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Archive for the ‘too many choices’ 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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So, while I was playing armchair fashion police during Sunday’s Oscars, “Private Practice” actress Kate Walsh was tweeting. And into the umpteenth hour of statues and montages and Cirque de Soleil, she dropped this twitbomb:

…dear Hollywood actresses, stop fucking up your faces, it’s looking the the bar scene in Star Wars.— Kate Walsh (@katewalsh) February 27, 2012

Kapow! There’s a whole lot going on in that 140-character-or-less sentiment.

I want to shreik, Hell to the yeah! You tell ‘em! But also, it’s not that simple.

A couple of weeks ago, I was at an event at an art gallery with a couple of friends. Beautiful friends! Talented friends! Interesting friends! Smart friends! Friends who are (damn them) just a bit younger than I! And the subject turned to wrinkles. One poked at an imaginary line between her eyes, while the other espoused a theory having to do with the idea that horizontal lines (i.e. crows feet–to which I am no stranger) are okay, while vertical ones (the eye wrinkle the first friend was obsessing over) were not. In a feeble attempt at a conversation redirect, I said, “Hey, what about cleavage?” (due to the fact that I have none, and therefore think it is wonderful), but they were not taking the bait. There was no lightening of the conversation; for more than a couple of minutes, there was no changing the subject. During a fun night out and surrounded by interesting art, my very intelligent girlfriends and I were talking about getting old.

And I was pissed.

But why? Was I pissed that my super smart and beautiful friends were talking about superficial things… or was something more sinister at work?? I mean, why should that make me angry? Bored, sure; annoyed, that would make sense too. Upon closer (and  unflinchingly, unattractively) honest examination–I think it made me angry because they were voicing my own fears, the ones for which I have a stable of rational, enlightened, stock replies at the ready. Replies I’m happy to bandy at anyone else. Ones that go, “Oh, but the lines on your face tell the story of your life!” or “We only fear getting old because society tells us we should, and forces this unrealistic ideal upon us!” or “Old women are so beautiful!” or “Only shallow women buy into that crap.”

As I wrote some time ago, the internal debate goes something like this:

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 way too much money for two ounces of eye cream? Who hasn’t wondered: Are vanity and 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.

I know I should know better, and yet, deep down in places I don’t talk about at parties (art openings being, apparently, another story), I fear getting older just like everyone else. Just like, I would guess, Kate Walsh does. There’s an “It’s Not Fair” element to it, too–especially, I’d imagine, in Hollywood. When everyone else is doing whatever it is they’re doing, the un-done are left to stick out like sore thumbs. They may look awesome for their age, but that’s only awesome for their age.

Maybe the knife (or the needle, or the laser… or whatever) is the coward’s way out. But, who am I to judge? The pressure is powerful, and it’s oppressive–we wouldn’t react so strongly if somewhere pretty tender weren’t being poked. It seems to me that opting in and making fun are two sides of the same coin. But, when it comes to aging, it’s not like we have a choice. I guess the kindest thing we can do–both to ourselves, and to other women–is to approach it with an open mind, and an open heart — and not to worry about what everyone else is doing.

Worrying, after all, causes wrinkles.

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Flying solo is in–in a serious way. A New York Times Q&A with Eric Kilnenberg, NYU sociology professor and author of the new book “Going Solo,” leads with the facts:

In 1950, 22 percent of American adults were single. Now that number is almost 50 percent. One in seven adults lives alone. Half of all Manhattan residences are one-person dwellings.

Kilnenberg has done his research. He spent a decade studying the phenomenon while working on his book, and he has all kinds of good explanations for those numbers. There’s less stigma than there once was around being single. People crave privacy and personal space–tough to preserve when you’re sharing a bathroom. From another piece he wrote several weeks ago,

Living alone comports with modern values. It promotes freedom, personal control and self-realization–all prized aspects of contemporary life.

And Kilnenberg’s not the only one digging in. Melanie Kurtin enumerated what keeps her from committing here and Dominique Browning did the same thing here, while Kate Bolick’s much-discussed piece in The Atlantic, “All the Single Ladies,” leads with a simple confession:

In 2001, WHEN I was 28, I broke up with my boyfriend. Allan and I had been together for three years, and there was no good reason to end things. He was (and remains) an exceptional person, intelligent, good-looking, loyal, kind. My friends, many of whom were married or in marriage-track relationships, were bewildered. I was bewildered. To account for my behavior, all I had were two intangible yet undeniable convictions: something was missing; I wasn’t ready to settle down.

And this, I think, really gets at the truth behind our reluctance to commit: to borrow–and tweak–a phrase from a long-ago presidential campaign, It’s too many choices, stupid!

When we’re told that we can have it all, that everything is on the table, why would we ever commit to anything? Even if we know we love the thing to which we’re committing, we can’t help but wonder about all the things we didn’t choose.

And I’m not just talking about relationships.

Too many options applies to commitment of the romantic sort, sure, but also to jobs and where we should live and what kind of life we should have. Passion or paycheck? Security or freedom? Long hair or short? High heels or hiking boots?

Deciding, by definition, means “to kill.” Choosing one thing means you’re killing the possibility of having the other. And when we’re raised on the idea that anything’s possible–and every option is available–we see choosing anything as settling. And, of course, it is–it’s settling for something less than everything.

When you decide to take one path, there’s a risk of missing out on something–something we often imagine to be glorious, the proverbial greener grass–waiting for us at the end of another. As Hannah, a woman we profile in Undecided, put it:

The grass is always greener. Like, do I want to move to San Francisco? Colorado? South America? Will life be any better in any of those places? Probably not. But it might be, so there’s that risk that I’m taking by not moving.

This mindset is so prevalent, some worry we have an entire generation of commitmentphobes on our hands. Psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett is trying to get the in-between stage–the years when we try different jobs/relationships/cities/hairstyles on for size–designated as a distinct life stage, one he calls Emerging Adulthood. People don’t spent their entire career with one company anymore–the very idea sounds Flinstonian. Nor do they generally marry their high school sweethearts. To paraphrase Hannah, There’s that risk we’re taking by not checking out what else is out there. We have the whole world to explore first!

For women in particular, it’s excruciating. Because, in addition to that message–that we can do anything!–we were fed another, often from the women just a generation or two older than us, who weren’t afforded the same opportunity: that we’re so lucky that we can do anything. And combined, they leave many of us shouldering a load of responsibility. 

From a post I wrote some time ago,

This bounty of opportunity is so new that we were sent off to conquer it with no tools–just an admonishment that we’d best make the most of it.

We know we’re blessed to have all of these options. We get it. And so is it any wonder we want a shot at each and every one of them?

But therein lies the rub.

We want to travel, but can’t take off whenever we feel like it if we’re also going to get our business off the ground–and featured in Oprah. We want a family, but that’d mean that packing up and moving to Cairo or New Orleans on a whim is pretty much off the table. We want to be there for our daughter’s every milestone, yet we also want to model what a successful career woman looks like. We want torrid affairs and hot sex, but where would that leave our husbands? We want financial security and a latte on our way to the office every morning, but sit in our ergonomically correct chairs daydreaming about trekking through Cambodia with nothing but our camera and mosquito net. We want to be an artist, but have gotten rather used to that roof over our heads. We want to be ourselves, fully and completely, but would like to fit in at cocktail parties, too. (And when on earth are we going to find the time to write our novel??)

We want to do it all, to try it all before we buy! And that, I believe, is what’s at the root of the cold feet. Choices are hard. Damn hard. And every one of them entails a trade-off. The work is in accepting that–and in finding out who you are right down at your core, and figuring which of those trade-offs you can live with.

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In the era of information overload, of Facebook, of “personal branding,” of Rachel Zoe–a woman famous for dressing other famous, ahem, grown women–how do we define ourselves? Have the little things come to mean too much? Have we sacrificed nuance in favor of a slick and quick elevator pitch, or swapped the legwork of figuring out who someone is deep down with the convenient shorthand: What do you do? Have we replaced being ourselves with being our brands?

I got to thinking about these questions after reading the cover story in Sunday’s New York Times Styles section: The Power Stylists of Hollywood. The piece is a well-timed tease–especially for me, an admitted and unrepentant stylephile–whetting the appetite for red carpet season, which kicked off Sunday night with the Golden Globes. The only thing was, rather than talking about trends, or even really about the stylists themselves, the piece is about the business of styling. And a bit of it gave me pause:

“Dressing for a major red carpet isn’t simply getting ready for a big party and looking pretty,” said George Kotsiopoulos, a stylist and a former editor at T: The New York Times Style Magazine who is now a host on “Fashion Police” on the E! network. In recent years, he said, “it’s been about selling yourself as a brand.”

As insiders see it, that investment is worthwhile: the right red-carpet turnout can help a performer change lanes. “If your client plays nefarious characters,” said the stylist Jeanne Yang, you might dress them, say, in tulle, to demonstrate “that she’s really a fresh ingénue.”

Others strive for sartorial consistency. Indeed, a case could be made that [Hailee] Steinfeld’s reliably chic but youthful red-carpet looks inspired the fashion executives at Miu Miu to cast her in its advertising campaigns. Mila Kunis’s transformation, at the hands of Ms. Flannery, from ill-kempt hipster to regal sexpot doubtless helped secure her latest role, as the new “face” of Dior. A fashion or fragrance contract can earn an actress in the tens of millions.

Such potent stylist-star alliances were spawned well over a decade ago, when celebrity Web sites and supermarket tabloids competed to serve up candid shots of stars exiting Starbucks or the gym in a state of sorry dishevelment. Hoping to shore up their images, some were quick to enlist a fashion consultant.

Stylists at the time catered to stars’ insecurities. “The stylist is an outgrowth of the mean-girls culture,” Ms. Press observed. “Their very existence says of an actress, ‘I don’t trust my own instincts, or I have no instincts, or I can’t bear to read all the mean things people are going to say if my dress doesn’t deliver.’ ”

Sure, for most of us, no matter what we wear, our outfits will likely not be netting us a gig as the new face of Dior anytime soon, but I think there’s something in here that’s pretty universal. The need to (pause for barf-in-my-mouth) brand ourselves.

Gross, right? And yet. We all do it: Whether putting together the outfit that will convey precisely the image we want to project on any given occasion (competent yet creative for the job interview; smart yet sexy for the date; pulled together without trying to hard for the errands…), or editing the reality of our lives in order to present a carefully curated–some might say contrived–image for our imagined audiences to admire on Facebook, we’re all in the business of personal branding. And, as Barry Schwartz tells us in Undecided, it’s little wonder:

Nowadays, everything counts as a marker of who you are in a way that wasn’t true when there were fewer options. So just to give you one example: When all you could buy were Lee’s or Levi’s, then your jeans didn’t tell the world anything about who you were, because there was a huge variation in people, but there were only two kinds of jeans, you know? When there are two thousand kinds of jeans, now all of a sudden, you are what you wear… What this means is that [with] every decision, the stakes have gone up. It’s not just about jeans that fit; it’s about jeans that convey a certain image to the world of what kind of person you are. And if you see it that way, it’s not so shocking that people put so much time and effort into what seems like trivial decisions. Because they’re not trivial anymore.

Actually, it reminds me of a story of my own:

Last year, I was in New York for a book reading–an anthology to which I’d contributed an essay. And off I went, sporting an Outfit-with-a-capital-O. After all, I like clothes. And I spend more than enough time at home, alone save for my trusty laptop, ensconced in clothes that can most kindly be described as scrubs. And if people were going to be looking at me, I wanted to look good, dammit (and, you know, be comfortable–except for my baby toes). I was staying with the (wildly intelligent–and beautiful) woman who’d edited the book, and, while we were walking to the train, she–dressed decidedly down–told me how she feels like she has to dress that way in order to be perceived as a Serious Writer. You know, the kind who’s so busy being a Serious Writer she doesn’t have time for silly fashion. She said she even has a pair of fake glasses. (Even a Serious Writer has to accessorize!) The irony, of course, being that she loves clothes as much as I do. She was laughing about it, but I have to say, it kind of made me take note of what each of the other contributors wore that night, and what my choice of duds communicated about me. Fabulous and fashionable? Or literary lightweight?

It all makes you wonder: is all this “personal branding” we’re doing serving yet another purpose? As with the actresses who employ professional stylists, is our brand–or, as we like to call it, our “iconic self“–a buffer in some way? The armor that protects us from those we fear will judge us? After all, in a world of endless options, of jeans for every political affiliation and body shape, sometimes, isn’t it easier to slap on a costume, play the role, be the brand, rather than hanging out our sloppy, indefinable self out there for all to see? Or doing the work of figuring out who she is in the first place?

But all of it surely comes at a cost. After all, what about the parts of ourselves that don’t fit neatly into our brand? Maybe a willingness to own our complex, dualistic, not always delightful but utterly human nature can make our choices a little bit clearer. If we let go of the need to fit ourselves into the brand, the image, the iconic self, maybe we’d have an easier time figuring out who we really are. Which in turn, might just make our decisions easier, not to mention more authentic. All of which might just make us happier. Think of it as You, 2.0.

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Hey you! Yes, you–the one with all those balls in the air! Before you take another bite of pumpkin pie, read this.

A couple of new books–Willpower, by social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, PhD and New York Times reporter John Tierney, and The Willpower Instinct by Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD–dig into the science of this mysterious and elusive thing we call willpower, and a little examination of their findings reveals that the current reality of women’s lives leaves us particularly screwed. And that’s just in regular life: add on the stress of the holidays and the abundance of temptation that surrounds during this most wonderful time of year, and it’s little wonder we find it so difficult to say no to the second helping, the umpteenth glass of bubbly, the fifty-seventh mini-quiche, one more little goat-cheese stuffed date…

Where was I? Oh, willpower. So, in an example of a serious willpower fail, the other day, after writing for several hours, I opted to flip through the latest issue of Elle, rather than do my laundry, go to the grocery store, or sweep the house. Although the slip proved serendipitous, as that’s when I came across Rachel Combe’s piece, “Control Freak-Out.” In it, she takes on how this science affects women, and she gets it exactly right. Check it:

We tend to think of self-control as a spiritual virtue, like love or charity. However, research shows it’s more like a muscle, subject to fatigue, lifestyle, and energy supply. You can wear out self-control not only through traditional tests of will–resisting pastries, not cheating on your spouse–but through less obvious means: making too many decisions, having lots of competing goals, castigating yourself if you fall off whatever wagon you’re trying to stay on, failing to sleep or eat well.

The list of willpower sappers pretty much describes my life and those of most women who are out there trying to have it all… It seems to me that women are at particular risk of having their self-control henpecked to death… Marketing studies show that we make, on average, 80 percent of major and minor household purchases and decisions such as food, cars, health care, and the house itself…

Sociologists say that women inhabit more roles these days than ever. This multiplicity of hats can translate into nonstop competing goals (work or kids, kids or spouse, spouse or self, self or community, community or extended family)… [A] study found that the more subjects’ goals clashed, the more they worried, the less they got done, and the more likely they were to be physically and/or mentally ill.

The above is likely not news to you: more than likely, to a certain extent, it is you. The question is, in this season of gravy and eggnog, of cocktail parties and family get-togethers, of shopping and traveling, how can you keep your willpower muscle in shape, so you’ll be equipped to flex it when you need it most? (I’m talking to you, Thanksgiving dinner.) Here are some tips:

1. Don’t be the decider: Decision making is wildly taxing on your self-control. So do what you can to delegate (surely your husband can handle choosing which brand of TP to take home?) and simplify, and–most importantly–consider the timing. Study after study has shown that the more choices we have to make, the more likely our rational brain will just check out–and with it, our willpower. So don’t spend an entire afternoon at the mall agonizing over what to buy whom on your list, and then expect to be able to behave like anything other than a mindless vacuum cleaner in the face of the buffet at the Williams’ holiday party, with its dessert table piled high with homemade fudge and macaroons, and that cheese plate that undoubtedly cost more to assemble than your fanciest little black dress did to accessorize. (Oh, and speaking of little black dresses, consider one of Combe’s strategies, and come up with a “uniform.” One less decision to make.)

2. Ratchet down the stress by putting things in perspective. I spent upwards of 10 hours over the past two days worrying over how to prepare the items I’m responsible for at Thanksgiving… an amount of attention that’s decidedly out of proportion with the importance of the decision at hand. (After much deliberation, I’m opting to go savory on the sweet potatoes; cheesy on the brussels, for the record.) This tends to be harder for women, though. Just as an example, during a recent interview, I was explaining the concept of “Opportunity cost”–the idea that when you’re doing A, you are by definition not doing B–to the woman who was interviewing me. So, I said, “if you’re staying up late to make cupcakes for your kid’s bake sale, you are by definition not working on your report for work, or having sex with your husband.” “So, you’re saying you should figure out if your kids are more important than your work?” she asked. “No!” I said, “Not at all, in fact. A cupcake is not your child.” Sometimes we ascribe too much weight to things. Sometimes, finishing a particular report is more important than lovin (or the oven) but that doesn’t mean work is more important to you than your children or the sexual state of your marriage. Sometimes, in fact, a cupcake is just a cupcake. Something to remember the next time you find yourself freaking out over the napkin rings or the wrapping paper. (Ahem. Guilty.)

3. Fail well! This time of year is loaded with land mines. You will, inevitably, have one too many at the office party, realize you’ve inhaled a platter of cookies without even tasting them, swear at a fellow shopper, and/or snap at someone you love. But there are good and bad ways to deal with your missteps. Combe writes:

The What-The-Hell effect applies to eating, drinking, procrastination, and just about any other act of will. The key, however, isn’t that you shouldn’t try to control eating or drinking; it’s how you react when you fail. In studies of drinkers, the worse people felt about drinking too much one night, the more they drank the next two. The same went for procrastinating students: The harder they were on themselves for missing a deadline, the more likely they were to miss a subsequent one. On the flip side, the more compassion people show for themselves, the more likely they are to take responsibility for failures, seek advice, and correct the situation.

Realize that traversing the holiday season is like running a gauntlet of temptations. And when one of them knocks you off track, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, put your party shoes back on, and dare to face another tray of passed appetizers. Forgetting the gift for your office Secret Santa, indulging in a pumpkin scone AND a pumpkin latte on the same day, sending your kid to her performance of the Nutcracker with uncombed hair — these things happen. They do not make you a bad person (though they might make you an undesirable Secret Santa); they make you human. (And–hello!–slip-ups of the caloric variety are generally delicious, or they wouldn’t tempt us so. Shouldn’t you be enjoying that mouthful of peppermint bark, rather than silently berating yourself for eating it?) Give yourself a break.

4. Be good to yourself: The very things that keep you healthy boost your willpower, too. Yes, this season is hectic, but capitalize on those moments when it’s not. You know you’ll have more than enough baked goods in your life over the next couple of weeks, so squeeze in a salad where you can. Exercise. Sleep. See your friends. And, failing all of that, just take one minute a day, 60 seconds to close your eyes and be thankful for every last bit of your crazy, imperfect life, and all of the crazy, imperfect people in it. Then open them back up, and face the fondue pot like the soldier you are.

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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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This one’s a taboo buster, people, buckle up.

So, last week, the Santa Barbara independent published a couple of excerpts from Undecided as its (incredibly illustrated!) cover story. One was long; one was medium; one was wee—just one lonely paragraph. But an important one. Despite the fact that I picked it (and, you know, wrote it), I honestly don’t think I realized just how important, actually, until I got a long email from a dear friend who lost her father last year. It was a catching-up variety email, but she’d seen the story, and ended the note with a sharp aside:

P.S. your book is unmistakably about loss. Do we just need to grieve more?

If you’re thinking she’s got the wrong book, here is the excerpt in question:

Here comes some wisdom, (from Daria Todor, an Employment Assistance Counselor, career coach, and psychotherapist who has dealt with thousands of women in the workplace for the past 20 years). “Every decision entails trade-off, and it entails commitment,” she says. “And with that comes the sense of grief and loss. You make a commitment to one thing, you are by definition turning your back on other options. Not knowing how to grieve a loss is really powerful. And I believe that a lot of what shows up in a therapist’s office as depression may be a form of this grieving that is a natural part of growing up. And so there’s an avoidance of making a decision because of the pain threshold.”

Think about it. Could the woman be more right on the money??

Interestingly, late last week I was on the local radio station, and the host of the show—a dude—brought up another item from the Indy story, from a different excerpt, that he just couldn’t get his head around.

Chloe’s story cuts to the chase: “I was walking home from work, having a low self-esteem day, and I saw this sign in a storefront. It was of three smiling women, around my age, and I just thought to myself, I bet they all have kids.”

Chloe doesn’t even want to have children — an assertion she reiterated before admitting that, nevertheless, it didn’t stop her tears. “I just feel like life is passing me by.”

For the record, Chloe is amazing and enviable in her own right: She’s lived and worked everywhere from New York City to Brazil, Mexico to Southern California, and she is successful, beautiful, talented, and happily married. But those things never seem to matter much when we’re confronted with the green-grassed monster; when we catch a glimpse of the place where that road we opted not to travel may have led.

“I’m a guy; help me understand this,” he said, seeming quite honestly flummoxed.

And so I answered–and my answer had to do with grief: Consciously, we might not want to have kids, but as women, I think the vast majority of us grew up with the unconscious assumption that we would. And so, I said to the baffled man-host, maybe Chloe just needed to take a moment, to allow herself to consciously grieve the children she’d never have; the mother she’d never be.

(Interestingly, though, even while the words were spilling forth, I don’t think I would have said that the matter at hand was grief. I needed my friend, my friend who’s in the thick of it and can therefore recognize it, I guess, to point it out for me. Even when what she was pointing out were, in fact, my words.)

And that idea applies not just to the kids question. For women who’ve been told we can do anything—well, I think that somewhere, deep down (and not so deep down), there lies the assumption that we will do everything. And so whenever we sign on to do one thing, there’s a whole bunch of other things we’re signing off on. Maybe we don’t ever write them off outright, but, with every day that passes, certain dreams grow more and more out of reach. And maybe, just maybe, all of that leaves us with a little bit of latent grief, lurking within. Maybe that grief is showing up as something else, but, more and more, I believe that it’s there.

Feeling uncomfortable yet? Me too. I also happen to think that this whole issue is made worse by the fact that our culture is not exactly what you’d call ‘grief-friendly.’ I can think of few subjects more roundly avoided.

And I think Todor makes another important point: that we avoid making decisions not just because we’ve been told we can do anything and are therefore holding out for the perfect thing, but also because we’re avoiding the pain of closing a door. We’re avoiding the grieving that will entail. And no wonder: is anything less allowed in our culture? Where happiness is the holy grail, and achieving it in its most perfect form is national sport? Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt, and spending our days adrift upon it, driven by its current, well, where does that get us, other than deeper?

The whole thing just kind of makes me wonder: would the decisions we make every day, big and small, be so hard if we knew how to grieve? If our culture recognized it, allowed it, showed us how to do it in a healthy way? Would it make decisions easier, if, rather than hopping on a raft on that river, we were allowed—and encouraged—to recognize the shadow side of our choices: those things we aren’t choosing? And to take a moment to be sad, to say goodbye?


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Life begins at 40? I don’t know about that, but, for an increasing number of American women, 40 is around the time motherhood begins.

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. I think there are other factors at play here, too, part of a larger trend. The same kind of things that I believe to be behind the Extended Adolescence phenomenon, the same kind of things that I 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 lucky to 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.

If you ask me, that’s at least a little of what’s behind those numbers–but who knows? Maybe it is the economy, stupid.


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Thanks for the offer.  But let’s just have some chocolate cake and call it a day.

More about this cake business later, but first, there’s this:  Newsweek is the latest to hop aboard the streetcar named Can’t Decide — our own trek for the past two years — with its current cover story on the “twitterization” of our culture, or why we can’t think.

The story references research by Angelika Dimoka, director of the Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple University, who found that information overload mucks with our ability to make decisions — and control our emotions:

“With too much information, ” says Dimoka, “people’s decisions make less and less sense.”

So much for the ideal of making well-informed decisions. For earlier generations, that meant simply the due diligence of looking things up in a reference book. Today, with Twitter and Facebook and countless apps fed into our smart phones, the flow of facts and opinion never stops. That can be a good thing, as when information empowers workers and consumers, not to mention whistle-blowers and revolutionaries. You can find out a used car’s accident history, a doctor’s malpractice record, a restaurant’s health-inspection results. Yet research like Dimoka’s is showing that a surfeit of information is changing the way we think, not always for the better. Maybe you consulted scores of travel websites to pick a vacation spot—only to be so overwhelmed with information that you opted for a staycation. Maybe you were this close to choosing a college, when suddenly older friends swamped your inbox with all the reasons to go somewhere else—which made you completely forget why you’d chosen the other school. Maybe you had the Date From Hell after being so inundated with information on “matches” that you chose at random. If so, then you are a victim of info-paralysis.

We devoted a whole chapter in our book to the science of decision making (and several posts, like this one, from over a year ago)  Like Newsweek, we found that too many options sends the brain into overdrive, at which point it often says screw it and just goes off to bed.  Also like Newsweek, we found that the constant beep and buzz of the electronica that has become a part of our every waking moment just adds to the chaos, making it close to impossible for us to make a decision — or be happy with it when we do.

A lot revolves around a pivotal 1950’s study, cleverly titled “Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two”, that found that your rational brain can only hold about seven different things in working memory at any one time.  More than that, and your head starts spinning.  Ms. Rational Brain is likely to say “I quit” — and cede control to the emotional brain.

If you’re thinking this can’t end well, you’d be right.  This is where the chocolate cake comes in.

Several decades after that pivotal study, a Stanford marketing professor named Baba Shiv tested the theory with a bunch of hungry college students.  He had one group memorize two-digits — and the other group, seven.  Afterward, they were offered their choice of reward — fruit salad or gooey chocolate cake — and guess what happened?  The crew that was overloaded with info overwhelmingly chose cake.  The two-digit folks?  Fruit salad, please.

You can guess which group might have had some regrets a little later.  Which brings us to our point.  When you are overloaded with information — or options — decision making becomes a labyrinth of twists and turns that rarely has a happy ending.  We second-guess.  We regret. We start jonesing for the greener grass.   Add the constant distractions of Facebook, Twitter, smartphones and [insert Next Big Thing here] and it’s no wonder we can’t decide what to have for dinner, much less what to do with our lives.

All of which is that much worse for women when it comes to what-do-I-do-now decisions.  Why?  Generational, sister.  Suddenly we’re faced with more options than our mothers or grandmothers ever thought possible, and we’re running the road without a map.  Or role models, either.  We can be doctors.  We can be lawyers.  We can run off to join the circus.  We can stay home to raise  kids.  We can stay home to write books.  We can do anything.  We can do everything.  So how do we choose? Especially when, as Shannon wrote on Tuesday, we live on a steady diet of news feeds, tweets and other app-philia from the land of perfect, all of which seem to proclaim:  Look at me!  I’ve gotten it right.  Ahem, and you?

And me?  Sigh.   There’s more about the science of decision making in the Newsweek piece, and lots more than that in Chapter 5 of our book.  And in fact, I could add quite a bit more to this post.   But you know what?  There’s chocolate cake in the office down the hall, and I’m headed that way.   And you don’t have to tell me:  You want some too.

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So, today, I must must write about the most shocking, scandalous, jaw-dropping thing I came across this weekend. (And, no, it has nothing whatsoever to do with Ricky Gervais.) The item of intrigue was a story on Salon.com, entitled… wait for it… “Why I can’t stop reading Mormon housewife blogs: I’m a young, feminist atheist who can’t bake a cupcake. Why am I addicted to the shiny, happy lives of these women?”

Um, click.

How could I not?? I mean, apparently, there’s like an entire subculture of Zooey Deschanel-bang-sporting, craft-spinning, brood-mommying, hubby-looooooving Mormon housewives out there. As writer Emily Matchar puts it,

young stay-at-home-moms who blog about home and hearth, Latter-day Saint-style.

The women behind “Rockstar Diaries,” “Underaged and Engaged,” “Nie Nie Dialogues“, and “Say Yes to Hoboken” blog about their kids. Their husbands. Their love of hot chocolate. Their love of baked goods. The themed headbands they craft for their pals at the themed dinner parties they host. And how happy they are.

Matchar says that, although their lives bear no resemblance to her own,

On an average day, I’ll skim through a half-dozen Mormon blogs, looking at Polaroids of dogs in raincoats or kids in bow ties, reading gratitude lists, admiring sewing projects.

I’m not alone, either. Two of my closest friends — both chronically overworked Ph.D. candidates — procrastinate for hours poring over Nat the Fat Rat or C. Jane Enjoy It. A recent discussion of Mormonism on the blog Jezebel unleashed a waterfall of confessions in the comments section from other young non-religious women similarly riveted by the shiny, happy domestic lives of their Latter-day Saint sisters.

Which begs a question: Who knew?

Apparently everyone but me. Seriously, though, it begs another question, too: What gives? What’s the appeal? Matchar has a theory:

Well, to use a word that makes me cringe, these blogs are weirdly “uplifting.” To read Mormon lifestyle blogs is to peer into a strange and fascinating world where the most fraught issues of modern living — marriage and child rearing — appear completely unproblematic. This seems practically subversive to someone like me, weaned on an endless media parade of fretful stories about “work-life balance” and soaring divorce rates and the perils of marrying too young/too old/too whatever. And don’t even get me started on the Mommy Blogs, which make parenthood seem like a vale of judgment and anxiety, full of words like “guilt” and “chaos” and “BPA-free” and “episiotomy.” Read enough of these, and you’ll be ready to remove your own ovaries with a butter knife.

…Indeed, Mormon bloggers like Holbrook make marriage and motherhood seem, well, fun. Easy. Joyful. These women seem relaxed and untouched by cynicism. They throw elaborate astronaut-themed birthday parties for their kids and go on Sunday family drives to see the fall leaves change and get mani-pedis with their friends. They often have close, large extended families; moms and sisters are always dropping in to watch the kids or help out with cake decorating. Their lives seem adorable and old-fashioned and comforting.

This focus on the positive is especially alluring when your own life seems anything but easy. As my friend G. says, of her fascination with Mormon lifestyle blogs, “I’m just jealous. I want to arrange flowers all day too!” She doesn’t, really. She’s just tired from long days spent in the lab, from a decade of living in a tiny apartment because she’s too poor from student loans to buy a house, from constant negotiations about breadwinning status with her artist husband. It’s not that she or I  want to quit our jobs to bake brownies or sew kiddie Halloween costumes. It’s just that for G., Mormon blogs are an escapist fantasy, a way to imagine a sweeter, simpler life.

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about “the New Domesticity” — an increasing interest in old-fashioned, traditionally female tasks like sewing, crafts and jam making. Some pundits see this as a sign that young women yearn to return to some kind of 1950s Ozzie and Harriet existence, that feminism has “failed,” that women are realizing they can’t have it all, after all. That view is utterly nonsense, in my opinion, but I do think women of my generation are looking to the past in an effort to create fulfilling, happy domestic lives, since the modern world doesn’t offer much of a road map. Our parents — divorced, stressed-out baby boomers — are hardly paragons of domestic bliss. Nor are the Gen X “Mommy War” soldiers, busy winging snowballs of judgment at each other from across the Internet. (Formula is poison! Baby wearing is child abuse!)

Gosh! Kinda makes you want to chug a couple of root beers, huh?! But in all seriousness, I think she’s onto a couple of things. One is the allure of the (seemingly) simple, unquestioned life. I think that one of the things that’s become such a big burden to today’s women is the questions that come with the unprecedented freedom we have to live our lives whatever way we want. Whenever everything isn’t coming together as perfectly as a–well, a “vintage-y owl throw pillow,” for example, we wonder if we’ve chosen the wrong life for ourselves. It’s pretty tough not to get sucked into the Life Would Be So Grand If Someone Else Would Just Tell Me What The H-E-DoubleHockeySticks To Do fantasy.

(And, you know, who doesn’t love an escapist fantasy from time to time? Hello, Beverly Hills 90210 The Brenda Years, when every problem was solvable with a MegaBurger. 90210 is clearly not reality–and who knows how lovely these lovely young things’ lives really are? But sometimes we don’t want the nuanced truth. We want a MegaBurger.)

And then, of course, there’s the trap of the grass is greener syndrome: the fact that, time and again, it seems that whenever we play that comparison game, the one constant is this–that we seem categorically unable to image that whatever road we did NOT choose to travel might in fact be as bumpy as the one we did. And when we’re presented with something that looks perfect, why would we question it?

Of course, we’ve said all of this before. And I think there’s one other explanation: I checked out some of those blogs. And they’re pretty flipping cute.


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