Archive for November, 2011

You might say we’ve come a long way, Baby, when even a(n older) man recognizes that it’s most often women who make the career sacrifices.  This isn’t just any man we’re talking about here — but none other than Francis Ford Coppola who, I will be the first to admit, is a genius.

Back in September, Coppola was interviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival by its director, Cameron Bailey, in front of a packed audience.  Last week, excerpts of the interview aired on Fresh Air, providing some good food for thought in a week devoted to, well, food.  Coppola revealed that he had always wanted to make small art films, and that he originally envisioned the films that turned him into a big shot director as the way to finance what he really wanted to do.  (The fact that those paycheck films were The Godfather and The Godfather Part II and, ultimately, Apocalypse Now — my top three all-time favorites, in no particular order — is beside the point.)

Toward the end of his gig, Coppola took questions from the audience, and the one that closed out the interview — and prompted this post — was from a young woman, an aspiring filmmaker, who asked in a quavering voice what advice he had to offer to young filmmakers.  And here’s what he said, without skipping a beat:

Well, if it’s a guy, I say get married ….  I was married at 22, and I was desperate to have kids. I had so much fun with my kids. The fact that I was married and had this family of little kids, I was very responsible, I wanted to have a house they could live in, so I worked very hard.  I didn’t go out and waste time as young men are known to do, I was diligent writing my script and what have you.  Marriage had a very good effect on me.  When I was married I was broke. Eight weeks later, I had a job as a screenwriter. I attribute a lot of it to the sense of togetherness, a little team I wanted to provide for.

If you’re a young woman, I would say, don’t get married, because then you have this guy who’s trying to get you to do everything for his career.  And you’re not going to have any time for your own career ….

His answer drew a big laugh from the audience — the guy can deliver a line, after all — but I have to believe it was one of those hoots that come from recognition. Because of course he said what no one says out loud. For decades now, it’s been the DoubleX of the marriage team that has often negotiated the trade-offs, often to the detriment of her own career. And we rarely question why we play second fiddle.

Not that we are less smart.  Or less talented.  Or less strong.  Or even less driven.  But because that’s the way society thinks, and it’s been slow to change.  Why don’t we ever question this?

Case in historical point. I did a story many years ago on Navy wives, whose husbands were stationed at a nearby base. Many of them were extremely smart, well-educated and very accomplished.  But most of them had put their careers on the back burner, not necessarily by choice.  Why?  Because they could never assure an employer they’d be around for more than 18 months.  And, you know, whose career came first? (Fun fact: at that time, the grocery bags at the PX were emblazoned with a patronizing little slogan: “Navy wives: Toughest job in the Navy”.  Whew.)

Okay, I agree. The military might be an extreme example. But more recently, we were on a national radio talk show when the host started talking about all the kids he sees in his upscale New York neighborhood who were ferried around solely by their nannies.  Clearly these folks have plenty of money, he said.  Why don’t they just scale back a little so that the mom can stay home.  Not dad, not parent.  Mom.  You can bet we set him straight.  Oh, and did we mention this guy was a very liberal sort?

Frequently, it’s money that’s the issue.  The biggest paycheck tends to call the shots, and since we’ve noted time and again, it’s men who score the biggest ones, we girls lose again.  Is Dick likely to take a chance so Jane can follow her dreams to another locale?  To be fair,  it’s often a practical decision, especially in this economy.  But always?

Or maybe it’s all about the time crunch.  When both members of the team are working night and day, and traveling to boot, who’s going to stick around to hold down the fort?  As we heard from one of the sources for our book, an economist who teaches in a prestigious business school, when there are two partners with killer jobs, the kinds of jobs her students, regardless of gender, train for, aspire to, and usually land right out of grad school — something has to give, especially when kids enter in.  Could this be why we see so few women at the top of the ladder?  As she told us, it’s the women who often bow out, rather than settle for a nine-to-fiver that kills the dreams they’ve had in their sights since grade school.

To be sure, for many women, this is a trade-off they are willing to make.  But that’s not our point.  Going back to the master’s comment in Toronto, after the laugh, let’s stop and think.  And wonder why.

Like I said.  Food for thought.

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Hey you! Yes, you–the one with all those balls in the air! Before you take another bite of pumpkin pie, read this.

A couple of new books–Willpower, by social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, PhD and New York Times reporter John Tierney, and The Willpower Instinct by Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD–dig into the science of this mysterious and elusive thing we call willpower, and a little examination of their findings reveals that the current reality of women’s lives leaves us particularly screwed. And that’s just in regular life: add on the stress of the holidays and the abundance of temptation that surrounds during this most wonderful time of year, and it’s little wonder we find it so difficult to say no to the second helping, the umpteenth glass of bubbly, the fifty-seventh mini-quiche, one more little goat-cheese stuffed date…

Where was I? Oh, willpower. So, in an example of a serious willpower fail, the other day, after writing for several hours, I opted to flip through the latest issue of Elle, rather than do my laundry, go to the grocery store, or sweep the house. Although the slip proved serendipitous, as that’s when I came across Rachel Combe’s piece, “Control Freak-Out.” In it, she takes on how this science affects women, and she gets it exactly right. Check it:

We tend to think of self-control as a spiritual virtue, like love or charity. However, research shows it’s more like a muscle, subject to fatigue, lifestyle, and energy supply. You can wear out self-control not only through traditional tests of will–resisting pastries, not cheating on your spouse–but through less obvious means: making too many decisions, having lots of competing goals, castigating yourself if you fall off whatever wagon you’re trying to stay on, failing to sleep or eat well.

The list of willpower sappers pretty much describes my life and those of most women who are out there trying to have it all… It seems to me that women are at particular risk of having their self-control henpecked to death… Marketing studies show that we make, on average, 80 percent of major and minor household purchases and decisions such as food, cars, health care, and the house itself…

Sociologists say that women inhabit more roles these days than ever. This multiplicity of hats can translate into nonstop competing goals (work or kids, kids or spouse, spouse or self, self or community, community or extended family)… [A] study found that the more subjects’ goals clashed, the more they worried, the less they got done, and the more likely they were to be physically and/or mentally ill.

The above is likely not news to you: more than likely, to a certain extent, it is you. The question is, in this season of gravy and eggnog, of cocktail parties and family get-togethers, of shopping and traveling, how can you keep your willpower muscle in shape, so you’ll be equipped to flex it when you need it most? (I’m talking to you, Thanksgiving dinner.) Here are some tips:

1. Don’t be the decider: Decision making is wildly taxing on your self-control. So do what you can to delegate (surely your husband can handle choosing which brand of TP to take home?) and simplify, and–most importantly–consider the timing. Study after study has shown that the more choices we have to make, the more likely our rational brain will just check out–and with it, our willpower. So don’t spend an entire afternoon at the mall agonizing over what to buy whom on your list, and then expect to be able to behave like anything other than a mindless vacuum cleaner in the face of the buffet at the Williams’ holiday party, with its dessert table piled high with homemade fudge and macaroons, and that cheese plate that undoubtedly cost more to assemble than your fanciest little black dress did to accessorize. (Oh, and speaking of little black dresses, consider one of Combe’s strategies, and come up with a “uniform.” One less decision to make.)

2. Ratchet down the stress by putting things in perspective. I spent upwards of 10 hours over the past two days worrying over how to prepare the items I’m responsible for at Thanksgiving… an amount of attention that’s decidedly out of proportion with the importance of the decision at hand. (After much deliberation, I’m opting to go savory on the sweet potatoes; cheesy on the brussels, for the record.) This tends to be harder for women, though. Just as an example, during a recent interview, I was explaining the concept of “Opportunity cost”–the idea that when you’re doing A, you are by definition not doing B–to the woman who was interviewing me. So, I said, “if you’re staying up late to make cupcakes for your kid’s bake sale, you are by definition not working on your report for work, or having sex with your husband.” “So, you’re saying you should figure out if your kids are more important than your work?” she asked. “No!” I said, “Not at all, in fact. A cupcake is not your child.” Sometimes we ascribe too much weight to things. Sometimes, finishing a particular report is more important than lovin (or the oven) but that doesn’t mean work is more important to you than your children or the sexual state of your marriage. Sometimes, in fact, a cupcake is just a cupcake. Something to remember the next time you find yourself freaking out over the napkin rings or the wrapping paper. (Ahem. Guilty.)

3. Fail well! This time of year is loaded with land mines. You will, inevitably, have one too many at the office party, realize you’ve inhaled a platter of cookies without even tasting them, swear at a fellow shopper, and/or snap at someone you love. But there are good and bad ways to deal with your missteps. Combe writes:

The What-The-Hell effect applies to eating, drinking, procrastination, and just about any other act of will. The key, however, isn’t that you shouldn’t try to control eating or drinking; it’s how you react when you fail. In studies of drinkers, the worse people felt about drinking too much one night, the more they drank the next two. The same went for procrastinating students: The harder they were on themselves for missing a deadline, the more likely they were to miss a subsequent one. On the flip side, the more compassion people show for themselves, the more likely they are to take responsibility for failures, seek advice, and correct the situation.

Realize that traversing the holiday season is like running a gauntlet of temptations. And when one of them knocks you off track, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, put your party shoes back on, and dare to face another tray of passed appetizers. Forgetting the gift for your office Secret Santa, indulging in a pumpkin scone AND a pumpkin latte on the same day, sending your kid to her performance of the Nutcracker with uncombed hair — these things happen. They do not make you a bad person (though they might make you an undesirable Secret Santa); they make you human. (And–hello!–slip-ups of the caloric variety are generally delicious, or they wouldn’t tempt us so. Shouldn’t you be enjoying that mouthful of peppermint bark, rather than silently berating yourself for eating it?) Give yourself a break.

4. Be good to yourself: The very things that keep you healthy boost your willpower, too. Yes, this season is hectic, but capitalize on those moments when it’s not. You know you’ll have more than enough baked goods in your life over the next couple of weeks, so squeeze in a salad where you can. Exercise. Sleep. See your friends. And, failing all of that, just take one minute a day, 60 seconds to close your eyes and be thankful for every last bit of your crazy, imperfect life, and all of the crazy, imperfect people in it. Then open them back up, and face the fondue pot like the soldier you are.

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The other day, I got a ping from a former student who sent a link to a recent piece she’d read over on Forbes.com.  “Have you seen this?” she wrote.  “It reminds me of Undecided!”

The topic? Burn-out.  Apparently, it’s rampant among high achieving millennial women. At least that’s the skinny according to a piece by Forbes contributor Larissa Faw who writes that “a growing number of young professional women who seem to ‘have it all’ are burning out at work before they reach 30.”

She had me at have it all.  Faw doesn’t necessarily back up the burn-out rate with numbers, but she does offer some compelling stats that link these “early career flameouts” with women’s declining presence on the upper reaches of the corporate ladder:

 Today, 53% of corporate entry-level jobs are held by women, a percentage that drops to 37% for mid-management roles and 26% for vice presidents and senior managers, according to McKinsey research. Men are twice as likely as women to advance at each career transition stage

Interesting, but not surprising.  What struck me, though – and what perhaps made that former student think of Undecided — was Faw’s rationale that one of the reasons for the lopsided stats is that, whereas women burnout early and jump ship, men stick around.  Why?  Because our brothers know how to relax.  From the story:

 It seems relaxation is something Millennial women have never experienced. One reason that women are burning out early in their careers is that they have simply reached their breaking point after spending their childhoods developing well-rounded resumes. “These women worked like crazy in school, and in college, and then they get into the workforce and they are exhausted,” says Melanie Shreffler of the youth marketing blog Ypulse.


Now, we can’t say whether this inability to take five logically leads to burn-out.  But what we can say, based on the reporting we did for the book, is that this treadmill mentality is very real, especially among young women raised with the message that “you can have it all.”  These are the girls who started building their resumes in grade school, who lived by their day planners and five-year plans, and who crumbled at the sight of a B-plus.

I remember seeing this one little girl, in grade school plaid, sitting in Starbucks, drinking this giant latte, and working w/her tutor on some kind of Princeton Review workbook for acing the high school entrance exam.  No one even questioned the caffeine.  And check this: one study from the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that college educated parents were spending more time with their kids than ever before.  Cool, right? But what the researchers discovered was the root of all this extra time was the perceived scarcity of college spots. The title of the study? The rug rat race.  No joke.  Another piece on CNN a while back featured hard-driving moms who had either quit their jobs or taken a leave to navigate their kids thru the college admission process.

Whew. I’m verging on burn-out just writing this stuff.  Call it the curse of great expectations: The problem with the treadmill mentality is that it leads to a lot of future thinking — a bad habit that’s hard to break — or what psychologists call the arrival fallacy:  If I make this team, get into that college,  score that fat job – then I’ll be happy.

Or not.  Because where the treadmill ends is in the real world.  And though we’ve come a long way, baby, that world has not quite caught up.  All of which has lead to a lot of growing pains as we – and especially our Millennial sisters – learn to navigate the trade-offs without much in the way of a roadmap.

Thing is, for this newest generation of twenty (or thirty) somethings and the rest of us who’ve been bred on perfection and raised with the mantra that the sky’s our limit, well, with everything on the menu, could it be that, no matter what the routine, once something becomes routine, we’re doomed to be just not that into it anymore? No matter the pluses, are we unable to see anything but the minuses? This isn’t quite perfect, so why should I stick around? Once we’re confronted with reality’s non-perfection, do we begin to imagine what we’re not doing?  Hello, carrot.  Meet stick.

Bottom line, we’re in it together, trying to figure this stuff out.  As Teri Thompson, chief marketing officer and vice president of marketing and media at Purdue, tells Forbes:

 “We’re all a work in progress; new inputs—from new friends to new places visited—mean we’re constantly changing in our thoughts of what’s desired, what’s possible, what’s fun, what we want to do.”

Forbes might call it burnout.  We call it finding our way.  By the way, that former student?  She’s a millennial woman herself.  A high achiever who is currently in the throes of her law school applications.

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“I’m not mad!”

…but maybe I should be. Gloria Steinem thinks so.

In a recent interview with the Observer, Steinem is quoted as saying:

I think we need to get much angrier about childcare, about flexible working patterns. It’s alarming to me that women are still encouraged to blame themselves. No one can do it all. If I had $5 for every time we’ve tried to kill off superwoman, I’d be very rich. But women are planning their lives, they have choices, and that didn’t happen before, believe me. We thought our husbands and children would dictate everything.

Childcare, flexible working patterns, blaming ourselves, trying to do it all: um, yeah, of course we should be mad! I think many of us are. The trouble is, hell if we’re gonna admit it. Most of us won’t even cop to being pissed when we’re fighting with our significant others. Be honest, now: Who among you hasn’t said “I’m not mad!” …in a raging fit of anger?

Thought so.

In addition to the false idea that’s peddled around–the one that says that feminism’s work has been done–that effectively encourages a certain complacency in the face of, oh, let’s see, unfair pay and treatment, unequal representation, a lack of support for working mothers, a culture of victim blaming, and the various and sundry other realities of which most women today are aware (just not mad about!), there’s something else that keeps us smiling quietly: the fact that anger isn’t very ladylike. The myth of the angry (not to mention ugly, hairy, man-hating and utterly humorless) feminist lives on.

I fear the truth is that that children’s rhyme about sugar and spice and everything nice does more damage than just convincing little girls that boys are gross (made of snips and snails and puppy dog tails? who the hell came up with that one?); the message bores itself into our brains early and often. Women should be nice. We should smile. To be angry is to be unattractive, unladylike, unfeminine.

There’s a line Steinem frequently drops that we reference in our book:

[Steinem] was asked if she felt women today are ungrateful for the gains of feminism’s second wave. ‘I hope so,’ she said, and paraphrasing Susan B. Anthony, added, ‘Our job is not to make young women grateful. Gratitude never radicalized anybody. We had to get mad on our own behalf; we didn’t walk around saying ‘Thank you so much for the vote.’ We got mad because we were being treated unequally, and they are too.’

But will we get mad about it?

That Observer piece kicks off with a wild reference to the past: in 1984, Observer reporter Martin Amis interviewed Steinem at the Ms. magazine offices, and here’s what he wrote about the experience:

As for Steinem herself, she is ‘the least frightening’ kind of feminist, being possessed of — prepare to be amazed! — both a sense of humor and good looks. She was, he wrote, relief slowly blooming, ‘nice, and friendly, and feminine… the long hair is expertly layered, the long fingernails expertly manicured. Fifty this year, Ms. Steinem is unashamedly glamorous.’

Wait? A feminist–one who wants us to get angry–who’s nice? friendly? with a manicure? Sacre bleu!

Okay, okay, that was some years ago. But, you know, I fear there are those who still think that way. Whose go-to response in the face of a feminist, or a woman who makes a rational argument, sensibly calling out an injustice for what it is, is to assume she’s a mean, humorless, unmanicured man-hater. It’s a good way to derail an uncomfortable conversation, doncha think?

It happens to me often enough. (Just check the comments to any one of a number of posts here!) And, you know what? I am mad! But that’s not all I am.

Just last week I was at my former office, having the staff photographer take some publicity shots for me. We were squirreled away in an unused conference room, but soon enough, an old pal came around the corner.

“I thought that was you!” he said. “I’d know your laugh anywhere.”

Damn right he would.

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Well, it certainly seems like it. According to Pamela Paul’s piece in Sunday’s New York Times,

Mother’s little helper of the new millennium may in fact be the sleeping pill – a prescription not likely to inspire a jaunty pop song anytime soon. Nearly 3 in 10 American women fess up to using some kind of sleep aid at least a few nights a week, according to “Women and Sleep,” a 2007 study by the National Sleep Foundation, a nonprofit research group.

And anecdotal research indicates it’s not just mothers who are starved for shut-eye, but women in general:

Sleep-medicine practices are overwhelmingly dominated by female patients. Dr. Nancy Collop, director of the Emory Sleep Center in Atlanta, said three out of four insomnia patients at the clinic are women…

In the ‘Women and Sleep’ study, 80 percent of women reported being just too stressed or worried to turn out the proverbial lights.

In a word: unshocking. I myself am firmly in the Fall Asleep Fine But Wake At 3 And Can’t Get Back to Sleep camp. I don’t have kids, but I do have several jobs, and a life. Last night I worried over the writing deadlines I have this week, the speaking engagement I have on Wednesday halfway across the state, and the new coaching client whose appointment I’m going to have to reschedule in order to travel to said speaking engagement… not to mention the shopping list, the whipping wind’s effect on the palm tree that sways outside my front window, the doctor’s appointment I’ve been meaning to make for, oh, the past five months, what I’m going to wear to said speaking engagement… I could go on — but I’m guessing you catch my drift. More than likely, it would seem, you do exactly the same thing. As Paul wrote:

According to IMS Health, a health care consulting firm in Danbury, Conn., the use of prescription sleep aids among women peaks from 40 to 59. Last year, the firm said, 15,473,000 American women between those ages got a prescription to help them sleep, nearly twice the number of men in that age group.

Those figures do not include those who are prescribed anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medications, frequently used off-label for insomnia. Nor do they include women who zone out with a glass of wine.

The question is, how is it that men aren’t similarly affected?

Well, I’d guess there are more than a couple factors at play: it’s personal, and it’s political. Women hold ourselves to high standards — we internalize the messages that bombard us from all directions, from the media to our mothers. We want to be perfect: perfect employees, perfect partners, perfect moms, perfect friends, perfect looking, perfect yogis, chefs, decorators, you name it. We were weaned on the messages that we could have it all and that we could do anything — and so we fill our days with our valiant attempts to do it all, running at full speed ahead, from this to that and back again, so adrenalized that the only way to unwind, it seems, is to dive into a bottle, whether of pills or Pinot.

But it’s not only our tough inner critic that’s to blame. The fact is, the modern workplace–of which women are now the majority–is still set up as though the workers who fill it were Don Draper clones, men with a full-time Betty at home, able to take care of all of the stuff that keeps a life running smoothly. But the ladies (and gentlemen) of today don’t have a Betty. So we do our best Don–and then we make the time to get Betty’s job done, too. We work our full day–and then we fold the clothes. And do the grocery shopping. And pick up the dry cleaning. And attempt to cook healthy items (or contend with the parking lot at our favorite take-out joint), to exercise, to socialize, to sleep. To quote Germaine Greer:

When we talk about women having it all, what they really have all of is the work.

…and none of the Zzzs.

So, what to do? Being a little easier on ourselves would certainly be a start. Asking for help might be another. And then: start thinking bigger, recognize the deeper truths for the eye-openers that they are. The world has changed, but the workplace and expectations haven’t. So maybe what we really need to be thinking about is what we can do to change that.

Just, hopefully, not at 3am.

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Of all the words that have been spoken or written (ours included) about Steve Jobs in the past few weeks, the wisest and most meaningful may have come from the eulogy delivered by his sister, novelist Mona Simpson, who recently shared it with the New York Times.

By now, you have probably read Simpson’s opening:

Even as a feminist, my whole life I’d been waiting for a man to love, who could love me. For decades, I’d thought that man would be my father. When I was 25, I met that man and he was my brother.

And you probably know Jobs’ final words, with which Simpson ended her eulogy:


But what’s stashed between those bookends is genius: a number of life lessons that apply to so many of us, especially women, as we try to figure out where and how we fit into our changing world. We women have come a long way in a short amount of time, with no real roadmaps – or even many role models — to guide us as we try to figure out the balance between the expectations of our evolving roles and a world that hasn’t quite caught up.   As we heard from one of the women — a poet, a grantwriter for a nonprofit, a schoolboard member and a new mother — we interviewed for our book:

“I wonder if some of our frustration is about the fact that it’s virtually impossible to excel at everything—wife, writer, teacher, runner, in my case—and so we’re always worried about the area in which we’re not measuring up to our own expectations. 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. Or maybe it’s just that the mold of womanhood has been broken, and now it’s up to all of us to make up our own versions. That’s incredibly empowering—because it means we get to make things up as we go along—but also scary and hard.”

And so, because we’re still learning how to navigate the trade-offs, when it comes to making choices on how to live our lives we often rely on shoulds and expectations – and spend a lot of our time wondering “what if.”  Nasty business, most of the time, that takes us out of the moment, and into the netherworld of grass-is-greener.  We second-guess ourselves, contemplating what might have been, and worrying about whether we measure up.

All of which brings us back to Mona Simpson and the lessons she learned from her big brother Steve who, on top of everything else, truly appreciated the wonder in life.  If it’s a roadmap we need, it’s a good one to follow:

• Steve worked at what he loved. He worked really hard. Every day.

• He was never embarrassed about working hard, even if the results were failures. If someone as smart as Steve wasn’t ashamed to admit trying, maybe I didn’t have to be.

• His philosophy of aesthetics reminds me of a quote that went something like this: “Fashion is what seems beautiful now but looks ugly later; art can be ugly at first but it becomes beautiful later.”  Steve always aspired to make beautiful later.

 • He was willing to be misunderstood.

 • He believed that love happened all the time, everywhere. In that most important way, Steve was never ironic, never cynical, never pessimistic. I try to learn from that, still.

 • With his four children, with his wife, with all of us, Steve had a lot of fun. He treasured happiness.

What you find, if you distill those lessons, is a simple recipe for living life to the fullest, whether or not we ever achieve iconic and/or genius status (note: most likely we won’t): Work hard.  Follow your heart — even if failure is a distinct possibility.  Be patient (art versus fashion, remember?).  Treasure the moment.

And appreciate the wonder.

It all resonates, actually, with one of Apple’s earliest slogans, borrowed from Leonardo da Vinci: Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

As with Apple, so with life?  Oh wow.

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On a recent trip to D. C., I was out to dinner with some long-lost family friends and their very accomplished, 20-something daughter who’d just moved to the city after earning her Masters of Public Administration and subsequently landing a seriously fat job working for the government, something she’s always wanted to do. She’d come directly to dinner from the office — never mind that it was, in fact, a Saturday. She was tired, but lit up whenever she got to talking about what was going on at work. But the second she left the table, her parents expressed more than a little bit of worry: How will she ever meet anyone when she’s working so hard? A standard parental concern, of course, but she seemed pretty happy with her new gig. A gig which, it bears repeating, is seriously impressive — and one she’d worked really hard to score.

I have another friend, a single 30-something living a life in New York City that Carrie Bradshaw would have envied. I’ve known her and her family for years, and her mom always says, Oh, but I think deep down she really just wants to be a stay-at-home mom.

Then: lunch last week, with yet another friend. Young, super educated and very successful. Not that into kids, but considering freezing her eggs. (To the tune of somewhere around $12,000.)

And finally: just today I got an email from another friend — a journalist whose job has taken her around the world. In fact, she and her husband just returned from a year in Africa, an adventure they’d deemed too amazing to pass up. And they were right. Now that they’re back, though, they’re thinking baby thoughts. As in, at 36 years old, it’s now or… well, maybe never — which means not just baby thoughts, but thoughts about boarding the infertility express. (To the tune around $12,000… a round.)

All of which has me wondering: These are all women — happy women — who have experienced some seriously amazing accomplishments, women who are living lives they are pretty happy to be living. And yet, the perception is that there’s no way they could be really happy unless they have a man on their arm and a baby on their hip. Not to say there’s anything wrong with a man or a baby — on the contrary! — but these women are happy today. So why the constant focus on what’s “missing”?

The conspiracy theorist in me sees a touch of The Beauty Myth-variety dynamics at play. Here’s a bit of what Naomi Wolf wrote in the 1991 book:

The more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily and cruelly images of female beauty have come to weigh upon us.

Consider: Recent years have seen major changes in women’s position in society (we’re now the majority of the workforce, earning more degrees, and an increasing number of wives are the main breadwinner in a marriage) and in our behavior around marriage and motherhood (age of first marriage and first child are rising, and numbers of women who’ve chosen to be child-free are steadily on the uptick, as well).

And… backlash!

Recent years also have seen an explosion in what might be described as a fetishization of these traditional female roles. Bump watches abound, and weddings have gone off the reservation. (After yesterday’s announcement that they’re getting divorced, Kim Kardashian’s $10 million dollar wedding on Aug. 20 to NBA star Kris Humphries breaks down to $138,888 a day. That must have been one hell of a cake.) Professional “glamour” maternity photos are becoming as ubiquitous as the professional engagement portrait.

I’m not saying that we don’t — or shouldn’t — want love and marriage and a baby carriage. But if we don’t, the cultural forces at work sure do their best to change our minds.

We have more choices than ever before, and we’ve been told we can have it all. But, instead of fully enjoying what we do have, how often are we worrying over how we’re going to get the parts we don’t? And — worse! — when we’re not worrying over how we’re going to get the parts we don’t have yet, how much time are we forced to spend explaining that, no, we really are quite happy… time that could be spent, you know, actually being happy?

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