Oh, contentment. Fulfillment. Happiness. So slippery, so elusive. And yet, we never stop looking for it, do we?
A generation ago, women–stuck in the home and driven apeshit by a never-ending list of mindless chores–ran screaming out of those homes (and, sometimes, away from their families), certain fulfillment was waiting for them in the world of work (or anywhere but home).
In “Fear (Again) of Flying: The domestication of the female midlife crisis,” NYT Mag writer Judith Warner sums up this way:
In the mid-1970s, women began to take flight.
They got jobs, got their consciousness raised or got divorced. Sometimes their marriages evolved with them. Sometimes they just sort of took off — “finding themselves” in new relationships, dropping out of family life, leaving latchkey children behind. These outward-bound adventures tended to happen in early midlife, the moment when, as Gail Sheehy put it in her 1974 mega-best-seller “Passages”: “A woman had to make it happen–whatever she hadn’t yet achieved–or settle for the bed she had made.” The “runaway wife,” Sheehy declared, as she charted the “midlife passage” of her Silent Generation cohort, was “one of today’s fastest-growing phenomena.”
Today the daughters of these runaway moms, having arrived at the shores of middle age, are taking flight, too. But they’re not, by and large, dumping their husbands. They’re not looking to the job market with expectations of liberation.
Instead, they’re fleeing to yoga, imitating flight in the downward-gazing contortion called the crow position. They’re striving, through exquisite new adventures in internal fine-tuning, to feel more deeply, live more meaningfully, better inhabit each and every moment of each and every day and attain “a more superior, evolved state of being,” as Claire Dederer puts it in her just-published book, “Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses,” the latest installment in the burgeoning literature of postboomer-female midlife crisis.
The trend she’s identifying is not the old (disproven) one of opting out… exactly; this one has women opting inward. Indeed, pointing to a lineup of books, Warner suggests that when today’s women find ourselves dissatisfied, we opt to fix ourselves; that, rather than taking off for the big wide world to find ourselves, we look at home. In a way, of course, this is all to the good: we know that true happiness is something that comes from within. And yet, somewhere along the way, the message gets a little problematic. Warner writes:
There’s no sense that personal liberation is to be found by taking a more active role in the world.
Indeed, says Warner, the pendulum’s swung all the way back home:
In other words, the new “narrative of liberation,” as Dederer puts it, of the postboomer, “postfeminist” woman, the new incarnation of the ’70s girl who could do anything, appears to lead right back into a performance-enhanced version of “Mad Men”-era domestic fantasy. “In response to my 1970s mom, I had become a 1950s housewife,” Dederer writes.
(One flew over the chicken’s coop, much?) Don’t get me wrong; I come not to judge. And I think part of the reason contentment can be so very elusive for women has to do with our refusal to allow the women who choose differently from us the freedom to “choose their choice,” as SATC’s Charlotte might have said. And, to that end, if raising chickens in your backyard and keeping a perfect home are where you find your bliss, more power to you. (And, just have to add: if the chicken coop is your happy place and you can actually afford to stay home and hang out with your birds, consider yourself blessed. And if vacuuming is your happy thing, please please come to my house.) My issue is what Warner gets at here:
The values and beliefs and practices that go into sustaining and maintaining the way right-thinking, highly educated, generally affluent folk go about living their lives today–and that have made yoga a multibillion-dollar-a-year escape from the crush of modern life–are not rejected. Rather, as ever, the women question themselves. They can always be–must always be–further perfected, their performance of selfhood more highly refined.
And perhaps that’s why we’re always seeking something else. No matter where we find ourselves–pearl bedecked behind a vacuum cleaner, shoulderpadded in a corner office, pondering our navels in India while our children and husbands’ lives go on at home, teaching our children their ABCs…in Mandarin Chinese, or feeding the chickens in our own backyard–the second that happiness slips through our fingers, we assume it’s because we’re doing whatever it is we’re doing wrong. Or that we chose wrong. To have all of these choices is new for women, so it’s natural that we feel an intense responsibility to live out whichever ones we choose perfectly. And perfectly happily. We can do anything… so if we’re miserable, either we’re not doing it right, or we should be doing something else.
Don’t get me wrong: the modern world is maddening and overwhelming and much about the way we engage with it is dissatisfying. And turning inward helps. It’s crucial, in fact, if we’re ever to figure out who we are. And, let’s face it, it’s a luxury: the world of full-time downward dogging is reserved for the select few who can afford it. Most of the women I know who do yoga (myself included) are happy to squeeze in an om or two between five thousand other obligations. And while I tend to believe that the search for happiness, contentment, fulfillment is more eternal truth than trend, I also can’t help but recall something I wrote some time ago:
And while I have no problem with self-empowerment, it strikes me, perhaps given Barbara’s and my posts of earlier this week, that there’s something bigger, something less about the self, something more collective going on. You’ve read the study: Women’s happiness is on the decline. So it makes sense that, as a whole, we’re hungry. We’re in a state of transition, aching from the growing pains. And while the transition is collective, each one of us feels the growing pains acutely, individually.
And given all of that, the question I’m left wondering is this: if we address our dissatisfaction by disengaging with the world around us, what are we missing? And more importantly, what is the world missing? If the current setup of life and work is such that it makes everyone crazy, well, wouldn’t it be great if some of us were driven just crazy enough to set out to change it?