Archive for May, 2010

At least, that’s how it must look to researchers at UCLA who have come up with a landmark video picture of what work-life balance really means to today’s frantic families. The picture? Not so pretty.

On the surface, it’s more than a little bit creepy: Thirty-two families that allowed social scientists from UCLA to videotape every waking moment of their post-June Cleaver family lives. Reality TV, no edits. Ew.

Get past the voyeur factor, however, and what you find is life like yours. After coding and analyzing 1540 hours of video tape that chronicled everything from hugs to meltdowns, the researchers have come up with the first picture of what the New York Times reporter Benedict Carey calls “a relatively new sociological species: the dual-earner, multiple-child, middle-class American household:”

“This is the richest, most detailed, most complete database of middle-class family living in the world,” said Thomas S. Weisner, a professor of anthropology at U.C.L.A. who was not involved in the research. “What it does is hold up a mirror to people. They laugh. They cringe. It shows us life as it is actually lived.”

After more than $9 million and untold thousands of hours of video watching, [the researchers] have found that, well, life in these trenches is exactly what it looks like: a fire shower of stress, multitasking and mutual nitpicking. And the researchers found plenty to nitpick themselves.

What you find is that, when it comes to so-called work-life balance, there’s not a whole lot that isn’t work. The study found:

• moms still do more housework than dads (27 percent of their time versus 18 percent)
• husbands and wives were alone in the house only 10 percent of the time
• moms spent 19 percent of their time chatting with family members, either in person or on the phone, but only 11 percent taking “breathers” (the researchers called this “leisure”) while dads spent just about the same amount of time in chitchat, but 23 percent of their time was classified as leisure.
• household and childcare boundaries — who does what and when — were often undefined and blurred, which added to the household stress.
• the so-called “life” part of the worklife equation included more than just putting meals on the table and folding clothes but enforcing homework deadlines, tutoring, coaching, and coordinating schedules for everything from playdates to soccer games.
• both parents had large chunks of one-on-one times with their kids — 34 percent for moms and 25 percent for dads.

Crunch the numbers, and you have to wonder where the life comes in, as in having one. Leisure defined as “breathers”, as in a few minutes here, a few minutes there?  Doesn’t anyone just play cards?  Back to Carey’s story:

“I call it the new math,” said Kathleen Christensen of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which financed the project. “Two people. Three full-time jobs.” Parents learned on the fly, she said — and it showed.

The study also measured stress levels, via saliva that participants spit into small vials at routine intervals, allowing the researchers to track cortisol (the stress hormone) four times a day. Not a lot of good news there, either:

These cortisol profiles provided biological backing for a familiar frustration in many marriages. The more that women engaged with their husbands in the evening, talking about the day, the faster their cortisol dropped. But the men’s levels tapered more slowly when talking with a spouse. (A previous generation’s solution: “cocktail hour”)

Frankly, who wouldn’t want a cocktail? Or ten? Carey’s story notes the reaction of the field workers to all the household chaos:

“The very purest form of birth control ever devised. Ever,” said one [of the researchers], Anthony P. Graesch, a postdoctoral fellow, about the experience. (Dr. Graesch and his wife have just had their second child.)

And therein lies the rub. Even a researcher with a camera trained on the good, the bad and the ugly of modern family life has chosen to reproduce. There’s no doubt that even given what we know many of us still choose to raise families. There’s also little doubt that, especially in this economy, many women will stay at home with them. And yet. As the study shows, there’s something broken in the way it all comes down. There’s work at work. There’s work at home.

Maybe that’s balance. But should we really call it life?

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Throughout the course of a woman’s life, a question that never ceases to be relevant is the one so many like to say isn’t–or shouldn’t be–relevant at all: What should I wear?

But the fact is, it is. Clothes, of course, do more than keep us warm and safe from indecent exposure citations: they are a form of self-expression–and they say something to the world about who we are. Or who we want to be perceived to be. Chuck Taylors or Jimmy Choos? Superficial, yes–but your choice likely speaks to much more than your preference in footwear. And even if it means nothing to you, well, the world is waiting to foist judgments based on little more. More so for women.

In a piece in yesterday’s Atlantic, Wendy Kaminer takes on the being judged side of the equation:

What do Elena Kagan and Sarah Palin have in common? They each offer complementary cautionary tales about the continuing appeal of an ersatz, “Sex in [sic] the City” feminism that rewards beauty and punishes plainness with all the subtlety and compassion of a Playboy centerfold. Kagan’s appearance and fashion sense are mocked or savaged, especially but not exclusively by pundits on the right, following a familiar script. Hillary Clinton and Janet Napolitano endured similar hazings. Sarah Palin, to say the least, did not.

Kaminer goes on to make the case that the judgments–both ways (that Palin was christened “Caribou Barbie” before she ever proved herself as informed as a plastic toy; that Kagan’s sexuality is a subject of speculation in a way it wouldn’t be if she looked like Sarah Palin or Kim Cattrall)–are yet another way women are thrown under the microscope that men are not. And obviously, she has a point.

Interestingly, before I saw the Atlantic piece, I came across a piece by Courney E. Martin, ahead of the upcoming anthology, “Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists,” she’s putting together with J. Courtney Sullivan, which features a collection of stories from women describing the moment that feminism clicked for them. And in Martin’s Aha moment, fishnet stockings played a starring role.

Barnard College proved to be a place where just about everyone else was in the same state of confusion I was. We were all whip-smart, quirky, and intense, but none of us wanted to call ourselves feminist. It’s comical to think of it now. Here we were, dorms full of spitfire girls who had chosen an all-women’s college, and we were still reluctant to don the label. We were the low-hanging fruit, and feminism just hadn’t managed to pluck us.

That changed for me the day that Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner showed up on the third floor of Barnard Hall to give a talk on their new book Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future. Amy was plucky and compact, smart without an ounce of pretension, a no-nonsense beauty. Jennifer was her opposite–long and sinewy, bright blong, and yes, wearing fishnet stockings. They were besties, taking over the world with totally fresh feminist analysis. This wasn’t the swishy-skirt feminism that my mom had manifested at her once-a-month women’s groups. This was contemporary, witty, brash, even a little sexy. This was who I wanted to be.

Consider her plucked.

In fact, both Kaminer and Martin make the point that fashion is a way in which we express our identification with certain groups. It actually reminds me of a story. Last year, I was in New York for a book reading–an anthology to which I’d contributed an essay. And I went, sporting an Outfit-with-a-capital-O. After all, I like clothes. And I spend more than enough time at home, alone save for my trusty laptop, ensconced in clothes that can most kindly be described as scrubs. And if people were going to be looking at me, I wanted to look good, dammit (and, you know, be comfortable–except for my baby toes). I was staying with the (wildly intelligent–and beautiful) woman who’d edited the book, and, while we were walking to the train, she–dressed decidedly down–told me how she feels like she has to dress that way in order to be perceived as a Serious Writer. You know, the kind who’s so busy being a Serious Writer she doesn’t have time for silly fashion. She said she even has a pair of fake glasses. (Even a Serious Writer has to accessorize!) The irony, of course, being that she loves clothes as much as I do. She was laughing about it, but I have to say, it kind of made me take note of what each of the other contributors wore that night, and what my choice of duds communicated about me. Fabulous and fashionable? Or literary lightweight?

Here’s a little more from Martin on that front:

I’ve experienced it myself. After speaking on college campuses, I consistently get emails from young women confessing that they had no idea that young feminists even existed, much less “cool” ones like me. I find myself–otherwise low-maintenance and notoriously uninterested in contemporary fashion–thinking very deliberately about what I wear to these events. Sometimes the irony astounds me: I don’t dress up for business meetings, but I do dress up for 18 year-old girls who might be converted to feminism by my knee-high boots or my trendy dress.

Both Kaminer and Martin make good points. And I think that what they’re saying cuts both ways. It shouldn’t matter if we like to show a little cleavage or opt to forgo shaving our legs. If we dress up or dress down. We shouldn’t have to worry about being judged on the basis of our appearance–or use our sartorial wiles to gain acceptance–or to persuade others to our cause. And yet.

Here’s a bit more from Kaminer:

Years ago, I watched an array of law students lingering in a hotel lobby, waiting to be interviewed by visiting firms. The men were completely, conventionally covered by their suits; the women seemed half naked by comparison, in fitted jackets, often showing a little cleavage, and above the knee, or shorter, skirts. Maybe they hoped to benefit from these reveals, but I suspect they were subtly disadvantaged by them. The men were free to focus on their interviews; at least some women were likely to be distracted by concerns about their looks and the need to sit and display themselves appropriately. How much skin is just enough? Stilettos, kitten heels, or flats? Hollywood or D.C.? These are questions men never have to ask. Will they ever cease to matter to women?

I don’t know–and yes, that men never have to ask such questions is unfair. But I think those questions matter a little less when you dress for yourself. Because when you’re dressing for no one but yourself, you’re at your most comfortable–and when you’re at your most comfortable, you’re at your most confident. And an ugly pantsuit or peek of cleavage kind of fades into the background in the face of a truly confident woman. Martin speaks my language, though–and I love that it’s become passe to assume a feminist wouldn’t be caught dead in heels. Not least because I love me my high heels–and I don’t, in any way, consider it a contradiction to call myself a feminist while rocking an artificial five inches. On the other hand, in my closet, both Chuck and Choo are represented–and they’re equally worn.

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Men are single. Women, on the other hand, are unmarried. And that, ladies, is how language screws us once again

All of which came to light Wednesday via Maureen Dowd, who used the current flap about the sexuality of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan to note how quickly women go from “single” — read: sexy, fun and available — to “unmarried,” a fate somewhat akin to that of Mary in “A Wonderful Life” had George Bailey never been born. (That’s her, up in the corner. Note the glasses.)

In case you’ve been hiding under a rock this past week, it’s been suggested that Kagan, 50 and never married, must then be a lesbian. The WSJ even went so far as to use a page one photo of her playing softball, wink wink. All of which prompted Kagan’s friends, the White House, and Kagan herself to assert that she is straight.

At which point, she became unmarried. As in, poor thing. Now, take a man in similar circumstances. He, of course, would still be single. Or better yet, a bachelor. We all know what that means. He doesn’t even have to be remotely attractive — Henry Kissinger, anyone? — for the girls to come flocking. But without addressing the double standard because, you know, it makes us too angry, let’s go straight to Dowd, who is herself, by the way, single:

When does a woman go from being single to unmarried?

As my friend Carol Lee, a Politico reporter, observes: “It seems like a cruel distinction and terrifying crossover.”

Single carries a connotation of eligibility and possibility, while unmarried has that dreaded over-the-hill, out-of-luck, you-are-finished, no-chance implication. An aroma of mothballs and perpetual aunt.

Men, generally more favored by nature as they age, can be single at all ages. But often, for women, once you’re 40 or 50, or simply beyond childbearing age, you’re no longer single. You’re unmarried — meaning it isn’t your choice to be alone. There are post-50 exceptions. Consider celebrity examples: Samantha in “Sex and the City,” Dana Delany, Susan Sarandon and Madonna are seen as sexily single.

But if you have a bit of a weight problem, a bad haircut, a schlumpy wardrobe, the assumption is that you’re undesirable, unwanted — and unmarried.

All of which leads to the current Kagan narrative, writes Dowd:

Kagan has told a friend in the West Wing that she is not gay, just lonely. Even so, that doesn’t mean her sherpas in the White House, in their frantic drive to dismiss the gay rumors, should be spinning a narrative around that most hoary of stereotypes: a smart, ambitious woman who threw herself into her work, couldn’t find a guy, threw up her hands, and threw herself further into her work — and in the process went from single to unmarried.

It’s inexplicable, given that this should be Kagan’s hour of triumph as potentially only the fourth woman ever to serve on the highest court.

Here we go again with the pre-feminist junk: We women can be smart, we can be accomplished, we can be ambitious. But we can’t be all three — and married, too. After all, what man wants a woman who sports a better title, matches him paycheck for paycheck, and can beat him at chess?

And have a family? Fuhgeddabout it.

I can’t help thinking back to the mid-80s when a media misinterpretation of a combined Harvard-Yale study led to headlines and magazine cover stories that proclaimed that unmarried women who had reached the age of 40 were more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to ever find a mate. True story. The media reports, I mean. The study’s findings, at least the way they were reported? Not so much. In fact, Newsweek did a mea culpa twenty years later — another cover story that found that many of those single women the magazine had profiled back in the day not only had not been killed by terrorists — fancy that — but indeed had found their soulmates. Even raised families.

And yet, the idea lingers. Or continues to reignite: If women are too smart, if they are are too ambitious, if they let themselves get too old, they better watch out. They’ll go from single to unmarried in a heartbeat. And we all know what that means. Fun’s over, girls. Time to start raising kittycats.

The other subtext of this Kagan stuff, of course, is this: you can do anything, even sit on the Supreme Court, but really, what does it matter if you don’t have a guy?

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So, today I came across a post by Heather Wood Rudulph, over at her Sirens blog, that got me to thinking. In “Over-Planned Parenthood: Complications abound for women in their thirties and beyond who are trying to get pregnant. But are our too-smart, overly analytical brains making matters worse?” Ruldulph bravely lays herself bare. She’s 33, and, in between brushing her teeth and making the coffee, her morning routine now includes peeing on a stick to determine whether or not it’s gonna be a Hump Day. She and her husband, she says, are only a couple months into this wicked game,

However, I am becoming increasingly irritated that things aren’t working out according to my well-thought-out, stringently analyzed plans.

And, let me tell you, the girl has a plan. With spreadsheets. And timelines. And scheduled sex and moves to favorable school districts and new career options that’ll be conducive to part-time work. But Mother Nature doesn’t appear to speak Microsoft Excel. Here’s her analysis of the deeper issue:

Call it the curse of being educated, career-minded, intellectual, and overly analytical. Women of my generation understand the importance of researching every decision, particularly the ones that involve taking on a new goal. We’ll voluntarily walk into therapy to keep life “balanced,” pick up how-to books on everything from fixing our love life to building a porch, and have been raised by parents and society to believe we can–nay, deserve–to have it all if we choose. Oh, and that we can do it all on our terms.

While I myself have never met a spreadsheet I liked, I see her point. And I do think that a certain by-product of growing up in the You Can Have It All era is a fierce belief, that we can, you know, have it all. On our terms. The spreadsheet says so. It’s a bit like the situation I wrote about here, in response to “Confused”‘s angst in the face of her life not unfolding the way she’d planned: some of this has to do with the assumptions with which we are raised. Hard work leads to success. Success leads to happiness.

Sounds peachy. Logical. Linear. Spreadsheet-friendly. But it doesn’t sound much like life now, does it?

It’s jarring when life doesn’t work out according to our plans. Frustrating. Offensive. But equally, with so many paths wide open for the wandering, it can be hard to come up with a plan at all. Compounding the issue of too many options is that of too much information, which, I think, makes choosing anything that much more overwhelming. And doubles the disappointment when you finally, finally decide on a path, only to find it’s closed for servicing.

In those moments, when you realize maybe you’re not the only one (wo)manning the wheel, that life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans, that this aura of control might in fact be but a delusion, it seems to me you have two choices (yes, choices; we’re back to that): throw a temper tantrum, or try your damnedest to enjoy the scenery while riding out the detour.

Because you never know, that detour might turn out to be a shortcut that’ll land you exactly where you want to be.

And Heather, we’ve got our fingers crossed that you and hubby and spreadsheet and baby will soon make four.


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Let’s just agree for one last time that all this happiness business in the wake of the “Paradox of Women’s Declining Happiness” study has a very unhappy subtext: Blame the victim.

The victim being us.

You’re not happy? The horror! There must be something wrong with you. Blame yourself! Blame feminism! Blame your choices! Whatever you do, don’t assume it’s the rational response to life itself.

It’s all enough to make you, well, you know…

So let’s just admit once and for all, shall we, that this emperor has forgotten his pants. It’s nonsense. Every bit of it. And much of the silliness derives from the way happiness has come to be defined in all the media blowback. It’s either perfection, as in the universe is all in its place, which is somewhat akin to what one of our sources dubs “Pottery Barn Psychosis”.

Or alternately, happiness equals braindead. As in when life happens, you deal with it by slapping a smile on your face (Or an apron around your waist. Be patient — I’ll get there later) and telling yourself that everything is just peachy.

Ugh and then again, ugh.

In either case, you’re most likely miserable. So are we all. Because either kind of happiness is one impossible measure. Yet, measure up (or buck up) is what we are told to do. Which means that not only are we not, um, happy, but we don’t get cracking on fixing the stuff that might need fixing.

Which was why Rebecca Traster’s piece in Salon aptly entitled “Screw Happiness” made me, you guessed it, happy. She not only makes the point that so-called happiness is not the human condition, but more importantly: embracing the unhappiness that is often part of daily life is what propels us forward. Done.

She starts off the essay by wondering why the waiter at a New Orleans restaurant asked her and her fiance if everything was perfect — and wonders about the expectation that it should be. She goes on to note that women especially bear the brunt of the smiley face — America’s obsession with perfection and happiness:

When it comes to social science and economics, women lately seem especially prone to having the contentment thermometer thrust at them, and their temperature always seems to register at dissatisfied.” A study by University of Pennsylvania economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, as well as one by Princeton economist Alan Krueger, have shown a decline in female happiness in the years since the second wave, a trend that has been cheerily used as proof of exactly how unhappy increased social, sexual, professional and economic liberation has made American women. Even those who dare make claim to general life satisfaction are told not to get too comfortable; as Marcus Buckingham, the author of “Find Your Strongest Life: What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently” gloomily warned any aberrantly chipper chicks in a piece last year, “as women get older they get sadder.”

But really, how could they not, given the aggressive messages about happiness and how they must achieve it, and unhappiness and how they must avoid it that are foisted on them from every direction, making them feel like failures if they are not warbling and grinning their way through life?

Love it. Later, Traister tackles perfection’s alter-ego: all the scolds that tell women that whatever they choose, they would be happier if they had chosen something else (sound familiar?). Find a mate! Stay single! Have kids! No, don’t! Focus on your career! But not too much! Traister, about to marry the man she loves, is caught in all the mixed messages and calls them out for what they are:

The irony is that all the behaviors that provoke the head shaking — seeking love, concentrating on career and economic independence, having children, not having children, continuing to work after motherhood — are the very things we choose to do in pursuit of satisfaction for ourselves, not to mention to support ourselves. Stop doing those spoiled things that bring you fulfillment or you’ll never find fulfillment!

You know what I think? It’s all bullshit. Not just the trend stories and the self-help stuff, but the laser focus on happiness itself. I say this as someone who has grown steadily happier as I’ve aged, but I think I would have said it even more emphatically earlier in my life: I’m just not sure that “happiness” is supposed to be the stable human condition, and I think it’s punishing that we’re constantly being pushed to achieve it.

Some of the avenues open in the 21st century bring women joy, some bring its opposite; often they just mean more hours worked, fewer hours slept, new sets of fears and anxieties alongside new opportunities for accomplishment, pleasure and pride — in other words, the range of feeling and experience that comprise a typical day, a week, a year, a life. It is this daily, varied reality that makes me wish we could stop using happiness, or perfection, as the yardstick by which we evaluate our lives, and that we could stop gravely shaking our heads at every instance that a woman fails to measure up.

Which leads us, strangely, to aprons. According to the LA Times, expensive ones are the latest must-haves among SoCal “apronistas.” Their term, not mine. In the story, Cynthia Wadell, founder of Heavenly Hostess, which sells upscale aprons, says that this symbol of 1950’s womanhood is “now an empowering icon for the abundance of choices in a woman’s life.”

I’m not so sure. I can’t help thinking that the apron strings are all tied up to this happiness stuff. We’re constantly being told that it’s our choices that make us unhappy. Which makes me wonder. If we buy that stuff — which, for the record, I do not — is this cultish return to June Cleaver’s favorite accessory a reactionary wish to go back to the time when we had none?

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It’s depressingly familiar territory, dear reader: the ugly double-binds that have women screwed no matter what they do (or don’t do). And a new book, Damned if She Does, Damned if She Doesn’t: Rethinking the Rules of the Game That Keep Women from Succeeding in Business, written by the gender balanced husband-and-wife team of management consultants Lynn Cronin and Howard Fine, makes the case that, if you’re playing by big rules of big business, you’re probably hurting your career. On the surface, of course, these rules sound great, but here’s how they keep us down:

  1. Be a team player: Of this one, in an interview with Marie Claire, Cronin explains this paradox thus: “When working in teams, women just don’t receive recognition commensurate with their contributions. But when a driven, competent woman says, ‘They don’t know how good I am; I’ll show them!’ she’s perceived as not being a team player.” Fine’s a little more succinct: “Women pay a higher price than men for not being team players. They have to fall in line or they’re screwed.” So, “fall in line”–i.e., shut up and deal with the fact that the kudos (which is to say money and promotions) you should have coming are likely lost in the mail for all eternity, or be passed over on the grounds that you can’t play nice with others.
  2. Attract mentors and advocates, and bond with coworkers: Easier said than done. The corporate world was built by networks of good old boys, and it’s simply tougher for women to gain entree–and if you’re looking for a female power mentor, wellllll, good luck with that: out of the Fortune 500, a mere 15 of those companies’ CEOs are women. Additionally, women who try to bond with their male counterparts rarely succeed–and can alienate coworkers of either sex–while they’re at it. Not to mention the fact that it’s a little harder for a woman to score an invite to a beer-drinking, golf-playing boondoggle of the “networking” variety than it is for a man.
  3. Show commitment to the job: Women who are committed to their jobs tend to be perceived as losers with no social lives, while women with full personal lives are seen as not committed enough to their work. This one makes me want to pull my hair out: here’s a fun exercise–substitute the word “men” for “women” in the above sentence and attempt to re-read said sentence with a straight face, and then tell me there’s no such thing as sexism in the workplace. Can’t do it? Congratulations, you have a brain.
  4. Recognize your role in the system: Ah yes, the Big Kahuna. Accept your role, and watch as nothing changes. Or challenge it, breaking the golden rule and becoming the problem employee.

So what’s a woman to do? In the MC interview, Cronin and Fine advise what amounts to a careful walking of the line:

[Fine says] Say you think you haven’t gotten a fair raise. Don’t accuse your boss. Instead, ask him questions like ‘What could I do differently so I can get a better raise next time?’ This is helpful to you and forces your boss to justify himself.

[Ed note: Fine, must we always assume that our boss is a him? Sorry, couldn’t help but go there.]

[Cronin says] There’s also a little bit of sucking up and tolerating that you have to do until you’ve risen to a position of power and can really do something about it.

Prudent. Practical. And yet. A tad… underwhelming? Don’t get me wrong: it’s solid, realistic advice, just a little unsatisfying. Like when you’re out to breakfast and opt for the virtuous oatmeal, which you eat while wishing you’d ordered bacon and eggs. (Speaking of damned if you do, damned if you don’t, pick one: healthy but boring, or a delicious triglyceride bomb?) The cynic in me smells hints of an underlying message, practical though it may be, that women must always be the virtuous ones, bending to fit into a system that not only doesn’t work for them, it actually works against them. And works against them in–as Cronin and Fine themselves point out–the cruelest of ways: leaving us navigating a no-win situation that has us damned if we do, damned if we don’t. Bending may be realistic, but it seems to me, for every woman who’s preoccupied with turning herself into a carefully-arranged pretzel so as to avoid outright do-ing or don’t-ing, there’s an employer that’s losing out on a lot of potential. How much better could we be, how much more productive, more engaged, if we could free up the energy we siphon off to maintaining the perfect pretzel form, and redirect it towards something useful? I confess, I haven’t read the book yet, only the blurbs, and they promise substance–“concrete solutions,” “roadmaps” that will lead to “a post-gender workplace.” And I hope they deliver something satisfying. Because I’ve had it with the bending. Some rules were made to be broken. And if I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t anyway, gimme the bacon.

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“The secret to life is clean underpants.”

So said Ms. A, a wise woman I interviewed recently for the book, and I swear to you, in context, it made a lot of sense. She’s in her mid-60s, and has been there, done a lot of that. A LOT of that. We were, as you might have guessed, talking about how overwhelming life’s big decisions can be, especially when there are so many options. Here’s a little more of what she said:

Just keep going forward. One of my theories of life has always been do sweat the small stuff. When life is overwhelming you, wash your underpants. Make sure you have clean undies in the drawer, clean dishes to eat off of. Start paying attention to those tiny things that are within your control. And before you know it, something will happen, and it will become easy for you to resolve.

True? Who knows. Counterintuitive? Sho ’nuff. I bring it up because, today, I’m preoccupied with big things: A dear friend’s mom is terribly ill, and there’s nothing I can do about it, except offer words from afar. Additionally, I was just in New Orleans, a city I love passionately and have in many ways made my home away from home, which I’ve watched (and done a little to help) recover, slowly, in the years since Katrina. But the oil spill (ahem, FU, BP) may well devastate the entire region far more than Katrina ever did. It’s heartbreaking. Overwhelming. Infuriating. There’s a sense of impending disaster–and all anyone can do is wait. But I have faith in ‘my city.’ It’s come through a lot of darkness, with shining colors.

Because I was gone, I just got around to watching the latest episode of “Treme” last night, and one (of the many) scene that stuck with me involved John Goodman’s character (as is par for the course: his is one of the best characters on ANY show, EVER). If you don’t watch, the show takes place in New Orleans, the first year after Katrina, and in that particular scene, he is reacting to the news that city officials are considering canceling Mardi Gras. He’s an extremely intelligent man–a professor–and yet, over this bit of news, he loses his shit. Why? After all, in the face of such chaos and devastation, what are a couple of parades and some beads going to solve?

I think it’s a bit like what Ms. A was saying: there’s comfort in the small stuff. For a New Orleanian dealing with post-Katrina life, small stuff might well be one of the world’s biggest parties. For me, when I’m freaked out, I cook. The more chopping and stirring involved, the better. (Hello, risotto.)

We’ve all been told not to sweat the small stuff. But sometimes, it’s all we’re capable of sweating. Sometimes, the shit hits the fan, through no fault of our own, and we’re left–if you’ll pardon the metaphor–in a shit-filled room, with nothing to do but adapt. Sometimes we’re in a place where something big has to change–and we’re the only one who can change it. Sometimes having undies to wash or a meal to cook or a parade to plan–something, anything to focus on–is distraction enough to soothe. And, after a little soothing, we’re generally in a better place when it comes to tackling the big, nasty stuff.

And so, today, in between reading the horrific predictions about what might become of the habitat and industry that are reliant on a healthy Gulf and shooting rapid-fire words of love and support to my friend, I went for a run. I went to the grocery store. And I’m about to cook an epic meal that involves one hell of a lot of chopping.

(I did the laundry yesterday.)


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This just in: parents take helicoptering over the top. To wit, this post on the NYTimes Motherlode blog that links to a CNN story on moms who quit their jobs to help their kids get into college.

No joke. According to the piece, these are highly educated, professional women who take a “college prep leave” or quit entirely in order to micromanage their kids through the grueling college application process — along with all the resume-building that accompanies it:

There are no statistics counting how many mothers compromise their careers to help their teens with college admissions, but college counselors say they’ve witnessed more cases of mothers pausing their jobs or completely quitting their jobs. Over the past five years, Jeannie Borin, president of College Connections, says she saw a 10 percent uptick in mothers who quit or postponed their career to get their teens into college. Her counseling company offers services in 32 states.

These mothers, who can afford to quit their jobs, may stop working for months, a year or several years leading up to the admission process, say researchers and college admissions counselors. They reduce their full-time hours to part time or request a temporary leave. Because many of them have jobs that require advanced degrees and specific skills, it’s usually easier for them to transition back into the work force.

“They know it’s going to be an intense year and they take a leave to that effect,” Borin said. “The college frenzy has affected the entire family.”

I vote yuck for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the divide this creates between upper middle class kids and, well, all the rest. But that’s another story. The piece goes on:

Managing a child’s college application process can be similar to a corporate job, says Hilary Levey, a fellow at Harvard University who specializes in family studies. Levey conducted dozens of interviews with mothers who stopped working and stayed at home for their children. She says she talked to mothers who used their Blackberry devices to organize schedules and help their teens craft resumes.

“Raising the child sometimes becomes a career in itself,” Levey said. “Instead of getting a promotion and measuring progress in professional sense, a way to measure how well you are doing is how well your child is doing.”

This kind of takes the idea of parenting-as-competitive sport to all new levels of ugly. In a post a while back, we mentioned a time-use study that found that highly educated parents were spending much more time with their kids these days — which was the good news — but that the reason for the additional time spent went a little toward the dark side: prepping their kids early for limited slots at prestigious universities. In other words, rivalry. We’ve also written about the treadmill that starts early for so many kids, when their lives are pretty much dictated by the need to build a college resume. Put the two together and you wonder if these kids will ever get out from under the weight of great expectations — or be able to make a decision for themselves.

A while back I interviewed a teacher and counselor who had worked at the same private girls high school for the past two decades. She told me that the rate of parental involvement had lately escalated to the point where the school had to issue a written “communication protocol” spelling out the steps the students should take in handling their own problems before parents were allowed to intervene. “For the longest time, parents would call the school – my daughter didn’t make the team, didn’t make it into the play – and she’s always been the best at this,” she said. “And we’d say, well, you know what, your daughter needs to go talk to the director of the play, the coach, the teacher. And the parents were appalled. What do you mean? You’re not going to talk to me about it?”

One of the comments to the Motherlode post offered a similar take on the rising role of helicopter parents:

I work at a university, and the number of parents that have called my office asking about registering their kids for classes, picking up forms or papers for their kids, or any other item or request that should be fielded by the actual student makes me a little nervous for the next generation. Parents should know that there are consequences to this kind of micromanagement, namely, a kid who can’t handle the real world by themselves.

And a kid who is never allowed to fail. And yet, because she’s never been able to climb down from the treadmill, may never feel that she’s succeeded, either. And it’s worse for girls, experts say, because they’re hard-wired to please. They’ll stick with the program, no matter how crazy, so they won’t let anyone down.

And then, of course, comes the real world. No benchmarks of worth, such as grades or fat college admission packets. But the chase all the same. Grass is greener, anyone?

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