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Posts Tagged ‘choices’

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

Ahem.

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

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

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

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

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I’ll bet you do.  That’s right: you, over there.  The one who just fished a shirt to wear to work out of the pile of dirty clothes on your bedroom floor.  Trust me, I do not judge, having worn the same running clothes for three days straight.  (Right.  Ew.)

Seems to me, if we’re in the workforce, we could all use a housewife at home to pick up the groceries and fold the clothes.  But whether we’re married or not, with or without kids, said housewife is likely to be you. No matter where you work, or how hard, when it comes to the second shift, ladies, we own it.

Which is something, says Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, that needs to change if we ever want to cut into the so-called ambition gap.   Sandberg has emerged as a leading voice in the quest to make life more doable — and the ladder more accessible — for those of us (read: most of us) who want the space to pursue both a career and a life.  And what she suggests is that if we ever want to get to fifty-fifty in the c-suites, we need to get to fifty-fifty back at home.

Unless, of course, we can hire a housewife.

In an interview for the Makers series from PBS and AOL, Sandberg spoke on a number of issues related to the difficulties women face in the workplace, from work-life balance (no such thing, she says) and the division of household labor.  The interview is broken up into mini-soundbites for quick hits of inspiration whenever you might need one, and at approximately 1:57 in this particular cut (scroll to the video at the bottom of the page) what she says is be careful who you marry (Cogent advice: we heard the same from Stanford economist Myra Strober, in an interview for our book):

The most important thing, I’ve said this a hundred times, if you marry a man, marry the right one.  If you can marry a woman, that’s better because the split between two women in the home is pretty even, data shows.

 But find someone to marry who’s going to do half.  Not just support your career by saying things – oh, of course you should work —  but actually get up and change half the diapers, because that’s what it takes.

Her overarching point? If women ran half the institutions, and men ran half the homes, the world would be a better place.  Hard to argue with that one, especially when you consider that, for most of us, the economy doesn’t allow for many single income families.  (And then, of course, there’s  the structure of today’s workplace that demands a 52 hour workweek.  But we’ve covered that.)

Anyway, I thought of all this housewife business the other day, after a class in which a student pitched a story on the lack of women in leadership positions in corporate America.  While we were brainstorming a fresh angle for the piece, one student brought up the issue of stay-at-home dads as one way to close the gap.  Good idea, right?  Especially in a classroom of forward-thinking millennial kids.  And so I turned to the men in the class and said, “Okay, how many of you would consider being a stay at home dad?”  Answers ranged from a reluctant “well, maybe” to “no way” to clearly the most honest answer of the bunch:  “I hate children.”  Which if nothing else was good for a laugh.  Then that student who had brought up the issue in the first place asked how many students had had stay-at-home dads.  Not quite radio silence, but close to it.

What struck me was the fact that here in 2012, a conversation about shifting gender roles seemed, to a classful of kick-ass college seniors, so, you know, quaint.  And so I brought up the topic again today, and one female student voiced a collective worry: I want a career and a family. But when and how do I make it  fit?  From the men, again, radio silence. What was interesting, but not entirely surprising, was that this was something none of the guys had ever considered.  Or, probably, would ever have to. You can be sure I pointed that out.

But then it struck me.  Is the issue the fact that we still define work outside of work in traditional gender terms? The most recent American Time Use Survey found that 20 percent of men did housework on a given day compared with 49 percent of women. Forty-one percent of men did food preparation or cleanup, compared with 68 percent of women.  And then there’s this: back in 2008, the Gallup Lifestyle poll (the most recent one) found that married couples still maintain a traditional division of labor:  men did the yardwork and took care of the car, women did the dishes and took care of the kids.  (Which often makes me wonder how the division of labor breaks down in, say, Manhattan, where folks don’t have a lot of cars, and even fewer yards.  But, anyway.)

So maybe that’s our first step:  letting go of traditional gender expectations, especially at home.  I myself just dragged myself home from work.  My husband, who was watching a hockey game, greeted me at the door with a glass of Pinot. Much appreciated. We’re having leftovers for dinner.  And everyday, he packs my lunch.

My students think that’s cute.

As for my running clothes?  Sigh.  Don’t ask.

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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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On a recent trip to D. C., I was out to dinner with some long-lost family friends and their very accomplished, 20-something daughter who’d just moved to the city after earning her Masters of Public Administration and subsequently landing a seriously fat job working for the government, something she’s always wanted to do. She’d come directly to dinner from the office — never mind that it was, in fact, a Saturday. She was tired, but lit up whenever she got to talking about what was going on at work. But the second she left the table, her parents expressed more than a little bit of worry: How will she ever meet anyone when she’s working so hard? A standard parental concern, of course, but she seemed pretty happy with her new gig. A gig which, it bears repeating, is seriously impressive — and one she’d worked really hard to score.

I have another friend, a single 30-something living a life in New York City that Carrie Bradshaw would have envied. I’ve known her and her family for years, and her mom always says, Oh, but I think deep down she really just wants to be a stay-at-home mom.

Then: lunch last week, with yet another friend. Young, super educated and very successful. Not that into kids, but considering freezing her eggs. (To the tune of somewhere around $12,000.)

And finally: just today I got an email from another friend — a journalist whose job has taken her around the world. In fact, she and her husband just returned from a year in Africa, an adventure they’d deemed too amazing to pass up. And they were right. Now that they’re back, though, they’re thinking baby thoughts. As in, at 36 years old, it’s now or… well, maybe never — which means not just baby thoughts, but thoughts about boarding the infertility express. (To the tune around $12,000… a round.)

All of which has me wondering: These are all women — happy women — who have experienced some seriously amazing accomplishments, women who are living lives they are pretty happy to be living. And yet, the perception is that there’s no way they could be really happy unless they have a man on their arm and a baby on their hip. Not to say there’s anything wrong with a man or a baby — on the contrary! — but these women are happy today. So why the constant focus on what’s “missing”?

The conspiracy theorist in me sees a touch of The Beauty Myth-variety dynamics at play. Here’s a bit of what Naomi Wolf wrote in the 1991 book:

The more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily and cruelly images of female beauty have come to weigh upon us.

Consider: Recent years have seen major changes in women’s position in society (we’re now the majority of the workforce, earning more degrees, and an increasing number of wives are the main breadwinner in a marriage) and in our behavior around marriage and motherhood (age of first marriage and first child are rising, and numbers of women who’ve chosen to be child-free are steadily on the uptick, as well).

And… backlash!

Recent years also have seen an explosion in what might be described as a fetishization of these traditional female roles. Bump watches abound, and weddings have gone off the reservation. (After yesterday’s announcement that they’re getting divorced, Kim Kardashian’s $10 million dollar wedding on Aug. 20 to NBA star Kris Humphries breaks down to $138,888 a day. That must have been one hell of a cake.) Professional “glamour” maternity photos are becoming as ubiquitous as the professional engagement portrait.

I’m not saying that we don’t — or shouldn’t — want love and marriage and a baby carriage. But if we don’t, the cultural forces at work sure do their best to change our minds.

We have more choices than ever before, and we’ve been told we can have it all. But, instead of fully enjoying what we do have, how often are we worrying over how we’re going to get the parts we don’t? And — worse! — when we’re not worrying over how we’re going to get the parts we don’t have yet, how much time are we forced to spend explaining that, no, we really are quite happy… time that could be spent, you know, actually being happy?

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 Last week during all the memorializing of Apple founder/college dropout/cultural visionary Steve Jobs, I found myself watching the commencement speech he gave at Stanford University in 2005 — and, in all that wisdom, one line in particular gave me the chills: Don’t Live Someone Else’s Life, he said. Actually, what he said was:

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma–which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And, most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Living someone else’s life? Now, I (vaguely) recall being a fresh college grad, and I’m sure such words might have just made me chuckle then, but with a few additional years under my belt, I can say I know exactly what he’s talking about. I think most of us do, if we’re honest.

So often, we make choices based on shoulds, on expectations, biases, images, maybe even out of fear. Women in particular often find our decisions are colored by worries about being judged or getting approval, and we’re often battling some deeply entrenched beliefs around it somehow being virtuous to put ourselves last — at the bottom of our own list. Sometimes we just drift. But, with each choice we make, our life picks up a little bit of steam, until, sometimes, before we know it, we find the life we’re living is one that’s being driven by inertia, heading off in some direction we never planned.

As Molly, a young Manhattanite we profiled in the book, told us:

I did everything my boss asked, I did it perfectly, I sucked up. In six months, I got promoted. It was one of the fastest promotions they’d ever experienced. I tried really hard, and I moved to the next step; I tried really hard, and I moved to the next step. And now I’ve gotten to the point where I’m like, wait a minute, how did I get this far? I just blindly tried really hard without really thinking, What’s the end? Where is this getting me?

To quote the Talking Heads: Self, how did I get here? 

Sounds familiar, no? But maybe the more important question is this: How do I take back the wheel?

Well here’s the good news: You don’t have to take back anything! You’re not powerless. It was you who made the choices that got you to this point — this job, this relationship, this roommate, this pet chinchilla — and you are not powerless to make choices that’ll take you down a different path from here. Those are your hands on the wheel — they’ve been there all along.

Once you acknowledge you’re the one in control of those hands, your next step should be to take some time to notice where they’re steering you, your focus, your time, your energy? Because here’s the thing: everything is a choice — and every choice, by definition, entails a trade-off. Whether we go into it consciously or not.

Whether or not you consciously think to yourself: this time I’m spending baking cookies for the kids’ bake sale or agonizing over which color to use in the graph on Slide 4 in this PowerPoint is time I am not spending in the garden, or researching the yoga teacher training course I’ve been thinking about since I dropped my first “Om,” you’re still making the trade. You can’t be in two places at once. And the decisions you make about what to do with your time, where to focus your energy — well, they shape your life. So if you’re feeling like you’re living someone else’s life, start going into those choices consciously — really thinking about what you are and are not choosing to do. Once you do, you might discover you’re spending your time and energy on things (and maybe even people and jobs) that you don’t really care about, letting the things you’re most passionate about slip by the wayside, while you’re on cruise control.

It can be scary — maybe our passion seems weird, our dreams too far out of reach. Maybe you’ll fail. And maybe after that, you’ll try again. But wouldn’t you rather fail at your own dreams than succeed at someone else’s? And hey, failure’s recoverable — even Steve Jobs got fired.

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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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So Wednesday I had an interview with Kathryn Zox on VoiceAmerica and she asked me if I could think of a more positive word for “compromise.”  And to be honest — well,  it was early in the morning — I could not.

Can you?  Thing is, life is all about the trade-offs.  But “compromise”?  It’s a dirty word.

We had been talking about the choices that women have to make when navigating the uncertain terrain that goes under the general heading of “you can have it all.”  Killer career.  Great family life.  Making it all work.   And all at the same time.  It goes to the heart of what makes decisions so difficult for women in this new reality:  opportunity cost.  If you are doing A, by definition you can’t be doing B.  Or at least, not well.  And yet.  We try.  Because to be less than perfect at one or the other means we think we have failed.

Case in point:  Kathryn spoke of taking the train up from New York one night not long ago, riding in business class, where though she tried to avoid listening, she was privy to a long cellphone conversation between a well-dressed business woman and her husband.  And her little girl.  And then her husband.  And then her little girl.  And on and on.  The gist?  Mommy was coming home from a business trip, but apparently felt obliged to be the one to put her little girl to bed.  A bedtime story?  Mommy loves you?  Daddy, are you doing it right?

And there you have it.  A good metaphor for trying to do it all, have it all.  And all the pressure we put on ourselves, whether we have a family, whether we don’t, or whether we ever will.

We don’t like to talk about compromise because it implies that we have settled for something less than perfect.  Or maybe, we’re uncomfortable with the word because we still haven’t figure out how to make our way through this uncharted territory.   So maybe when we parse it all out, when we cast about for a more positive way to say “compromise,” the operative word is choice.

Or maybe the term is letting go.  As Lori, one of the women in our book, told us, “Maybe it’s that society is telling us all that we have to be successful career women — but the world has forgotten to mention that if we want to do that, we can let go of worrying about our pound cake.”

And is that so bad?  I call it compromise.  You call it trade-off.  We all call it growing pains.

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