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Posts Tagged ‘trade-offs’

So, the subject of our book is certainly in the air as of late. First, Ann Marie Slaughter, and now, a piece on The Daily Beast by Debora Spar, whose take on the issues of women chasing perfection, juggling roles and choices in a not-adequately-changed world was, frankly, so similar to the things we’ve written here and in our book, it took us a moment to realize it wasn’t our byline on her piece.

Ahem.

Now that that’s out of the way, as we noticed way back when we began writing Undecided in 2008, women today, blessed with the abundance of choices our mothers fought to get access to–and our foremothers might have thought impossible–are finding that this blessing is indeed mixed. That the messages on which we were raised, messages delivered with the best of intentions, have a flipside, as though delivered via an evil game of Telephone. Told we can have it all, we heard we must do it all. Told we can do anything, we heard that whatever we choose to do, it better be something good… and we better do it perfectly. We are told to be grateful for all the choices we have, and, of course, we are, but the one crucial message that never got sent was this: that every choice entails a trade-off. That we cannot be in two places at once. That, by definition (not to mention the basic laws of physics), if I am sitting here pounding out this piece right now, I am not taking my dog for a hike, or meeting a friend for happy hour, or cleaning out my closet as I’ve been meaning to do for weeks now. (Though, I am, as a matter of fact, simultaneously cooking dinner. And now my keyboard is getting sticky from the roasted garlic I just pulled out of the oven. Dear Multitasking: You suck.) There are only so many hours in the day. No one really clues us in to that one.

We set off, ready to conquer the world, as we believe we’re supposed to. And then we realize: Having it all is simply not possible. A high-flying career woman is not also a stay-at-home mom. A stay-at-home mom is not also a globe-trotting free spirit. A globe-trotting free spirit is not also putting down roots, and paying down a mortgage. Every time we make a choice in favor of something, we are by default not choosing something else. But the rub is that we think it’s only about us. That we’re not good enough. That if only we were ___er, we’d be able to swing it. But that’s a lie.

That the chorus is getting louder is good. Because there is so much that remains to be done. And that there remains so much to be done–on the public policy and workplace fronts, yes, but in the way we talk to (and about) our sisters, our girlfriends and our selves, as well–in no way diminishes all the work that has been done, all that’s come before. And that we don’t want to diminish all that’s come before doesn’t diminish what lies ahead. The world hasn’t caught up to what we’ve been told–that feminism‘s fight is over, the battles won–policies and structures are still evolving. And we’re still so very, very hard on ourselves. We worry we aren’t measuring up, aren’t successful enough or a good enough parent or pretty enough or in shape enough or organic enough. All while mired in the juggle!

As we wrote in Undecided, women today are experiencing a collective bout of growing pains. And one way to ease those pains is to give up the chase for perfect, the attempt to have it all, and focus instead on, well, finding the life that’s right for us.

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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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 Last week during all the memorializing of Apple founder/college dropout/cultural visionary Steve Jobs, I found myself watching the commencement speech he gave at Stanford University in 2005 — and, in all that wisdom, one line in particular gave me the chills: Don’t Live Someone Else’s Life, he said. Actually, what he said was:

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma–which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And, most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Living someone else’s life? Now, I (vaguely) recall being a fresh college grad, and I’m sure such words might have just made me chuckle then, but with a few additional years under my belt, I can say I know exactly what he’s talking about. I think most of us do, if we’re honest.

So often, we make choices based on shoulds, on expectations, biases, images, maybe even out of fear. Women in particular often find our decisions are colored by worries about being judged or getting approval, and we’re often battling some deeply entrenched beliefs around it somehow being virtuous to put ourselves last — at the bottom of our own list. Sometimes we just drift. But, with each choice we make, our life picks up a little bit of steam, until, sometimes, before we know it, we find the life we’re living is one that’s being driven by inertia, heading off in some direction we never planned.

As Molly, a young Manhattanite we profiled in the book, told us:

I did everything my boss asked, I did it perfectly, I sucked up. In six months, I got promoted. It was one of the fastest promotions they’d ever experienced. I tried really hard, and I moved to the next step; I tried really hard, and I moved to the next step. And now I’ve gotten to the point where I’m like, wait a minute, how did I get this far? I just blindly tried really hard without really thinking, What’s the end? Where is this getting me?

To quote the Talking Heads: Self, how did I get here? 

Sounds familiar, no? But maybe the more important question is this: How do I take back the wheel?

Well here’s the good news: You don’t have to take back anything! You’re not powerless. It was you who made the choices that got you to this point — this job, this relationship, this roommate, this pet chinchilla — and you are not powerless to make choices that’ll take you down a different path from here. Those are your hands on the wheel — they’ve been there all along.

Once you acknowledge you’re the one in control of those hands, your next step should be to take some time to notice where they’re steering you, your focus, your time, your energy? Because here’s the thing: everything is a choice — and every choice, by definition, entails a trade-off. Whether we go into it consciously or not.

Whether or not you consciously think to yourself: this time I’m spending baking cookies for the kids’ bake sale or agonizing over which color to use in the graph on Slide 4 in this PowerPoint is time I am not spending in the garden, or researching the yoga teacher training course I’ve been thinking about since I dropped my first “Om,” you’re still making the trade. You can’t be in two places at once. And the decisions you make about what to do with your time, where to focus your energy — well, they shape your life. So if you’re feeling like you’re living someone else’s life, start going into those choices consciously — really thinking about what you are and are not choosing to do. Once you do, you might discover you’re spending your time and energy on things (and maybe even people and jobs) that you don’t really care about, letting the things you’re most passionate about slip by the wayside, while you’re on cruise control.

It can be scary — maybe our passion seems weird, our dreams too far out of reach. Maybe you’ll fail. And maybe after that, you’ll try again. But wouldn’t you rather fail at your own dreams than succeed at someone else’s? And hey, failure’s recoverable — even Steve Jobs got fired.

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This just in, ladies: Balancing a job and a family is hard! And, a recent study out of the University of Washington shows, the less difficult you expect it to be, the more likely you are to be depressed  when the rubber meets the road–when your expectations smack up against reality.

Color us unshocked.

The trouble, the study suggests, has as much to do with our own expectations as it does with a workplace that’s still designed as though every employee had the benefit of a full-time wife at home, someone to take care of the kids… and all of the day-to-day business that keeps a life running smoothly. Not insignificant: American women are attempting to do it all in a country with rather dismal structural support for working mothers, in terms of time off after childbirth or subsidized day care. And as real–and important–as those issues are, there’s more to it that that.

Women today are raised being told they can have it all, though rarely are they let in on the way this charming slogan translates to the real world–as if through an evil game of telephone–that, more than likely, they’ll have to do it all, that what they’ll really have “all” of is the work. We’re raised to believe that feminism is old news, the fight has been fought, the battle won–even while we’re presented with an ideal so impossible it would be laughable, if it weren’t so oppressive: while the Enjoli woman of yore was intimidating enough with her bacon and her pan, today the ideal has even more balls in the air: in addition to raising her children perfectly (and feeding them only organic bacon) and making the most of her potential at the office, she’s untouched by the hands of time, doing work that’s deeply satisfying and meaningful for the world at large, finding personal and spiritual fulfillment and capable of a perfect downward-facing dog.

All of which is not to say that women are better off staying at home; to the contrary, in fact. Stay-at-home moms were more likely to be depressed than working moms. So how to handle it? The researchers of the study suggest that the best way to deal is to “Be gentle with yourself and accept that balancing work and family feels hard because it is hard, rather than feeling guilty or unsuccessful if you can’t devote as much time as you would like to your job and to your family.”

And we’d agree. As Ramini Durvasula, PhD–a clinical psychologist, professor of psychology and director of the psychology clinic and clinical-training program at Cal State Los Angeles–told us when we spoke to her for our book, “What I want to communicate to young women is, ‘You can try many of these things, but there are going to be challenges. If you think you’re going to be able to screw your husband, raise your kids, clean your house and go to work, you’re mistaken. You’re going to have a messy house, an unscrewed husband, kids you’re not always with, and a job you can’t always do.”

Or, from a write-up on the study in U.S. News & World Report, “working moms may be happier when they delegate and let a few things slide — in other words, let someone with more time run the bake sale, make sure your husband is doing his share of the laundry folding and limit your work hours when you can.”

And we’d add to that: every choice entails a trade-off. If you’re reading this article right now, you are by definition not frying up organic bacon in a pan, or baking a batch of gluten-free cupcakes for the kids’ school fundraiser, right? To hear that we can’t do it all is, at first blush, an ugly message, but it’s also freeing in its simplicity: you can’t be in two places at once. So perhaps in addition to doing what we can to change the structural roadblocks, we should be doing what we can to address those expectations, revamp that slogan, and cut ourselves some slack.

A tough message, but according to this study, it seems that your happiness might be riding on accepting it.

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So Wednesday I had an interview with Kathryn Zox on VoiceAmerica and she asked me if I could think of a more positive word for “compromise.”  And to be honest — well,  it was early in the morning — I could not.

Can you?  Thing is, life is all about the trade-offs.  But “compromise”?  It’s a dirty word.

We had been talking about the choices that women have to make when navigating the uncertain terrain that goes under the general heading of “you can have it all.”  Killer career.  Great family life.  Making it all work.   And all at the same time.  It goes to the heart of what makes decisions so difficult for women in this new reality:  opportunity cost.  If you are doing A, by definition you can’t be doing B.  Or at least, not well.  And yet.  We try.  Because to be less than perfect at one or the other means we think we have failed.

Case in point:  Kathryn spoke of taking the train up from New York one night not long ago, riding in business class, where though she tried to avoid listening, she was privy to a long cellphone conversation between a well-dressed business woman and her husband.  And her little girl.  And then her husband.  And then her little girl.  And on and on.  The gist?  Mommy was coming home from a business trip, but apparently felt obliged to be the one to put her little girl to bed.  A bedtime story?  Mommy loves you?  Daddy, are you doing it right?

And there you have it.  A good metaphor for trying to do it all, have it all.  And all the pressure we put on ourselves, whether we have a family, whether we don’t, or whether we ever will.

We don’t like to talk about compromise because it implies that we have settled for something less than perfect.  Or maybe, we’re uncomfortable with the word because we still haven’t figure out how to make our way through this uncharted territory.   So maybe when we parse it all out, when we cast about for a more positive way to say “compromise,” the operative word is choice.

Or maybe the term is letting go.  As Lori, one of the women in our book, told us, “Maybe it’s that society is telling us all that we have to be successful career women — but the world has forgotten to mention that if we want to do that, we can let go of worrying about our pound cake.”

And is that so bad?  I call it compromise.  You call it trade-off.  We all call it growing pains.

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