I had a serendipitous moment with Michelle Obama last week — just a few days before her transcendent speech at the DNC. The occasion was an interview with the First Couple by Lynn Sherr and Maggie Murphy in Parade, the supplement that shows up in many local Sunday papers.
I almost tossed the magazine aside, but I was drawn in by the radiant cover photo of a smiling Michelle and Barack snuggling on a couch in the White House Map Room, and what I found in this exchange midway through the Q-and-A was an almost spooky resonance with what we’ve been writing about these past four years. More about that below, but first, check this:
This year, there is once again a conversation about the “superwoman.” Can women have it all? Is that even the right question?
MO: I think that question limits us as women. I work with a lot of young women—we have interns coming in and out, and this is always one of the first questions they ask—and the thing I try to remind them is that we have fought so hard for choice and options with our lives, and we’re just getting to that point where we’re willing to embrace all the different facets of womanhood. I know that when I came out of college, what I wanted and what I thought I wanted were very different things. Then I get married and have a career and, lo and behold, now I’ve got kids. And how you feel about motherhood when your children are small and when they’re teenagers, that’s going to change. I want to keep young women from thinking that there is one right answer. That answer is going to change every year, every five years.
Bingo. That line about no “one right answer”? That’s the point, isn’t it? Young women — all women, really — need to make peace with the fact that there is no right answer, no one-size-fits-all approach to life, whether it comes to career or family or any combination of the two. Nor, once we’ve made one choice or another, can we rely on sure-fire steps on how to get there. Why? Because it’s all too new. As women in transition, we’re adjusting to rapidly changing roles within a slowly changing society, and what we’ve found is that for many of us, the insecurity of making our way without a road map has left us all just a little bit, well, undecided.
But what the First Lady reminds us is that we’re all in this together. And hooray for that.
Still, the idea that there is no grand plan, no tried-and-true blueprint that can show us how to find our place in the world, is one scary thought. It’s also the idea that sparked our book — coincidentally, four years to the day before I picked up the Parade interview. On that hot late-summer day, Shannon had talked me into tackling the notorious Dipsea Trail, a treacherous seven mile trek that ascends some 2200 feet up Mount Tamalpais, just north of San Francisco, and ends at Stinson Beach, a small town on the edge of the Pacific. The hike took all day, and later that night, over iced knees, a killer roast chicken and a few delightful glasses of Pinot, we began to brainstorm: Why was it that today’s women were so undecided? What was the cause of the “analysis paralysis” that plagued so many young women? The dissatisfaction that seemed to be so rampant in a generation of women groomed to have it all? Shannon insisted there was a book in searching for the answers, and that we should do it together.
Together? That’s all she had to say. (Wondering what it’s like for a mother and daughter to write a book together? Another story for another day.)
Anyway, in the process of reporting our book, we interviewed researchers, experts, counselors, coaches — and most importantly hundreds of undecided women, from their twenties to their sixties, who became the heart and soul of our book. And what we found was shared experience, underlying issues in the workplace and the culture that have yet to be addressed, and a collective sense of growing pains.
What we didn’t find were any cookie-cutter answers. Which actually, is the answer. In slightly more than a generation, our roles and our opportunities have changed dramatically. And with all that change comes uncertainty. Sure, we all yearn for those pieces of grand advice — once you do “A”, “B” will surely follow. We want to know exactly what to expect behind Door No. 1 or Door No. 2. But when you think about it, that’s pretty much the way our mothers or grandmothers lived their lives. For us, however, life is much more complicated — and far more exciting.
What’s interesting is that when we speak in front of women’s groups or on talk shows, you can feel a strong sense of resonance in the audience. The women, they get it. They identify with the stories we tell of women whose lives are like their own. They get pissed off with the structural impediments that have held them back. And yet: there’s always at least one hand that shoots up, a woman pleading for some exact step-by steps. And what we answer is that there are none — and that’s a good thing.
Back to that interview with the Obamas, the beauty of there being no one sure answer is the freedom that comes with it: The permission to engage in some trial and error, to define ourselves apart from the shoulds, to lead a life that is true to type, and to jettison once and for all the idea that we can have it all.
Sure, it’s hard. Sometimes it’s scary. But the good news is, we’re in it together. Even the First Lady.