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Posts Tagged ‘too many choices’

Sometimes what we need to do is clean house. I’m not necessarily talking about making your bed or doing the laundry — although either one is a good start — but channeling your inner minimalist and ditching the clutter.  Both literally and figuratively.

I’ve been thinking about this lately as I watched a friend make some changes in her life, both big and small.  As she has gone about this process of reclaiming herself, one of her tasks has been to reinvent her physical space.  Out with the stuff that doesn’t matter.  In with the stuff that does.  There’s a metaphor here.

According to a piece by Jack Feuer in the July issue of UCLA magazine, we have become a clutter culture.  As Feuer writes:

Walk into any dual-income, middle-class home in the U.S. and you will come face to face with an awesome array of stuff—toys, trinkets, family photos, furniture, games, DVDs, TVs, digital devices of all kinds, souvenirs, flags, food and more. We put our stuff anywhere in the house, everywhere there’s room, or even if there’s no room. Park the car on the street so we can store our stuff in the garage. Pile the dirty laundry in the shower because there’s nowhere else to store it and no time to wash it.

George Carlin famously observed that “a house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it.”

Freuer’s piece centers on a new book, Life at Home in the 21st Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors, due out this week, part of a long-running UCLA research project on working families run by UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives of Families (CELF). In tracking the material culture of these families, the researchers found that when we say we have it all, what we have all of is stuff.  And lots of it.

And often, they found, this hyper-abundance leads to a world of grief, especially for women, whose stress-hormones spiked when smacked with the family clutter and who often referred to their homes with words like “not fun” and “very chaotic.”

“Cortisol data show a link between unhappy verbal characterizations of arrays of household possessions [chronically messy, cluttered rooms  or  unfinished remodeling projects] and higher stress level as measured by the hormone cortisol in the MOTHERS in the study,” UCLA professor of anthropology Jeanne Arnold, one of  the founding faculty of the CELF project, wrote in an email.  “Women who characterize their homes as restful, restorative, or tidy had lower stress levels. Fathers often omitted any mention of the same messy and unfinished spaces and were unaffected physiologically. Why? Likely because mothers still take on the lion’s share of responsibility for housework and because we still place value on tidiness. Our spreading possessions take oh so much time to organize and clean.”

No kidding. But there’s more to this mess than just cleaning out the junk drawers.  Research shows that physical clutter can lead not only to stress, but also depression, especially in women.  It’s not too much of a stretch to assume that it can also screw with our ability to focus.  I don’t know about you, but I get more than a little bit frazzled when the surface of my desk is hidden under a jumble of books, papers, files and to-do lists, some dating back to last spring, and my computer is slamming me with some 200 unread emails.  (True confession:  I even have a hard time holding down a thought when the breakfast dishes are still stacked up at dinner time.  Well, maybe that’s writer’s block.  Whatever.)

All of this has an obvious solution. Clean off the desk, read the emails, and do the dishes.  Done.  But it all gets more dicey when you extrapolate the effects of all this chaos to the clutter that clogs our brain when we deal with issues more profound than simply meeting a deadline or sorting through the clothes in your closet.  And where you can end up is in one hell of a pickle:  Undecided.  Lusting after the greener grass.  Longing for the road not traveled.

Just plain stuck.

Is it the curse of the information age?  We carry so much baggage, so many shoulds, from society, the workplace, our families, our friends, Facebook– all blasted at us at lightening speed, thanks to the interwebs — that it’s sometimes hard to find our authentic selves within the mental clutter.  And when the information, not to mention choices, increases exponentially, where’s the space to process? To reflect?

Amid all that chaos, it’s hard to isolate what it is that we really want to do with our lives, what it is that makes us happy.  The trigger for our book, in fact, was a conversation with a smart, accomplished woman we called Jane who nonetheless was so overwhelmed with trying to figure out what to do with her life that she once confessed she wished she had been born into a culture in which everything – where she lived, what she did, who she married – was chosen for her.

But back to my friend, the one who is redoing her house along with her life.  She emailed me a link to a blog by a woman who has embarked on what she dubbed  The William Morris Project. To wit: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

As in houses, so in life?  Good advice when we start to cut the clutter. No matter where we find it.

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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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This post originally ran in April, but we thought now would be a good time to revisit it, giving the impending release of Eat, Pray, Love, based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s mega-bestseller of the same name. So, this week, when you’re bombarded with ads for the movie, the trip, or the collection, remember these words from everyone’s favorite fuck-up: Blow it all, catastrophically, and start over with good cheer. After all, if she hadn’t made some serious mistakes in her life, who knows where she’d be? More importantly, we’d all miss out on a chance to ogle Javier Bardem.

What if failure was not only an option, it was the only option? According to a recent article by Elizabeth Gilbert (she of Eat, Pray, Love fame) in this month’s O magazine, we’d all be a lot better off. In fact, “Failure is the Only Option” is the title of the piece, in which Gilbert suggests we’d be happier if we screwed up. Early. Often. And big.

Now, easy for her to say: her divorce, after all, begat one of the publishing world’s most staggering successes in recent memory (soon to arrive at the multiplex near you), not to mention an amazing round-the-world adventure and another go at the whole Committed thing. (So, it’s probably no surprise that she’d encourage failure on an epic scale: she, after all, is living one serious silver lining.) In the course of making her case for failure, she hits on one of our main theses about the overwhelm women feel in the face of limitless options, and why those options trip us up so colossally: They’re So. Damn. New.

Here’s a little bit of what she says:

We don’t have centuries of educated, autonomous female role models to imitate here (there were no women quite like us until very recently), so nobody has given us a map. As a result, we each race forth blindly into this new maze of limitless options. And the risks are steep. We make mistakes. We take sharp turns, hoping to stumble on an open path, only to bump into dead-end walls and have to back up and start all over again. We push mysterious levers, hoping to earn a reward, only to learn–whoops, that was a suffering button!

We’ve all accidentally pushed the suffering button. This new job is gonna rock! Quitting this job is gonna rock! This cheese rocks so much, I’m just gonna keep eating it! I’m totally gonna rock these 5-inch heels all night long! How can we ever know if we’re doing the right thing?

Maybe the better question is When can we know if we’re doing the right thing? To which, the only correct answer is: after we’ve done it. In which case, if it was the wrong thing, it’s too late to do anything but pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and try something new (or swear off cheese altogether). But until we’ve given what may or may not rock a shot, well, we’re generally operating without a map. (When you think about it, it’s terrifically ironic: women, who are so talented at comparing ourselves to others, don’t have a whole lot of comps to go by while charting our own course through this life.)

Of course, the major failures–the ones we’re afraid of making–are more significant than a blister or a day spent, uh, divesting oneself of sins of the Cowgirl Creamery variety. But the half-full way of looking at it might be that all those missteps are indeed serving a purpose: in many ways, women today are making the map. And while, one might expect the moral of a story called “Failure is the Only Option” to be something along the lines of “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, so you might as well go for it!”, Gilbert’s points are more charitable: stop pressuring yourself to be perfect, and every time you blow it, consider it a gift to your little sisters. Failure as philanthropy. Check it:

Let’s just anticipate that we (all of us) will disappoint ourselves somehow in the decade to come. Go ahead and let it happen. Let somebody else go to art school. Let somebody else have a happy marriage, while you foolishly pick the wrong guy. (Hell, I’ve done it; it’s survivable.) While you’re at it, take the wrong job. Move to the wrong city. Blow it all catastrophically, in fact, and then start over with good cheer. This is what we all must learn to do, for this is how maps get charted–by taking wrong turns that lead to surprising passageways that open into spectacularly unexpected new worlds. So just march on. Future generations will thank you–trust me–for showing the way, for beating brave new footpaths out of wonky old mistakes.

So here’s to blowing it. And here’s a word to the wise, from a sister who’s been there: half a wheel of Mt. Tam is too much cheese.

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Want to get a job? Change jobs? Get married? Get divorced? Have a baby? Lose the baby weight? Organize your closet? Come out of the closet? Streamline your life? Whatever it is that you’re after, in all likelihood–according to a piece that ran in the L.A. Times this weekend–there’s a coach for that.

Writer Mary MacVean cites everything from “the urge to do things perfectly… and the fear that we’re not up to the task” to the idea that we’re living in “an evolved and specialized world” and the fact that this modern world has many of us isolated from extended family that might have been nearby and available to help out with some of these conundrums as explanations for the coaching phenomenon. All of which make sense. But I, naturally, was particularly struck by this:

A world that can seem like it’s changing before our eyes also can fuel desire for a coach.

A couple of generations ago, most people made three or four important decisions that guided their lives… Today’s complex world requires decisions all the time: Should I move? Where? Is it time for me to change jobs? What’s the best way to invest for retirement? Will my child thrive in school? All these questions put people in unfamiliar territory…

[Evan Marc] Katz [a dating coach in Los Angeles] sees a paradox of choice that leaves many people frustrated. “In today’s society there are more choices, but nobody’s happier,” he said. Too many choices often lead to discontent, he said.

Well, we’ve certainly covered that. But I think it’s so interesting that, again, there’s a connection that comes up between perfection and too many choices. How the more choices there are, the more we feel that surely, one of those options must be the perfect one for us–and it’s our job to find it.

And then, when you couple that with “the more specialized world” she mentions–well, no wonder we want to enlist a professional every time we want to do anything. Say you want to do something relatively manageable, like organize your closet. But, you know, if you’re going to take the time to do it, you want to do it right. So, you do what any modern-day human with Internet access does, and consult the modern-day oracle (read: Google.) That’ll surely point you in the proper direction, right? Well, yeah–I’m sure that somewhere among the 685,000 results is the one that’s perfect for you.

Who wouldn’t throw up her hands and, rather than taking the time to sift through all those options (and watch as her entire wardrobe becomes outdated, thus cleverly negating the need for any organization at all), opt to enlist a pro? (Of course, if you go looking for a “closet organizing coach” on Google, you’ll have 423,000 virtual contenders vying for your business.)

It actually reminds me of something that happened back when I was in college. I was hiking with my (ahem, batshit-crazy, musician) boyfriend (we’ve all been there… right?) and some of his friends. The trail narrowed and became kind of rough at one point, before devolving into rocky, bushwhack-requiring overgrowth with no discernible path to speak of. Crazypants was at the front of the group; I was at the back. One of his friends who was in front of me asked if I wanted to scoot by, to move up to the front of the pack. I said something along the lines of “No, I like to follow, because then I don’t have to think about where to step.” He thought this was hilarious, and when I digested what I’d actually said, I was kind of appalled. Who wants to declare herself a follower?

And yet. Every once in a while, it’s nice to blindly put your faith in someone else; to forfeit the controls; to let them figure out which rocks are stable enough to step on, which trail is actually THE trail, while you just sit back and enjoy the ride, turning your own brain off for a spell, and trusting someone else with all the analysis.

And that’s well and good. Sometimes. A coach, a guide, hell–even a map can do wonders, but first we have to know where it is we’re trying to go. What we want. And that’s something that can’t be outsourced. No matter how nuanced our world, no matter how many choices we face, doesn’t the truest satisfaction come from getting to know ourselves–and then doing things accordingly? It doesn’t lessen the number of options, of course, but, it seems to me that getting to know yourself is the quickest route to getting to know what you want–and that’s surely the first step to getting it. It might be a rocky road; there might even be some bushwhacking involved. But, by taking it, you’ll be way more likely to wind up where you want to be.


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Or, how to explain why we spend hours trying to decide between the red one or the blue one.

And sometimes walk away with nothing at all.

There are any one of a number of research studies out there on the science of choice. (You’ll read about many of them in our book, in fact. Stay tuned.) What you find out when you read them is that when we’re undecided, when we can’t figure out what to do with our lives, it’s not necessarily that we’re whiny and wishy-washy, but that some significant shit is going down in the space upstairs.

We’ve talked here about the “Paradox of Choice”, Barry Schwartz’ pivotal book that suggests that, the more choices we have, the more likely we are to be disappointed in whatever we choose. We’ve also talked about “magical number seven”, another well-referenced study from the 1950s that suggests we mortals can only hold seven (plus or minus two) items in the gray matter at any given time. Explains a lot, that one.

But one of the most referenced studies on choice has to be the iconic jam study, where shoppers at Drager’s — a chi-chi Northern California grocery store where you find bottles of imported balsamic vinegar in a glass case under lock and key — were confronted with two displays of jam. One table held six jars, the other 24. The folks at the table of six chose one and walked away happy. But those faced with 24 may have enjoyed the extensive array in front of them — but left empty-handed.

One of the authors of that study was Sheena S. Iyengar, now of Columbia University, who has just come out with “The Art of Choosing: The hidden science of choice.” (In the journalist’s world, this here is called burying the lead. But I digress…) The book is a tapestry of anecdotes, science and pop culture to explain, yet again, why when it comes to choice, less is generally more.

This week, she talked to Salon.com about everything from arranged marriages (not necessarily a bad thing), to ballot order (it screwed Al Gore) and how a blind researcher — Iyengar lost her sight when she was a teenager — understands color (she has an easier time of it.). From that interview:

At one point in the book, you write about the ways names shape color preference. How did your blindness affect your ability to research color?

Because I’m blind, I’m not emotionally invested in a particular color or color combination. I’m much more able to discern how invested sighted people are in what looks good and how enormously subjective it is. It was my struggle with color that made me pay so much attention to it. Names of shades of particular colors kept changing — along with the idea of what color should go with what others.

Sighted people’s emotions are tied not just to what they’re seeing but what they’re feeling while they’re seeing. If you walk up to a sighted person and say that outfit just doesn’t go, or that their makeup is cakey, they’ll say, “How can you be so cruel?” It’s because you’re commenting on the person’s judgment. Now imagine if you’re blind, and you don’t have an emotional investment in that. If somebody tells me my makeup is caked, I’ll go, “Oh, I’ll fix it.”

Is it really true that Al Gore would have won the 2000 election if his name had been first on the ballot?

Oh yeah. This is research done by John Krosnick at Stanford. It’s estimated that Bush coming first on the ballot cost Gore 2 percent of the vote, which in that election was critical. Why do we vote for the first person? When you open up a menu in a restaurant the first dish serves as your reference point, when you interview people for a job the first person serves as a reference point; it’s just human nature.

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So, if you’ve spent much time on this blog, you know that the issue of too many choices tends to come up from time to time. (Like, daily.) As do the kind of offhand musings that naturally follow a riff on the perils of option overload: like, oh, it would be so much easier if I didn’t have these options, or, wow, wouldn’t it be great if someone else could just decide for me? Despite the fact that I believe, if it came right down to it, we really wouldn’t trade all the options we have, I don’t begrudge anyone the fantasy. And, you know, I relate. But this–wellll friends, just imagine…

Long story short: a blog called IvyGate got its hands on six pages of fashion guidelines for Cornell sorority’s Pi Phi’s upcoming rush. Among the directives: No muffin tops! We love a boyfriend blazer! And, my personal fave, If you’re wearing cheapo shoes, make sure they don’t look it. Heaven forbid.

I should admit that I have exactly zero experience with sororities–and that I do not come without some preconceived notions. But, rather than spewing some easy snark, I wonder if maybe the limiting of choice is actually part of a sorority’s appeal? I mean, if 3/4 of your closet is off the menu, that’s gotta make getting dressed easier, right? So, what about all the other stuff? And what if there was a grown-up version that offered a list of rules regarding everything from what kind of job to get to what kind of car to buy to what kind of person to sleep with? Or maybe something not quite so formal–maybe something more like aligning ourselves with a certain crowd, a crowd with persnickety tastes? …an iconic self‘s persnickety tastes, perhaps? A stringent set of rules, no matter how like totally ridic, will–this much is certain–make decisions easier. The question is: would you rush?

And FYI, here, in their entirety, are the rules:

CLOTHING.

Round I & II: “Casual chic”

Bottoms:

Yes:

  • Medium-to-dark or black skinny or straight jeans
  • Dark skinny or straight cords
  • “Denim-legging” is appropriate as long as it’s done right: aka, not from American Apparel and worn with chic, cool chunky boots over them and a longer top. NO camel toe.

No:

  • Super “Flared leg” pants
  • Cropped pants. Ugh.
  • Bleached/very light or TORN jeans I don’t care if they’re in style.
  • Khakis
  • Leggings worn as pants
  • Muffin tops or extreme low rise!!

Tops:

Yes:

  • Blouses: flowy, pretty material.
  • Sweaters or other long-sleeved shirts, V or Crew.
  • Cardigans (with longer tank top under preferably)
  • Blazers: Yes, please! I love a casual top with a cool boyfriend blazer over it

No:

  • Summer pattern/colors, too tight or too short shirts or blouses!
  • Low-cut
  • Sleeveless
  • Tank tops
  • Frumpy
  • Preferably no short sleeves– recommended: full coverage aka elbow length, 3/4 length, long, thin layers.

Shoes:

Yes:

  • Nice flats: Tory Burch, etc. More evening-ish, understated. Patent leather good.
  • Heels: mid-height. This round is still “casual”, so no sky-high hooker heels! I’m thinking mid-height Mary Jane heels, or mid-height chunky kate spade, etc.
  • Boots: love. Chunky or simple/elegant, heel on the lower side to flat. Worn OVER pants.

No:

  • Open-toed!
  • WHITE
  • Strappy
  • High-heeled/going out boots.
  • If you’re wearing cheapo shoes, make sure they don’t look it.

**And, a call to action: I spent an obscene amount of time scouring the Internet, desperately seeking a clip of the vintage SNL “Delta Delta Delta” girls. Came up with nothin’! Free book for the first to help me help me help me.

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Marriage. It’s what brings us together, today…

It is, after all, the Mother of all decisions–I mean, when we’re in the market for a car, a house, a job, or a sandwich, must we pronounce our love and fidelity to the Passat or the Pastrami til death do us part? Of course not. (And thank god for that, or I swear to you, I would be wheel-less, homeless, unemployed and starving.) And a couple of new books shine a little light on an interesting point: when it comes to that infamous “Piece of Paper,” could it be the decision-making part of the Til Death Do Us Part that does us in?

First, consider the new book “A Little Bit Married,” just released this week, written by journalist/blogger Hannah Seligson. Of the project, Seligson writes at the Daily Beast:

‘A Little Bit Marrieds’ are the ones that write a prenup on a piece of loose-leaf paper as they move in, detailing who paid for the Ikea bureau, who brought the flat-screen TV, whose parents gave them the bed. They don’t share the cost of anything ‘just in case.’ They each have separate shelf units for their books and DVDs. Are they roommates or are they building a life together? Are they husband and wife, girlfriend and boyfriend, or roommates? They may have seen friends go through the whole lifecycle–dating, marriage, and kids–but they still don’t own a couch together. Each thinks the other person is marriage material, but how can they commit when there are un-traveled continents and four more career paths to explore? Everything is great–but what if there is something better out there?

What if, indeed? It’s the classic conundrum–no one wants to make the wrong decision. And the easiest way to ensure we don’t is to avoid commitment altogether, to keep the doors open, to see for yourself whether that grass is greener. Or, at the very least–and more to the point–to reserve the right to take off to see for yourself about that grass at any time.

Interestingly, the issue of choice comes up in “Committed,” Elizabeth Eat Pray Gilbert’s latest, as well, albeit in a different context. Check what The New Yorker‘s Ariel Levy has to say:

For all the variability in the meaning of marriage, one fairly consistent element over time and place was that it had nothing to do with love. “For most of history it was inconceivable that people would choose their mates on the basis of something as fragile and irrational as love and then focus all their sexual, intimate, and altruistic desires on the resulting marriage,” [Stephanie] Coontz [author of "Marriage, a History"] writes. In fact, loving one’s spouse too much was considered a threat to social and religious order, and was discouraged in societies as disparate as ancient Greece, medieval Islam, and contemporary Cameroon. The modern Western ideal of marriage as both romantic and companionate is an anomaly and a gamble. As soon as people in any culture start selecting spouses based on emotion, the rates of broken marriages shoot up. “By unnerving definition,” Gilbert writes, “anything that the heart has chosen for its own, mysterious reasons it can always unchoose.”

Ultimately, Gilbert is clear about what she, like most people, wants: everything. We want intimacy and autonomy, security and stimulation, reassurance and novelty, coziness and thrills. But we can’t have it.

So. The lure of what’s still out there makes it difficult for us to commit. As does the weight of the personal responsibility inherent in making a choice, especially one based on something as fickle as feelings–and then, by virtue of looking at it as a choice, the likelihood that at some point someone will decide they chose wrong. It all reminds me of something one of the women we’ve interviewed for the book said once–albeit while agonizing over another big question, that of What To Do With Her Life: Sometimes I wish I was born in some other country where everything from career to spouse would be chosen for me.

It would be easier that way, wouldn’t it? Maybe even happier. But, alas, here we are. For better or worse.

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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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I have this friend. (Really, I swear it’s not me.) She never really had a breakup, despite the fact that she dated a lot. And dated a lot of losers. But no matter how bad the cad, she strove to end things peacefully, operating according to a simple mantra she called “keeping the door open.”

Makes sense. There’s a certain comfort that comes from knowing we have options. It mitigates risk. We’re told, after all, that keeping all one’s eggs in one basket is a bad plan. Unless one is planning on making a large omelet.

I was reminded of this after a conversation I recently had with a couple of girlfriends, discussing the post I wrote about New York Mag‘s “Sex Diaries” piece, during which, one declared: “I think, for our generation, commitment is kind of like death.”

Well then.

These ideas, I’d argue to say they’re almost an indelible part of the current condition. Choice is a blessing. To commit to one is to be, at best, a fool; at worst, well, dead. Stagnated. You can be anything you want! You can do anything you want! You can Have. It. All. You don’t know how lucky you are, to live in an era marked by the number of open doors you have before you! So what kind of fool would suggest we’d be better off closing them?

Dan Ariely, for one. Check this tidy summary:

In Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, Dan Ariely suggests that there is a price to be paid for having many options. He claims that we have an irrational compulsion to keep ‘doors’ open. He suggests that we ought to shut a lot of them because they draw energy and commitment away from those that we should keep open.

Buzzkill, no? And yet. Of course it makes sense. And it’s so funny, because, in all likelihood, closing a bunch of those doors probably would go a long way to ease so many of the problems we talk about here: the pain of multitasking; the impossibility of achieving the perfect work-life balance; the angsting over the roads not traveled. (The baking of the ever-lovin cupcakes.) So why should suggesting we just stick to the path we’re on and forget about all the others be such a buzzkill?

Psychological theorizing is all well and good, of course. But does it really change anything? Does knowing that we’re making ourselves crazy make us any less crazy? But what if we took this advice to heart, if we were to just decide, once and for all: This is it! Those roads not traveled? Screw ‘em! Would that really make us feel better?

Honestly, I don’t know. But I don’t really want to find out, either. I mean, ignorance may be bliss, but it’s a bliss in which I am one hundred percent uninterested. I’ll admit, I am a product of my times, and I am happy for all those doors. No matter how crazy they make me. And, the blessing and the curse of these modern times is this: no matter how much we might buy into this idea that closing off a bunch of them would make our lives easier, no matter how much we might want to pretend that those other doors are not open to us, the fact remains: they’re there. You can’t unring this (door)bell.

And as long as they’re there, I’ll be wondering what’s going on behind each and every one of them.

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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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