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Posts Tagged ‘ambition’

Between “Are You Mom Enough?” (aka the extremely controversial Time Magazine breastfeeding cover) and Elisabeth Badinter’s extremely controversial book The Conflict, which cast a critical eye on the current trend (among some sets) toward attachment parenting, and the Daily Mail’s latest offense, about the “ambitious career women” who don’t want kids and “enforce childlessness” upon their partners, sometimes you have to wonder whose finger is on the trigger when it comes to the war on women.

While the media and the talking heads sling headlines and talking points, we’re all just left to slug it out. Or, more likely, to reserve the slugs and instead talk behind each other’s backs, feel guilty, worry that we’re doing whatever it is we’re doing wrong. That what we’re doing is wrong.

Which is bad enough. But what kills me is this: When was the last time you saw a magazine cover asking “Are You Dad Enough?” or a piece worrying for the women married to “career-driven” men who deprive them of parenthood? (Then again, men rarely “enforce childlessness” because they generally don’t have to choose between career and parenthood… because mom–whether she’s career-oriented or not–will be there to do the lion’s share. Not to mention the gestating, the birthing, and the breastfeeding. As a friend once observed, for men, parenthood is an addition to everything else in their lives; for women, it’s a choice. The trade-offs are more stark.) Would a man’s choice to embrace his traditional breadwinning role with gusto be marked as an end to progress, or to opt out of parenthood as a harbinger of the downfall of society as we know it?

Men’s roles haven’t changed much. Yes, the dads of today are likely more involved in their children’s lives than their own dads were in theirs. Yes, they probably do more of the chores than their dads did, but these are incremental moves we’re talking about. And precious few worry that a dad picking up the dry cleaning or making dinner somehow constitutes an attack on “family values”—or that a man who doesn’t want to have kids is somehow defective or unnatural. A man’s minor deviations beyond the confines of his traditional gender role are rarely seen as cause for alarm.

Women are the ones who have changed – and who have fought, every step of the way, for those changes… changes that have, in turn (and slowly) affected the incremental changes in men and (slower still) in the structures of society. Perhaps it’s because our rights remain under attack, because our position still feels tenuous, because we still have such a ways to go, that our reflexive response to trend stories about opting out or real-life trends toward attachment parenting or aprons as fashion statement is that it will undermine feminism. We’re still on shaky ground.

And because it’s shaky, we cling to our positions ferociously. With our newfound freedom to do things any which way, it’s harder to feel that what we’re doing is right. Or even just good enough. And because women today have been raised on the message that we can do anything, we do whatever it is we do with a certain amount of ferocity. The same ambition some might turn on in the boardroom, some will focus onto their children.

And because it’s shaky, there will be those who will insist that the old way was the right way.

The thing is, there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. The parameters of women’s lives have changed. We have our reproductive rights—and will fight for them no matter what right-winged extremist boogieman appears claiming God and the Founding Fathers wanted women beholden to our uteri. We have access and opportunity and can do all kinds of things with our lives. We can parent—or not parent—as we see fit. And that is a good thing.

The “enough” I worry about is this: when will there be enough change–enough change to the structures, attitudes, finger-pointing, and self-doubt–that “choices,” in all their forms, will be available, realistic, safe, and workable for all women?

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Last week, I attended an alumni/student networking event at my alma mater, UC Santa Barbara. The event consisted of about 50 working professionals (I was in this camp), and 100 soon-to-be-grads, sniffing around for some intel on what the “real world” might have in store. The kids (umm – ouch — you know you’re getting older when you start referring to 20-ish-year-olds as “kids”) had been given bios on all us pros, and we were wearing nametags, so there was nowhere to hide. Many of them had seen the title of my book, and wanted my advice. On the small matter of what to do with their lives. Gulp.

(And, let it be said: these are not the lost souls – the organizers maxed the event out, early, at 100 students, so these were the sorts of students who’d actually jumped on the chance to attend a “networking event,” something which, to be perfectly honest, would never have occurred to me while I was in college. Of course, I majored in Religious Studies and Anthropology, so career prospects weren’t exactly my primary motivators.)

Anyway. They wanted to know what to do, how to reach their goals. (I want to be a political speech writer! An oncologist! A professor! Or the–judging by body language alone–shameful: I don’t know what to do with my life! But I’ve done this, this, and this already, so whatever I do has to be good.) Big dreams!  Huge ambitions! And they all seemed a bit like deer in the headlights. A feeling which, I told them, I remember exactly. (College graduation day: shudder. Nowhere as fun as its cracked up to be.) But, I said, what I’ve learned in my own life, and what the research we did for the book proves is this: don’t sweat it. You will have many (many!) jobs in your professional life. You will move. You will have different friends, different titles. You’ll play different roles. The parameters of your “family” will shift. Your priorities will shift.

They looked at me with expressions I can only describe as some mixture of relief and something akin to the face you’d make had I told you to become a mermaid.

But, I get it. Even now, with more job titles than I know what to do with (author, speaker, writer, coach, editor), I understand that ambition. Because I am ambitious. Extremely so. I often describe it as just a part of who I am – as fundamental to me as the fact that I do not like Chinese food, that I am a total grouch if I have no exercise in the morning, and that I’d rather spend a Sunday on the couch reading the paper than doing nearly anything else.  And I’m cool with that.

But this ambition thing. It’s tricky. Difficult to parse how much is fundamental to me, and how much is some sort of weird internalization of the cultural messaging that swirls around all of us, so thick as to be the very air we breathe. The water we swim in.

I got to thinking about it, more than usual, when I read Meghan Daum’s piece about the (most) recent Mommy War flare-up, over Hilary Rosen’s words about Ann Romney:

A lot of this, of course, is the usual bluster of an election season, the tempests that get brewed up in campaign teapots, only to subside as quickly as they erupted. But this latest storm points not only to Americans’ seemingly endless appetite for flimsy controversy but to the incredible sensitivity we have around the issue of work.

To put it bluntly, we’re obsessed with work — with who’s doing it and not doing it, with how many hours are being spent at it and how much money is being paid for it. And we’re not just obsessed in the sense that we rely on work to survive (and, these days, are suffering for lack of it). We’re obsessed with work because our identities are defined by it. We work, therefore we are.

Case in point: the way the formerly quotidian institution known as “parenthood” has lately seen its job description ratcheted up to include not just age-old duties like the feeding, clothing and chauffeuring of children but, in some circles, a downright competitive approach to co-sleeping, organic food shopping, baby sign-language teaching, protracted breast-feeding and sometimes even home schooling. With our self-worth so intrinsically connected to our professional status, we’ve extended the values of corporate ladder climbing on to family life. And some mothers, in the process of taking charge of the home front — or sometimes letting their children take charge — have imposed a greater tyranny on themselves than their office supervisors ever did.

Strikes a cord, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s just a tic of human beings: we have to be able to define ourselves. A job is convenient for this purpose. So is a role. As we’ve often written, where once women defined themselves strictly in terms of their relationships to others (daughter, sister, wife, mother), now we define ourselves in terms of our work. And, hey – work’s (relatively) new to us, and it’s fun! And if what we do with our time–our work–is taking care of others, goddamnit, we’re gonna do it perfectly. If we can prove that we’re doing something well–or even if we just have the title to imply that we are–then we matter. We’re worthwhile.

And that’s all fine, to a certain extent: there’s value in doing good work, and there’s value in being a good fill-in-the-blank to someone else. But we are not our roles. And we are not our resumes. And if that leaves you wondering what’s left, well, you’re certainly not alone.

But really: wouldn’t it be more fun if we could somehow loosen the grip of the grand title, the grand role, the grand image, and just be? To try things out, and then if things don’t go as planned, to simply change course, and see what’s around the next bend? To decide that what matters is not what we achieve or how perfectly we achieve it, but that we’ve allowed ourselves to be who we are, and gotten to like her?

Seems to me, that’s a goal worthy of some of my own ambition. And hey, if it doesn’t work out, there’s always grad school.

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Did you catch Bill Keller’s piece in the New York Times yesterday? Called “Just the ticket,” it’s a pretty compelling case for replacing Joe Biden with Hillary Clinton for second-to-the-top job when this year’s presidential election rolls around. Now, we love Biden’s faux pas and f-bombs as much as anyone, but–hello!–how could we not jump on this bandwagon? So, without further ado, here’s our top 5 reasons why we’d love to see a Clinton-Obama—I mean, Obama-Clinton—ticket.

5. She’s ambitious. And she owns it. She wasn’t content to wrap up her time as first lady and demurely step aside. In a ballsy move, she ran for NY Senator. In a ballsier one, she ran for president–and nearly nabbed the nom. When so many of us feel our ambition is something shameful, something we should apologize for or even deny, Hillary puts it front and center. She’s taken her lumps for it, but ultimately, she’s proven that a woman can be both ambitious and liked. Which brings me to number 4.

4. We like her. I mean, we really like her. According to Gallup (by way of Keller):

Hillary is the most admired woman in America for the 10th year in a row, laps ahead of, in order, Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, Sarah Palin and Condeleezza Rice; her approval rating of 64 percent is the highest of any political figure in the country.

An ambitious woman is something to be admired?! I mean, the whole George Washington/cherry tree thing is cute and everything, but how’s that–ambition and likability are not mutually exclusive–for a lesson in the history books?

3. She’s strong enough to cry. Almost four years ago exactly, during a campaign stop in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Clinton became emotional when answering a question from an audience member about how she’s able to deal with the madness of a presidential campaign–and it was in her answer, when speaking of how much she cares about the country, that she got choked up. Again, she took flak for it, but there’s another, monstrously important message in this for the rest of us: tears are not a sign of weakness. They’re often, as Elizabeth Lesser has told us, a sign that our heart is truly engaged. I personally know that to be the case for me, and I love to imagine what the world–not to mention the freaking workplace!–would be like if everyone understood that. Being emotionally invested is a strength; Clinton understands that. And yet…

2. She’s not afraid to laugh at herself. At one of the most humbling moments in her career–when she bowed out of the race and gave her support to Obama–the type of moment when some, um, lesser people might be reduced to temper tantrum (You’re not gonna have Richard Nixon to kick around no more! anyone?), she was strong enough to crack a joke–and not just any joke–one that poked fun at herself: thanking her supporters, whom she referred to collectively as the sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits.

1. She is the total package. She has the skills and the experience, the–as Keller puts it–E.Q. as well as the I.Q. She’s already made enough of a mark that when someone describes something as Clintonian, it’s as likely they’re referring to her as it is her husband, who is, you know, a former president. She handled herself impossibly well during one of the most impossible (and public!) humiliations imaginable–and, rather than opt for obscurity, held her head high and soldiered on, right into one of the most visible positions in the world. And what a tenure: as Secretary of State, she’s smoothly handled her share of dramatic world events. As Keller writes:

She would bring to this year’s campaign a missing warmth and some of the voltage that has dissipated as Obama moved from campaigning to governing. What excites is not just the prospect of having a woman a heartbeat–and four years–away from the presidency, although she certainly embodies the aspirations of many women. It’s the possibility that the first woman at the top would have qualifications so manifest that her first-ness was a secondary consideration.

And what a first that would be.

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Forget the B-word; if you want to hit a woman where it hurts, one word’s sure to do it, according to longtime Vanity Fair contributing editor Leslie Bennetts in a piece titled “The Scarlet A” in this month’s Elle magazine, and that word is Ambitious.

Here’s Bennetts’ lede:

Over the past three decades, I’ve interviewed some of the world’s most celebrated women: queens and princesses, senators and rock stars, moguls and movie legends, first ladies and fashion titans. Some were barracudas whose appetite for power would make Machiavelli look like a pushover, but only one ever owned up to being ambitious.

Hillary Clinton? Oprah? Condoleezza Rice? Um, no.

Soon after Catherine Zeta-Jones married Michael Douglas, I met her at their baronial apartment overlooking Central Park West. Waving a hand bedecked with a diamond as big as a grape, Zeta-Jones gestured toward the mantel, where her husband’s Academy Awards were displayed, and confided that she wasn’t satisfied with his reflected glory. ‘I want my Oscar up there too,’ she said, her dark eyes glittering with determination.

Why so taboo? It seems a logical assumption that a film actress should want an Oscar… but, Bennetts writes, “in all my years interviewing movie stars, nobody had ever admitted to coveting one.”

And even after women have scored mega-success, they minimize what it took to get it. Bennetts’ piece outlines the ways some of the most successful, prominent, and groundbreaking contemporary women have refused to own their ambition. Hillary Clinton described herself as “stunned” when President Obama asked her to be his secretary of state, to the point that “‘I kept suggesting other people: ‘Well, how about this person! How about that person!’” Oprah (as Bennetts reminds us: “the richest self-made woman in America and the country’s first black billionaire”) said she doesn’t think of herself as a businessperson. From Drew Gilpin Faust–the first woman president of Harvard–to Michigan state governor Jennifer Granholm to former secretary of state Condoleeza Rice, women seem more likely to attribute their success to luck or to describe it as something that “just happened” than to own it. Can it really be that women still haven’t learned to take a compliment? Or is it that to be seen as ambitious is no compliment at all, but (much like being dubbed ‘opinionated‘) risky, dangerous, unladylike?

Um, probably. According to Celia Lake, a pollster and political strategist Bennetts quotes in her piece:

When men are being tough, voters define it as strength, but when women show toughness, the voters think they’re bitches… The research shows parallel stereotypes of women in executive management.

And, while we might be inclined to say but things are changing! Girls today are surely more confident than that! Bennetts offers up evidence to the contrary, quoting a recent Harvard grad, who recalled her experience in high school, and why she opted out of running for class president.

I was afraid people wouldn’t like me. And the truth is, they probably wouldn’t have. There’s this attitude that if you’re a girl, there’s a limit on how much success you’re allowed. When I was nominated for a major award, the friends of another candidate went around telling people that they shouldn’t vote for me because I already had ‘too much.’

I’d venture to say aspiring class presidents of the male variety do not face such “he has too much” anti-campaigns.

But why do we buy into it? One reason, according to longtime women’s rights advocate and former president of Planned Parenthood Gloria Feldt, is socialization.

[Feldt's] interest in power was sparked by research she did on women in politics. ‘Millions of dollars are being spent to help recruit, train, and support women to get elected, and yet they’ve scarcely moved the dial at all,’ Feldt says. ‘The problem was not that the doors were not open. The problem was that women were not walking through those doors–and that just blew me away.’

One reason women hang back is what Feldt calls a lack of ‘intentionality.’ It seems that from their earliest days, boys know they’re supposed to have a specific interest; they can decide to be and do whatever they want,’ she says. ‘Girls are now told they can be and do anything, but they’re much less likely to be taught that they should have a life plan that’s intentional. Girls are socialized to be reactive; boys are socialized to be the askers, girls the askees.’”

We’ve written about that before, and we think there’s something to it: boys are brought up knowing their job is to slay the dragons, to go, to see, to conquer. While the girls… well, we were the pretty princesses waiting to be rescued. And if that’s indeed the case, and if it’s further the case that we fear being seen as ambitious, for (perhaps) the more grown-up version of I’m afraid people won’t like me–well, is it any wonder so many of us are so undecided? We’re given the message that we can do anything, but we’re not socialized to be the doers. And even if we decide what we want and that we will do what it takes to get it, there’s no guidebook that shows us how. Even the women who’ve gone before, rather than saying, well, I did this, and I did that, and these things were really important, are more likely to sweep away the footprints they left, with a self-deprecating “it was really just a fluke.”

Perhaps the proper first step would be to wear our Scarlet As with pride. I’ll go first: I’m Shannon, and I’m Ambitious!

Feels kinda good.


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