Archive for April, 2010

Life happens when you least expect it. Which is to say that serendipity can be a wonderful thing. Most researchers will tell you, in fact, that many scientific and medical breakthroughs (penicillin, anyone?) were the result of happenstance.

The unexpected happened or something zigged left when it should have zagged right, and rather than bemoaning what went wrong, the smart folks ran with the moldy bread. Often to grand results.

This all came to mind today via the 2010 version of serendipity: links that turned up in my inbox. The first came from Maggie, a former student that we first met here, where, a few months out of college and teaching English to unappreciative French teenagers in Lyon, she raised the question of whether growing up meant making peace with life’s uncertainties. Which may be how she found herself an accidental tourist at a distant relative’s dairy farm outside Skiberdeen, Ireland, thanks to the cloud of volcanic ash that left her stranded at the Dublin airport.

Faced with an uncertain future at the airport bar, she decided to call her long-lost cousins who invited her and her traveling companion to spend an epic week at their farm on the edge of the sea, where they ran with the cows, toured “the most beautiful coastline I’ve ever seen,” and drank minute’s old milk out of an old Irish Whiskey bottle. She called it the best phone call she had ever made:

My relatives live in the same farmhouse that’s been in the family for five generations and probably longer. It’s a dairy farm, and their cows produce some of the milk for Dubliner cheese (best cheese in the world). Across the field, you can see the quaint little stone church where my great-great- grandmother was baptized. From the top of the hill, you can see the westernmost point of Ireland (and nearest point of Europe to America), Fastnet, which is a lighthouse on a rock 8 miles from the mainland into the Atlantic. Alan, one of the sons, used his friendly connections to get us on a boat out to that rock, which is probably the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life (though the choppy boat ride back was terrifying). The day before, his older brother Kevin took us on a 6-hour driving tour around the area, pointing out memorials and giving us history/Irish language lessons along the way. Good stuff.

That other link? That one was for a delightful piece in the latest Oprah magazine by Elizabeth Gilbert (Full disclosure: I may be the only woman in American who still has not finished “Eat, Pray, Love.” Please don’t hate me.) In an essay essentially about her mother, she revisits the time her mom turned Gilbert’s absolute and abject disappointment at not being chosen for the lead of the third-grade play — it was about a lemonade stand – into a show stopping two-line triumph:

Opening day: The play droned to life. Bored parents fanned themselves in the audience, straining to hear mumbled lines. When I exploded onto the stage, as confident as (and dressed rather like) a drag queen, I could feel the crowd pop awake. Towering over the cast, I sashayed toward the lemonade stand and drawled languidly, “May ah have an oatmeal cookie and a glass of lemonade?” (The honeyed Southern accent had been my mother’s brilliant, last-minute suggestion.)

The audience hollered with laughter. Still in character, I drawled my next and final line ( “Thank yoooouuu!”) to the three dumbfounded stars and began my exit. But—not so fast. The audience was still laughing, still loving this 8-year-old Blanche DuBois. And that’s when I had a clarion revelation: They still need me! This is when I made the charitable decision to give the crowd just a little more Mrs. Fields. Instead of heading for the wings, I swished back to center stage, dropped an imaginary quarter on the lemonade stand, and ad-libbed, “Keep the change, sugar. “

Afterward, Gilbert was allowed to “ revel in exactly one hour of triumph,” then it was back home to do her chores. What was significant, she writes now, was the critical survival lessons she learned from her mom. Chief among them – at least as far as our accidental post is concerned:

If life gives you lemons, don’t settle for simply making lemonade—make a glorious scene at a lemonade stand.

Which brings us back to that idea of serendipity – or its converse: the five-year plan. Maybe you should ditch it. Because sometimes, you’re most likely to find what you’re looking for when, you know, you just stop looking for it.

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The pill. So singularly significant, that’s all the ID it needs. And soon, May 9 to be exact, it will celebrate its 50th birthday. And while how much of the change those 50 years have seen can be attributed to The Pill is debatable, it’d be pretty damn hard to deny the effect that little plastic case has had on the lives of countless women. In the sexual realm, yes–although, as you’ll find in the current slew of stories on this very subject, many believe the link between the Pill’s arrival on the scene and the sexual revolution to be (wildly) overrated–but more so (wait for it…), in terms of the choices over one’s life that control over one’s body opened up. As Nancy Gibbs writes in Time magazine’s current cover story, The Pill at 50: Sex, Freedom, and Paradox:

when contraception was put under a woman’s control, it put many other things under her control as well…

By the 1970s the true impact of the Pill could begin to be measured, and it was not on the sexual behavior of American women; it was on how they envisioned their lives, their choices, and their obligations. In 1970 the median age at which college graduates married was about 23; by 1975, as use of the Pill among single women became more common, that age had jumped 2.5 years. The fashion for large families went the way of the girdle. In 1963, 80% of non-Catholic college women said they wanted three or more children; that plunged to 29% by 1973. More women were able to imagine a life that included both a family and a job, which changed their childbearing calculations.

As I myself put it some time ago:

Finally, women could screw with abandon! Or at least with a greatly reduced chance of a lifelong reminder of a night of screwing with abandon. No longer would our dreams have to take a backseat to an accidental pregnancy. With the choice of when–and if–we’d become mothers in our own control, all kinds of other choices–like hey, what do I want to do with this life of mine??–materialized.

All was not immediately groovy, of course. Many doctors–even Planned Parenthood–would not prescribe the Pill to women unless they were married. The Catholic Church forbade its use. And then there was the stigma–that, though “nice girls” might get carried away in a moment, they certainly don’t plan for such moments. And if they did, well, it’s a slippery slope to becoming the town strumpet–or so suggested Peggy’s smoking gyno, in this Mad Men clip, who offered the sage advice that “even in our modern times, easy women don’t find husbands”:

That’s fiction, of course… but yesterday’s On Point offered the real-life counterpart. The show counted Gibbs and Elisa Ross, ob/gyn and staff physician in the Women’s Health Institute of the Cleveland Clinic, as guests, but the standouts were the callers, who recalled their own experiences, marked by the absence of choices when it came to their reproductive systems–and, subsequently, their lives. Two of the callers were in college and engaged or just graduated and newlywed when the Pill was approved. One, Catholic, said she sobbed when the Catholic Church came out against its use: she had a toddler and a new baby–just 14 months apart–and was justifiably freaked out that, before she knew it, she’d have an entire litter to raise. The other, just prior to her wedding, which was to take place in between she and her husband-to-be’s senior years of college, was denied the Pill by her Catholic doctor. (Which should give us an additional something or two to think about, in light of today’s “conscience clauses,” which allow hospital workers and pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions, based on their own beliefs.) She got pregnant on their honeymoon. She loves her children, of course, but she said she wonders what kind of path her life would have taken, had things been different. But the best call was from a man, a physician, who said there was one woman in his class at med school. In 1990, he returned to that school, as Dean, to a class of med students that was nearly 50% female. And he thought it was wonderful: “Women are born healers,” he said. “Men have to be taught.”

Indeed, left without the excuse that hiring women–or even accepting them into school–would be a waste, as they might get pregnant and drop out or quit at any time, women’s numbers both in the workplace and in college exploded. Which is, of course, good stuff. The Pill, low unemployment (Gibbs quotes federal manpower expert Howard Stambler saying, of 1966’s 3.8% unemployment rate, “There are almost no men left” to hire), the strengthening women’s movement, Title IX, they all conspired to bring women into the fold. And, historically speaking, quickstyle. But, pithy as ever, Gloria Steinem in 1962 offered an insightful warning:

‘The real danger of the contraceptive revolution may be the acceleration of woman’s role change without any corresponding change of man’s attitude toward her role.’

And that, dear reader, is the rub–and not just in terms of man’s attitude. But in terms of our own aptitude to deal with all the incredible choices we have before us–and in society’s aptitude to support the woman who wants both, to be a mother to her children and the mistress of her own destiny.


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I was being interviewed by a journalism class last quarter when a student asked me if I was a feminist.

“Of course,” I shot back. “Aren’t you?”

She looked at me, somewhat quizzically. “Well,” she said, “how do you define feminist?” To which I replied, perhaps too glib and maybe even borderline cranky, “A human being.”


I continued, something along the lines of: It means you’re in favor of equality. Equal rights. Equal pay. Equal opportunity. Blowing up gender stereotypes.

My turn to be quizzical: “How can anyone NOT be a feminist?” I asked.

Really. I believe that. Which is why I am baffled, flummoxed, dangling on the precipice of wild-eyed disbelief when I am reminded that in 2010 there are still people who find the need to marginalize those of us who believe in the radical idea that women and men are equals and should be treated that way.

Most recent case in point, via Huffpo: the cyber-dust-up between jezebel.com, and Scott Baio, he of “Happy Days” fame, which recently escalated into the stratosphere when Baio’s wife referred to the jezebel staff as “lesbian shitasses” on her Facebook page, saying no man in his right mind could put up with their – well, never mind. Let’s just say it was a deeply offensive reference to a part of the female anatomy.

First fail: “lesbian” as perjorative. Not cool. But look closer at the rant: why that particular brand of diatribe? Could it because the Jezebel bunch are known feminists?

I suppose you can dismiss the Baios as weirdos. Outliers. But for a more subtle reality check re the way feminists are still marginalized, look for the subtext in this Q-and-A on dollmag with Jessica Valenti, founder of feministing.com and author of “Full Frontal Feminism” [Full disclosure: her publisher, Seal Press, is also ours.] In this first exchange, she talks about the persistence of sexist comments:

How do you deal with misogyny and sexism on a day-to-day basis? For example, what do you do if a friend makes a sexist comment?

That’s one of the hardest things. It’s easier for me because my friends know better than that now. For most women that’s a daily occurrence, and they have friends that make sexist or racist or homophobic jokes. It’s really important to call them out. I don’t think you need to call them out in a really confrontational way— (in an)”oh my god, you’re a sexist,” kind of way. But you can say, “why do you think that’s funny? I actually find it kind of sexist.” And leave room for conversation. People can get really defensive and you don’t want to make people defensive, you want to open it up for conversation and hopefully open their mind up about it.

In another exchange, she briefly addresses the media ruckus that ensued when she wrote about her “feminist wedding” — as if, her critics seemed to imply, the term itself was an oxymoron:

You seem very open about your life, and you often relate feminism to your personal experiences. Have you ever shared anything you’ve regretted later?

Pretty much always. I thought that writing about my wedding would be a good way to open up a conversation about (the fact that) we need to have more feminist weddings, but it just opened me up to a lot of attacks. Anyone who writes about their personal life regrets part of it at some point.

(Salon.com’s Broadsheet featured a roundtable piece on whether Valenti’s decision to get married was feminist, which she found “bizarre.”)

When I started blogging under my real name, I never really thought it would get to this point, that (Feministing.com) would have this kind of readership. I often wonder if I could do it over again, if I would blog under a fake name. Maybe I would. Maybe my life would be a lot easier in some ways. At the end of the day, I’m happy that I’ve been forthcoming. I feel like it has made people relate, and it has made the subject (of feminism) a bit more approachable for readers, so I’m okay with it.

All of which makes so much sense. But what’s bizarre to me is that, again in 2010, we somehow need the reassurance of knowing that, wow, a “real person”, someone like the rest of us, is also a feminist in order to make the subject approachable.

We’ve written quite a few posts about feminism in this space, but one early post put the F-word front and center:

Are you a feminist?

A loaded question. But why?

When I was in college, I drove a car I inherited from my mom, a cute Cabriolet convertible which came affixed with one piece of flare: a bumper sticker that read, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” Radical indeed. A neighbor asked me if I was going to take it off. Take it off? “Well, you’re not a feminist are you?” she asked. I was too stunned to come up with a response other than, “I’m female–of course I am!”

At its core, that simple sentiment–that women are equal people–is, indeed, what the movement is about. But somewhere along the way, it came to mean a great, tricky, amorphous Something Else. Something that carries a stigma, to this day. Something that has young women yes- or no- but-ing, when they’re asked whether or not they claim the F-word.

That post generated quite a few responses. One of my favorites came from a young lawyer who suddenly realized that the answer to that question was yes:

I have never considered myself a feminist for this reason: I always thought that feminism involves more than just fighting the little daily fights that are personal to me (i.e., knowing I am entitled to equal pay and equal opportunities, and demanding those things for myself). Because I am not involved in feminist causes, and do nothing to champion the rights of other women, I never thought the feminist label applied to me.

Thanks for this perspective, Shannon. Maybe I am one of “them” after all.

Well, of course she’s a feminist. Aren’t we all?

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Today is Equal Pay Day: and while the name implies equality, the meaning itself is its precise opposite. Working women of the world, brace yourselves, and prepare to be pissed: today marks the day that your salary catches up to your male counterpart’s… from last year. That’s right, as compared to the dude in the next cube, since January 1, 2010, you, sister, have been working for free.

Yes, despite the fact that–I’ll reiterate–it is 2010, despite the fact that the first bill President Obama signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which extends the time employees have to file discrimination suits, despite the breadwinning Alpha Wives appearing in trend pieces hither and yon, despite the fact that the Equal Pay Act was enacted oh, some 47 years ago, the fact remains: on average, women earn 77 cents to a man’s dollar. (Even less for women of color.)

Here’s some more fuel for the fire, from a piece from yesterday’s Morning Edition on NPR:

Economists say part of the gap is because women are more likely to take time off work for child care, and an even bigger part is because of “occupational segregation”: Women tend to work disproportionately in lower-paying fields….

But even when you control for occupation and a host of other variables, economists still find an unexplained gender gap of anywhere from around a nickel to a dime or more on the dollar. [Emphasis mine.]

Yep, those convenient, fall-back excuses citing time off for kids or lower-paying career tracks are handily debunked by Ilene Lang, with the women’s research group Catalyst:

‘From their very first job after getting their MBA degree, women made less money than men,’ Lang says. ‘On average, they were paid $4,600 less.’

Very first job? MBA? I think that settles the time-off-for-kids/lesser-paid-career-track thing. Of course, the truly ugly thing about a stat like that is that, not only does it persist, it inevitably gets worse over time. Every time you change jobs and are asked for a salary history, you’re at an increased disadvantage–and coupled with this gender-based pay discrimination disparity, well–that disparity is going to do nothing but get worse. And that’s how it is that you’ve been playing financial catch-up for THE PAST THREE AND A HALF MONTHS.

But wait! There’s more:

Catalyst’s findings held even when those studied had no children. For Lang, this says that decades-old stereotypes persist.

‘There are assumptions that women don’t care about money, which is crazy!’ Lang says. ‘There are assumptions that women will always have men who will take care of them, that women will get married, have children and drop out of the labor force. All those assumptions are just not true.’

Of course they’re not. And yet, even if they were true–even if women didn’t care about money at all, and every one of us had a man to take care of us and the intention to stop working once we had children–well, would that in any way justify the inequities? I myself, as you may have guessed, think not.

How best to address the issue? Well, asking for more money is a start. A big one, and one in which many agree women might need a lesson. We don’t want to be rude, pushy, or assertive, but we don’t want to be broke, or the underpaid schmuck on the payroll either, now do we?

But, as with a lot of things, focusing only on the individual leaves a little too much unaddressed. There’s a bill pending in the Senate now, The Paycheck Fairness Act, which would make it easier to prove gender bias, increase penalties, and nix the hush-hushness that exists around salaries in an organization. In an open letter, Ms. Ledbetter herself writes:

Without the Paycheck Fairness Act, women will continue to be silenced in the workplace, just like I was–prohibited from talking about wages with coworkers without the fear of being fired. This forced silence keeps many women from discovering pay discrimination in the first place…

Now I know that some people will say that with times as tough as they are, we can’t afford to worry about pay discrimination now. But I’m here to tell you that this recession makes pay equity even more important. With women now making up half of the workforce, more and more families are dependent upon a woman’s paycheck to make ends meet.

So, happy Equal Pay Day! …and apologies for the rant, but I think you’ll agree it was warranted. If you’re inspired to take action, rather than taking it out on Dude-in-the-next-Cube, there’s a link to email your Senator here. And, I dare suggest that you do it while you’re on the clock: more than likely, your boss owes you.

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So I found myself at the hair salon the other day — sans the folder of work perennially tucked under my arm (Trust me, I really did forget to bring it along). And thus I found myself with no other option but to dive into the stack of women’s magazines beside my chair. And hooray for that.

Nothing but guilty pleasure! And better yet, with a shot of wisdom on the side, courtesy of the “Editor’s Letter” in the April issue of Elle. (You won’t find a link. But if you happen to be hanging at the hairdresser’s any time soon, it’s on p. 102).

Riffing on the magazine’s cover feature that profiles eleven successful career women, the editor reflected on the essence of work — and coincidentally, touched on many of the themes we’ve hit on here. She started by confessing that when she saw “The Blind Side”, the character she most identified with was Michael Oher, the homeless football player taken in by Sandra Bullock. Why? Because at age 16, she too found herself adrift, after starting her sophomore year at yet another new school, with no friends, no GPA and no purpose:

…Yet in a stroke of luck almost too corny to be believable, the swimming coach saw me flipping on the trampoline one day and asked me to go out for the diving team. I worked hard enough and got good enough grades that by my senior year, I held the school record and was ranked eighth in the state of Florida. I went to college with a diving scholarship and an identity. More than anything else in my life, becoming a diver taught me the true nature of work: It’s hard, failure is inevitable and survivable, success is achieved incrementally, and it’s not enough to have talent. As one of my good friends likes to say (quoting Chuck Close), “inspiration is for amateurs.”

So many lessons there: Success comes by inches. Failure is valuable. Talent is not enough. Hitting closer to home (well, my world, anyhow), she goes on:

I feel for the talented, beautifully educated college graduates who come to see me and don’t yet realize that the attention lavished on them by their professors, who were so invested in their ideas and intellectual growth, was part of a contract: Teachers are paid to pay attention and nurture their students. The real world, well, it doesn’t give a damn what they think about the AIG bailout. The real world cares how fast they can fetch a latte from Starbucks and whether they can figure out the copy machine. It will take them a while to realize that their clueless bosses also once seethed in cubicles about their overlooked genius, muttering, ‘I went to college for this?’

Ding-ding. Actually, you didn’t go to college for that. And that’s kind of the point. You went to college to get an education, to think the big thoughts. To, well, learn. Lots of stuff. But it’s a hard lesson, one that is becoming scarily outdated with each graduating class, this idea of education versus career training. In fact, this precise issue has been the topic of debate in my senior capstone class this spring, where one student especially, let’s call her Olivia, has begun to bring up the big questions as to what the past four years was all about.

Was it about education in the broadest sense? Talking the big ideas? Or simply part and parcel of the five-year plan? And what about those students who worked so hard outside of class not only to pay the bills, but to build a kick-ass resume? Do they end up with a diploma, but not an education? And what happens when Plan A turns out to be a big fat bust — and it’s too late for Plan B?

What happens to the five-year plan then?

I tell my students that I, ahem, know well two very successful professional young women who never really had one. One of them majored in religious studies. She’s now a journalist. The other studied Italian. She’s now a lawyer. They came out of college without much in the way of job skills. But they got an education. And it served them well. But when I bring up these examples to my students, they’re baffled. Truly.

Is it all about the treadmill? Possibly so. Which makes me wonder if this is another way in which great expectations do women in. When you’ve felt the pressure of unlimited options ever since Career Girl Barbie or whatever-her-name-was first peeked out from under the Christmas tree, do you feel the roar of indecision, the fight between the red one or the blue one, early on — and shut it down by choosing a path too soon? And then sticking with it.

That’s certainly one way to kill the angst. Whew.

But maybe that’s why choices are so loaded, too, because they become so narrowly focussed — and by definition, do not include a back-up plan. Failure, that great teacher, is not an option. (Nor, for that matter, is the broad-based education. Classics, anyone?) And then, out into the real world, when that first job is more about fetching lattes than writing business plans, there’s that thing called regret. Grass-is-greener syndrome suddenly comes calling and kicks the best and the brightest right there in the ass. That race ? Yeah, not in first place anymore.

Which brings us back to that “Editor’s Letter”:

… I often think of a friend who knows literally all of the world’s billionaires (there aren’t that many, he says) and his remark that what they have in common is that they’re all a little weird. And interesting, and giving. They aren’t happy because they’re billionaires (my argument); they’re billionaires, at least in part, because they’re happy. Sounds simultaneously Pollyannaish and damning to those of us born with darker temperaments. But what seems to be the key is that these highly successful people long ago stopped comparing themselves with the person in the next cubicle and instead learned to trust their instincts. This freed them to look at themselves, and others, more generously, which made them happier.

On the flipside of the bankroll, let me finish by flipping to the career feature itself, and a sidebar of quick quotes from smart women from the pages of Elle over the past several decades. My favorite is from Gloria Steinen, January 1988 (for this, I DO have a link), which makes no mention of long-term plans or college majors:

“[Success is] doing what you love and having a positive impact on people’s lives without starving to death.”—Gloria Steinem, feminist

Gotta love it. Meanwhile, my hair? The lowlights look fabulous.

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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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You’ll find good news and bad news out of a new time-use study out of the Brookings Institution conducted by a husband and wife team of UC-San Diego economists.

Reporting on the study, New York Times blogger Tara Parker-Pope writes that moms and dads alike are spending more time with their kids than ever before, especially if the parental unit is college educated. Good news, right? Absolutely. The not-so-good news, however, may be the reason why.

Think treadmill.

But first, some numbers. As Parker-Pope writes:

The study, by two economists at the University of California, San Diego, analyzes a dozen surveys of how Americans say they use their time, taken at different periods from 1965 to 2007. It reports that the amount of child care time spent by parents at all income levels — and especially those with a college education — has risen “dramatically” since the mid-1990s. (The findings by the husband-and-wife economist team of Garey Ramey and Valerie A. Ramey appear in a discussion paper presented in March at a Brookings Institution conference in Washington.)

Before 1995, mothers spent an average of about 12 hours a week attending to the needs of their children. By 2007, that number had risen to 21.2 hours a week for college-educated women and 15.9 hours for those with less education.

Although mothers still do most of the parenting, fathers also registered striking gains: to 9.6 hours a week for college-educated men, more than double the pre-1995 rate of 4.5 hours; and to 6.8 hours for other men, up from 3.7, according to an additional analysis by Betsey Stevenson and Dan Sacks, economists at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

In other words, guilt be gone. All good. Despite our angsting about carving enough family time out of our work-life balance, apparently most of us are doing okay. Not only okay, but better than our own parents did. Plus, there’s this: The researchers also found that a lot of that increased family time involved both parents doing things with their kids, that gendered parenting roles were starting to blur, and that everyone involved had more leisure time — and hooray for that. Back to Parker-Pope:

Women, in particular, are spending less time cooking and cleaning their homes, while men are putting in fewer hours at the office. A 2007 report in The Quarterly Journal of Economics showed that leisure time among men and women surged four to eight hours a week from 1965 to 2003.

All of which bodes well for everyone involved, right? When families spend more time together, rather than less, and when moms spend less time cleaning the house, and dads come home early to help with homework, everybody wins, er, don’t they? Well, why then was Parker-Pope bombarded with a slew of pissed-off comments — spewing terms like “parental narcissism” and “helicopter moms” — from angry readers?

You might look to the title of the study itself for a possible answer: “The Rug Rat Race.” Looking to find an explanation for the increase in family time, especially among highly-educated (and presumably, hard-working professional) parents, the authors suggest that as “the number of college-bound students has surged in recent years,” highly educated parents have begun to “compete more aggressively for college slots” for their kids.

They use the word “rivalry”. Ouch.

Now, clearly it’s all more complicated than the primal urge to keep up with the apocryphal Joneses.  And when parents spend time with their kids, it’s almost always a win-win. And yet. If Ramey and Ramey are right, you have to wonder: are we raising a whole new generation of kids who will forever fight to get out from under their parents’ great expectations? If “good enough” will never be, well, “good enough?”

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Here’s a thought, and I can’t remember where I heard it first. Coulda been my mom, coulda been on a vintage SNL “Deep thoughts by Jack Handey” spot. Whatever. The thought? Wherever you go, there you are.

I know, I know. At first take, it’s–well, it’s Jack Handy-level deep (and if you don’t know who Jack Handey is… sad for you. Google.), but I swear, thoughts like this can be deeper than they first appear. Regardless, I bring it up because there’s a certain theme that’s been smacking me around a lot recently. It’s come up all over the place, in fact. There was one woman I interviewed for the book, who developed an intense love for ballet when she was in high school. After graduating from college, she moved to the city where the artistic director she idolized lived, in hopes of learning from her. Only she did one better: she was offered a spot in this AD’s company, and spent several years traveling the world, dancing. Since then, the AD has moved on, and now, this woman is thinking of hanging up her toe shoes–maybe to teach. She doesn’t really know, but she’s pretty sure that the touring and dancing life just isn’t doing it for her any more.

Then there’s the woman who works magic with flour and butter and sugar, and started her own company several years ago. She grew slowly and steadily, and a few months ago, none less than the queen of cheapskate (or, to be more democratic, tip-challenged) foodies everywhere, Rachel Ray, declared her signature treat YUM-O. Seriously. But last Saturday was her last day in business. On the one hand, she was living her dream, but on the other, she was eyeball-deep in dough (not the green kind) at all times, and she wanted her life back.

Then there’s the woman who had a great job, and then, several months ago, was offered an even greater job. A job she’s described as her dream job. Which she took (as well she should). Only it hasn’t turned out to be that dreamy. Over g-chat on Sunday, I learned that her dream job is making her “miserable,” and has literally brought her to tears. More than once.

All of these women boldly identified their dreams, went after them, and–albeit maybe for just a brief while–lived them. And look what happened.

I mean, it is WONDERFUL that each of them did what they did. But it makes me think of the rest of us–those of us who think thoughts like: Yeah, life is pretty awesome, but when I get married, then I’ll be really happy. Or: Yeah, my job is great and pays the bills, but once I get that promotion, then I can relax. Or: Yep, I’m stoked on my husband and my two healthy sons–but all I want is a little girl. Or: I love writing, and I’ve always wanted to write a book, it will be so cool when I’m actually spending my days alone with my thoughts and my keyboard. (Ahem: FOOL! Fool. How great will it be when you’re driving yourself crazy in your chair with an imprint of your ass worn into it, and begin to type, over and over, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”??)

What’s the matter with those scenarios? Well nothing. I mean, without dreams and ambitions, what would be the point of life as a human with a highly complex brain and fully opposable thumbs? It’s part of the human condition to want. To dream. To strive and try and do or die. There’s a part, I think, that’s cultural: the word “enough” isn’t really in our lexicon. We’re Americans, goddammit! Frontierswomen. We rank ourselves from 1-10 on things like “goal-setting.” But at the same time, there are a couple of things that get me to wondering, both of which can be boiled down to charming little cliches: For one, “everything is a trade-off.” Or so I’ve heard. I can’t say I’ve accepted it. But maybe I’m not alone. Maybe that’s part of the collective condition for women who’ve been raised to go out and have it all–if we have to give up anything, then surely we can do better, right?

But to me, the more interesting question is this, and brings us back to a certain cliche I mentioned earlier: does fixating on external things allow us to ignore the harder issues? And is that why satisfaction, happiness, contentment can be so elusive? Contentment, after all, is kind of a deep feeling. And the external stuff, well, it can be good and it can be bad. But, compared the the internal stuff, the externals are a lot easier to change. (They’re certainly easier to see, anyway; the externals, after all, are right there in your face. While the internals, well, they are your face.)

Which brings me right back to where I started. Of course. Wherever you go…

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I came across this story in the Philadelphia Enquirer the other day about the new angst of quarterlifers. (I’ve buried the lead once again. But stay with me here.) The story revisited the book, Quarterlife Crisis, written back in 2001, and then went on to enumerate the ways in which the Crisis, thanks to the recession, is worse than ever:

Experts say the quarterlife crisis might be harder to navigate now than when the book came out. Entry-level employees, for example, are fighting for fewer jobs and lower pay, [Abby] Wilner, [coauthor of Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties] said in an e-mail interview recently.

“It’s absolutely a tough time,” she wrote.

Even those with jobs are in rough waters, said Dustin Williams, a career counselor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. A glut of older employees aren’t budging because they can’t afford to retire, so younger ones can’t move up. Plus, less-experienced employees are more likely to get laid off. Job security is a real luxury these days.

“Four or five years ago, “Williams said, “people would say, ‘Well, I’m not happy, so I’ll just change jobs and see how I do.’ “

Now, more than ever, it’s easy to get stuck in crisis mode. And recent college graduates are lucky if they land a job at all.

The story goes on to paint pix of doom and gloom, of how difficult it is these days to be twentysomething and trying to make your way in the world, noting a recent Harvard poll that found that 60 percent of young adults worried about whether they would ever end up better off than their parents.

Flipping to the upside, the story continues:

Yeah, becoming an adult and figuring out your future can be painful, especially these days. But it’s only natural, said Deborah Smith, a sociology professor at University of Missouri-Kansas City. Many people experience angst in their 20s because they’re reflecting on their lives for the first time in a long time, she said.

“In my mind, it’s not a crisis,” Smith said. “It’s a decision point, a pressure point, a life-stage change.”

Which brings me to my point, albeit a bit circuitously. But first, let me first say I know (from second-hand experience) about the presumed death of the dream for so many twentysomethings these days: no matter what their goals, it’s hard out there to reach them. At least at first. Money is tight, jobs are scarce and switching out the dream in exchange for settling — or moving back to your high school bedroom — is a real possibility. But yet.

It isn’t necessarily a crisis. At least right now. Unless, of course, you convince yourself it is. Which leads me to my point.

You have to wonder if quarterlife angst goes viral when you’re attached to a hundred different lives-in-crisis at any given time, when you’re inadvertently seeking out those who either share or validate your own personal misery. Call it over-sharing times, well, a number that may coincide with twitter and Facebook friends. A friend once described her Facebook page in terms of a cocktail party: You’ve got this conversation going on over here, but over there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of others you can eavesdrop on as you scroll down the page. I wonder if the better metaphor might be slumber party.

While all those connections might give a good sense of the zeitgeist, it’s not too much of a stretch to suspect that a certain amount of quarterlife angst can be contagious, especially among younger women, given research out of the University of Missouri back in 2007.

The study found that when adolescent girls did too much venting with their girlfriends over their problems, they ended up feeling worse. Yep, more miserable. Their friendships got stronger, the researchers, found, but the girls got caught up in a vicious cycle in which their anxiety led to more venting, which in turn – you guessed it – led to more angst. Getting off on the drama of it all? Who knows. But the more they talked, the worse they felt.

Not good, wrote Carol Lloyd on Salon’s Broadsheet some time later. She connected the study to her own childhood, growing up in 1970’s-era Northern California where, because her family …

used to process every five-minute spat with several hours of grueling self-analysis, early on I developed an acute case of communication fatigue. Feelings, I decided in my own little Idaho of tough love, could be crutches, disguises and distractions from the things we want to do, the people we want to become.

Clearly, feelings are not to be denied. (In fact, haven’t we said many times that gut instinct can be a good compass?) And yet. Despite the fact that we’re not teenagers, nor is life like a slumber party, you still have to wonder: Does angst beget angst? Is crisis mode contagious?

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