative around that most hoary of stereotypes: a smart, ambitious woman who threw herself into her work, couldn’t find a guy, threw up her hands, and threw herself further into her work — and in the process went from single to unmarried.

It’s inexplicable, given that this should be Kagan’s hour of triumph as potentially only the fourth woman ever to serve on the highest court.

Here we go again with the pre-feminist junk: We women can be smart, we can be accomplished, we can be ambitious. But we can’t be all three — and married, too. After all, what man wants a woman who sports a better title, matches him paycheck for paycheck, and can beat him at chess?

And have a family? Fuhgeddabout it.

I can’t help thinking back to the mid-80s when a media misinterpretation of a combined Harvard-Yale study led to headlines and magazine cover stories that proclaimed that unmarried women who had reached the age of 40 were more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to ever find a mate. True story. The media reports, I mean. The study’s findings, at least the way they were reported? Not so much. In fact, Newsweek did a mea culpa twenty years later — another cover story that found that many of those single women the magazine had profiled back in the day not only had not been killed by terrorists — fancy that — but indeed had found their soulmates. Even raised families.

And yet, the idea lingers. Or continues to reignite: If women are too smart, if they are are too ambitious, if they let themselves get too old, they better watch out. They’ll go from single to unmarried in a heartbeat. And we all know what that means. Fun’s over, girls. Time to start raising kittycats.

The other subtext of this Kagan stuff, of course, is this: you can do anything, even sit on the Supreme Court, but really, what does it matter if you don’t have a guy?

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Partially fueled by good champagne, we had some silly chitchat with good friends on New Year’s Eve regarding stupid celebrity “news” stories. My husband won the “top this” prize with a rumor that made the rounds a while back about Morgan Freeman planning to marry his step granddaughter.

Huh?

Apart from the very obvious yuck factor, there’s this: Freeman is 72. His intended is 27.

Now, at the risk of starting out the new year in a pair of the cranky pants, I can’t help but notice that nowhere (yes, I googled) is Freeman referred to as, ahem, an “older” actor. But women actors? Once they become old enough to be, say, Freeman’s daughter, “older” becomes their middle name.

Case in point, a recent post on Broadsheet riffing on a CNN.com piece by Breeanna Hare about the new screen stereotype of the woman-of-a-certain-age: the boozy grandma. First, from Hare’s post:

“These women, they’re not knitting — they’re more interested in mixing their drinks than watching kids,” said Entertainment Weekly’s pop culture writer Tim Stack. “They’re more inclined to offer a witticism or a barb than to give you sweet advice. These ladies aren’t cooking — I don’t think they even eat. They drink their lunch. And their dinners. And their breakfasts. … Maybe they eat the olives.”

They’re the exact opposite of the stereotypical grandmother, said TVGuide.com’s senior editor Mickey O’Connor.

Or, apparently, the over-50 woman. While Broadsheet rightly bemoans the fact that good parts for veteran women actors are slim and none, I couldn’t miss a certain patronizing subtext in the way writer Kate Harding brings up Meryl Streep and Susan Sarandon, both playing real women on the big screen this season, and her need to frame them in terms of their age. Ugh. From her post:

For all the talk of Meryl Streep rocking Hollywood’s socks off this year (and believe me, I’m as thrilled about that as any other female moviegoer who’s not invested in Edward vs. Jacob), let us not forget that she’s Meryl Freakin’ Streep. Is her recent wave of success really going to help other women her age to open movies and land the cover of Vanity Fair? TVGuide.com senior editor Mickey O’Connor provides the reality check: “Maybe it’s become, play a drunk grandmother and you get to work past the age of 60. Even if you’re Susan Sarandon …

I suppose the boozy grandma is better than the dotty — or nonexistent — older woman character, in that she at least has a discernible personality, opinions and enough brains to produce just the right clever, cutting remark on the spot. But does she have to be a functional alcoholic for the audience to accept those things? Does a woman over 60 — or 50, even — have to be snobby and self-absorbed to be interesting?

Et tu, Broadsheet? Do we ever categorize men in terms of their last birthday? It may be celebs we’re talking about here, but make no mistake: the trickle down hurts us all.

One of the things we talk about in journalism classes is the damage done by unwitting stereotyping – see above — often, a reporter’s form of shorthand. One of the most insidious forms that affects marginalized groups is overcompensation: “gee whiz” features on 75-year-old marathoners, for example, or inspirational series on the academic success of the so-called “model minorities”. All of which leads me back to the way that Meryl Streep’s over-50 sexual being in “It’s Complicated” or Susan Sarandon’s smoking, drinking granny in “The Lovely Bones” have been framed in the media: as novelties, the anti-stereotypes who, apparently, are the exceptions who prove the rule. The unkindest subtext of all: that they – apparently, unlike most women their age – not only have lives of their own but are attractive to boot.

Shouldn’t they be in the kitchen, wearing frumpy clothes and sensible shoes, humming 1950s show tunes?

Clearly, Streep, currently gracing the cover of this month’s Vanity Fair, is not. The VF profile of her does one great job of thumbing its nose at the stereotypical way the media treat women of a certain age. Consider this:

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.’”

When casting female roles, directors and producers have often applied a comically exaggerated double standard about age. With Streep now playing the ex-wife and current love interest of Alec Baldwin, who is actually nine years younger than she is, many observers have started wondering whether such old-fashioned biases are really changing in ways that will affect other actresses, or only in relation to Streep, who has always been sui generis. In any case, a good part of her aforementioned glee may have to do with her ongoing amazement that, after all these years, she’s still getting away with doing what she loves. “I’ve been given great, weird, interesting parts well past my ‘Sell by’ date,” she says. “I remember saying to Don when I was 38, ‘Well, it’s over.’ And then we kicked the can down the road a little further.”

Refreshing, no? But back to the case in point, we – that’s the collective “we” – rarely box in men in terms of their age. Did anyone but me bat an eye when Michael Douglas was paired with Demi Moore in Disclosure? When Sean Connery’s love interest in Entrapment was Douglas’s wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones? Oldies yes, but you could pull just about ANY movie made today to prove the same point: The leading man needs only a recognizable name. His costar, on the other hand, needs not only a name — but must be young and stunningly beautiful, too. Men in their 50s and 60s not only get to be leading men who still get the girl, but in the real world, they also run companies and countries. They’ve got status that is earned by (wait for it…) AGE. Their female counterparts, on the other hand, generally are considered redundant at best, silly at worst.

All of which makes me wonder if ageism holds us back every bit as much as sexism does, whether the tyranny of the ticking clock that Shannon wrote about here and here may be one reason why we agonize so much over our choices. Sure we’re raised to know that we can be or do anything. But that nasty little voice keeps on whispering: we better get it done before we turn 40.

Maybe we ought to just take it from Meryl. The best way to ring in 2010 is to silence that voice — not to mention the clock — once and for all. As Streep points out in the VF profile, Julia Child did not become, well, Julia Child until she was 50.

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Do you remember when you were little and you wanted a perm (okay, I’m really dating myself here), a belly ring, a tattoo, and you’d whine to your mom, “But mooooom, everyone else is doing it!” And she’d say, “If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you?”

Depending on my mood, I, smartass that I tend to be, would sometimes mutter “Well yeah. There’d be no one left to play with.”

But today I got to thinking about how that feeling never really goes away. What inspired it was a piece I came across at The Frisky, entitled “Birthday Blues: What Happens To Friendship After You Turn 30?” In it, Amelia McDonnell-Parry writes:

I have a few single friends, sure, and they’re awesome. But while I know life isn’t a race and I truly don’t feel like I’m competing, I feel strangely “behind” the vast majority of my friends in the personal life department. It’s not that I’m jealous or that I desperately wish I were getting married or having a baby right now–remember, I almost was married and am grateful not to be. But I also feel a little disconnected from them.

That’s a familiar feeling. No one wants to be left behind. After all, how much fun would it be if all your friends had jumped off the bridge, leaving you standing alone, like the proverbial cheese? But it got me to thinking, how much do such feelings interfere with our decisions? How often are the things we pick for our lives influenced by a little unconscious–and, not so unconscious–desire to head off becoming the cheese? How often are the milestones (marriage, advanced degree, corner office, fat apartment in the city, fat home in the ‘burbs, fat baby in the stroller) we shoot for  not, if we were to think about it, the result of us really assessing what we want for our lives, but just sort of assumed? Everyone else is doing it…

A little more from Amelia:

I ultimately want all of those things that my friends have–commitment and companionship and children–but truthfully, I can’t always imagine those things happening for me. Of course, at age 30 my mom was pregnant with me and about to marry my dad (yeah, I was an accident), but I’m sure when she looked ahead she didn’t see, say, a divorce or a cross-country move, two things that have occurred in her life in the last decade. Turning 30 has started to make me wonder what positive and negative events are to come. I’ve always liked being “prepared.”

When I went to Costa Rica this summer, one of the big “lessons” I brought back with me was that there’s something extremely gratifying about not looking too far ahead. The chances of envisioning what the future will actually hold are slim and life is better spent enjoying things as they happen. For the most part, I think I have applied that to my life rather well, but with 30 only, ack, a week away and everyone around me going through major life changes, I’m suddenly feeling this weird, self-imposed pressure to anticipate what’s ahead. What do I want? How am I going to get those things? Where do I want to go and how am I going to get there?

They’re tough questions. Made tougher, of course, because deep down, each of us knows we are the only one who can answer them. Of course, it’d be easier to just follow the trail someone else has blazed… for a while. But what happens when we realize it’s not a fit? We’re back where we started, left with the ultimate question, which Jane, who I wrote about in Deciding For Yourself, so eloquently asked:

If I could really figure out the answer to everyone’s question “What do YOU want?” — I’d do that! But how do I know what I want…?

That is the question. We’re each on our own path, and, ultimately, the biggest job before us is not figuring out which way to go, but in learning how to enjoy the ride–to focus more on the amazing, and less on the race. Sure, it’s nice to have company along the way, but our friends–no matter how much we love them–are on their own roads, too. Sometimes they can lead us into the light, and sometimes, not so much. Trust me–I got that perm.

And my hair has never recovered.

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As it is in fortune cookies, so it is in women’s lives and the choices they face… which is to say that, while the greatest measurable strides we’ve made have been in the realm of work–even, perhaps, as a result of those strides–we’ve found ourselves stumped when it comes to the choices we face over personal stuff, too.

And I’m talking beyond the question of whether to be a stay at home mom or a working mom: I’m talking about whether to have kids at all, and love, and sex, and marriage, and divorce. And what women who’ve been there have been willing to say about it. And what women who haven’t been there yet think about the women who have been there–and what they say about it.

There was Lori Gottlieb’s widely publicized and ballyhooed essay in The Atlantic, entitled “Marry Him! The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough,” in which a life spent holding out for something–or someone–that would meet her great expectations is told from the perspective of the now 40-something, single mother Gottlieb. (The baby daddy? A test tube.) She writes that, as she ages, she finds herself much more willing to settle for something less than fabulous–and advises younger women that the really smart thing to do is to just settle for the balding dude with dragon breath.

Take the date I went on last night. The guy was substantially older. He had a long history of major depression and said, in reference to the movies he was writing, “I’m fascinated by comas” and “I have a strong interest in terrorists.” He’d never been married. He was rude to the waiter. But he very much wanted a family, and he was successful, handsome, and smart. As I looked at him from across the table, I thought, Yeah, I’ll see him again. Maybe I can settle for that. But my very next thought was, Maybe I can settle for better. It’s like musical chairs–when do you take a seat, any seat, just so you’re not left standing alone?

Then, on precisely the other end of the spectrum, there was Sandra Tsing Loh’s shockingly honest account of the end of her marriage, which included an offhand mention of the affair she had that precipitated it. She suggests that love has an expiration date, and that, in the face of having it all, the drudgery of reigniting that old, familiar flame seemed but a futile task on her already too-long list of To-Dos:

Do you see? Given my staggering working mother’s to-do list, I cannot take on yet another arduous home- and self-improvement project, that of rekindling our romance.

She introduces us to her friend Rachel, married to the seemingly perfect man (who hasn’t touched Rachel in over two years). One night over martinis, Rachel announces she, too, has been thinking divorce:

Rachel sees herself as a failed mother, and is depressed and chronically overworked at her $120,000-a-year job (which she must cling to for the benefits because Ian freelances). At night, horny and sleepless, she paces the exquisite kitchen, gobbling mini Dove bars. The main breadwinner, Rachel is really the Traditional Dad, but instead of being handed her pipe and slippers at six, she appears to be marooned in a sexless remodeling project with a passive-aggressive Competitive Wife.

…In any case, here’s my final piece of advice: avoid marriage–or you too may suffer the emotional pain, the humiliation, and the logistical difficulty, not to mention the expense, of breaking up a long-term union at midlife for something as demonstrably fleeting as love.

Whew. Between she and Gottleib, it certainly seems that we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

And then there was Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of Prozac Nation, who, at the wise old age of 42, recently lamented the loss of her looks, her loneliness, and the years she spent fleeing commitment, sabotaging stability, believing she’d always have options (and a wrinkle-free face). In the piece for Elle, a longer version of which will soon arrive at bookstores near you, Wurtzel writes:

The idea of forever with any single person, even someone great whom I loved so much like Gregg, really did seem like what death actually is: a permanent stop. Love did not open up the world like a generous door, as it should to anyone getting married; instead it was the steel clamp of the iron maiden, shutting me behind its front metal hinge to asphyxiate slowly, and then suddenly. Every day would be the same forever: The body, the conversation, it would never change–isn’t that the rhythm of prison?

Reader, she cheated on him.

(Primetime television’s answer to the mature modern woman’s romantic conundrum? Cougar Town.)

I remember reading each of these women’s stories, and bring them up because they were recently culled together into a piece by 25 year-old Irina Aleksander in the New York Observer, entitled “The Cautionary Matrons.” In it, Aleksander writes:

Our mothers and grandmothers seemed to have sound instructions. But now–now that the generation of women ahead of us has begun to sound regretful, shouting at us, “Don’t end up like me!”–what we have instead are Cautionary Matrons, issuing what feel like incessant warnings.

Single 40-something women warn us about being too career-oriented and forgetting to factor in children; married women warn us that marriage is a union in which sex and fidelity are optional; and divorced women warn us to keep our weight down, our breasts up and our skin looking like Saran Wrap unless we want our husbands to later leave us for 23 year-olds.

While her take is entertaining, the quotes she includes are downright spooky: though our own context might not be the same, the sentiments are quite possibly universal. Too many choices–and opportunity cost, when picking one means you necessarily can’t have the others.

From Gottlieb, to Aleksander:

The article was like I was someone’s big sister and I was saying here’s my experience and all of the misconceptions I had… I think you guys are actually lucky because you’ll get a more mixed set of messages. When I was in my 20s, women were all about having it all and ‘a guy is great but he is not the main course.’ We got a single message and it was all, me, me, me, me, me. ‘You go girl!’ And now those of us that grew up with these messages are finally admitting that those messages of empowerment may actually conflict with what we want.

And leave it to Tsing Loh to be so candid it will make you cringe, cry, and chuckle:

[Tsing Loh] speculated about the reason for this apparent surge in matronly warnings: ‘I think because we’re really surprised!’ she screamed into the receiver. ‘In our 20s, the world was totally our oyster. All those fights had been fought. We weren’t going to be ’50s housewives, we were in college, we could pick and choose from a menu of careers, and there were all these interesting guys out there not like our dads. We were smart women who had a lot of options and made intelligent choices and that’s why we’re writing these pieces. We’re shocked!’

‘It must be very confusing,’ she said sympathetically. ‘We were the proteges of old-guard feminists: ‘Don’t have a baby, or if you must, have one, wait till your 40s.’ We were sold more of a mission plan and now you guys… Well, sadly, it all seems like kind of a mess. There is no mission. Even stay-at-home moms feel unsuccessful unless they’re canning their own marmalade and selling it on the Internet. You just have a bunch of drunk, depressed, 45-year-old ladies going, ‘A-BLAH-BLAH-BLAH.’

Again, whew.

Aleksander goes on, recounting a conversation she had with a friend about the subject:

‘They are the first generation of women who were presented with choices,’ she said. ‘I think they are in the process of reflecting on a half-century of existence and are realizing that ‘having it all’ was really a lie. Sometimes I think the idea of ‘having it all’ can almost be more disempowering than ‘having it all’ because one is never allowed enough time or energy to excel in one area of their life.’

Choices. Uncharted territory. It looks to me like yet another mirror of our whole thesis: with so many options, is it ever possible not to second-guess ourselves? to wonder about the road not traveled? to worry that the grass is greener? to find yourself paralyzed in the face of all that analysis? When do you just take a seat, any seat? And, with all the seats out there, is it ever possible to be content with the seat we’ve chosen?

I don’t know, but I’m hopeful that one day, we’ll find the answer.

In bed.

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As in option. Or, sometimes, the lack of same.

Surely you have been tuned in to the continuing controversy as to whether the “opt-out revolution”, reported by Lisa Belkin in the New York Times Magazine back in 2003, ever really existed. In her story, Belkin reported on a group of fast-track women who’d “opted out” of their high-flying careers once they had children. Ever since, a debate has raged as to whether or not the story reflected an actual trend, backed up by numbers, or was based on anecdotal information from a select group of women and what journalists call “weasel words” — like “many” and “most”.

Just last week, the Washington Post reported on new census figures that seemed, at first glance, to debunk the so-called “mommy myth”:

A first census snapshot of married women who stay home to raise their children shows that the popular obsession with high-achieving professional mothers sidelining careers for family life is largely beside the point.

Instead, census statistics released Thursday show that stay-at-home mothers tend to be younger and less educated, with lower family incomes. They are more likely than other mothers to be Hispanic or foreign-born.

Census researchers said the new report is the first of its kind and was spurred by interest in the so-called “opt-out revolution” among well-educated women said to be leaving the workforce to care for children at home.

In other words, the reports seemed to show that the vast majority of stay-at-home moms were not those who opted out – but more likely those who were never comfortably in. So case closed, right? But hold the phone: In a post right after the numbers came out, several writers drilled down the numbers and found the snapshot to be a little more complex. WaPo blogger Brian Reid was one:

If you dig into the data, it does indeed show that, on average, stay-at-home moms are more likely to be young, foreign-born and less-educated than moms as a whole. But that’s hardly a stake in the heart of the idea that you’re seeing a lot of women with college degrees stepping out of the workforce. In fact, though college-educated moms are slightly less likely to be at-home moms, a whopping 1.8 million of the 5.6 million at-home moms have a college diploma. That’s hardly a “small population.”

Of course, the Census is interested in providing a snapshot of the current situation, not making a value judgment. I’ve taken the position that opting out of the workforce is not intrinsically bad: it’s only bad when parents are forced into it by a lack of other options. It’s clear that we’re still not living in a golden age of work flexibility: for too many moms and dads, there are only two choices:the 40+ hour week or the at-home option. I’d love to know where the numbers would go if there were ways to structure home and career with more precision.

Which goes straight to the point made by Mother Jones writer Elizabeth Gettlemann, who wonders if what these numbers really show is that whether mothers stay home with their kids or go to work in an office, the decision to opt in or opt out is one often made for them, largely by circumstances.

The report’s take-home message, that stay-at-home moms are actually younger and of lower income and education (and less white) than the opt-out theory would suggest, does less to say that other mothers aren’t making hard work/life choices and says more about the nearly 1 in 4 moms who do stay at home, that they simply don’t have options to begin with (jobs to go back to, for example), the choices that older, more established workers and women have when deciding how to support their family and career.

And keep in mind that the Census definition of stay-at-home mom is rigid and doesn’t account for all sorts of work/life sacrifice decisions women make…

In other words, maybe the numbers are not about opting in or opting out — or the resulting backlash. But, more likely, about which of us have access to the options one way or the other. And what the numbers show is not many of us do. The majority of those stay-at-home moms, as Broadsheet’s Judy Berman suggests, may never have had a choice in the first place:

If we really look at the census data, stay-at-home mothering begins to seem less like a post-feminist choice than a decision often made out of pure necessity. Not to say it’s a universally undesirable one. (The census found that 165,000 dads are doing it, too.) But the most statistically significant group of full-time moms turn out to be the women who have never reaped the benefits of white, middle-class feminism.

When all is said and done, what I wonder is why we got so caught up in these numbers in the first place. Really, who cares. As women, do we need the validation? Is this yet another tedious round of the Mommy Wars that, by now, should have been put down for a nap? Are we still caught up in judging each others’ choices? And why is it always either/or? What about freelancers or part-timers?

I have to wonder if this numbers business — and the debate itself — is nothing but a smokescreen that keeps us busy smugly sniping at each other when what we really should be doing is fighting together for flexible workplace policies, as New York Times Economix blogger David Leonhardt suggests:

So here’s a modest proposal: maybe we should stop arguing so much about whether women are staying home in greater numbers and focus instead on the policy questions. How can companies be persuaded, or pushed, to make part-time work a more serious options for both mothers and fathers? How can part-time work — or, for that matter, years spent outside the labor force — become less of a career killer? What can be done to encourage more fathers to take paternity leave? How can we create better, more comprehensive pre-school programs, so that middle-class and poor parents of 3- and 4-year-olds can feel more comfortable working full time?

Exactly. Maybe we should call it the opt-in revolution.

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In all this analyzing we’ve been doing of the Paradox of Declining Female Happiness study, and the subsequent spinning of it courtesy of Marcus Buckingham and Maureen Dowd, there’s one point we’ve been pretty quick to gloss over: age.

Not for long.

I promise not to whine. But it does seem worthy of being addressed, don’t you think? I mean, two of the study’s key findings are that women grow less happy with their lives as they age, and that, by the time they reach age 47, they are overall less happy with their lives than are men with theirs. Hmmm.

For all his postulating, Buckingham didn’t bother giving the issue any more than the most cursory of acknowledgments:

Male mid-life crisis? [Ahem, Buckingham, read this.] A youth obsessed culture that is harder on women than men? The hormonal fluctuations of menopause?

Ya think?

Yet with that he drops the whole subject like a hot potato. Hardly unexpected: after all, the only thing less sexy than an unhappy 47 year-old woman is talking about why that unhappy 47 year-old woman is so darn unhappy.

Moving on.

(What? You think I’m going there? Maybe in a bit…)

But first, the requisite media scapegoating: Last week saw the premiere of a charming new show, which focuses on a single 40-something woman as its main character, and calls itself “Cougar Town.” Single female lead-of-a-certain-age notwithstanding, Cougar Town is no “Maude” (no “Weeds,” no “Closer”…): here, our heroine comes in the form of an amazingly well-preserved, stick thin, uber-beautiful Courtney Cox, on the prowl for a taste of much-younger man candy. (For the record, the leads on Weeds, the Closer, and any other modern-day show featuring a 40-something woman all seem to abide by one single, golden rule: sure, she can be 40-something, she just can’t look it.) Not that there’s anything wrong with seeking out some hot sex with a (very) able-bodied partner. On the contrary. But somehow, the message is off.

So, let’s review. Here’s a 40-something woman–beautiful, successful, self-sufficient. She has a sweet, healthy son, with whom she has a pretty good relationship. And yet. Here she is, measuring her worth in terms of sex appeal. Approval from the boys. Post-40!

(And, given all of that, back in the real world we’re supposed to be shocked about last week’s revelation of New Jersey’s Millburn High School’s “Slut List”–and the fact that the girls it named considered such dubious recognition a compliment?)

Problematic cougar messaging aside, let’s get back to the whole happiness goes down as age goes up thing. I haven’t even gotten into the gender inequities of aging (older men are sexy and distinguished while older women are saggy and without a sex drive; men having children into their 80s like Charlie Chaplin make for adorable anecdotes while older moms are considered selfish and reckless), because I don’t want to get caught up in the unfairness of it all–although it is, of course, wildly unfair. I think the more important point is this: when you live in a culture that doesn’t value older, naturally-aged women–to the point that the popular culture refuses to even show us what one looks like, it’s entirely possible that you’re not going to be so happy about becoming one. You might, in fact, be a little bit pissed off. (Again, why, exactly, is it called a Paradox?)

Then again, a lot of women claim to really come into their own with age. To be much happier; much less concerned with what anyone – let alone the big bad society – thinks.

But getting there is scary – probably, and maybe counterintuitively, scarier for us the younger we are. Why? Well, consider this: when you’ve absorbed the message that your value does nothing but go down as your age creeps up, every decision you make becomes that much more loaded, that much more stressful when played against the backdrop of a ticking clock. I’ve said it before, but I think it’s a huge part of why women’s decisions are so tough. We’ve gotten the message: Time is short. Choose wisely. And fast! You’re only going to be relevant for so long.

Of course, it’s up to each one of us whether we’re going to succumb to that or not. Lest you start worrying over your back-of-elbow fat, I’d like to leave you with a gem, courtesy of the New York Times’ Judith Warner:

“Cougar Town” – the whole Cougar phenomenon – perhaps taps into many women’s worst tendencies: their fears of getting older, losing sexual power, ending up on the slag heap of social desirability. But most women, I think, end up taking these feelings in stride. Most women in their 40s, however conflicted, however sometimes confused, aren’t actually spiraling into self-doubting despair, but are actually working their way toward some greater degree of self-acceptance. Many experience – along with the shift in body mass that pulls things down and pushes them sideways – a kind of psychic shift that frees up some of the energy that once went into external appearances. Many come into their own, creatively, professionally. And in motherhood, in friendships, in romantic relationships.

I’ll roar to that.

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