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

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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I sometimes wonder whether our uber-connection has left us more than a little disconnected.

There’s no denying the ubiquity of iComm.  Long ago, we gave up talking in favor of typing.  (My land line rarely rings.  Does yours?) More recently, email conversations -– thanks to the seductive buzz of the smart phones in our pockets – have given way to pithy texts.

This is especially pronounced among teens, especially girls. (A friend with a teen-aged daughter once told me that their monthly phone bill, which itemized the texts, came in a box, rather than an envelope.)

According to a recent Pew Research Center Report presented at an education conference this week, texting is the dominant form of communication among teenagers – who blast out on average of 60 texts a day.  Some quick numbers from the report’s summary:

·  Older girls remain the most enthusiastic texters, with a median of 100 texts a day in 2011, compared with 50 for boys the same age.

·  63% of all teens say they exchange text messages every day with people in their lives. This far surpasses the frequency with which they pick other forms of daily communication, including phone calling by cell phone (39% do that with others every day), face-to-face socializing outside of school (35%), social network site messaging (29%), instant messaging (22%), talking on landlines (19%) and emailing (6%).

We grown-ups aren’t all that different. That same Pew study reports that what we do most with our cells is text. An earlier Pew study found that adults who text send or receive an average of 41.5 messages a day. Among 18 – 24 year olds, that number soars to 109.5. That’s a lot of LOLs.

Before I go on, let me assure you that I’m as insanely Apple as the next geek. I have an iMac at work, an even newer iMac on my desk at home, and within reach: a MacBook, an iPad, and an iPad.  I’ve also got an iPod, but I’m not sure where. And yet, Apple cliché that I am, I can’t help wondering what we lose when our main form of communication is dependent upon the dexterity of our opposable thumbs.  Call it the curse of the small screen, and smaller keyboard?  Both render writing (or reading) more than a sentence or two a pain in the ass.

Can you go deep without going long?  And do our relationships suffer as a result?

MIT professor Sherry Turkle, author of “Alone Together: Why We expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other”, suspects we may be sacrificing intimacy on the altar of instant connection. She agrees that texting is great for keeping in touch, but when texting becomes a replacement for conversation?  That’s where we enter the danger zone.  At a TED Talk earlier this year, she discussed ways in which our instant communication can in fact hide us from each other:

Across the generations, I see that people can’t get enough of each other, if and only if they can have each other at a distance, in amounts they can control. I call it the Goldilocks effect: not too close, not too far, just right. But what might feel just right for that middle-aged executive can be a problem for an adolescent who needs to develop face-to-face relationships. An 18-year-old boy who uses texting for almost everything says to me wistfully, “Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.”

When I ask people “What’s wrong with having a conversation?” people say, “I’ll tell you what’s wrong with having a conversation. It takes place in real time and you can’t control what you’re going to say.” So that’s the bottom line. Texting, email, posting, all of these things let us present the self as we want to be. We get to edit, and that means we get to delete, and that means we get to retouch, the face, the voice, the flesh, the body — not too little, not too much, just right.

One more presentation of the iconic self?  Communication professor Charlotta Kratz, one of my colleagues at Santa Clara University, hears similar stuff from her students. “They prefer to text because they don’t want to talk to anyone,” she says. “Even talking on the phone is awkward.”  She recalled one student telling her that driving the 30 miles over to Santa Cruz with a group she didn’t know well for a class project was pure hell.

“We talked about generational differences and I told them that their tech non-savvy grandmas would make three new best friends on that car ride,” Kratz said.  “They agreed.”  Still, she says, “I’m not sure we lose anything necessarily [with texting].  I think it’s better to ask how things are different.  People are available 100 percent of the time now, for one thing.”

What’s interesting is that the 24/7 availability comes with its own rules that, SCU feminist scholar Laura Ellingson has found, often follow age-old gender scripts, at least when it comes to relationships: women are accused of being curt and mean if they send short texts, men are labeled girly if they are expressive. In a recent feminist methods class, Ellingson’s students investigated ways in which texting is gendered. “They found mostly that women send longer, more detailed messages with more emoticons and exclamation points and other ways of expressing emotion more explicitly than men did,” Ellingson said. “Both genders found that the medium is prone to misunderstandings and hurt feelings and unintended consequences.”

But what Ellingson found disconcerting about the class project was that two of the groups pursued themes around women’s over-analysis of texts for subtle meanings, essentially blaming the women for miscommunication, rather than the men who sent extremely brief texts:

“This is not a scientific study by any means, but it was illustrative of the point that in heterosexual relationships, it is still women who bear the majority of the responsibility for maintaining the health of the relationship; they are supposed to text as often as he wants to hear from them, but not too much so as not to be seen as “needy”.  They anxiously try to ferret out cryptic meanings in texts and then get labeled neurotic by the very men who expect them to competently interpret their meanings. The one thing that men are in charge of is the initial text following the exchange of cell phone numbers when first meeting or first becoming interested in each other. Women and men both said that it is up to the man to initiate first contact, and that women are seen as needy if they text first.

Whew. I have to wonder if all this angst could be eliminated by some good old fashioned facetime.  Or a multi-sentence conversation that doesn’t need emoticons. The point, I guess, is that life itself is messy, complicated. There are choices to be made and selves to find. And yet: as with all our digital diversions, we avoid actual interaction in favor of the intensity of nonstop, always-on, mass i-teraction.  And so you have to ask: what is it that we’re after? And, what is it we’re avoiding?

I could go on. And would. But I just got a text.  Gotta send a reply.

Photo credit: Sierra Smith, statepress.com

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Sometimes what we need to do is clean house. I’m not necessarily talking about making your bed or doing the laundry — although either one is a good start — but channeling your inner minimalist and ditching the clutter.  Both literally and figuratively.

I’ve been thinking about this lately as I watched a friend make some changes in her life, both big and small.  As she has gone about this process of reclaiming herself, one of her tasks has been to reinvent her physical space.  Out with the stuff that doesn’t matter.  In with the stuff that does.  There’s a metaphor here.

According to a piece by Jack Feuer in the July issue of UCLA magazine, we have become a clutter culture.  As Feuer writes:

Walk into any dual-income, middle-class home in the U.S. and you will come face to face with an awesome array of stuff—toys, trinkets, family photos, furniture, games, DVDs, TVs, digital devices of all kinds, souvenirs, flags, food and more. We put our stuff anywhere in the house, everywhere there’s room, or even if there’s no room. Park the car on the street so we can store our stuff in the garage. Pile the dirty laundry in the shower because there’s nowhere else to store it and no time to wash it.

George Carlin famously observed that “a house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it.”

Freuer’s piece centers on a new book, Life at Home in the 21st Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors, due out this week, part of a long-running UCLA research project on working families run by UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives of Families (CELF). In tracking the material culture of these families, the researchers found that when we say we have it all, what we have all of is stuff.  And lots of it.

And often, they found, this hyper-abundance leads to a world of grief, especially for women, whose stress-hormones spiked when smacked with the family clutter and who often referred to their homes with words like “not fun” and “very chaotic.”

“Cortisol data show a link between unhappy verbal characterizations of arrays of household possessions [chronically messy, cluttered rooms  or  unfinished remodeling projects] and higher stress level as measured by the hormone cortisol in the MOTHERS in the study,” UCLA professor of anthropology Jeanne Arnold, one of  the founding faculty of the CELF project, wrote in an email.  “Women who characterize their homes as restful, restorative, or tidy had lower stress levels. Fathers often omitted any mention of the same messy and unfinished spaces and were unaffected physiologically. Why? Likely because mothers still take on the lion’s share of responsibility for housework and because we still place value on tidiness. Our spreading possessions take oh so much time to organize and clean.”

No kidding. But there’s more to this mess than just cleaning out the junk drawers.  Research shows that physical clutter can lead not only to stress, but also depression, especially in women.  It’s not too much of a stretch to assume that it can also screw with our ability to focus.  I don’t know about you, but I get more than a little bit frazzled when the surface of my desk is hidden under a jumble of books, papers, files and to-do lists, some dating back to last spring, and my computer is slamming me with some 200 unread emails.  (True confession:  I even have a hard time holding down a thought when the breakfast dishes are still stacked up at dinner time.  Well, maybe that’s writer’s block.  Whatever.)

All of this has an obvious solution. Clean off the desk, read the emails, and do the dishes.  Done.  But it all gets more dicey when you extrapolate the effects of all this chaos to the clutter that clogs our brain when we deal with issues more profound than simply meeting a deadline or sorting through the clothes in your closet.  And where you can end up is in one hell of a pickle:  Undecided.  Lusting after the greener grass.  Longing for the road not traveled.

Just plain stuck.

Is it the curse of the information age?  We carry so much baggage, so many shoulds, from society, the workplace, our families, our friends, Facebook– all blasted at us at lightening speed, thanks to the interwebs — that it’s sometimes hard to find our authentic selves within the mental clutter.  And when the information, not to mention choices, increases exponentially, where’s the space to process? To reflect?

Amid all that chaos, it’s hard to isolate what it is that we really want to do with our lives, what it is that makes us happy.  The trigger for our book, in fact, was a conversation with a smart, accomplished woman we called Jane who nonetheless was so overwhelmed with trying to figure out what to do with her life that she once confessed she wished she had been born into a culture in which everything – where she lived, what she did, who she married – was chosen for her.

But back to my friend, the one who is redoing her house along with her life.  She emailed me a link to a blog by a woman who has embarked on what she dubbed  The William Morris Project. To wit: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

As in houses, so in life?  Good advice when we start to cut the clutter. No matter where we find it.

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I woke up this morning to a message from a former student who’d sent me a link to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s cover story in the new Atlantic.  If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s a brilliant piece that lays out the reasons why women still can’t have it all — and what we as a society ought to do about it.  Within a few hours, links to the story were bouncing around the internet (not to mention my Facebook page) including an excellent recap by HuffPost columnist Lisa Belkin.

Slaughter, who gave up a prestigious State Department post in DC — her dream job, in fact – when she realized her family needed her more, starts the piece by recalling a conversation with a friend where she confessed that, when her time in Washington was up, she was going to “write an op-ed titled ‘Women Can’t Have It All.’”  Her friend was horrified:

“You can’t write that,” she said. “You, of all people.” What she meant was that such a statement, coming from a high-profile career woman—a role model—would be a terrible signal to younger generations of women. By the end of the evening, she had talked me out of it, but for the remainder of my stint in Washington, I was increasingly aware that the feminist beliefs on which I had built my entire career were shifting under my feet. I had always assumed that if I could get a foreign-policy job in the State Department or the White House while my party was in power, I would stay the course as long as I had the opportunity to do work I loved. But in January 2011, when my two-year public-service leave from Princeton University was up, I hurried home as fast as I could.

Something struck me when I read the piece and started parsing it out for myself.  And that’s whether there’s another question we ought to be asking here.  It’s not simply whether we can have it all (like Slaughter, I agree: we can’t, at least given current workplace inequities and societal structures) — but what the pervasiveness of that myth has done to a whole generation of women whose expectations are out of sync with what awaits them out there in the real world.

Back when Undecided was just a twinkle in our eye (fueled, no doubt, by a frosty beer or two after a grueling hike on a hot summer day), the question that kept coming up in that initial bout of brainstorming was whether we as women had been sold a bill of goods.  And what we found in the two years of research and interviews that followed was that this idea of having it all, the mantra so many of us assumed was our birthright, had led to a world of grief.  Because when you’re led to believe that you can have it all — or worse, that you should have it all — you feel like you’ve done it wrong when things don’t measure up.  You are to blame.  Somehow, you’ve failed.  When the truth is that reality — workplace structures, public policy, the culture itself — has not kept pace with our own expectations.

One of the things that gets lost in the “you go, girl” rhetoric is what economists call opportunity cost.  As Stanford economist Myra Strober, who founded  Stanford’s  Center for Research on Women back in 1972, told us, “If you’re doing A, you can’t be doing B.  If you’re playing basketball, you can’t be reading Jane Austen.” In other words, unless and until we can clone ourselves, we’re stuck trying to balance a bunch of trade-offs.  Don’t get me wrong: This is not another salvo in the Mommy Wars or a knock on feminism. Or even a suggestion that life choices are an either/or proposition.  The point is not that we have to choose between family or career — but that we’re going to have to make peace with the fact that if we want to both raise a kid and run a company, it’s not only going to be hard but there are going to be challenges that are greater than we have been led to believe.

Despite our best intentions, very little in either realm is going to be perfect. We may have to compromise. And when we’re raised to be empowered, to believe that we can have it all, that’s one tough pill to swallow.

It’s a hard lesson, made harder by the fact that there aren’t a lot of role models out there who can show us how to navigate the trade-offs.  We were discussing this issue last year on a talk show, in fact, when the host brought up Michelle Obama and Oprah as powerful women who seemed to have it all.  And what we said was that in the traditional definition of having it all — fabulous career, fabulous marriage, parenthood — neither qualified:  Oprah has no family and Michelle, for obvious reasons, has given up her career. Likewise Hillary Clinton or, for that matter, Sheryl Sandberg.  Incredible role models, to be sure. But, in a way, scary ones, too.  Because for the for the vast majority of us, despite our own aspirations, if they are held up as the ideal, we are bound to feel that we have fallen short.

One of my senior journalism students this year wrote her capstone on the lack of women atop the corporate ladder and what younger women should do to get there.  In reporting the story, she interviewed women in leadership positions across the country, essentially digging for tips that would help her generation make it to the C-suite.  What she found, good and bad, was a lot of the stuff we write about here.  But the thing that struck me was her solid conviction that, when all was said and done, having it all was indeed a possibility.

Which is, I guess, is the right way to think from inside a college classroom: More power to her for her optimism — and her sincere conviction that her generation will be the one to make things work. But still, the question nags.  It’s not whether or not we can have it all — but why we saddle ourselves with the expectation that we should.

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When your best intentions go south, new research suggests that it wasn’t the devil that made you do it.  It was your brain.

Will power, the study found, is a finite resource, one that can be easily depleted.  Which is why, when faced with a “do-I-or-don’t-I” kind of decision, you might find it easier to do the right thing when you haven’t already used up your reserve of self-control by forgoing that extra cocktail earlier in the night.

Oddly reassuring, right?

The study, to be published January 2013 in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, suggests that self-control is not a muscle that grows stronger with exercise, but is more like a finite pool.  And when it gets drained, say, by saying no to that delightful little black dress you just tried on but don’t necessarily need, you’re more likely to lose your cool when that guy in the silver SUV cuts you off on the freeway driving home.

Or, for that matter, to have that second glass of Malbec once you get there.

The study, co-authored by William Hedgcock, assistant professor of marketing at the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa, used brain imaging to scan people as they performed self-control tasks.  The fMRIs found that the brain consistently fired at full speed when tasked with recognizing a temptation, but once the part of the brain that actually manages self-control took over, it fired with less intensity the longer it continued to fight the good fight.

“Our results suggest self-control can be diminished by use,” Hedgcock tells us. “People have a hard time resisting temptation after prior acts of self-control. This can negatively affect people’s ability to maintain attention, resist tempting snacks, and resist purchasing on impulse.”

Call it good-girl fatigue?  Your brain may have no trouble recognizing the naughty options, but the more you try to fight them, the harder it can be to do what’s right.  Or why, as the authors write, when we work hard to pass up a second helping of lasagna, we might end up taking two pieces of cake at dessert.  And while the study found no significant gender differences, writes the study’s co-author Kathleen Vohs, associate professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota, in an email from Amsterdam, “men and women often do adopt different goals (e.g., to lose weight for women [or to] pursue financial or sexual rewards for men) but they do so in similar ways.”

What’s hugely important about the study, writes Vohs, is that “we haven’t had a good understanding of how the brain changes when people engage in self-control. Which means being able to ultimately understand self-control in new ways.”

For years, researchers have known that there’s some significant work going on upstairs when we try to make decisions (whether or not those choices involve resisting temptation) about anything from buying a new pair of jeans to figuring out what to do with our lives.  Many studies we’ve referenced in our book and our blog, in fact, have shown that any kind of mental overload can mess with our ability to make good choices — or any at all.  A pivotal study by Harvard psychologist George Miller back in the 1950s found that the rational brain can only hold about seven chunks of information in working memory at any given time. Any more, and the conscious brain often just throws up its hands in defeat. What psychologists have figured out since, is that when the cognitive brain gets too full, decision making—if it gets done at all—gets appropriated by the emotions. Because the rational brain has, in effect, logged off, there’s less control over gut impulses.

Some fifty years after Miller’s essay, Stanford marketing professor Baba Shiv put an interesting spin on this epic battle between heart and mind. In his study, he asked students to memorize either seven digits or two, then afterward offered both groups their choice of a reward: fruit salad or gooey chocolate cake. What he found was that the seven-digit group went with their gut instincts. They overwhelmingly chose cake. The two-digit folks? They made the rational decision and chose a snack that wouldn’t spoil their dinner: nice and healthful fruit salad.

A number of other studies have also shown that making choices just plain wears us out, which brings us back to some earlier work on self-control by Kathleen Vohs.  Back in 2008, she found that folks who are faced with too many choices have a tough time staying focused or exerting self-control afterward.  In one part of that study, she found that college students asked to make a number of random choices earlier in the day ended up spending more time later playing video games or reading magazines — rather than studying for a test.

But back to this particular study, Hedgcock suggests that when the well of self-control runs dry, the only way to fill it back up is with time.  In other words, give yourself a break.

Or, what the hell, pour yourself a glass of wine.

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