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Posts Tagged ‘commitmentphobia’

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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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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Earlier this week, I got an email from Feminista author/blogger Erica Kennedy (you remember the interview I did with her back in December), asking if I’d seen this item in the UK’s Daily Mail, a trend piece about (unmarried, non-mom) women opting out of the rat race in favor of waiting tables, walking dogs, and QT with grandma, sprung from a book entitled–get this!–”30-Something And Over It: What Happens When You Wake Up One Morning And Don’t Want To Go To Work… Ever Again” by Kasey Edwards. I hadn’t yet, but once I did, my fingers got to twitchin. Why’d I feel the need to pen my own post about it? Well, consider:

‘Have you ever woken up and realised that you didn’t want to go to work?’ [Edwards] asks.

‘I don’t mean you had a big night and you’d prefer to sleep in, or it’s a nice day and you’d rather take your dog to the park instead. I’m talking about being over it.

Completely and utterly over it. Sure, you might have a gold card, but you’ve maxed it out buying things you can’t afford and that you don’t even need, trying to fill a void that just can’t be filled. You numb your discontentment every night with gin and tonics.’

Okay, this being the United States and not the United Kingdom, I’m inclined to doubt we do our numbing with gin and tonics. But still. The sentiment tends to ring true. Those fat dinners at the hottest restaurants with the open kitchens and mixologist-conceived cocktails…. Those boots… Those highlights… Those weekends away–filled with spas and syrahs and tapaaas…

Here’s a bit more from Edwards in the Daily Mail piece:

‘All through your teens and 20s you’re working towards something, and there’s this sense of delayed gratification: ‘I’ll work hard now and I’ll get a better job.’ And you get to your 30s and you go: ‘Where’s the pay-off?’ The gratification that you’ve been expecting for years doesn’t come, or when the reward comes, it’s not satisfying. I really did think: ‘Is this all there is?’

…And far from fuelling our ambition, it seems that the current economic crisis is only compounding our sense that status, success and money are a fool’s gold.

First, let’s back up. The girls from the piece? They had fat jobs. But they were busting their asses. And they saw their bosses… and didn’t want to be them. And so they up and quit, trading in their expense accounts for pooper scoopers, their time in the executive suite for time in the rec room at the retirement home. This recession? It’s global. And they’re barely covering their bills. So what made them do it?

I tend to think it’s the great expectation question all over again. And, having just written about the little-bit-marrieds, welll, I couldn’t help but see a little parallel: Are our working girl fantasies, perhaps of Melanie Griffith, scoring the corner office and the pretty new briefcase–given to her by one Harrison Ford, every bit as ridiculous as those spawned by Disney, in which the princess scores the happy ending wedding and the glass slipper–given to her by Prince What’s-his-name? Which is to say, do we find disappointment in our real lives because we’re expecting a Hollywood-style happy ending?

Actually, I don’t know if it’s as simple as that. In fact, I don’t think it is at all–I just like movies. Really, I think it’s more a generational thing–and a too many choices thing. These milestone institutions–career, marriage, mortgage–they all involve a pretty serious dose of commitment. And our generation, with everything on the menu… well, could it be that, no matter what the routine, once something becomes routine, we’re doomed to be just not that into it anymore? No matter the pluses, are we unable to see anything but the minuses? This isn’t quite perfect, so why should I stick around? Once we’re confronted with reality’s non-perfection, do we begin to imagine what we’re not doing–in the loveliest possible way, of course? Or are we categorically incapable of satisfaction–do we equate finding, even looking for, satisfaction with a certain complacency, with settling? Is that friggen grass always going to be greener, no matter which yard is ours?

Or is this non-attachment, this willingness to pass on the status-proving trappings a step on the path to enlightenment, an epiphany? You know, kinda like the one in The Devil Wears Prada, where the put-upon assistant working the job “a million girls would kill to have” up and quits to find happiness in a shabby newsroom…

And then kinda ends up with the prince?

Someone stop me. I’m doing it again.

Kennedy’s take?

Is this cool or crazy — I can’t decide. (Actually, I think these women are going to spend a year going on long walks and hanging out with Grandma then they’ll figure out what they’d rather be doing and get back to work.)

In other words, the grass will still be greener.

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