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Posts Tagged ‘the road not traveled’

Last Sunday, after a particularly wild weekend out of town weekend with family and friends, a small group of us convened for brunch before going our separate ways. I looked at the menu, and while the chilaquiles softly called to me, I opted for my standby: huevos rancheros. But when the food came out I was consumed with regret. I should have ordered the friggen chilaquiles.

Regret. Such a miserable feeling. If only! I should have! Why didn’t I? When you’re deep in the throes of a musing over the road not traveled, it’s hard to imagine two uglier words that these: What if? 

Ugly, and seemingly unavoidable. Every choice entails a trade-off, right? But a recent study shows that those unpleasant feelings of regret ease as we get older. That, indeed, what age takes in collagen and hangover resilience, it gives back in the form of a certain kind of contentment.

From Scientific American:

The latest research suggests that young people tend to fixate on their regrets, whereas older adults generally learn not to waste time wallowing in remorse about past circumstances they cannot change. A new study demonstrates that these cognitive differences manifest themselves in brain scans and physiological responses, revealing that, unlike healthy adults, both depressed adults and young people treat missed opportunities and genuine losses as equally regretful events–even if they were not directly responsible. Taming such ruefulness appears to be crucial to emotional stability and happiness in old age, and related therapies could help with depression. For the young, however, a little regret might be useful, motivating them to learn from their mistakes.

The study in question involved a simple gambling video game, played from within the comfortable confines of an MRI machine. On the screen, participants saw a row of eight unopened boxes that they could open one at a time, from left to right–and were told that seven of the boxes would contain gold, and one would contain a devil, who would steal whatever gold had been amassed. Devilish! Participants could quit at any time, but once they did, the contents of all the remaining boxes would be revealed–so they’d get a good look at what they missed out on.

And the brain scans showed that–if you’ll allow me to paraphrase–realizing they’d bugged out before collecting all of the gold there was to be had only bothered the young adults and the depressed older adults. The healthy older adults’ brains showed hardly any change. In other words, healthy adults don’t moon over the road not traveled the way their younger counterparts do.

Regret is a huge topic in our book, because it’s so inextricably tied to making choices, and taking chances. We fear being left with regrets almost as much as we fear failure. Because that feeling is just so awful–the wondering about what we’re missing out on gnaws, and the gnawing saps the joy out of whatever it is we are doing, you know, instead of that thing we’re not. But, it seems that, as is the case with failure, perhaps there’s a bright side to regret: it, too, can be a teacher.

Brassen further proposes that disengaging from regret is a protective strategy that kicks in sometime in old age, preventing the elderly–who do not have as much time or opportunity to make amends–from needlessly feeling sorry about things they cannot realistically change. In contrast, young people have their whole lives ahead of them–plenty of time to repeat their mistakes if they do not learn from them.

Wrosch says he thinks about regret similarly: ‘If someone in their 70s regrets that they never had the education or job they wanted, there’s no going back to change life circumstances. But if a similar regret happens to someone in their early 20s, they can use that information to turn their life around.’

Kind of a sad spin on what’s really going on with the, um, more mature among us, but also, I suppose, reassuring: our trusty brains will shield us from the dark feelings of regret once it’s too late to make changes. Which might also mean this: if you’re actively feeling regret, perhaps it’s possible that it’s not too late yet.

Bring on the friggen chilaquiles.

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So, the Mommy Wars. They’re back. Again. Or still.

A superquick recap: As you’ve undoubtedly heard by now, last week Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen said on CNN that Republican Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s wife Ann, a stay at home mom, had “never worked a day in her life.” Naturally the Romney campaign latched on to that one with the sort of ferocity that would make a pitbull (lipstick-wearing or not) proud, and the media has been all over it since.

While “Can’t we all just get along?” is my immediate, reflexive thought in the face of such firestorms, I realize that it’s just not that simple–and that, as Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams recently wrote, The Mommy Wars are real. In her smart and honest piece, Williams writes of her experience having a foot in both worlds–she’s a mom and a freelance writer who works from home. Here’s a taste:

We as women spend our whole lives being judged, and never more so than for our roles as mothers. We suffer for it, and frankly, we dish it out in spades. We park ourselves in separate camps, casting suspicious glances across the schoolyard. And it sucks because the judgment is there and its real and it stems so often from our own deepest fears and insecurities. We pay lip service to each other’s “choices”–and talk smack behind each other’s backs.

Yep, we’ve got each other’s backs theoretically, but when it comes down to it, Williams is pretty much right about what we’re doing behind them. But what is it really about? Why are we so defensive? So eager to judge each other for doing things differently? I’d argue its because, sometimes, we worry that we’re doing it wrong — and that the easiest, most comfortable defense in the face of that kind of worry is often a good offense.

And it’s not just stay at home moms versus working moms. It’s working moms versus their non-mom, on-the-job counterparts. It’s moms versus women who don’t have kids. It’s singletons versus coupleds. It’s pro-Botox and anti. It’s Tiger Mom versus Bringing Up Bebe. It’s gluten-free/organic/vegan versus chicken fingers and tater tots.

The other night I Tivo’d a show on OWN: it featured Gloria Steinem in conversation with Oprah, and then the two of them speaking at a small gathering of Barnard college students. At one point, Oprah asked Steinem about being attacked by other women, and then cut to a clip of Steinem on Larry King’s show. King thanked Steinem for being with him, she smiled hugely, and King went to a call. A woman’s voice came through, and she said, “I’m so glad I get to talk to you, Ms. Steinem” …and then went in for the kill. “Why are you trying to destroy families?” she asked in a voice so hostile it made me shiver. “Are you even married? Do you even have kids?” she demanded accusingly.

So, here’s the question: why are we so quick to perceive someone else’s doing things differently–or simply fighting to get access to those different things to do–as an attack on what we’re doing, a statement on our choices? As though there can be no other explanation for why we’ve taken the roads we’ve taken than that the road we didn’t take is wrong.

If we go out for ice cream, and you get chocolate, and I get vanilla (okay, I never get vanilla–I will always get pralines’n’cream), can’t the reason we’ve ordered differently just be attributed to the fact that we have different taste, like different things? Must I interpret your taste for chocolate as some sort of implicit judgment of mine for caramel? An attack on pralines? Surely, that would be chock-fulla-nuts.

What would I get out of criticizing you for your choice?

Perhaps if I was a little unsure that I’d ordered correctly, or perhaps if your choice was looking kinda good, enumerating all the ways chocolate is bad and pralines are good might help to stave off the self-doubt.

When it comes down to the Mommy Wars and all of the other crazy Us-vs.-Themmery we women put each other through, isn’t this kind of what we’re up to? After all, what, exactly, does my choice have to do with yours? Or yours, mine?

Well, there’s something: your choice has to do with mine in the sense that you’re showing me what the road not traveled looks like. If there’s only one way to do something, you’re spared the worry that you’re doing it wrong. There is no right or wrong, better or worse, there is only the way. But, the more options there are, well, the more options there are. And none of them is gonna be perfect, because nothing is. And when we come upon the bumps in our road, we wonder about the other road–and we worry that it’s better. And then, in our lesser moments, we seethe. We judge and we criticize in an attempt to stave off our doubts. If we can make the case that we are right–or, perhaps more to the point, that the other is wrong–we can seize on that little boost of self-assuredness to carry us through for a while.

So I guess what I’ve come up with is this: the moments when we feel like we need to make the case that that other road is wrong are probably the moments when we need to look at ourselves. Honestly. Perhaps we’re frustrated, or overwhelmed, or insecure or unhappy, or–and my money’s on this one–just having one of those days.

And women still have a lot of those days: that we have these choices we’re so quick to do battle over is new. We face structural inequities, lesser pay, the bulk of the burden of the second shift — and all of that second guessing. While we do indeed have access to a ton of paths that were blocked to us just a generation ago, we haven’t yet had the chance to make them smooth and pretty. They’re unpaved and overgrown and difficult to find. Of course we will have moments of self-doubt and envy and insecurity and frustration. But sniping at and about each other does no good for no one.

Last night before I went to bed, I was flipping the channels (it was a big weekend; I allowed myself some serious couch potato time once I got home–don’t judge!) and stopped for a quick second on CNN, because the ticker below that said “Mommy Wars” grabbed my attention. Four commentators went back and forth and around and around about the Mommy Wars: they were all men.

We are all doing the very best we can, in a world that it’s up to us to change, to make room for us. Every last one of us, no matter what path we choose to take. We’re all travelers–and we should do what good travelers do. Greet each other with a smile and an open mind. Share our stories. And, then before heading our separate ways, we should wish each other happy trails.

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Readers, we’ve missed you, but we promise we’re back — and we’ve returned bearing gifts, in the form of a Q&A with the sharp, funny, honest, and slightly potty-mouthed author Erica Kennedy, whose first novel, Bling, is a New York Times Bestseller. But we bring her to you because Sydney, the main character in her new novel, Feminista*, is undoubtedly one of us. Allow me to quote:

She grew up believing she’d have it all. A Career with a capital C. A husband. Babies! She’d be the Enjoli woman, brining home the bacon, frying it up in a pan, never letting him forget he was a man! Who would’ve guessed the whole thing would turn out to be a scam, a cultural Ponzi scheme that would dupe every middle-class woman of her generation?

FUCK YOU, GLORIA STEINEM!

Ahem. I told you she was one of us. How could I not want to get Kennedy’s take on a few of our favorite subjects? It being the season of giving, she graciously obliged. Here are some excerpts.

SK: With regard to that quote [above], this feeling that it’s a scam, that we’ve all just been set up — do you believe that?

EK: In a sense, yes. But I don’t think it’s a scam. I think it’s a ‘grass is greener’ thing. When women were expected to stay home and take care of the kids, they yearned for more. They wanted to be out there, engaged with the world, making their own money, chasing their dreams. But then you get that and there are downsides to it. And then most still want to have kids and you realize how tough it is to manage both. But you can’t predict what that will be like until you’re in it.

I think that’s what the Opt-Out revolution is about. Women who got great educations because they were raised to believe they would have careers and that would be fulfilling but then they got out there and started working and realized how hard it was to juggle everything and made a choice to stay home. I know there are people who say the Opt-Out Revolution is a myth but I know many women who are living this life and many who would if they could afford to.

But that’s why “balance” is always the catchword when women are talking about their lives. Because we don’t want to kill ourselves working all the time, we don’t want to stay home forever, we want to find a way to integrate work and family (and whatever else we need to feed our spirit) in a way that feels right for each of us. And I think we’re in a time now where we are still learning how to do that. The paradigms are not in place. We all have guilt about making these choices, no matter which we choose. I think in the future, things like flextime programs will be more prevalent because that’s a way that companies won’t have to lose smart, talented women who feel like they need to make this either/or choice.

SK: So do you think the idea of ‘having it all’ is just a bunch of bullshit?

EK: To me, the bullshit is to think ‘having it all’ means one cookie cutter thing. Everyone is different and everyone has to define their ‘all’ for themselves. And do you really need it all? Can’t we be content with some? Do we always have to be chasing more?

SK: Your character Sydney is tormented by the pressure to do something amazing — the Career-with-a-Capital-C thing. Have you felt that yourself?

EK: I went to Stuyvesant, a high school for gifted students in New York. I went to Sarah Lawrence where women were encouraged to have Careers and the thought of NOT working was unheard of. I went to Oxford my junior year. So I think there were expectations that I would do something great and I internalized that and put a lot of pressure on myself. I don’t blame anyone for having high expectations of me but it goes back to what does ‘having it all’ mean? Does it mean having some fancy title, executive perks, making a lot of money, having your book on the NYT bestseller’s list? Or does it mean waking up and looking forward to your day, whatever you make of it? I sublet a place in Miami Beach when I was finishing Feminista and it was, hands down, the happiest time of my life. I would write at the beach, swin in the ocean every day, ride my bike around town. And part of that happiness came from being around people who were very chill, who didn’t define themselves by their jobs.

SK: Here’s another great quote from Feminista, variations of which we’ve heard from several of the women we’re profiling in Undecided: “Sometimes she thought, in a strange way, life was so much easier for people with no options… You didn’t sit around thinking, I could have been a documentarian or a forensic psychologist or a sitcom writer…” The angst over the road not traveled – a definite side effect of all the options. Does that affect you? How do you move past it?

EK: This has always been a huge problem for me, even now. I grew up in a middle class family where my father was a corporate exec, my mother started her own design business. Then I went to school with very wealthy kids and knew people in the hip-hop world, most of whom didn’t have formal educations but became millionaires by the time they were thirty. So nothing seemed out of reach for me. I lived in New York and knew people who were business owners and lawyers and CEOs and restauranteurs, anything you could name. And everyone knew I was this honor student, so literally every road was open to me. Which was crippling. So I floundered for many years, working at jobs I didn’t have any interest in because I didn’t know what I should be doing. There were too many possibilities.

A really big pet peeve of mine is that no one, at least in my experience, helps you identify what kind of career you might excel at. Because I think the thing that you will be successful and most fulfilled doing is that thing that you’d do even if someone wasn’t paying you. You can always find a way to make a career out of your talent or passion. But that innate thing may be the thing you completely ignore, like I did with writing. In college, no one helped me identify what my passion/talents/marketable skills were. Why isn’t that a required class?

The week before graduation, one of my professors asked me, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” And I said, “Um, married with children?” She was horrified. As was I. But I think that may have been my unconscious wish, to find someone to take care of me and make the decisions, because I was so ill-prepared, despite my ‘good education’, to do that for myself. I quit my 9-5 job at age 28 to write professionally and didn’t start writing my first book until I was 32.

And too many options doesn’t just apply to jobs but also to men and where we should live and what kind of life we should have. It’s the predicament of abundance. As women, all these doors have been thrown open for us but it’s like, Oh no, which one do I choose and where the fuck is it going to lead me?!

SK: In the book, Sydney sabotages herself, beats herself up, pushes others away–and yet, she’s extremely relatable. What do you think it is about Sydney that’s so universal?

I think what’s relatable about Sydney is that she’s trying to work it all out, what she wants and what she doesn’t want. But I actually didn’t expect a lot of women to identify with her because she’s very angry and bitter–and I consciously did that because I think we, as women, do have this anger and resentment about all the choices we have now and not knowing which to choose but we are socialized NOT to show our anger. We’re supposed to suck it up and worry about everyone else. I wanted Sydney to embody all of that repressed stuff. I hoped women would find her and they story interesting but I’m really surprised that so many women say they identify with her or that her story is their story.

*Feminista, St. Martin’s Press, 2009.

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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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