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Posts Tagged ‘Lori Gottlieb’

A perfectly reasonable question, right? It’s social shorthand for “who are you?” a convenient fall-back in the face of awkward silence or prolonged mingling; polite, simple, safe chit-chat. Um, right?

Well, consider: A couple of years ago, I reconnected with an old friend who’d since moved to Alaska. I asked him what it was like up there, what had prompted such a move. And he said–and I quote, “Californians are so shallow.”

I’m used to “smug,” along with some mention of organic vegetables, Masters degrees, and hybrid cars, but shallow? Not so much. “What do you mean?” I asked.

“The first thing anyone ever asks is ‘What do you do?’” he said.

And with that, he kinda shut me up (no small feat). It’s an interesting–and somewhat unusual–perspective, given how much of our time is poured into doing whatever it is we do, and how much of our identity is derived from what we do… but if we allow ourselves to see his point–that defining ourselves in terms of what’s on our business card is, indeed, shallow–what might we learn?

I was reminded of this conversation when reading a piece in this month’s Marie Claire magazine: In “Is your career ruining your credibility?” Sarah Z. Wexler gets into the issue of being defined–and judged–on the basis of what we do. Here’s a taste:

Former financial analyst Stacy Bromberg, 35, used to hold her own with the big-shot lawyers and bankers in her family Then she accepted a lucrative offer to be a senior VP of strategy for a major cosmetics company. ‘Instantly, I became the punch line at every family get-together,’ she recalls. ‘When I chimed in to a politcal discussion, my uncle asked how I found time to read the headlines when I was busy testing out lipsticks. Now, whenever I talk to him, I end up overcompensating, spending the whole conversation dropping fancy words, mentioning my assistant and whatnot, just so he and everyone else in the family knows that they’re dealing with a somebody. But I often sit up at night wondering if I’ll ever be taken seriously again.’

We all know women are judged by how they dress, talk, and act on the job. It’s only reasonable, then, that we’d also be scrutinized for the actual careers we choose. Though women represent nearly half the workforce and occupy positions of power unthinkable even a decade ago, many of us have put off marriage and families to get there. Some women complain that that’s resulted in tacit, insidious pressure to secure the kinds of jobs that justify all those trade-offs.

And, of course, the cruel irony is that women get it from both ends: If we take a low-powered job, we’re perceived as weak, unenlightened, whatever. But if we’re a serious player on the fast track, people are just as likely to judge: don’t wanna be too ambitious. For a woman, a job isn’t just a job. It’s a comment on who she is–in a way that it isn’t for a man.

Leaving that aside, again we’re reminded of the fact that women are relatively new to the workplace (it’s only been a generation since the demise of want-ads segregated by gender!), and coming into it armed with the message that You can do anything! (which, internally, tends to translate to: I better do something really, really good!)–all of which leaves us shouldering the weight of some serious expectations. Of course we want to prove we took that opportunity and milked it for all its worth! Of course we want an impressive answer to the question, “So, What do you do?”

But really, why? Often, the most impressive-sounding jobs are not so fabulous in real life. Take, for example, Alex, a Hollywood producer we profile in Undecided: “Dude. I’m doing what I wanted to do out of college, and now I’m over it. Sometimes what we originally think is glamorous turns out to be the opposite. After ten years in this industry, I’m ready for a big change. Ideally, owning my own business and never having to worry about a director not enjoying his sandwich.”

Like children transfixed by bright and shiny objects, we want the title, the money, the prestige… Even when we get what we’re after only to find it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, those bright and shiny objects are hard to give up–because, as much as we likely would rather not admit it, part of that ever-elusive picture-perfect life to which we aspire is the picture itself. How it looks. And yet, as Lori Gottlieb told us,

‘Something that looks really enticing from the outside is usually sort of culturally informed… very superficial.’ So why, we asked, do we get so hung up on them? And in a Helloooooo kind of tone, she told us what we already knew: ‘The objective things are so alluring.’

Alluring, yes. And often it’s only after some trial and error that we find what’s right for us–that what first looked so alluring is in fact, not what we’re passionate about–or even enjoy. But maybe a good indication that we’re on the right track will be when someone asks us “So hey, what do you do?” and we no longer care how our answer sounds.

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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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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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Or, you know, the jeans.

What got me thinking today was word of a new study suggesting that one of the reasons we birds of a feather flock together could be more than a common interest in flying south.  It turns out, there’s often genetic similarity in the folks we choose as friends. As in: we may be genetically predisposed to like the stuff we like — and choose our friends accordingly — a phenomenon that keeps us trapped in our own private “us group”.

Clearly, this can’t always end well.

In the study, published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the authors addressed the fact that people disposed to alcoholism befriend folks who like to drink.  Not a surprise:  you like to throw down a few cocktails, you tend to hang out with those who like them, too.  But here’s the interesting thing.  Apart from the social behavior, when the researchers analyzed genetic traits, they found that long before the future drinkers even began to raid their parent’s liquor cabinet, they tended to choose friends who shared the same genetic predisposition:

For example, a person with a genotype that makes her susceptible to alcoholism may be directly influenced to drink. However, she may also be indirectly influenced to drink because she chooses friends with the same genotype (homophily)who are more likely to make alcohol available to her.

Okay, words like genotype and homophily make us want to reach for the Pinot.  So let’s go over to Time.com, which referred to the phenomenon as “Friends with (Genetic) Benefits.”  In that post, James Fowler, one of the study’s authors, told Time that we might choose our friends not only because we share the same interests — but because we might have some similar DNA:

The [genetic link to alcoholism] makes sense, says Fowler, since it’s true that “if I’m more impulsive, I might choose to be with friends with others who are more impulsive.” Another way that such a gene might affect friendship is that impulsive people might be drawn to the same types of environments—for example, amusement parks— and tend to make friends with others they find there. Not surprisingly, a kid who sneaks beer and cigarettes in the high school parking lot and drag races on weekends is unlikely to befriend the guy who spends all his time with the chess club.

Not surprising, right?  But, says Fowler:

“There can be a feedback effect. We know that [this gene] shows an association with alcoholism. Now the evidence here is that if you have this gene, your friends are more likely to have it. You’re not only susceptible biologically to this behavior, you’re also more likely to be surrounded by people who are susceptible to this behavior.”

And there you go.  You’re destined to drink too much, you gravitate towards those eventually who will, too.   Next thing you know, Leaving Las Vegas.  But let’s leave the lab (and the bar) behind and extrapolate a little, about what happens when we’re stuck in bubbles of our own making.   Genomes notwithstanding, unless we watch out, do we still surround ourselves with those who like what we like, drink what we drink, and dress like we do?  You get the picture. Skinny jeans, anyone?  Yes, please.
In a way, this bubble business smacks of  the tyranny of the echo chamber, which can be its own kind of trap.   We wrote about this before, riffing on a piece in Marie Claire by Lori Gottlieb (of “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough” fame) that suggested that girlfriends often serve as one another’s “yes women”.  Our point was this:  When we surround ourselves with people like us, such as those likely to tell us what we want to hear, can we ever really figure out for ourselves what we want to do with our lives (or for that matter,  even what to wear to class?)  As we wrote last summer:

We know we all do it:  seek out certain company for certain dilemmas.  Beau’s pissing you off? Call your resplendently single pal or the one who never liked him. Uncertain over whether to wed? Call in the smug marrieds. Want to quit your job even though you have no prospects? Call the pal who’s done it. You get the point:  We can’t get past the temptation to surround ourselves with those willing to preach to our own private choir.

As we wrote before, where it all gets dicey is when our bubble, like the echo chamber, becomes the norm.  When we are surrounded by folks who are just like us, who think like us, who dress like us, and who tell us what we want to hear, how hard is it to make a decision that doesn’t follow what’s predesigned, that doesn’t conform — and to be happy with that decision if we do?  Are we ever able to trust our gut?  Break from the pack?



Which leads us back to that genome study.   I’m not sure that I buy this stuff about our friendships — and our behavior — being completely predetermined by our DNA.   But I do know this.  When we’re stuck in a bubble, of our own making or not, it’s pretty hard to figure out for ourselves who we really are, what we want to do with our lives (we wrote a whole book about this) or even what we wear.   Yep, most days you’ll find me in my skinny jeans.  But what I really like are my flares.
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Is this the trouble with girlfriends?  They tell us what we want to hear?

That’s what controversial writer Lori Gottlieb (she of “Marry Him: The case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough” fame) suggests in a piece in the July issue of Marie Claire that I came across the other day.   She’s writing mainly about bad boyfriends and dating dilemmas (that is, after all, her shtick), but some of what she says applies to other issues, too.   Such as what to do with our lives.  (Full disclosure:  Gottlieb was gracious enough to give us an insightful interview for our book.)

She starts the piece by referencing SATC, not at all favorably.  But if you can get beyond the dig at Samantha, head down to the boldface (mine) at the end of the graf.  That’s where the truth hangs out:

Remember the scene at the end of the first Sex and the City movie, when the fabulous foursome was sitting down to cocktails? Samantha had just left Smith, her gorgeous, adoring boyfriend — whom she loved and who had lovingly supported her through breast cancer — because “I love myself more.” That’s right: She dumped a keeper using what was arguably the most idiotic grrrl-power proclamation in the history of chick flicks (and there’s some formidable competition there). And how did the gals react? They toasted her! As always, the bobble-headed brunch mates unquestioningly took her side. And something dawned on me: This is exactly how I am with my friends (minus, perhaps, the four-figure handbags). Just like the girls did in every episode of SATC — and in the new film, currently luring Miatas-ful of women to theaters like well-shod moths to a flame — we cheer each other on, thinking we’re being supportive, when often we’re just enabling bad choices. To put it plainly, we’re one another’s yes women.

One another’s yes womenEnablers? Ouch.  But there it is.  In our efforts to be supportive, sympathetic and sugar-and-spice-and-everything-nice to our girlfriends, do we get caught up telling our besties only what we think they want to hear?  Are we reluctant to tell the truth if it means we might lose a friend? And do we seek out friends who will serve as our personal echo chambers, who cross over that thin line that divides support from enabling?

We know we all do it:  seek out certain company for certain dilemmas.  Beau’s pissing you off? Call your resplendently single pal or the one who never liked him. Uncertain over whether to wed? Call in the smug marrieds. Want to quit your job even though you have no prospects? Call the pal who’s done it. You get the point:  We can’t get past the temptation to surround ourselves with those willing to preach to our own private choir.
And about that tough love?  We’re probably as afraid to give it as to get it.

This may be a silly example, but when was the last time you told a friend that, um, she looks bad in green?  Or continued to hang out with someone who would say as much to you?  Even if you really do, you know, look like shit in green.  But let’s get back to Gottlieb, who puts herself in the picture:

I’ve always enjoyed the unconditional support of my female friends. Life can be a rough ride, and I count on that cheerleading squad when things get me down. But for women, a bit of consolation can balloon into a complex system of chronic ego-inflation. Was the lawyer boyfriend who didn’t call me for a daily check-in when in court “too into his career,” even though he was really attentive the rest of the time? Probably not. But I heard a round of hurrahs from my friends when I broke it off. And the next guy I dated, who never responded to my e-mails, was he secretly gay? “Yes!” shouted my book group, practically in unison. Look at you, they said, successful, smart, and cute! He must be gay. We “yes” our friends into false presumptions and bad decisions — tell your demanding boss off! Buy the $700 Alexander Wang stilettos; you’ll wear them everywhere! — convincing one another that anyone who disagrees with us is wrong because, according to those who know us best, we’re always right. But instead of a frenzied pack of enablers nurturing our self-delusion, what we need is someone brave enough to give us the truth.

Clearly, this girlfriend stuff goes beyond shoes or boyfriends, and that’s where it all gets truly dicey.  Because with larger decisions this echo chamber business can do some significant damage to our ability to choose for ourselves — and feel comfortable with our decisions when we do.  If we surround ourselves with friends who tell us what we want to hear, who validate our every choice, what then?    Do we ever learn to think critically about our own decisions?  Trust our own guts?  Decide what to do with our lives without looking outside for someone to say, “You go, girl!”  And do we automatically disregard anyone brave enough to play the devil’s advocate?  It’s like faux-empowerment.  We tend to believe what we hear — and yeah, it might be what we really need to hear to pull our chin off the ground — but what we’re left with if we don’t watch out is the idea that we are so goddamn fabulous, so absolutely right, that we deserve nothing short of perfect.  And that, dear reader, is something that almost never ends well.

Not coincidentally, I keep thinking of that classic Jack Nicholson snarl from “A Few Good Men”:  “You can’t handle the truth!”   Well, you know what? Maybe we could, if we got used to hearing it more often.

In other words, tell us what you think.  As opposed to what you think we want to hear.

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I’m guessing by now you’ve heard about Lori Gottlieb’s new book, based on her contentious 2008 Atlantic essay I wrote about awhile back. Charmingly entitled “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough,” the book has earned a ton of ink, both positive and negative, and the movie rights have already been snapped up. (Yeah, can’t wait for that one. Let me guess: knockout actress with hair dyed a mousy brown goes on date after date with loser after loser, until she finally falls for the short, fat, bald man with bad breath and a heart of gold.) While Gottlieb’s horrifying depiction of life as a SWF is downright depressing (and her rose-colored imagination of married life as the magic, loneliness-busting bullet just kind of odd and naive), she insists there’s more to what she’s saying than simply the fact that she’s been there (dates with dudes she dismissed for reasons ranging from a sub-optimal first name to a head of red hair), done that (single and tormented by the ticking of the biological clock, she hit the sperm bank and is now a single mama, lonely for company). From Sarah Hepola’s piece on Salon:

‘This isn’t some regretful 40-something giving you matronly advice. I spoke to scientists and experts in neurobiology, psychology, sociology, marital research, couple therapists, behavioral economists, regular folks married and single.’ Don’t like what the book is saying? There’s more than Lori Gottlieb to blame.

Maybe so. And that is what interests me most about the whole thing, far more so than whether or not one single woman should be writing books telling all other single women why they should “settle”, based mostly on original single woman’s issues and regrets. (Um, not to mention the fact that original single woman also happens to be wildly successful, and mom to a healthy child–yet seems unable to enjoy either of the latter above because of the former above–that she’s single. Is it just me, or is this like a bad Cathy cartoon?)

The thing is, what we’re really talking about here is choice, and that, often, because we believe (because we’ve been told) we have so much of it, we operate according to a belief that to settle for anything less than perfection is to sell ourselves short.

Of course, we’ve covered the problems with perfection. Namely, that it doesn’t exist, and, therefore, we can waste a lot of time waiting for it. Thing is, though, those words are pretty easy to throw around–we read them, we say them, we hear them, and we agree. Of course perfection doesn’t exist, we say. Only a fool would hold out for perfect.

Fools like us.

I think what gets us into trouble is that this reality is so totally at odds with the yarn we’ve been fed since forever, you know, that one we like to yammer about. The one that says You Can Do Anything! And I think it’s that idea that gets our knees to jerking, when someone dares suggest we should settle–for a man, or anything else in life. (And I wonder how steady Gottlieb’s knees would be, were someone to suggest she settle in some other realm of her life.) While the man question is interesting, I think it’s more interesting in terms of all of the other choices in our lives: on some level, do we think that sticking with something (or someone) long enough to see the glossy sheen fade away and the flaws emerge is, well, settling? Do we allow ourselves to be blinded by some mental checklist that renders us unable to enjoy what’s right in front of us? Check Gottlieb’s reference to our pal Barry Schwartz, in an interview with Psychology Today:

‘I interviewed a psychologist for MARRY HIM named Barry Schwartz. He’s a professor at Swarthmore and he also wrote a terrific book called THE PARADOX OF CHOICE. We had a long conversation about how having so many choices actually makes people depressed. You’d think it would be liberating–who doesn’t want to have options?–but actually, having so many makes us dizzy with indecision. And when we do make a choice, we second-guess ourselves because we compare it to all the other options that we didn’t choose. The same applies to having so many choices in a potential spouse.

So Schwartz said to me, about the way we choose spouses these days, ‘You have to remember that good enough is good enough.’ And that mantra has helped me and many women I know enjoy the men we meet much more, and also make much better choices out in the dating world.

Of course that makes sense. And I like the point. But. Is it a cop-out?

It reminds me of the whole Happy Life Or An Interesting One debate, and the question of whether we put too much of a premium on a certain brand of happiness, undervaluing interesting along the way. I guess, as we’ve said before, happiness is really all in how you define it.

It makes me think of the movie Parenthood, and the amusement park wisdom from Grandma.

On the other hand, that’s Hollywood. But sometimes, Hollywood wisdom is good enough.

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As it is in fortune cookies, so it is in women’s lives and the choices they face… which is to say that, while the greatest measurable strides we’ve made have been in the realm of work–even, perhaps, as a result of those strides–we’ve found ourselves stumped when it comes to the choices we face over personal stuff, too.

And I’m talking beyond the question of whether to be a stay at home mom or a working mom: I’m talking about whether to have kids at all, and love, and sex, and marriage, and divorce. And what women who’ve been there have been willing to say about it. And what women who haven’t been there yet think about the women who have been there–and what they say about it.

There was Lori Gottlieb’s widely publicized and ballyhooed essay in The Atlantic, entitled “Marry Him! The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough,” in which a life spent holding out for something–or someone–that would meet her great expectations is told from the perspective of the now 40-something, single mother Gottlieb. (The baby daddy? A test tube.) She writes that, as she ages, she finds herself much more willing to settle for something less than fabulous–and advises younger women that the really smart thing to do is to just settle for the balding dude with dragon breath.

Take the date I went on last night. The guy was substantially older. He had a long history of major depression and said, in reference to the movies he was writing, “I’m fascinated by comas” and “I have a strong interest in terrorists.” He’d never been married. He was rude to the waiter. But he very much wanted a family, and he was successful, handsome, and smart. As I looked at him from across the table, I thought, Yeah, I’ll see him again. Maybe I can settle for that. But my very next thought was, Maybe I can settle for better. It’s like musical chairs–when do you take a seat, any seat, just so you’re not left standing alone?

Then, on precisely the other end of the spectrum, there was Sandra Tsing Loh’s shockingly honest account of the end of her marriage, which included an offhand mention of the affair she had that precipitated it. She suggests that love has an expiration date, and that, in the face of having it all, the drudgery of reigniting that old, familiar flame seemed but a futile task on her already too-long list of To-Dos:

Do you see? Given my staggering working mother’s to-do list, I cannot take on yet another arduous home- and self-improvement project, that of rekindling our romance.

She introduces us to her friend Rachel, married to the seemingly perfect man (who hasn’t touched Rachel in over two years). One night over martinis, Rachel announces she, too, has been thinking divorce:

Rachel sees herself as a failed mother, and is depressed and chronically overworked at her $120,000-a-year job (which she must cling to for the benefits because Ian freelances). At night, horny and sleepless, she paces the exquisite kitchen, gobbling mini Dove bars. The main breadwinner, Rachel is really the Traditional Dad, but instead of being handed her pipe and slippers at six, she appears to be marooned in a sexless remodeling project with a passive-aggressive Competitive Wife.

…In any case, here’s my final piece of advice: avoid marriage–or you too may suffer the emotional pain, the humiliation, and the logistical difficulty, not to mention the expense, of breaking up a long-term union at midlife for something as demonstrably fleeting as love.

Whew. Between she and Gottleib, it certainly seems that we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

And then there was Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of Prozac Nation, who, at the wise old age of 42, recently lamented the loss of her looks, her loneliness, and the years she spent fleeing commitment, sabotaging stability, believing she’d always have options (and a wrinkle-free face). In the piece for Elle, a longer version of which will soon arrive at bookstores near you, Wurtzel writes:

The idea of forever with any single person, even someone great whom I loved so much like Gregg, really did seem like what death actually is: a permanent stop. Love did not open up the world like a generous door, as it should to anyone getting married; instead it was the steel clamp of the iron maiden, shutting me behind its front metal hinge to asphyxiate slowly, and then suddenly. Every day would be the same forever: The body, the conversation, it would never change–isn’t that the rhythm of prison?

Reader, she cheated on him.

(Primetime television’s answer to the mature modern woman’s romantic conundrum? Cougar Town.)

I remember reading each of these women’s stories, and bring them up because they were recently culled together into a piece by 25 year-old Irina Aleksander in the New York Observer, entitled “The Cautionary Matrons.” In it, Aleksander writes:

Our mothers and grandmothers seemed to have sound instructions. But now–now that the generation of women ahead of us has begun to sound regretful, shouting at us, “Don’t end up like me!”–what we have instead are Cautionary Matrons, issuing what feel like incessant warnings.

Single 40-something women warn us about being too career-oriented and forgetting to factor in children; married women warn us that marriage is a union in which sex and fidelity are optional; and divorced women warn us to keep our weight down, our breasts up and our skin looking like Saran Wrap unless we want our husbands to later leave us for 23 year-olds.

While her take is entertaining, the quotes she includes are downright spooky: though our own context might not be the same, the sentiments are quite possibly universal. Too many choices–and opportunity cost, when picking one means you necessarily can’t have the others.

From Gottlieb, to Aleksander:

The article was like I was someone’s big sister and I was saying here’s my experience and all of the misconceptions I had… I think you guys are actually lucky because you’ll get a more mixed set of messages. When I was in my 20s, women were all about having it all and ‘a guy is great but he is not the main course.’ We got a single message and it was all, me, me, me, me, me. ‘You go girl!’ And now those of us that grew up with these messages are finally admitting that those messages of empowerment may actually conflict with what we want.

And leave it to Tsing Loh to be so candid it will make you cringe, cry, and chuckle:

[Tsing Loh] speculated about the reason for this apparent surge in matronly warnings: ‘I think because we’re really surprised!’ she screamed into the receiver. ‘In our 20s, the world was totally our oyster. All those fights had been fought. We weren’t going to be ’50s housewives, we were in college, we could pick and choose from a menu of careers, and there were all these interesting guys out there not like our dads. We were smart women who had a lot of options and made intelligent choices and that’s why we’re writing these pieces. We’re shocked!’

‘It must be very confusing,’ she said sympathetically. ‘We were the proteges of old-guard feminists: ‘Don’t have a baby, or if you must, have one, wait till your 40s.’ We were sold more of a mission plan and now you guys… Well, sadly, it all seems like kind of a mess. There is no mission. Even stay-at-home moms feel unsuccessful unless they’re canning their own marmalade and selling it on the Internet. You just have a bunch of drunk, depressed, 45-year-old ladies going, ‘A-BLAH-BLAH-BLAH.’

Again, whew.

Aleksander goes on, recounting a conversation she had with a friend about the subject:

‘They are the first generation of women who were presented with choices,’ she said. ‘I think they are in the process of reflecting on a half-century of existence and are realizing that ‘having it all’ was really a lie. Sometimes I think the idea of ‘having it all’ can almost be more disempowering than ‘having it all’ because one is never allowed enough time or energy to excel in one area of their life.’

Choices. Uncharted territory. It looks to me like yet another mirror of our whole thesis: with so many options, is it ever possible not to second-guess ourselves? to wonder about the road not traveled? to worry that the grass is greener? to find yourself paralyzed in the face of all that analysis? When do you just take a seat, any seat? And, with all the seats out there, is it ever possible to be content with the seat we’ve chosen?

I don’t know, but I’m hopeful that one day, we’ll find the answer.

In bed.

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