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Posts Tagged ‘having it all’

I frequently hear from former students – usually bright, idealistic twentysomethings — long after they’ve exchanged their college dreams for, you know, reality.

Often, these women are more than a little shell-shocked when they come face to face with the disconnect between their high expectations and life out there in the real world of work.  Their notes, emails and phone calls speak of a certain dissatisfact  Raised to believe they could have it all, they’re suddenly undecided.  Disillusioned. Wondering about that greener grass.  One former student, channeling Betty Friedan, called it “the other problem that has no name.”  All this angst, in fact, was one of the triggers for our book.

The latest email came from a focused young woman – we’ll call her Susie — who moved several states away after she scored the job of her dreams at a big tech company right out of the gate.  Great, right?  But what she wrote was anything but.

She first relayed a story of a friend, an Ivy League grad who was now working in New York – who was so miserable at her job she was thinking of calling it quits.  Why?  Constant sexist remarks.  A sense that she was invisible to the powers that be.  The final straw?  One of the partners in her firm sent out an office-wide email, addressed “Dear Gentlemen”, even though there were several women on the chain – and left her off it completely, though a male employee with her same job was included.

Small stuff, maybe.  But when you’ve been led to believe that gender discrimination is a thing of the past, that feminist battles have been fought and won, that you, sister, have achieved equality, reality provides a nasty wake-up call.

Anyway, back to Susie, who had her own tale of invisibility to tell.   Not long ago, she flew off to run a booth at a trade show for her company.  She reveled in the responsibility – and also in the opportunity to finally have a face-to-face meeting with her brand new boss, who was headquartered in a different state.  But while Susie was busy running the show, a Playboy model who’d been hired by her company for the gig, was working the crowd.

You can guess how this story ends, right?  Susie ended up with about 20 minutes of facetime with her boss, who was far more interested in chatting up the model and taking her to dinner.

“It just leaves so much dissatisfaction in my heart because I feel like there is no way to win this game,” Susie wrote.  “As women, what makes us valuable in the office? There are enough really talented women on my team that I know climbing the ranks is a possibility…”  And yet, she wondered:  how do these women feel when they’re smart, work hard, and then they see, as she did at the tradeshow, that looks carry more currency than talent. “I just wonder,” she wrote, “that even if we reach the pinnacle of success, whatever that might be, will we ever feel like we truly have it?”

Sigh.  One of the most insidious things about this kind of sexism, I told Susie, is that the folks who perpetuate this nonsense rarely realize what they are doing or saying. White male privilege?  More than likely. But it also speaks to the fact that, while we may have come a long way, we still have a long way to go. Which is why I get so grumpy when young women refuse to call themselves feminists – or when their older sisters, the ones who are edging up toward the top of the food chain, are loathe to acknowledge the way things were – and in many cases, still are.

Of course, what rankles the most is the idea that dealing with gender discrimination, with sexism of all kinds, is seen as women’s work.  Shouldn’t it be everyone’s work?

Hillary Clinton — one of the most powerful women in the world and someone who has put up with more than her share of bad behavior solely because of her gender – might well agree.  Check what she told the Gail Collins in an interview in Sunday’s New York Times:

For a long time, Clinton said, when she talked about giving women opportunity, “I could see some eyes glazing over.” But now, she continued, people are beginning to see that empowering women leads to economic development. That you don’t espouse women’s rights because it’s a virtuous thing to do but because it leads to economic growth.

Economics? Brilliant!  Which leads us back to Susie.  Who, we might ask her boss, made more money for her company that week at that trade show?

And exactly who is it that wins when smart and talented young women are too discouraged to stick around?

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It happened again the other day:  I was being interviewed by my introductory journalism class when I got The Question:

Are you a feminist?  Of course, I shot back.  Beat.  Are you?

The young woman was the tiniest bit flummoxed at being put on the spot.  Well, she said.  I guess it depends on how you define feminist.  “A human being,” I replied, as I always do, and then enumerated some of the issues:  equal pay for equal work.  Equitable division of labor at home.  Equal representation.  Blowing up gender stereotypes.

And then I said something like this:  How can anyone NOT be a feminist?

Cue the debate.  About the meaning of feminism.  About the bad rap the label has gotten.  About the fear some young women have in owning the term.  Finally, I asked for a show of hands.  How many of you consider yourself feminists, I asked.  Slowly, about half the class – including some males and the woman who had asked the question in the first place — raised their hands.

Whew. Better than I expected.

Anyway, I was reminded today of all the things I should have said when I ran into a video of a killer keynote address given by the glorious Gloria Steinem this week at the National Press Club in celebration of Ms. Magazine turning 40.  (Fun fact: Back in the 1970s, Steinem was the first woman ever invited to speak at the Press Club.  Like all the other speakers, she was given a necktie.)

The irony, as Steinem pointed out, is that public opinion polls show that the majority is on our side when it comes to any of the issues raised by the women’s movement.  (See?  We are all feminists.) It’s the power structures that are resistant to change.

Her take on equal pay?  Check it:

 …if we just had equal pay in this country, just the single thing of equal pay, which is what most everybody agrees with, right? We would have the single most important economic stimulus this country could possibly possibly ever have. It would be about $200 billion dollars more a year injected into the economy, about $150 a week more for white women on the average, for women of color something between $250 and $350. And it would be injected into the economy exactly where it’s most likely to be spent. We are not going to send it to the Cayman Islands, no! We are going to spend it and it is going to create jobs…

Awesome.  Hard to disagree.

She also talked about the backlash against feminism, and one of the most insidious strategies is telling us that the women’s movement is over and done.  Old news.  We’ve succeeded.  It’s one way to keep us from moving forward, she said, and to keep younger women from identifying as feminists.   She also noted that “women’s issues” – think childcare, for one —  often get siloed.  She said that for years, she’s been asked if she is interested in anything other than women’s issues.  Her answer?  “Can you think of one thing that wouldn’t be transformed by looking at it as if everyone matters?

Seriously.  She went on to discuss something else that had more than a little resonance with stuff we’ve written about here – and relates to one of the last questions I was asked in that classroom interview. A student asked if I thought I had it all. (Insert smirk here.)  I said absolutely not, that having it all is a myth, especially one that so many of them had been raised with, and rambled on about the expectations of what having it all means for today’s women:  smart, successful, skinny, sexy, great career, even better family, and granite in the kitchen.  I could go on, and I suspect I did, but let’s give Gloria the last word:

Can women have it all?  That’s not the right question.  Most women are asking – am I going to lose it all.  It’s a rarefied question.  The real question is why we’re asking it at all of the individual when we live in the only industrialized democracy in the world that doesn’t have child care, has more unfriendly work policies in terms of both parents being equal parents…  The ultimate answer is men raising children as much as women do and women being as active outside the home as much as men are.

And wouldn’t we all be better off?  I have this hunch my students would agree.

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Is it the end, or just beginning?

Ye olde End of Men is in the news again; this time, author Stephanie Coontz is weighing in on how the headlines proclaiming The End of Men might be a tad premature. It’s territory we’ve covered before, to be sure, but there’s a new turf worth tilling. Namely, when she writes:

One thing standing in the way of further progress for many men is the same obstacle that held women back for so long: overinvestment in their gender identity instead of their individual personhood.

Sorry to interrupt, but: DING DING DING!

Men are now experiencing a set of limits–externally enforced as well as self-imposed–strikingly similar to the ones Betty Friedan set out to combat in 1963, when she identified a ‘feminine mystique’ that constrained women’s self-image and options.

Clearly, it’s no longer 1963, but Coontz hits on something there that I think is still profoundly in evidence, particularly among the women we call “Undecided.” Yes, we have options the women who clandestinely passed The Feminine Mystique around may have only dreamed about, but that’s but half the story. We write often about how, somewhere along the timeline of women’s liberation, the message that we can have it all morphed into an oppressive belief that we should be able to do it all, and, when I read those above words of Coontz’s, I thought: Yes, yes, and yes.

Because I think, to borrow her words, a certain investment in our gender identity is what keeps us so dearly invested in doing it all. When you read articles about how to take the pressure off, among the tips will invariably be something along the lines of Ditch the stuff you don’t care that much about. Which is fine advice. (Um, we’ve probably offered it ourselves.) But it’s hard advice to follow. Perhaps you don’t give two craps about baking, yet you feel a bad mother if you send your little one to the bake sale with storebought (and Crisco-frosted) cupcakes. Maybe you don’t even want kids, but feel pressure tied to the belief that “real” women are maternal (and bake their own cupcakes). Perhaps you don’t care about clothing or makeup, but you feel you must look a certain way to be accepted as a woman. Maybe you’d rather take a stick to the eye than spend a perfectly good Saturday dusting, but you have friends coming over and you just know they’ll think a little bit less of you if they see how you really live.

Interestingly, I think that the more successful we are in the not-traditionally-female aspects of our lives (read: our careers), the more intensely we feel we must make sure we measure up on the traditional Lady-o-meter. Just last week, there were a couple of headlines about very successful women–Katie Couric and Stacy London–coming out about their struggles with eating disorders; in fact, among women, eating disorders have long been associated with an overachieving personality type. And have you ever noticed how rare it is to see a successful woman who is anything less than impeccably groomed? (Not least because when said grooming–or style; see: Hillary’s pantsuits–falls just a little bit short, the backlash is lethal.) Back in the 80s, when I was in grade school, my mom was in grad school “busting my ass,” she says. And yet, “I cooked dinner every night, drove the car pool AND was your room mother.” It’s as though we’re willing to push the envelope… but not too far. So we overcompensate, wearing heels that are lethal, killing ourselves to keep a house that’ll pass the white-glove test, and whipping up organic and healthy–yet impressively epicurean–delights for dinner. On a Tuesday.

It’s too tricky to offer a simple solution–and it’s made trickier thanks to the judgment women face from other women and society at large, of course–but surely there’s some wisdom in flipping Coontz’s equation and consciously putting more investment in our “individual personhood” as opposed to our “gender identity.” In worrying less about what it means to be a woman, and more about what it means to be our self. Or maybe just thinking a little bit about why you’re killing yourself over that dinner… and, perhaps, instituting a new tradition, called Take-Out Tuesday.

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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 had a serendipitous moment with Michelle Obama last week — just a few days before her transcendent speech at the DNC.  The occasion was an interview with the First Couple by Lynn Sherr and Maggie Murphy in Parade, the supplement that shows up in many local Sunday papers.

I almost tossed the magazine aside, but I was drawn in by the radiant cover photo of a smiling Michelle and Barack snuggling on a couch in the White House Map Room, and what I found in this exchange midway through the Q-and-A was an almost spooky resonance with what we’ve been writing about these past four years.  More about that below, but first, check this:

This year, there is once again a conversation about the superwoman.” Can women have it all? Is that even the right question?
MO:
I think that question limits us as women. I work with a lot of young women—we have interns coming in and out, and this is always one of the first questions they ask—and the thing I try to remind them is that we have fought so hard for choice and options with our lives, and we’re just getting to that point where we’re willing to embrace all the different facets of woman­hood. I know that when I came out of college, what I wanted and what I thought I wanted were very different things. Then I get married and have a career and, lo and behold, now I’ve got kids. And how you feel about motherhood when your children are small and when they’re teenagers, that’s going to change. I want to keep young women from thinking that there is one right answer. That answer is going to change every year, every five years.

Bingo.  That line about no “one right answer”?  That’s the point, isn’t it?  Young women — all women, really — need to make peace with the fact that there is no right answer, no one-size-fits-all approach to life, whether it comes to career or family or any combination of the two.  Nor, once we’ve made one choice or another, can we rely on sure-fire steps on how to get there.  Why?  Because it’s all too new. As women in transition, we’re adjusting to rapidly changing roles within a slowly changing society, and what we’ve found is that for many of us, the insecurity of making our way without a road map has left us all just a little bit, well, undecided.

But what the First Lady reminds us is that we’re all in this together. And hooray for that.

Still, the idea that there is no grand plan, no tried-and-true blueprint that can show us how to find our place in the world, is one scary thought. It’s also the idea that sparked our book — coincidentally, four years to the day before I picked up the Parade interview.  On that hot late-summer day, Shannon had talked me into tackling the notorious Dipsea Trail, a treacherous seven mile trek that ascends some 2200 feet up Mount Tamalpais, just north of San Francisco, and ends at Stinson Beach, a small town on the edge of the Pacific. The hike took all day, and later that night, over iced knees, a killer roast chicken and a few delightful glasses of Pinot, we began to brainstorm: Why was it that today’s women were so undecided?  What was the cause of the “analysis paralysis” that plagued so many young women?  The dissatisfaction that seemed to be so rampant in a generation of women groomed to have it all?  Shannon insisted there was a book in searching for the answers, and that we should do it together.

Together?  That’s all she had to say.  (Wondering what it’s like for a mother and daughter to write a book together?  Another story for another day.)

Anyway, in the process of reporting our book, we interviewed researchers, experts, counselors, coaches — and most importantly hundreds of undecided women, from their twenties to their sixties, who became the heart and soul of our book.  And what we found was shared experience, underlying issues in the workplace and the culture that have yet to be addressed, and a collective sense of growing pains.

What we didn’t find were any cookie-cutter answers.  Which actually, is the answer. In slightly more than a generation, our roles and our opportunities have changed dramatically.  And with all that change comes uncertainty.  Sure, we all yearn for those pieces of grand advice — once you do “A”, “B” will surely follow.  We want to know exactly what to expect behind Door No. 1 or Door No. 2.  But when you think about it, that’s pretty much the way our mothers or grandmothers lived their lives.  For us, however, life is much more complicated — and far more exciting.

What’s interesting is that when we speak in front of women’s groups or on talk shows, you can feel a strong sense of resonance in the audience. The women, they get it. They identify with the stories we tell of women whose lives are like their own. They get pissed off with the structural impediments that have held them back.  And yet:  there’s always at least one hand that shoots up, a woman pleading for some exact step-by steps.  And what we answer is that there are none — and that’s a good thing.

Back to that interview with the Obamas, the beauty of there being no one sure answer is the freedom that comes with it: The permission to engage in some trial and error, to define ourselves apart from the shoulds, to lead a life that is true to type, and to jettison once and for all the idea that we can have it all.

Sure, it’s hard.  Sometimes it’s scary.  But the good news is, we’re in it together.  Even the First Lady.

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I woke up this morning to a message from a former student who’d sent me a link to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s cover story in the new Atlantic.  If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s a brilliant piece that lays out the reasons why women still can’t have it all — and what we as a society ought to do about it.  Within a few hours, links to the story were bouncing around the internet (not to mention my Facebook page) including an excellent recap by HuffPost columnist Lisa Belkin.

Slaughter, who gave up a prestigious State Department post in DC — her dream job, in fact – when she realized her family needed her more, starts the piece by recalling a conversation with a friend where she confessed that, when her time in Washington was up, she was going to “write an op-ed titled ‘Women Can’t Have It All.’”  Her friend was horrified:

“You can’t write that,” she said. “You, of all people.” What she meant was that such a statement, coming from a high-profile career woman—a role model—would be a terrible signal to younger generations of women. By the end of the evening, she had talked me out of it, but for the remainder of my stint in Washington, I was increasingly aware that the feminist beliefs on which I had built my entire career were shifting under my feet. I had always assumed that if I could get a foreign-policy job in the State Department or the White House while my party was in power, I would stay the course as long as I had the opportunity to do work I loved. But in January 2011, when my two-year public-service leave from Princeton University was up, I hurried home as fast as I could.

Something struck me when I read the piece and started parsing it out for myself.  And that’s whether there’s another question we ought to be asking here.  It’s not simply whether we can have it all (like Slaughter, I agree: we can’t, at least given current workplace inequities and societal structures) — but what the pervasiveness of that myth has done to a whole generation of women whose expectations are out of sync with what awaits them out there in the real world.

Back when Undecided was just a twinkle in our eye (fueled, no doubt, by a frosty beer or two after a grueling hike on a hot summer day), the question that kept coming up in that initial bout of brainstorming was whether we as women had been sold a bill of goods.  And what we found in the two years of research and interviews that followed was that this idea of having it all, the mantra so many of us assumed was our birthright, had led to a world of grief.  Because when you’re led to believe that you can have it all — or worse, that you should have it all — you feel like you’ve done it wrong when things don’t measure up.  You are to blame.  Somehow, you’ve failed.  When the truth is that reality — workplace structures, public policy, the culture itself — has not kept pace with our own expectations.

One of the things that gets lost in the “you go, girl” rhetoric is what economists call opportunity cost.  As Stanford economist Myra Strober, who founded  Stanford’s  Center for Research on Women back in 1972, told us, “If you’re doing A, you can’t be doing B.  If you’re playing basketball, you can’t be reading Jane Austen.” In other words, unless and until we can clone ourselves, we’re stuck trying to balance a bunch of trade-offs.  Don’t get me wrong: This is not another salvo in the Mommy Wars or a knock on feminism. Or even a suggestion that life choices are an either/or proposition.  The point is not that we have to choose between family or career — but that we’re going to have to make peace with the fact that if we want to both raise a kid and run a company, it’s not only going to be hard but there are going to be challenges that are greater than we have been led to believe.

Despite our best intentions, very little in either realm is going to be perfect. We may have to compromise. And when we’re raised to be empowered, to believe that we can have it all, that’s one tough pill to swallow.

It’s a hard lesson, made harder by the fact that there aren’t a lot of role models out there who can show us how to navigate the trade-offs.  We were discussing this issue last year on a talk show, in fact, when the host brought up Michelle Obama and Oprah as powerful women who seemed to have it all.  And what we said was that in the traditional definition of having it all — fabulous career, fabulous marriage, parenthood — neither qualified:  Oprah has no family and Michelle, for obvious reasons, has given up her career. Likewise Hillary Clinton or, for that matter, Sheryl Sandberg.  Incredible role models, to be sure. But, in a way, scary ones, too.  Because for the for the vast majority of us, despite our own aspirations, if they are held up as the ideal, we are bound to feel that we have fallen short.

One of my senior journalism students this year wrote her capstone on the lack of women atop the corporate ladder and what younger women should do to get there.  In reporting the story, she interviewed women in leadership positions across the country, essentially digging for tips that would help her generation make it to the C-suite.  What she found, good and bad, was a lot of the stuff we write about here.  But the thing that struck me was her solid conviction that, when all was said and done, having it all was indeed a possibility.

Which is, I guess, is the right way to think from inside a college classroom: More power to her for her optimism — and her sincere conviction that her generation will be the one to make things work. But still, the question nags.  It’s not whether or not we can have it all — but why we saddle ourselves with the expectation that we should.

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This being graduation season, the other day I asked the over-achieving rockstars in my senior journalism capstone class what they’d most like to hear from a commencement speaker.

Thankfully, I heard no references to roads not taken nor endings-versus-beginnings.  (Though I would have enjoyed a quick reference to that four-word piece of advice from the iconic film about post-grad angst, The Graduate:  “In a Word: Plastics”)

But anyway.

The best answer came from a young woman who said she’d like to hear from someone who has failed – and was still okay.

Now, I suspect this is a young woman who, herself, has never failed.  And yet: she may have tapped into one of the biggest fears of young women who have been raised with great expectations, high aspirations and the message that they could do it all and have it all: What happens if they can’t?

If you’ve been following this space, you probably know that one of our key messages is the need to embrace failure, to put yourself out there, to take some risks – even when said risks might end in a big fat fail.  In most cases, if you can see that failure for what it is – just one step in a life-long process of trial and error – you may well learn something that can propel you forward.  Or, as psychologist Ramani Durvasula told us back when we were reporting our book: “You’ll always get over a failure.  But regret?  It’s not recoverable.”

In other words, to borrow a quote from another movie classic, you’ll always wonder if you “coulda been a contender.”

And so, as a nod to my student, and to graduates anywhere, here’s a short list of successful women who failed famously – and still, one way or the other, ended up on top:

Emily Dickinson:  Regarded as one of America’s greatest poets, she wrote over 1700 poems.  Only a handful were published in her lifetime.

Lucille Ball: The winner of four Emmys and a Lifetime Achievement Award was told by one of her first drama teachers that she should try another profession.

Marilyn Monroe: When she was just starting out, modeling agents told her she should go be a secretary.  Why?  She wasn’t attractive enough.

Kathryn Stockett:  Her manuscript for “The Help” was rejected by 60 literary agents over a period of three and a half years, before being picked up by an agent named Susan Ramer, who sold the book to a publisher three weeks later.

Oprah Winfrey:  At 22, she scored a gig co-anchoring the evening news in Baltimore, and eight months later, was fired.  Because she still had a contract with the station, they shuffled her off to a talk show, which ultimately launched her career.

Hilary Clinton:  The Yale Law School graduate failed the D.C. bar exam – but passed the Arkansas bar and moved there to be with Bill.  The rest, as they say, is the history of one of the most influential women in the United States, if not the world.

The list goes on, or could, but the point is this: while we all fail at one time or another (be sure to ask me about some of my own personal doozies) the only real failure is letting the fear of it hold us back.  Or, as former New York Times editor Anna Quindlen once said: “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.”

By the way, our commencement speaker this year is Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer, who has experienced a few failures of his own.

Let’s hope he doesn’t fail to mention them.

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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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Once again, the “have it all” myth has reared it’s schizoid head.  This time, the poster-woman is Facebook’s second most famous face, COO Sheryl Sandberg, who graced the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love Sandberg.  We all do.  A graduate of the Harvard Business School (and protege of Larry Summers), she’s emerged as one of the country’s most impressive female power brokers, not to mention role model to women and girls everywhere. And rightly so. As the Chronicle story points out, she’s a “passionate advocate for women to claim a far greater share of the top corporate leadership positions”:

But she says the sharing of leadership starts in the home.

“A world where men ran half our homes and women ran half our institutions would be just a much better world,” Sandberg said during a May commencement address at Barnard College in New York City.

“To solve this generation’s central moral problem, which is gender equality, we need women at all levels, including the top, to change the dynamic, reshape the conversation, to make sure women’s voices are heard and heeded, not overlooked and ignored,” she said.

Deborah Gruenfeld, a leadership and organizational behavior professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, said Sandberg has become “a symbol for a new wave of feminism, where women can own their power by just being women, where you don’t have to see that as totally incompatible. You can be feminine and be a totally powerful person.”

And hooray for that, right?  But where the story threw me sideways was a throw-away line in the preceding paragraph.  After writer Benny Evangelista noted that last year Forbes named Sandberg the fifth most powerful woman in the world, and Fortune named her the 12th most powerful woman in business, he wrote:

Yet she still managed to balance her professional life with raising two young children, making her the ultimate role model for women who want to have it all.

Have it all? Get real.  She’s got two young kids, a killer career and is married to the CEO of another Silicon Valley company, who presumably is pretty darn busy himself.  Clearly, she might have it all, but she surely can’t be doing it all.  At least not without lots of hired help.  (Sandberg, by the way, declines to be interviewed about anything but the company, according to Evangelista.)

And that’s the issue, isn’t it? As women who have come of age in the second half of the twentieth century, we’ve been raised with the mantra that we can have it all.  We can do anything.  We can do everything.  And yet.  Despite the progress we women have made in scarcely more than a generation, the world has not caught up.  Workplace structures, public policy — even the social culture — is still more reflective of the days of Don Draper, where there was always a Betty at home to take care of business.  But who lives like that anymore?  In this economy, who could?  And the 40-hour workweek?  A pipedream, especially once you leap upon the corporate ladder.  Or even if you don’t. Nonetheless, in most households, women own the second shift.  (Even Nobel Prize winners:  Biologist Carol Greider of Johns Hopkins University was doing the laundry when she got the call that she had won the Nobel Prize in medicine.)

So, this notion of “having it all.”  It’s great, and all that. But there’s a problem of holding up superstars like Sandberg (or Angelina Jolie: we can all birth/adopt a bunch of kids and still find the time to make movies, right?) to convince us that we can run a company and raise family, all while wearing a big fat smile and some killer high heels. Cue the iconic sex-kitten ad from Enjolie perfume.

And that’s what makes me crazy. First, as we explore in Undecided, when we find our own sense of balance entirely off-kilter, which I suspect is most of the time for most of us, we feel as if we’re the ones who have blown it.  We’ve chosen wrong.  We’ve done it wrong.  Which leaves us lusting after that greener grass: we’ll have what she’s having, thank you very much.  We end up making the political the personal.

And that’s just wrong.  Because what I find most insidious about perpetrating the have-it-all myth is the fact that when we buy into it, we’re lulled into a false state of complacency that keeps us from pushing for the kind of change that would help us all, male and female alike, no matter where we sit on the food chain.  But it’s going to take work.  And conversation.

Not to put more words in Sandberg’s mouth, but I suspect she would approve.

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Well, it certainly seems like it. According to Pamela Paul’s piece in Sunday’s New York Times,

Mother’s little helper of the new millennium may in fact be the sleeping pill – a prescription not likely to inspire a jaunty pop song anytime soon. Nearly 3 in 10 American women fess up to using some kind of sleep aid at least a few nights a week, according to “Women and Sleep,” a 2007 study by the National Sleep Foundation, a nonprofit research group.

And anecdotal research indicates it’s not just mothers who are starved for shut-eye, but women in general:

Sleep-medicine practices are overwhelmingly dominated by female patients. Dr. Nancy Collop, director of the Emory Sleep Center in Atlanta, said three out of four insomnia patients at the clinic are women…

In the ‘Women and Sleep’ study, 80 percent of women reported being just too stressed or worried to turn out the proverbial lights.

In a word: unshocking. I myself am firmly in the Fall Asleep Fine But Wake At 3 And Can’t Get Back to Sleep camp. I don’t have kids, but I do have several jobs, and a life. Last night I worried over the writing deadlines I have this week, the speaking engagement I have on Wednesday halfway across the state, and the new coaching client whose appointment I’m going to have to reschedule in order to travel to said speaking engagement… not to mention the shopping list, the whipping wind’s effect on the palm tree that sways outside my front window, the doctor’s appointment I’ve been meaning to make for, oh, the past five months, what I’m going to wear to said speaking engagement… I could go on — but I’m guessing you catch my drift. More than likely, it would seem, you do exactly the same thing. As Paul wrote:

According to IMS Health, a health care consulting firm in Danbury, Conn., the use of prescription sleep aids among women peaks from 40 to 59. Last year, the firm said, 15,473,000 American women between those ages got a prescription to help them sleep, nearly twice the number of men in that age group.

Those figures do not include those who are prescribed anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medications, frequently used off-label for insomnia. Nor do they include women who zone out with a glass of wine.

The question is, how is it that men aren’t similarly affected?

Well, I’d guess there are more than a couple factors at play: it’s personal, and it’s political. Women hold ourselves to high standards — we internalize the messages that bombard us from all directions, from the media to our mothers. We want to be perfect: perfect employees, perfect partners, perfect moms, perfect friends, perfect looking, perfect yogis, chefs, decorators, you name it. We were weaned on the messages that we could have it all and that we could do anything — and so we fill our days with our valiant attempts to do it all, running at full speed ahead, from this to that and back again, so adrenalized that the only way to unwind, it seems, is to dive into a bottle, whether of pills or Pinot.

But it’s not only our tough inner critic that’s to blame. The fact is, the modern workplace–of which women are now the majority–is still set up as though the workers who fill it were Don Draper clones, men with a full-time Betty at home, able to take care of all of the stuff that keeps a life running smoothly. But the ladies (and gentlemen) of today don’t have a Betty. So we do our best Don–and then we make the time to get Betty’s job done, too. We work our full day–and then we fold the clothes. And do the grocery shopping. And pick up the dry cleaning. And attempt to cook healthy items (or contend with the parking lot at our favorite take-out joint), to exercise, to socialize, to sleep. To quote Germaine Greer:

When we talk about women having it all, what they really have all of is the work.

…and none of the Zzzs.

So, what to do? Being a little easier on ourselves would certainly be a start. Asking for help might be another. And then: start thinking bigger, recognize the deeper truths for the eye-openers that they are. The world has changed, but the workplace and expectations haven’t. So maybe what we really need to be thinking about is what we can do to change that.

Just, hopefully, not at 3am.

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