Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘settling’

Flying solo is in–in a serious way. A New York Times Q&A with Eric Kilnenberg, NYU sociology professor and author of the new book “Going Solo,” leads with the facts:

In 1950, 22 percent of American adults were single. Now that number is almost 50 percent. One in seven adults lives alone. Half of all Manhattan residences are one-person dwellings.

Kilnenberg has done his research. He spent a decade studying the phenomenon while working on his book, and he has all kinds of good explanations for those numbers. There’s less stigma than there once was around being single. People crave privacy and personal space–tough to preserve when you’re sharing a bathroom. From another piece he wrote several weeks ago,

Living alone comports with modern values. It promotes freedom, personal control and self-realization–all prized aspects of contemporary life.

And Kilnenberg’s not the only one digging in. Melanie Kurtin enumerated what keeps her from committing here and Dominique Browning did the same thing here, while Kate Bolick’s much-discussed piece in The Atlantic, “All the Single Ladies,” leads with a simple confession:

In 2001, WHEN I was 28, I broke up with my boyfriend. Allan and I had been together for three years, and there was no good reason to end things. He was (and remains) an exceptional person, intelligent, good-looking, loyal, kind. My friends, many of whom were married or in marriage-track relationships, were bewildered. I was bewildered. To account for my behavior, all I had were two intangible yet undeniable convictions: something was missing; I wasn’t ready to settle down.

And this, I think, really gets at the truth behind our reluctance to commit: to borrow–and tweak–a phrase from a long-ago presidential campaign, It’s too many choices, stupid!

When we’re told that we can have it all, that everything is on the table, why would we ever commit to anything? Even if we know we love the thing to which we’re committing, we can’t help but wonder about all the things we didn’t choose.

And I’m not just talking about relationships.

Too many options applies to commitment of the romantic sort, sure, but also to jobs and where we should live and what kind of life we should have. Passion or paycheck? Security or freedom? Long hair or short? High heels or hiking boots?

Deciding, by definition, means “to kill.” Choosing one thing means you’re killing the possibility of having the other. And when we’re raised on the idea that anything’s possible–and every option is available–we see choosing anything as settling. And, of course, it is–it’s settling for something less than everything.

When you decide to take one path, there’s a risk of missing out on something–something we often imagine to be glorious, the proverbial greener grass–waiting for us at the end of another. As Hannah, a woman we profile in Undecided, put it:

The grass is always greener. Like, do I want to move to San Francisco? Colorado? South America? Will life be any better in any of those places? Probably not. But it might be, so there’s that risk that I’m taking by not moving.

This mindset is so prevalent, some worry we have an entire generation of commitmentphobes on our hands. Psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett is trying to get the in-between stage–the years when we try different jobs/relationships/cities/hairstyles on for size–designated as a distinct life stage, one he calls Emerging Adulthood. People don’t spent their entire career with one company anymore–the very idea sounds Flinstonian. Nor do they generally marry their high school sweethearts. To paraphrase Hannah, There’s that risk we’re taking by not checking out what else is out there. We have the whole world to explore first!

For women in particular, it’s excruciating. Because, in addition to that message–that we can do anything!–we were fed another, often from the women just a generation or two older than us, who weren’t afforded the same opportunity: that we’re so lucky that we can do anything. And combined, they leave many of us shouldering a load of responsibility. 

From a post I wrote some time ago,

This bounty of opportunity is so new that we were sent off to conquer it with no tools–just an admonishment that we’d best make the most of it.

We know we’re blessed to have all of these options. We get it. And so is it any wonder we want a shot at each and every one of them?

But therein lies the rub.

We want to travel, but can’t take off whenever we feel like it if we’re also going to get our business off the ground–and featured in Oprah. We want a family, but that’d mean that packing up and moving to Cairo or New Orleans on a whim is pretty much off the table. We want to be there for our daughter’s every milestone, yet we also want to model what a successful career woman looks like. We want torrid affairs and hot sex, but where would that leave our husbands? We want financial security and a latte on our way to the office every morning, but sit in our ergonomically correct chairs daydreaming about trekking through Cambodia with nothing but our camera and mosquito net. We want to be an artist, but have gotten rather used to that roof over our heads. We want to be ourselves, fully and completely, but would like to fit in at cocktail parties, too. (And when on earth are we going to find the time to write our novel??)

We want to do it all, to try it all before we buy! And that, I believe, is what’s at the root of the cold feet. Choices are hard. Damn hard. And every one of them entails a trade-off. The work is in accepting that–and in finding out who you are right down at your core, and figuring which of those trade-offs you can live with.

Read Full Post »

I’m guessing by now you’ve heard about Lori Gottlieb’s new book, based on her contentious 2008 Atlantic essay I wrote about awhile back. Charmingly entitled “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough,” the book has earned a ton of ink, both positive and negative, and the movie rights have already been snapped up. (Yeah, can’t wait for that one. Let me guess: knockout actress with hair dyed a mousy brown goes on date after date with loser after loser, until she finally falls for the short, fat, bald man with bad breath and a heart of gold.) While Gottlieb’s horrifying depiction of life as a SWF is downright depressing (and her rose-colored imagination of married life as the magic, loneliness-busting bullet just kind of odd and naive), she insists there’s more to what she’s saying than simply the fact that she’s been there (dates with dudes she dismissed for reasons ranging from a sub-optimal first name to a head of red hair), done that (single and tormented by the ticking of the biological clock, she hit the sperm bank and is now a single mama, lonely for company). From Sarah Hepola’s piece on Salon:

‘This isn’t some regretful 40-something giving you matronly advice. I spoke to scientists and experts in neurobiology, psychology, sociology, marital research, couple therapists, behavioral economists, regular folks married and single.’ Don’t like what the book is saying? There’s more than Lori Gottlieb to blame.

Maybe so. And that is what interests me most about the whole thing, far more so than whether or not one single woman should be writing books telling all other single women why they should “settle”, based mostly on original single woman’s issues and regrets. (Um, not to mention the fact that original single woman also happens to be wildly successful, and mom to a healthy child–yet seems unable to enjoy either of the latter above because of the former above–that she’s single. Is it just me, or is this like a bad Cathy cartoon?)

The thing is, what we’re really talking about here is choice, and that, often, because we believe (because we’ve been told) we have so much of it, we operate according to a belief that to settle for anything less than perfection is to sell ourselves short.

Of course, we’ve covered the problems with perfection. Namely, that it doesn’t exist, and, therefore, we can waste a lot of time waiting for it. Thing is, though, those words are pretty easy to throw around–we read them, we say them, we hear them, and we agree. Of course perfection doesn’t exist, we say. Only a fool would hold out for perfect.

Fools like us.

I think what gets us into trouble is that this reality is so totally at odds with the yarn we’ve been fed since forever, you know, that one we like to yammer about. The one that says You Can Do Anything! And I think it’s that idea that gets our knees to jerking, when someone dares suggest we should settle–for a man, or anything else in life. (And I wonder how steady Gottlieb’s knees would be, were someone to suggest she settle in some other realm of her life.) While the man question is interesting, I think it’s more interesting in terms of all of the other choices in our lives: on some level, do we think that sticking with something (or someone) long enough to see the glossy sheen fade away and the flaws emerge is, well, settling? Do we allow ourselves to be blinded by some mental checklist that renders us unable to enjoy what’s right in front of us? Check Gottlieb’s reference to our pal Barry Schwartz, in an interview with Psychology Today:

‘I interviewed a psychologist for MARRY HIM named Barry Schwartz. He’s a professor at Swarthmore and he also wrote a terrific book called THE PARADOX OF CHOICE. We had a long conversation about how having so many choices actually makes people depressed. You’d think it would be liberating–who doesn’t want to have options?–but actually, having so many makes us dizzy with indecision. And when we do make a choice, we second-guess ourselves because we compare it to all the other options that we didn’t choose. The same applies to having so many choices in a potential spouse.

So Schwartz said to me, about the way we choose spouses these days, ‘You have to remember that good enough is good enough.’ And that mantra has helped me and many women I know enjoy the men we meet much more, and also make much better choices out in the dating world.

Of course that makes sense. And I like the point. But. Is it a cop-out?

It reminds me of the whole Happy Life Or An Interesting One debate, and the question of whether we put too much of a premium on a certain brand of happiness, undervaluing interesting along the way. I guess, as we’ve said before, happiness is really all in how you define it.

It makes me think of the movie Parenthood, and the amusement park wisdom from Grandma.

On the other hand, that’s Hollywood. But sometimes, Hollywood wisdom is good enough.

Read Full Post »

When everything is on the menu, it takes an awful lot of willpower to say, you know, I’m not really that hungry. Even if you’re really not that hungry. Even if, in fact, you’re stuffed.

This being the season of the cocktail party, I’m unable to think in anything other than food metaphors, but, in this post, which concerns a recent piece by journalist/author Naomi Wolf–she of The Beauty Myth fame–I think an appetizer allegory works. The piece, entitled “The Achievement Myth,” launches with what has now become the de rigeur bashing of Marcus Buckingham’s take on the study The Paradox of Women’s Declining Happiness, emphasizing that, rather than describing themselves as unhappy:

…the women had told the researchers whom Buckingham cited that they were ‘not satisfied’ with many areas of their lives. If Western women have learned anything in the past 40 years, it is how to be unsatisfied with the status quo.

And thank god for that. Thanks to the women who gave voice to their dissatisfaction and drove the changes of those years, we’re free to seek out better: we no longer have to settle for unsatisfying jobs, bosses, or sex lives. And, as Wolf points out, we’ve gotten pretty darn good at pinpointing our dissatisfaction, and, from there, setting our sights on greener pastures. But the lure of better, the implicit promise of better, well, that’s where it gets tricky. Here’s a little more from Wolf:

But the downside of this aspirational language and philosophy can be a perpetual, personal restlessness. Many men and women in the rest of the world–especially in the developing world–observe this in us and are ambivalent about it.

Indeed, the definition of Western feminism as “always more” has led to a paradox. Our girls and young women are unable to relax. New data in the West reveal that we have not necessarily raised a generation of daughters who are exuding self-respect and self-esteem. We are raising a generation of girls who are extremely hard on themselves–who set their own personal standards incredibly, even punishingly high–and who don’t give themselves a chance to rest and think, “that’s enough.”

Enough. It’s a simple concept–and yet utterly foreign. This is the home of the All You Can Eat Buffet, after all. And when you’re told you can Have It All, well, to settle for anything short of that is… to settle. To turn in your plate before sampling the goods at every station is to miss out on your money’s worth.

Wolf suggests we’d be wise to redefine our definition of success beyond the professional and the external, to include

other forms of achievement, such as caring for elderly parents, being a nurturing member of the community, or–how very un-Western!–attaining a certain inner wisdom, insight, or peace.

…Should Western feminism deepen its definition of a successful woman’s life, so that more than credentials can demonstrate well-made choices? I believe the time is right to do so. As markets collapse, unemployment skyrockets, and the foundations of our institutions shift in seismic ways, this could be a moment of great opportunity for women and those for whom they care.

It certainly could be. And while I am in no position to demonstrate how to walk the line between satisfaction and settling, maybe we could take a lesson from the buffet line. That maybe it’s worth setting the same sort of goal in life as we do in the dining room: like the kind of awareness that allows us pass up the mini-quiches we kind of like so we’ll have room to really enjoy the crab cakes we adore, that places us fully in the moment of bliss that is a mouthful of warm brie rather than the distracted did-I-really-just-eat-14-cheese-puffs? variety blackout, that empowers us to skip the eggnog everyone else tries to shove down our throats but that we actually cannot stand, the kind of consciousness that allows us to recognize the spot where we’re full–and to actually stop there and enjoy the fullness.

Read Full Post »

As it is in fortune cookies, so it is in women’s lives and the choices they face… which is to say that, while the greatest measurable strides we’ve made have been in the realm of work–even, perhaps, as a result of those strides–we’ve found ourselves stumped when it comes to the choices we face over personal stuff, too.

And I’m talking beyond the question of whether to be a stay at home mom or a working mom: I’m talking about whether to have kids at all, and love, and sex, and marriage, and divorce. And what women who’ve been there have been willing to say about it. And what women who haven’t been there yet think about the women who have been there–and what they say about it.

There was Lori Gottlieb’s widely publicized and ballyhooed essay in The Atlantic, entitled “Marry Him! The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough,” in which a life spent holding out for something–or someone–that would meet her great expectations is told from the perspective of the now 40-something, single mother Gottlieb. (The baby daddy? A test tube.) She writes that, as she ages, she finds herself much more willing to settle for something less than fabulous–and advises younger women that the really smart thing to do is to just settle for the balding dude with dragon breath.

Take the date I went on last night. The guy was substantially older. He had a long history of major depression and said, in reference to the movies he was writing, “I’m fascinated by comas” and “I have a strong interest in terrorists.” He’d never been married. He was rude to the waiter. But he very much wanted a family, and he was successful, handsome, and smart. As I looked at him from across the table, I thought, Yeah, I’ll see him again. Maybe I can settle for that. But my very next thought was, Maybe I can settle for better. It’s like musical chairs–when do you take a seat, any seat, just so you’re not left standing alone?

Then, on precisely the other end of the spectrum, there was Sandra Tsing Loh’s shockingly honest account of the end of her marriage, which included an offhand mention of the affair she had that precipitated it. She suggests that love has an expiration date, and that, in the face of having it all, the drudgery of reigniting that old, familiar flame seemed but a futile task on her already too-long list of To-Dos:

Do you see? Given my staggering working mother’s to-do list, I cannot take on yet another arduous home- and self-improvement project, that of rekindling our romance.

She introduces us to her friend Rachel, married to the seemingly perfect man (who hasn’t touched Rachel in over two years). One night over martinis, Rachel announces she, too, has been thinking divorce:

Rachel sees herself as a failed mother, and is depressed and chronically overworked at her $120,000-a-year job (which she must cling to for the benefits because Ian freelances). At night, horny and sleepless, she paces the exquisite kitchen, gobbling mini Dove bars. The main breadwinner, Rachel is really the Traditional Dad, but instead of being handed her pipe and slippers at six, she appears to be marooned in a sexless remodeling project with a passive-aggressive Competitive Wife.

…In any case, here’s my final piece of advice: avoid marriage–or you too may suffer the emotional pain, the humiliation, and the logistical difficulty, not to mention the expense, of breaking up a long-term union at midlife for something as demonstrably fleeting as love.

Whew. Between she and Gottleib, it certainly seems that we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

And then there was Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of Prozac Nation, who, at the wise old age of 42, recently lamented the loss of her looks, her loneliness, and the years she spent fleeing commitment, sabotaging stability, believing she’d always have options (and a wrinkle-free face). In the piece for Elle, a longer version of which will soon arrive at bookstores near you, Wurtzel writes:

The idea of forever with any single person, even someone great whom I loved so much like Gregg, really did seem like what death actually is: a permanent stop. Love did not open up the world like a generous door, as it should to anyone getting married; instead it was the steel clamp of the iron maiden, shutting me behind its front metal hinge to asphyxiate slowly, and then suddenly. Every day would be the same forever: The body, the conversation, it would never change–isn’t that the rhythm of prison?

Reader, she cheated on him.

(Primetime television’s answer to the mature modern woman’s romantic conundrum? Cougar Town.)

I remember reading each of these women’s stories, and bring them up because they were recently culled together into a piece by 25 year-old Irina Aleksander in the New York Observer, entitled “The Cautionary Matrons.” In it, Aleksander writes:

Our mothers and grandmothers seemed to have sound instructions. But now–now that the generation of women ahead of us has begun to sound regretful, shouting at us, “Don’t end up like me!”–what we have instead are Cautionary Matrons, issuing what feel like incessant warnings.

Single 40-something women warn us about being too career-oriented and forgetting to factor in children; married women warn us that marriage is a union in which sex and fidelity are optional; and divorced women warn us to keep our weight down, our breasts up and our skin looking like Saran Wrap unless we want our husbands to later leave us for 23 year-olds.

While her take is entertaining, the quotes she includes are downright spooky: though our own context might not be the same, the sentiments are quite possibly universal. Too many choices–and opportunity cost, when picking one means you necessarily can’t have the others.

From Gottlieb, to Aleksander:

The article was like I was someone’s big sister and I was saying here’s my experience and all of the misconceptions I had… I think you guys are actually lucky because you’ll get a more mixed set of messages. When I was in my 20s, women were all about having it all and ‘a guy is great but he is not the main course.’ We got a single message and it was all, me, me, me, me, me. ‘You go girl!’ And now those of us that grew up with these messages are finally admitting that those messages of empowerment may actually conflict with what we want.

And leave it to Tsing Loh to be so candid it will make you cringe, cry, and chuckle:

[Tsing Loh] speculated about the reason for this apparent surge in matronly warnings: ‘I think because we’re really surprised!’ she screamed into the receiver. ‘In our 20s, the world was totally our oyster. All those fights had been fought. We weren’t going to be ’50s housewives, we were in college, we could pick and choose from a menu of careers, and there were all these interesting guys out there not like our dads. We were smart women who had a lot of options and made intelligent choices and that’s why we’re writing these pieces. We’re shocked!’

‘It must be very confusing,’ she said sympathetically. ‘We were the proteges of old-guard feminists: ‘Don’t have a baby, or if you must, have one, wait till your 40s.’ We were sold more of a mission plan and now you guys… Well, sadly, it all seems like kind of a mess. There is no mission. Even stay-at-home moms feel unsuccessful unless they’re canning their own marmalade and selling it on the Internet. You just have a bunch of drunk, depressed, 45-year-old ladies going, ‘A-BLAH-BLAH-BLAH.’

Again, whew.

Aleksander goes on, recounting a conversation she had with a friend about the subject:

‘They are the first generation of women who were presented with choices,’ she said. ‘I think they are in the process of reflecting on a half-century of existence and are realizing that ‘having it all’ was really a lie. Sometimes I think the idea of ‘having it all’ can almost be more disempowering than ‘having it all’ because one is never allowed enough time or energy to excel in one area of their life.’

Choices. Uncharted territory. It looks to me like yet another mirror of our whole thesis: with so many options, is it ever possible not to second-guess ourselves? to wonder about the road not traveled? to worry that the grass is greener? to find yourself paralyzed in the face of all that analysis? When do you just take a seat, any seat? And, with all the seats out there, is it ever possible to be content with the seat we’ve chosen?

I don’t know, but I’m hopeful that one day, we’ll find the answer.

In bed.

Read Full Post »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 229 other followers