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Posts Tagged ‘Sandra Tsing Loh’

What do you think Betty Freidan–or Betty Draper for that matter–might say to the idea that, come 2010, women everywhere would be finding their purpose right in their own backyards? Tending to the chicken coops in their own backyards, that is?

Don’t think that would fly?

Peggy Orenstein offers an interesting take on the Extreme-Homemaking-as-Feminism trend in a piece entitled “The Femivore’s Dilemma” in this week’s New York Times magazine, and while I can get behind the sentiment (I’m a card-carrying Pollanite; I’ve seen Food, Inc.; I buy my organic, grass-fed beef from a friend of mine every Saturday at the farmers market and can rant for hours about the environmental degradation wrought by the food industrial complex, and don’t even get me started on the antibiotics…), there’s just something about the phenomenon that ruffles my feathers.

Here’s a bit from Orenstein’s piece:

All of these gals–these chicks with chicks–are stay-at-home moms, highly educated women who left the work force to care for kith and kin. I don’t think that’s a coincidence: the omnivore’s dilemma has provided an unexpected out from the feminist predicament, a way for women to embrace homemaking without becoming Betty Draper. ‘Prior to this, I felt like my choices were either to break the glass ceiling or to accept the gilded cage,’ says Shannon Hayes, a grass-fed livestock farmer in upstate New York and author of ‘Radical Homemakers,’ a manifesto for ‘tomato-canning femininsts’.

I mean, on the one hand, it’s earth-mamma cool. Back to nature. Slow. Sustainable. Simple. Hormone-Free. It’s badass in it’s way, and I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to accept a brunch invitation from any mother hen who’s literally escorted the eggs from the backyard to the table, never mind who brought home the bacon. Plus–full disclosure–I have several friends who raise their own birds. I dig it. (And, you know, brunch? I’m free.)

But is it really feminism?

Hayes pointed out that the original ‘problem that had no name’ was as much spiritual as economic: a malaise that overtook middle-class housewives trapped in a life of schlepping and shopping. A generation and many lawsuits later, some women found meaning and power through paid employment. Others merely found a new source of alienation. What to do? The wages of housewifery had not changed–an increased risk of depression, a niggling purposelessness, economic dependence on your husband–only now, bearing them was considered a ‘choice': if you felt stuck, it was your own fault…

Enter the chicken coop.

Femivorism is grounded in the very principles of self-sufficiency, autonomy and personal fulfillment that drove women into the work force in the first place.

It’s such a romantic idea. Living off the land! Chopping the wood for the fires that will heat your home and bathwater! Hunting, foraging, toiling and tilling… you know, working. But how empowering is it really? For an answer, read what former New York City-living, former women’s mag editor Jessie Knadler has to say about her new life–which involves involves all of that… and axe-wielding, produce-canning, jerky-drying, and water-hauling–in the post she published in response to Orenstein’s piece, on her blog “Rurally Screwed.” (Um, awesome, that.)

The irony is that while there’s no question I’m more resourceful and frugal and self-sufficient in my new life, I actually feel like less of a feminist than ever… Instead of feeling proud of myself for all my physical accomplishments, I sometimes find myself wishing that Jake would do more manual labor for me. You know, because he’s a dude and I’m not. I sometimes find myself wanting to hole up in the house and assuage my guilt for not helping him dig a trench to China by baking him cookies, or making him a nice casserole, or some such. Suddenly, dusting the end tables doesn’t seem so bad. Betty Friedan would probably roll over in her grave.

Yowch. I’d say anything that makes dusting the end tables look good qualifies as a pretty serious Con. But what really bothers me about the whole thing is this: is the Extreme Homemaker yet another ideal to which we must aspire, like the cupcake- and Kleenex-brandishing Office Mom? Another iconic self? A perfectionist response to the dilemma of having too many choices and feeling a little insecure about the one we’ve chosen? It kind of reminds me of this quote, from Sandra Tsing Loh in the Cautionary Matrons piece I wrote about awhile back:

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… We were smart women who had a lot of options and made intelligent choices… We were the proteges of old-guard feminists… 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.

As Orenstein notes, even Hayes acknowledges that such an existence, taken to extremes, can be isolating and crazy-making:

Hayes found that without a larger purpose–activism, teaching, creating a business or otherwise moving outside the home–women’s enthusiasm for the domestic arts eventually flagged… ‘There can be loss of self-esteem, loss of soul, and an inability to return to the world to get your bearings. You can start to wonder, What’s this all for?’ It was an unnervingly familiar litany: if a woman is not careful, it seems, chicken wire can coop her up as surely as any gilded cage.

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So it’s about 6:00 p.m. on Sunday. I just stuffed some lemon, garlic, and fresh rosemary and thyme up into the nether regions of Rocky, a free range chicken, who is now doing serious time in a very hot oven.

My husband, casting about for something to do during halftime of the second NFL playoff, just cut a bunch of peppers, zucchini, onions and tomatoes into perfectly uniform chunks (he was, after all, a math major) for a killer oven-ratatouille. He did the labor intensive part. I added some olive oil, fresh herbs, balsamic vinegar, and etc. (Ask me for my recipe: it’s infriggencredible, and low-fat, too.) He will also do the dishes. Or so I assume.

Ahh, the division of labor. But we’ll get back to that.

Surely by now you have heard of the recent Pew study that found that women make more money than their spouses in 22 percent of American marriages, up from a mere 4 percent in 1970. And unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that thanks to the recession, women now outnumber men in the workplace. All of which makes Sandra Tsing Loh, writing a very funny piece in Sunday’s NYT magazine, long to return to the days of the housewife. (For the record, she makes more money than either her ex-husband or the man she is now living with.) What she wants is one of her own. But first, this:

I don’t know how it’s going for my sisters, but as my 40s and Verizon bills and mortgage payments roll on, I seem to have an ever more recurring 1950s housewife fantasy. In this magical Technicolor world, the breadwinner husband, Brad, leaves home (where his duties are limited to mowing the lawn and various minor home repairs) at 7 a.m. When he returns from work at 6 p.m., aside from a savory roast with mashed potatoes, his homemaker wife, Nancy, has pipe, slippers and a tray of Manhattans ready.

The couple sink into easy chairs and get pleasantly soused while Brad recounts his workday battles. Through a dreamy mixed-bourbon haze, Nancy makes gentle cooing sounds like “Ah!” and “Oh!” and “Did the central manager really say that in the meeting? They don’t appreciate all the hard work you do! Oh, Brad!”

Nancy has her active-listener face on for several reasons. One is that her 1950s housewife day (stay with me, I admitted this was a fantasy) was an agreeable roundelay of kitchen puttering and grocery shopping and, once home, the placing of those comestibles in the icebox via the precise — or charmingly imprecise — geometry Nancy favors. She jokes that Brad, poor dear, couldn’t find the icebox if you asked him.

Makes you just drool for a Manhattan, doesn’t it? But Loh’s point — and a good one — is that for all our talk about “work-life balance” and fifty-fifty splits on housework and whathaveyou, what we’ve lost is a clear delineation of job descriptions. Not gender-specific, mind you. (As Loh points out, she is much better suited to be married to a housewife than to be one.) But more along the lines of we all do what we do best. And maybe, given this new worklife landscape, we all come out even? Which eliminates, among other things, the need to judge each other’s performance on, say, loading the dishwasher or cleaning the fridge. But instead, says Loh, absent the clear roles in our postmodern lives, we have rules, resentment and endless negotiation:

Fast forward to 2010. When husbands and wives not only co-work but try to co-homemake, as post-feminist and well-intentioned as it is, out goes the clear delineation of spheres, out goes the calm of unquestioned authority, and of course out goes the gratitude.

Aside from the irritation of never being able to reach the spatula (men tend to place items on shelves that are a foot higher than women can manage), I have found co-homemaking inefficient. With 21st-century technology, it’s a straightforward matter to run a modern home. Sheep don’t need to be sheared; the wash is not done on a board by the creek; nothing needs canning, because we have Costco. Even someone who works 40 hours a week can keep a home standing, and food in the fridge, by himself.

What can turn into a second shift is not just negotiating the splitting of this labor with another person, but the splitting of decision-making authority. Two co-workers in the home also have the opportunity to regularly evaluate each other’s handiwork, not always to a positive effect. (Suffice it to say, stacking food in the fridge with precise geometric elegance is apparently not among my talents.)

In the end, we all want a wife. And here’s the thing. We all can have one and be one, regardless of gender. I for one have no feminist angst about leaving it to my husband to take out the trash or, for that matter, making sure the bills are paid on time. On the other hand, I may hate putting dinner on the table, but I am one hell of a chef. And I can take apart and fix a vacuum cleaner, though I am loathe to use it. All of which shouts laissez-faire — You’ve got the time, I’ve got the inclination — rather than negotiation. That last, in our postmodern lives, Loh points out, is what tends to muck everything up:

But the home has become increasingly invaded by the ethos of work, work, work, with twin sets of external clocks imposed on a household’s natural rhythms. And in the transformation of men and women into domestic co-laborers, the Art of the Wife is fast disappearing.

So in the meantime, I may need to settle for a man who can simply make a decent tray of Manhattans and, while you’re at it, pussycat, make mine a double.

Mine, too. Oh, and thanks in advance for doing the dishes.

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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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