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Archive for the ‘“What should I do with my life?”’ Category

thumbnail[2]If we want to close the ambition gap, a good first step might be learning how to shake our heads.

There’s this great quote from Feminist icon Germaine Greer: When we talk about women having it all, what they really have all of is the work.”  She was being somewhat facetious.   But then again, not so much.

Which leads me to wonder: Would women be more powerful if we could just say no?  A couple of recent studies just say yes.

Some say that women are hard-wired to please.  Others say we’re socialized that way.  In either case, we see it all the time:  Good little girls doing as they’re told at home, eager for the stamp of approval from mommy or daddy.  Older girls sitting still in class and turning in their homework on time to please their teachers.

But what’s surprising is that, according to a new study, even those of us raised with the “you go, girl” rhetoric never seem to outgrow our eagerness to please.  According to a piece in the Wall Street Journal, a paper presented at the American Economic Association meeting earlier this month confirms that even when we grow up, we’re much more likely to say “yes” when we want to say “no”.

The study focused on 47 business-school students who were asked to recall a time when they were asked to do a favor on the job when they really didn’t want to.  And guess what?

The female participants did the favor, even though they were five times more likely than males to report having felt worn out. Perhaps they obliged because they were also twice as likely to have been worried about the consequences of saying no.

Ya think?  The researchers further postulated that this willingness to do favors  “may lead them to become overburdened with low-skill tasks.”

In other words, when we find ourselves locked into a continuing chorus of “Sure, I’ll be happy to…”, it not only saps our time, but zaps our power as well.

So much for the need to say no when we’re at work.  Head on over to the homefront and you find another related power drain:  According to a new study out of The University of California at Berkeley and Emory University, women who rule the roost at home are less likely “to pursue promotions and other career advancement steps at the office.”  In other words, when you’re the CEO at home, you’re much less likely to ever come close to the C-suite at work:

“It appears that being in charge of household decisions may bring a semblance of power to women’s traditional role, to the point where women may have less desire to push against the obstacles to achieving additional power outside the home,” said UC Berkeley psychologist Serena Chen, a co-author of the study.

Despite the feminist movement and other gender equity efforts, women largely retain authority over child-rearing and household chores and finances, with men deferring to their expertise in these matters, researchers point out. This paradigm has had an impact on women’s career choices, the study implies.

Whether all this power over domestic decisions takes away our ambition by fulfilling our innate need for power – or simply drains our energy– who knows for sure. But, says Chen, when it comes to seizing power in the workplace, we ought to let some go at home. Women need to “at least partially abdicate their role of ultimate household deciders, and men must agree to share such decision making.”

In other words, there’s only so much of us to go around, and we should use ourselves wisely.  The first step might be to reconsider the messaging we’ve been raised with: As we’ve written here and in our book, told we can have it all, we heard we must do it all. Told we can do anything, we heard that we could do everything –  and we’d better do it perfectly. We are told to be grateful for all the choices we have, and, of course, we are, but the one crucial message that never got sent was this: every choice entails a trade-off.  If you’re doing A, you can’t be doing B.

Or, in light of the studies above, you can’t be doing favors for someone else at work, and still have time to charge ahead on your own projects.  Nor, apparently, can you run the household like a CEO — and have any mojo left when it comes to climbing the ladder at work.  Which is to say, we need to give ourselves permission to let go.  Or even abdicate.  Even if it means that some things get done less than perfectly.  Or not at all.

When you think about it, it’s all pretty simple.  All we need do is learn to say no.

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imagesThe Year of the Woman? Oy vey.

It’s a phrase that’s always struck me as ridiculous. It would be one thing to declare it the Year of the Short, Redheaded, Left-Handed Woman, or the Year of the Unmarried, Urban-dwelling Thirtysomething Woman, or the Year of the Woman Who Doesn’t Want to Have It All, but, I mean, half the people there are are women. Saying its our year is so broad as to be totally meaningless. And more than a tad condescending. (And, as any good writer knows, a mere three examples is all it takes to make a trend. Which is to say, as easy as it would be to round up three examples that prove it is indeed the year of the woman, it’d be equally simplistic to find three examples that demonstrate that, no, in fact, this was not such a good year for women.)

Interestingly, I got to thinking about this idea while reading Sunday’s New York Times magazine, which, upon first glance, would seem to be proclaiming 2012 as a the year of the woman. The cover story, “Hollywood Heroines,” is accompanied by a beautiful photo spread that spans 21 pages and features the big screen’s biggest ladystars of the year. It’s exactly the sort of thing you see, and expect the accompanying text to be proclaiming the dearth of quality female characters over, the representation equaled, the hierarchy overturned! (Citing three examples, natch.) Oh, actually, the deck did say that the hierarchy had been overturned. But, turns out, the piece, written by A.O. Scott, was right on the money, and its lessons stretch far beyond the reaches of tinsel town.

Scott cites some good examples of movies from this year that feature strong female characters, and/or pass the Bechel Test (the shockingly simple, yet equally, perhaps more, shockingly impossible-to-pass test comprised of three criterion: 1. the movie must have at least two named women characters; 2. they must talk to each other; 3. about something besides a man).

But the heart of the matter, I think, is this:

The rush to celebrate movies about women has a way of feeling both belated and disproportionate. Pieces of entertainment become public causes and punditical talking points, burdened with absurdly heavy expectations and outsize significance… It is a fact beyond dispute that the roles available to women in what movie-lovers nervously call the real world have expanded significantly in the last half-century, a fact at once celebrated and lamented in backward-looking pop-cultural phenomena like “Mad Men.” But the things that women do–the people they insist on being remain endlessly controversial. It takes very little for individual tastes and decisions to become urgent matters of public debate. It takes, basically, a magazine cover article. Women are breast-feeding their babies, pushing their children to practice violin, reading ’50 Shades of Grey’ on the subway, juggling career and child care, marrying late or not at all, falling behind or taking over the world. Stop the presses!

The problem is not that these issues are not important but rather that they are presented with a sensationalism that tends to undermine their ongoing and complicated significance. The behavior of a woman who appears on the public stage can be counted on to provoke a contentious referendum on the state of women in general. Is this good for women? Is she doing it wrong? This happened, in the last 12 months, to Sandra Fluke and Paula Broadwell, to Rihanna and Ann Romney, and, closer to the matter at hand, to Lena Dunham.

You did not really think I would get through a whole essay on gender and popular culture without mentioning her, did you? But the reception of ‘Girls,’ even more than the show itself–which is, to keep things in perspective,  a clever half-hour sitcom about a bunch of recent college graduates–is an interesting sign of our confused times. Dunham was mocked for her body, sneered at for her supposed nepotism, scolded for her inadequate commitment to diversity and lectured about the inappropriate things her alter ego, Hannah Horvath, does in bed. That much of the criticism came from Dunham’s peers is both evidence of a robust feminist discourse in the cultural blogosphere and a legacy of the under- and misrepresentation I have been talking about. Dunham was not quite allowed just to explore her own ideas and experiences. She was expected to get it right, to represent, to set an example and blaze a path.

And while the great majority of us are not Lena Dunham, I’d say that pressure and that judgment–and, more to the point, that expectation that we’re gonna be judged–is something we all deal with. Because no matter how many movies about women or girl heroes or headlines about secretaries of state or tiger mothers get paraded out on (to borrow Scott’s point) magazine covers, the message we take home has far less to do with the specific example itself than it does the analysis. What we absorb is this: Whatever you do, every choice you make, says everything about you, and, by God, you’re gonna be judged for it.

When we write about women and choices and the struggles we have determining what to do with our lives, I think we can’t overstate the lesson here. In order to make choices that are right for us, individually, we have to recognize how much of our pro and con lists are occupied by these pressures. The pressure to get it right, to represent, to set an example, to blaze a path. It’s interesting to wonder, if we could somehow apply a filter that’d shut those considerations down, how much easier our choices would be.

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Gift Boxes and BallSanta, make it stop!

My inbox, which has exploded exponentially every day since Thanksgiving rolled over into the Season of  Shopping, has sent me on the fast track to crazy town.

Among the fifty-odd messages that popped up since I went to bed last night are emails from everything from Bloomingdales to the Stanford Wine Club to Toys “R” Us, each and every one of them with urgent subject lines, imploring me to get on the stick before it’s too late:

Final Hours:  30 percent Off!
Friends and Family!  Sale Ends Today!
1 day only: Free Shipping!
Shoes and Bags, Starting at $49.99
Up to 35% Off! Cybersale ends today!
Top Foodie gifts!
Last minute holiday deals!

Last minute?  Gulp. The silliest offer, who knows how they found me, was for a half-price gift certificate at the local batting cages.  Go figure.

So crazed was I the other day, in fact, that I misread an email from a local retailer that one of my kids happens to love offering a 24-hour-40-percent-off sale.  I rushed to the mall, only to find out that the sale was online only.

You would think that a smart person such as myself – and one who genuinely enjoys Christmas shopping – should be immune to all this insanity.  And yet, I succumb each year to a ridiculous sense of panic starting a few days before Thanksgiving is in the books:  All these options, all these sales!  Get it together before it’s too late.  Decide, decide, decide!

As in shopping, so in life?  As we’ve written before, choices are hard, and time pressure makes the decision-making process a hundred times worse.  Add in the constant barrage of information (thank you, interwebs) and we’re headed for a serious case of analysis paralysis.  In fact, what we learned in the research for our book is that the greater the number of options, the less likely we are to choose one, whether we’re Christmas shopping — or more importantly, trying to figure out what to do with our lives.

It’s not unlike choosing between the red sweater for Aunt Jean or the blue one — or no sweater at all.  Because, as we learned from Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of “The Paradox of Choice’, one of the insidious effect of having too many choices is that you naturally expect that one of them will be perfect.  And so you search and search until you find it.

Or you don’t.  Cue the holiday shoppers wandering through the mall with the thirty-yard stare

This analysis-paralysis business is especially strong for women when it comes to career decisions.  Consider the newness of it all.  Back in the day, college-educated women were routinely told they could be a teacher, a nurse or a secretary.  (Until, of course, they stayed home to raise the children).  Now, young women know from the earliest age that they can do or be anything – with or without kids.  That freedom is what we’ve fought for, but with it comes a mountain a stress.  There’s an added wrinkle, too, which is what I hear from so many of my female students:  Before they’re legal to order a cocktail, they feel pressure to decide on their life’s path: Choose the right major! Get an internship! Build a resume!

Before it’s too late.

But anyway, back to me.  As background, I rarely start Christmas shopping until I get Fall quarter grades turned in, sometime around the second week of December.  And you know what?  Santa always comes.  I know this, truly I do.  And yet: with stacks of final papers awaiting my red pen, I am making a list and checking it twice, in a total twit because, you know, I haven’t bought one thing.  And with all those emails, all those sales, all those choices blinking at me from my computer screen, I can’t help but thinking that the perfect gift, at the perfect price is out there waiting for me.  But I had better act now.

So here I sit, with a terminal case of the head spins.  That cute little pencil skirt?  You can never have too many.  Or, um, can you?   The Northface half-zip?  But wait, doesn’t he already have one?  So maybe the cashmere V-neck would be better after all.  Just not quite sure of the color.  Good price, though.  Sigh. At least for today.

But hold the phone: What about the batting cages?

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I frequently hear from former students – usually bright, idealistic twentysomethings — long after they’ve exchanged their college dreams for, you know, reality.

Often, these women are more than a little shell-shocked when they come face to face with the disconnect between their high expectations and life out there in the real world of work.  Their notes, emails and phone calls speak of a certain dissatisfact  Raised to believe they could have it all, they’re suddenly undecided.  Disillusioned. Wondering about that greener grass.  One former student, channeling Betty Friedan, called it “the other problem that has no name.”  All this angst, in fact, was one of the triggers for our book.

The latest email came from a focused young woman – we’ll call her Susie — who moved several states away after she scored the job of her dreams at a big tech company right out of the gate.  Great, right?  But what she wrote was anything but.

She first relayed a story of a friend, an Ivy League grad who was now working in New York – who was so miserable at her job she was thinking of calling it quits.  Why?  Constant sexist remarks.  A sense that she was invisible to the powers that be.  The final straw?  One of the partners in her firm sent out an office-wide email, addressed “Dear Gentlemen”, even though there were several women on the chain – and left her off it completely, though a male employee with her same job was included.

Small stuff, maybe.  But when you’ve been led to believe that gender discrimination is a thing of the past, that feminist battles have been fought and won, that you, sister, have achieved equality, reality provides a nasty wake-up call.

Anyway, back to Susie, who had her own tale of invisibility to tell.   Not long ago, she flew off to run a booth at a trade show for her company.  She reveled in the responsibility – and also in the opportunity to finally have a face-to-face meeting with her brand new boss, who was headquartered in a different state.  But while Susie was busy running the show, a Playboy model who’d been hired by her company for the gig, was working the crowd.

You can guess how this story ends, right?  Susie ended up with about 20 minutes of facetime with her boss, who was far more interested in chatting up the model and taking her to dinner.

“It just leaves so much dissatisfaction in my heart because I feel like there is no way to win this game,” Susie wrote.  “As women, what makes us valuable in the office? There are enough really talented women on my team that I know climbing the ranks is a possibility…”  And yet, she wondered:  how do these women feel when they’re smart, work hard, and then they see, as she did at the tradeshow, that looks carry more currency than talent. “I just wonder,” she wrote, “that even if we reach the pinnacle of success, whatever that might be, will we ever feel like we truly have it?”

Sigh.  One of the most insidious things about this kind of sexism, I told Susie, is that the folks who perpetuate this nonsense rarely realize what they are doing or saying. White male privilege?  More than likely. But it also speaks to the fact that, while we may have come a long way, we still have a long way to go. Which is why I get so grumpy when young women refuse to call themselves feminists – or when their older sisters, the ones who are edging up toward the top of the food chain, are loathe to acknowledge the way things were – and in many cases, still are.

Of course, what rankles the most is the idea that dealing with gender discrimination, with sexism of all kinds, is seen as women’s work.  Shouldn’t it be everyone’s work?

Hillary Clinton — one of the most powerful women in the world and someone who has put up with more than her share of bad behavior solely because of her gender – might well agree.  Check what she told the Gail Collins in an interview in Sunday’s New York Times:

For a long time, Clinton said, when she talked about giving women opportunity, “I could see some eyes glazing over.” But now, she continued, people are beginning to see that empowering women leads to economic development. That you don’t espouse women’s rights because it’s a virtuous thing to do but because it leads to economic growth.

Economics? Brilliant!  Which leads us back to Susie.  Who, we might ask her boss, made more money for her company that week at that trade show?

And exactly who is it that wins when smart and talented young women are too discouraged to stick around?

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The other day, a good friend who is Swedish emailed me a link  to post by Ann Charlott Altstadt, a Swedish writer who suggests that when life gets us down, we’d sometimes be better off ditching the trip to the yoga studio or the psychologist and seeing a sociologist instead.

Funny, my friend said, but true.

Being as how my knowledge of Swedish is, well, limited to the Muppets’ Swedish Chef, I google-translated the piece and, given a few glitches, I think I caught the drift:  When you find yourself in some deep weeds, it’s not always you that needs fixing.  Rather than placating yourselves with feel-good measures, you ought to look toward the structures that are causing all the grief in the first place.

In other words: Ain’t me, babe.  It’s you.

If you can get past the cyber-translation, which is more than a little wacky in places, here’s a taste of what Altstadt had to say:

 … it was so liberating when psychologist and author Jenny Jäger Feldt … questioned the trendiest and most fashionable solution to all our social problems-mindfulness. For example, if 90 percent in a workplace feel stressed, it probably is not a personal problem, and how can it be? …. Can the solution be to stand and smell for 10 minutes on the fish stick pack you just opened for dinner?

If you read women’s magazine, you get an intravenous overdose of the millions of images on the hyper-aesthetic women sitting with eyes closed in yoga position. Women take care of themselves, treat themselves and enjoy in their home spa. The woman in perfect balance in the sofa corner with folklore blanket sipping a giant cup of soothing herbal tea is a genre of its own class with religious myths of the Middle Ages.

Hit the like button.  As my Swedish friend points out, so much of the rhetoric these days is about us taking responsibility for how we react and feel.  But what if our negative reactions are normal and warranted?

Indeed.  We’re led to believe that if we’re not happy, if we’re less than content, there’s something wrong with us.  But what if those negative feelings alert us to a structure in need of a fix?  When we’re unhappy/stressed/worried/angry/sad — pick one — it may well be the absolute proper response to a situation where, if we were calm and peaceful, THAT would be a sign of crazy. When we are stretched too thin, when we’re struggling with the second shift, when we’re overworked and underpaid, when we’re striving for that elusive thing called perfect, when we’re relentlessly undecided, maybe it’s not us that needs help — it’s the system.

The structures themselves.  Cue the sociologist.

And yet, we’re led to believe that if we would  just, you know, dig the moment with a steaming cup of herbal tea, all would be right with the world.

All of which reminds me of a crazy notion we wrote about a couple years ago: on-the-job happiness coaching:

According to the Wall Street Journal, corralling employees in a conference room and showing them how to make happy is apparently the new black:

Happiness coaching is seeping into the workplace. A growing number of employers, including UBS, American Express, KPMG and the law firm Goodwin Procter, have hired trainers who draw on psychological research, ancient religious traditions or both to inspire workers to take a more positive attitude—or at least a neutral one. Happiness-at-work coaching is the theme of a crop of new business books and a growing number of MBA-school courses.

The coaching stuff seems silly, at least to me, but we see vestiges of this happiness-building stuff all the time:  workplace massage chairs.  Free sessions with a work-life coach.  Oatmeal-raisin cookies (my personal favorite) in the front office.  All of which might feel great at the time, but is it all a way to placate us, to keep us smiling so that we won’t notice that we’re overworked, that we deserve a raise, that your buddy in the next cube just got laid off, that the list of things-to-do-when-you-get home is longer than your right arm, that we’re still making only seventy-seven cents to the guy‘s buck?  To keep us from questioning why we need the massage chairs in the first place?

To keep us thinking that if it’s happy and serene that we want, all we need do is stop and smell the chamomile?

Or, as Altstadt writes, the fish stick pack.  Anyway, she writes that she’s tried mindfulness and that all it does is stress her out.  Instead of sitting around thinking about reality, what she’d rather do is change it.

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

Ahem.

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

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

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

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

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I received a terrifying letter in the mail the other day: an invitation to a grade school reunion.  As in eighth grade.

Ew, right? The very thought sent chills up my spine.  Did I really want to revisit my adolescent self? Does anyone?

Now, I am old enough to know that every one of us, from the beauty queens to the brainiacs, goes through an awkward stage – unloved, uncool, unsure of ourselves. We’ve gone here before:

Whether we were beauty or brains, prom queen or wallflower, picked first or last for volleyball or had our ass routinely kicked by Algebra II, we were filled with self doubt. Self-definition came in the form of how someone treated us at lunch or whether the phone rang that night. Deep inside, or maybe not even so deep, we were all just a little bit miserable because of, or in spite of, how we thought others perceived us.

For me, the dork stage came on like a bull at the start of seventh grade, peaked precipitously in eighth and ninth grade, then gradually subsided by the time I started my junior year of high school when, coincidentally, I had gotten both contact lenses and my driver’s license.  Up until then, however, I was the shy, nerdy girl with thick glasses, bad hair and – insult to injury — hay fever.

I was never without a Kleenex.

Yep, I was truly tragic for a few years there, yet not tragic enough to be oblivious to the fact. So clearly, you can imagine my reluctance to willingly go back to the dark days in the form of cocktails and lunch at a chichi restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf.  Would people I hadn’t seen since I turned 14 still remember me as the dorky kid?  Worse, would I suddenly start thinking of myself that way once again?

And then —  insert light bulb here — because I am a grown up and presumably have learned a thing or two about life along the way, I realized that maybe that sorry image of myself wasn’t about mean girls or pecking orders. It was really about me.  A prison of my own making.

Sometimes what keeps us from growing into ourselves, what holds us back in any number of ways and often keeps us undecided when it comes to figuring out what to do with our lives — and being happy with that decision once we’ve made it — is the fear of being judged.  But what it takes a while to realize is this:  often the almighty judge who had us quaking in our grade school plaid is made of straw.  The mythical mean girls we feared then – and those we fear now — may exist only in our own heads. And when it comes to all this leftover adolescent angst, women seem to have much thinner skins than men.

Is it the lingering legacy of adolescence? We’re held back by the fear that we are going to be judged when in fact, the only judge is the girl in the mirror.  Sure, we know this.  And yet: still we second-guess our decisions.  We search for approval.  We let ourselves be tyrannized by the shoulds. We worry about whether we will measure up.  Whether we fit in. We see ourselves as (we assume) others see us.

We end up, in fact, imprisoned by our own assumptions of what other folks will think – based on who we think those people actually are.  The funny thing is, what we’re doing is judging them.  It’s often unfair — and insulting, to boot. And we do it all the time.

Anyway, if all of the above sounds like a pep talk to get me to shell out the fifty-five bucks for that reunion, you’re right.  I’m still undecided as to whether I’m going to go. On the plus side, I am considerably better looking than I was at 14, I have a pretty cool job, and have finally mastered the art of conversation.  I also spend a good amount of money to have good hair.

But then again: I still have hay fever.  Don’t judge.

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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.

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I think it’s time to send the Mommy Wars off to bed once and for all.

Best-selling novelist Deborah Copaken Kogan would definitely agree.  Kogan was one of the featured break-out speakers at last week’s Sun Valley Writers Conference and her talk on the myth of the mommy wars provided food for both thought and the soul.

Kogan, a former photojournalist who spent her twenties covering international war zones, is the author of Shutterbabe, a memoir she wrote after the birth of her first child, and The Red Book, a New York Times bestseller that catches up with four Harvard roommates as they struggle, twenty years later, with the challenges of adult life.  She told a rapt audience that the media-created war that, again and again, pits women against each other is nothing but a diversion that keeps us from the real work of changing a broken system:

Once women were seen pitted thus–working mothers versus stay-at-home mothers–instead of us discussing why we have no infrastructure for working families — the simple us versus them becomes insidiously ingrained.

The us-versus-them business: Kogan was preaching to the choir, as far as I was concerned.  But what was encouraging to me was the way the women in the audience, ranging in age from twenty-something to sixty-plus, grabbed her message and got riled up, ready to join the right kind of fight.

Kogan traced the origins of the Mommy Wars back to that ridiculous cookie contest between Barbara Bush and Hilary Clinton. (Call it the cookie wars.  Check Family Circle and you’ll see they’re still going on.).  She provided slides of the recent media flashpoints, stuff we’ve written about, here and here:  “Are you Mom Enough”, the recent Time Magazine cover story on attachment parenting, and Anne Marie Slaughter’s piece in “The Atlantic”, which set the bar so high for having it all, Kogan said, as to render the term meaningless.  The resulting brouhaha also led to a fake dust-up between Slaughter and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. What’s interesting, Kogan said, is that these images, these poster-moms, don’t look like any women she knows.

Most women are worried about how they can afford to buy that dinner; what if their husband gets sick; if the nanny makes $750/week, how can I afford to work?  What vacation?  AND being judged constantly.  By framing this as a war, the media sets up the idea that one side must win.  And that diverts the attention from the real issue through the juxtaposition of mommy plus war — without caveats.

Kogan provided charts and stats, comparing the support the U.S. offers working mothers versus the policies in other countries such as France or Sweden.  You can guess where the U.S. fell in most of those measures:  Off the charts, actually, and not in a good way (as we too found when we researched our book.)  Add in crappy vacation policies (versus France, she said, where five weeks’ vacation is the norm) and corporate work expectations that can top out at eighty hour work weeks.  And while the cost of child care have gone up, salaries have stagnated.

Read and weep.

What we need, Kogan said, is paid maternity leave (or parental leave, so pop can step in as well) to get the babies through that crucial first year of life without either making ourselves crazy by going back to work too soon — or staying home and going broke.  What we also need, she said, is “subsidized day care so one’s entire paycheck after year one is not going to the nanny.”

Amen to that.

And yet, we’ve all been conned by the subtext of the Mommy War meme:  it’s an either/or choice.  You stay home or you go gangbusters on your career.  Nothing in between.  All of which leads to a lot of judging.  But for most women, the choices are not quite so stark.

Kogan realized early on that motherhood was not compatible with war photography.  She moved to New York City, got a job at NBC, and with the birth of her first child took six months maternity leave and saw her family’s savings dwindle.  Twenty-one months later, she had her second child and, toward the end of her maternity leave, found herself called to Paris at the last minute – instantly weaning her daughter and without time to grab a breast pump – when Princess Di was killed.  Three years later, she asked her boss at NBC if she could cut back to a four-day work week.  Her boss said yes.  Her boss’s boss, a female VP, turned her down.  At which point, Kogan quit to stay home and write – and became a casualty of the Mommy Wars herself.

When “Shutterbabe” came out,  a memoir of her days as a photojournalist, she was called a sell-out, a “lactating nester,” a woman who had “left a brilliant career to be a soccer mom.”  Now, three books later, she is often asked, if she had to make a choice, which would it be:  Her children or her books?

I doubt that’s a question any male author has to answer.  I answer that I’d chose my children of course, but why on earth should I have to?

The real issue, Kogan says, is not the media-created catfight, but the fact that when (make that “if”) we end up judging each other for our choices, we’re fighting the wrong fight.

Toward the end of the session, a woman in the audience stood, asking if Kogan was doing anything herself to work on policy change.  Her answer? “No!  I’m too friggen busy. I always feel like one shoe is falling off.  And that’s at the heart of what happens – people who are affected by this, are just too busy.”

Later, I caught up with her for some additional thoughts:

It should really be us–all mothers–versus them–the men in Congress who keep trying to chip away, seemingly mercilessly, at the small gains women have made instead of pushing forward and rethinking the entire American paradigm, which is rotten to the core. So in that sense, it’s about controlling women: their access to birth control, family planning, and the normal benefits after the baby is born that all other developed countries take for granted. To me, the right wing Congressmen are just Taliban in suit and ties.

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It’s grey skies for women inspired by the docs on Grey’s Anatomy: Keith Chen and Judith Chevalier, both PhDs at the Yale School of Management, write in The Atlantic about their new study under the gulp-inducing headline “Is Medical School a Worthwhile Investment for Women?” and make the case  that, financially speaking, women are better off becoming physician assistants than doctors. If there was ever a finding that more clearly demonstrated the myriad ways in which our system isn’t working, I’d love to see it. (And by “love,” I mean hate.)

Now, the authors (thankfully) come right out and say that their intention is not to dissuade young women from becoming doctors, just that this is information they should consider when plotting their future career paths. Which is certainly true. After all, med school is expensive, as are most advanced degrees. (In fact, they cite studies that show that more women MBAs and JDs drop out than do doctors.) And, you know, ROI is important. BUT.

First, the obvious: the inequities. According to the study, women doctors start off making less money than their male counterparts, and, as anyone who’s ever filled out the salary history portion of a job application knows, that kind of disadvantage right out of the gate is only going to be compounded. But the study’s authors quickly move on from this issue and focus instead on another: a difference in hours. From the piece:

This captures the insight that in order for an investment in the high up-front cost medical degree to overcome the lower up-front cost of a PA degree, not only do a doctor’s wages have to significantly exceed those of the PA, but the doctor needs to be willing to work enough hours to make those wages pay off.

“Willing.” Interesting choice of words, no?

More than likely, what that means is this: male doctors are far more likely to have the benefit of a spouse who can and will take on the bulk of the Life Administration tasks than are women. (Score another one in the “The Biggest Career Decision You’ll Ever Make Is Who You Marry” column.) Of course, that’s pretty reductionist: undoubtedly there are many women–even the high achieving sort who become MDs–who wind up ramping down their careers, at least for a little while, because they want to. They want time with their children while they’re young. And that makes perfect sense. But again, what it amounts to, for women, is a choice. To make a high-powered career pay off, do we have to sacrifice motherhood? To have a family, must our career take a hit? It’s a choice that most men don’t have to entertain.

From our book:

But absent structural and societal changes, the conflict between work and family often involves retooling the dream. In 2010, Harvard Magazine ran a feature on a study showing that women who’d gotten their MBAs from Harvard were far less likely to both have kids and a full-time job at the time of their fifteenth reunion than were MDs. And in both cases, working mothers chose less-demanding areas: The story pointed out that women make up 41% of new doctors nationwide, but only 30 percent of ER doctors or general surgeons.

The story was somewhat unremarkable (sorry, Harvard), except for the dialogue it provoked. One comment from a twenty-nine-year old med student named Erin was right on point. About to choose her specialty, she confessed that she thinks she was made to be a surgeon but knows that she’ll never go into that field. She writes that she can’t figure out how to be a good mother someday and factor in the hours–and the lack of flexibility–required to be a good surgeon. ‘I hate that this conflict exists,’ Erin writes. ‘I hate that I keep running into a roadblock. And I also hate that my male counterparts don’t have this same internal dialogue.’

Career or family? One hates even to ask the question — especially in the face of a study like this, rife with cold, hard numbers — lest it might lead some smart, ambitious, valuable, talented, potential-filled women to, as Sheryl Sandberg might say, “lean out.” To take themselves out of the game before they need to, anticipating the work-life conflicts a certain career path might present, and ramping down their ambitions accordingly.

And yet. To pretend they don’t exist is to bury our collective head in the sand. But women represent over half of the labor force in this country, and to leave so much untapped potential on the table is a momentous waste, for our society as a whole, and for each one of us individually. To do nothing is not an option–we’ve outgrown the status quo. So it seems to me that the question is not career or family, but: isn’t there some way to structure the world of work so that it works for everyone?

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