Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Guilt Track

Check out this article in the New York Times, or the commentary on said article in Salon. Apparently, there’s a new trend among single career women: quitting their jobs to care for aging parents, something the Times is calling “the Daughter Track.”

This article (Times, not Salon) irks the hell out of me.

It irks the hell out of me because it sets up this template for the modern woman that’s so fucking sweet and feminine and goody-goody and out of touch.

It irks the hell out of me because it taps all that guilt we grown women have as daughters, as if the guilt we have as either mothers or potential mothers isn’t enough. That kind of guilt coming from both ends can’t help but squash you like a bug. Or turn you into a Ritalin-snorting serial killer.

It irks me because now I feel like one more layer has been added to the “you’re not enough” pile. As a member of the single, childless and long in the tooth contingent, I like to think I’m not a mother yet because I’ve been career-focused. But being career-focused hasn’t actually landed me a career, at least nothing that resembles the radio news anchor, six-figure salary position formerly held by the woman featured in the Times. Now add to that the fact that I’m a terrible daughter because not only did I not quit my non-career to care for my aging parents – and never will – but I live clear across the country from my aging parents. I haven’t seen them in a year and keep ducking questions about when I’ll come because I can’t afford a ticket or the days off work, especially as I took two trips this fall – Napa Valley and London – to visit friends instead. In fact, even when my mother had cancer and was puking her guts up I only went back to visit once for a long weekend and then only because a friend sprang for the plane ticket. I suck, I know. And thanks, New York Times, for driving that fact home.

These holier than thou expectations are ludicrous. Dress us up in flouncy frocks and we’re right back in Jane Austen land (on not nearly so arch and clever). The article claims most women are happy to make this shift, since by the time they’ve reached their 40s and 50s they’ve had it with corporate culture anyway. But if they’re so fed up with corporate culture, why can’t they just quit without an excuse?

I can guarantee there won’t be any trend articles about men giving up their jobs to take care of their parents, even if it’s happening. Men may want to do it – more power to them if they do – but no one actually expects them to. And granted I don’t know all that many people, but I’m dubious about this being a phenomenon since I haven’t personally heard of one single career woman who’s done this. Not one. Have any of you? And we won’t even get into the fact that the majority of women couldn’t up and quit even if they wanted to because even those of us who are single and childless do still have rent to pay and one hungry mouth to feed.

Let’s just get this straight. There are plenty of women out there who aren’t perfect mothers or perfect daughters or perfect success stories, who aren’t overflowing with generous thoughts or life-altering sacrifices. It’s the 21st century. We get to be that way. Remember the seventies (ah, the seventies) when we cracked the shackles and set ourselves free? Stop with the ball and chain stuff, won’t you?


Monday, November 28, 2005

Educational TV

Due to holiday scheduling at the yoga center where I work (if you want Vinyasa yoga in New York there’s no place finer), I actually caught the last half of “Desperate Housewives” last night. And there were some very juicy, and realistic, developments on the Lynette front. In brief, she wound up going behind her boss’s back to get her in a little hot water with upper management by suggesting a recently fired employee, who also happened to be her boss’s boy toy, demand his job back. But the plan slightly backfired. Instead of asking to be reinstated, Mr. Boy Toy decided to file a multi-million dollar harassment suit, a good chunk of the company was fired – including Lynette’s boss – and Lynette got promoted to a job she’s not so sure she really wants. Only then, finally, FINALLY, does Lynette go to her boss – who’s standing on the threshold of her ex-office downing a glass of wine — and say “Look, I was just trying to get you to be a little nicer.” And only now, when all the shit has hit the fan and been blown to kingdom come, does the boss, Nina, explain to Lynette that’s she’s such a tough cookie because the job is miserable (we’re talking the job Lynette just inherited) and their boss is a nightmare and who wouldn’t be a little cranky if she had to eat, sleep and breathe the company mess.

Now I know the show isn’t exactly know for its natural realism — the other story-lines involved Gabrielle’s husband being seduced by a nun from the South side of Chicago and Bree dealing with a suicide attempt by her bicycle-riding, homicidal stalker — but this thing with Lynette is exactly what I’m talking about. Why do women wait until the last possible second to openly ask, “What’s the problem here?” Are we so afraid that someone’s feelings are going to be hurt? Most of the time — like with Lynette and Nina — there’s a pretty good reason why things are coming down like they are. Hell, given the circumstances, those two women might have been allies rather than enemies, which would have both of their lives a whole lot pleasanter. It’s part of conflict resolution 101. You have to put the problem out there or its only going to get worse. Issues don’t magically disappear (trust me, I remain a stubborn, diehard fan of this solution and it never works). The longer you ignore an issue, the longer its sits there and festers, and the more twisted and explosive it is when it finally come out. We’re not being good women or nice women or supportive women by negotiating our conflicts with little passive-aggressive pokes in the arm. We’re being cowards. If we’re going to scale those professional heights, remake the workplace and the world, we’ve got do better than that.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Desperate Times

A number of women I’ve spoken to of late have mentioned a recent storyline on “Desperate Housewives” in which Felicity Huffman’s character Lynette — a one-time stay-at-home mom who recently returned to a high power office job —has suffered a series of confrontations with her single and childless female boss, circling around the question of whether it’s possible to both raise a family and hold down a demanding career. I don’t watch the show because – ironically – I work Sunday nights. But I do know that this storyline hits on an issue that generates a whole lot of heat. Among the women I interviewed for my book, work-family issues were some of the most contentious. And for good reason.

When it comes to balancing our personal and professional lives, women are incredibly vulnerable. I hear it from everyone and feel it myself. There’s this immense pressure to do it all and do it all perfectly — successful career, perfect husband and family, not mention being beautiful and in shape. If you fall short in any of these areas, and let’s face it most of us do, it’s easy to wind up feeling like a failure. It’s also easy to assume that we’ve made the “wrong choice,” that our family is suffering because we have to work so much; that we have no career and therefore no worth because we’ve cut back our hours; that we’ll never find anything close to domestic bliss because we’ve shot all our time and energy trying to make it big on the job. Unfortunately, we often assure ourselves that we’ve made the right choice by choosing to believe that other women’s choices, their different choices, are the wrong ones. Therefore, Lynette’s boss can’t believe that Lynette is capable of balancing a career and family because that means her career-centered life is inadequate and incomplete. All these very strong, often negative emotions come swaddled in so many layers of guilt. We want to support other women on the job, especially when we see them struggling, but our resentments and fears and raging jealousies have a nasty way of driving a wedge.

Complicating things yet again is the fact that the workplace rarely helps women to ease any of these pressures by providing flexible scheduling or generous maternity leave or even letting us skip out one afternoon to take a kid to the doctor. Too often, we wind up relying on each other’s unofficial help to make it through. When another woman can’t or won’t come through for us, we can be quick to cry betrayal and those betrayals can feel like the deepest and most damaging sort.

Here’s one note of comfort. I just interviewed over a hundred women from all kinds of professions and backgrounds and, lovely as other people’s lives might look from the outside, no one is doing it all. You look at me and think: “God how can I ever keep up with someone who has time to write blog entries the morning after Thanksgiving.” I look at you and think: “What I wouldn’t give to be too distracted by my mate and my kids.” We all make different personal choices and sacrifices and we all have insecurities about those choices. I know it makes life a lot more complicated to accept this, but when it comes to this work-family stuff there’s just no such thing as right or wrong.

By the way, it is good to see pop culture tackling some of these issues in a non “crazed Apprentice candidates scratching each other’s eyes out” kind of a way. Don’t you think?

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Attention All Catfighting Super Models

Well, we can all breathe an enormous sigh of relief. I know it’s something that’s been haunting the American public for over a decade now, but apparently supermodels Tyra Banks and Naomi Campbell have made peace (or, according to the literature “made peace!) Not privately, over dinner or plates of French fries or magnums of champagne or whatever supermodels gather over. They did it on national television, on an episode of — you guessed it — “The Tyra Banks Show.”

I admit that at certain times in my life I have followed the goings-on of the supermodel set a little more closely than is healthy. I know enough that this sordid history if diva dueling comes as no great shock. Big money, big egos, and — let’s be honest — room for only one black supermodel at the top. All the ingredients, in hyper-format. Naomi was the finger-snapping, hip-swishing queen of that catwalk. But models start getting long in the tooth two weeks after they hit puberty and when another foxy young girl – even worse, another foxy young black girl — started making waves I think Naomi was probably wise to assume it’s her or me. She was catty, bitchy, double-crossing, backstabbing. Tyra got her feelings hurt, so much so that she eventually bowed out of modeling full-time (to take on more humbling pursuits like hosting her own talk show). End of story.

Except that it wasn’t. Here’s where things get a little interesting, at least on the women and competition front. Instead of seeking flat-out revenge, Tyra’s looking to take the high road. She’s on a mission to stop competition and catfighting among women and, I quote from her website, “urges you to take the first step towards building a sisterhood of united women, a crusade for us to become one and stop the hate!”

While I admire the impulse, that word sisterhood always sends up a red flag. This “let’s all stop competing and just support and love each other” mindset can create as many problems as it solves. Tyra’s “crusade” reminds me of the early days of Ms. magazine when Letty Cottin Pogrebin published an article in which she equated competition between women with “raising ourselves on the crushed remains of your sisters.” I find this whole anti-competition stance scarily simplistic. We don’t help ourselves by setting a standard by which women aren’t allowed to conflict or compete with each other at all. We’re humans, we live high pressure, high stress lives, and we’re going to clash and disagree. It’s crucial that we acknowledge rather than ignore this, and that we start discussing how to communicate about our problems — like Tyra did by calling Naomi out — rather than sending some message that we should all just unequivocally love and support. Because I’m telling you, that’s just never going to happen. As soon as we’re not allowed to both have conflicts and be “good women,” those conflicts start going underground and they can resurface in some pretty twisted ways.

I’m also curious about the part where Tyra asks you to send in videotapes or photos of your girlfriends in the act of betraying you. Unless you hired a PI who caught her in bed with your husband, I can’t imagine what anyone could come up with. These kinds of betrayals are usually too subtle for instant replay. They come in the form of little digs that eat away at our trust, or behind the back moves that dawn on us weeks later. If we were out there clunking each other on the head with a hammer it would be a hell of a lot easier to say, “Hey, what do you think you’re doing.” (If we were clunking each other on the head with hammers, we’d be men). I know that I’ve been put through the wringer, and even put people through the wringer, and don’t have photo evidence of a damn second of any of it.

That said, it’s a rare day when you get to look to supermodels for life lessons. Best of luck to you on this one Tyra.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Girls Who Do Scathing

How can I not start off this blog with a few musings on the woman who’s been front and center on every news and talk show of late. Not because she’s a sweetheart but because she is — in a subtle but not too subtle way — as dangerous and controversial as they come. (No, I don’t mean Nicole Ritchie, though her public fallout with Paris Hilton could merit a spot on the low-brow end of this blog). I’m talking, of course, about Maureen Dowd. These days, she’s got everyone stirred up because of her book about men, namely about how men don’t appreciate smart, sharp, savvy, scary women. I can’t say I think many of us share Maureen’s problem. You really don’t get all that much more intimidating than her. I went to hear Paul Krugman speak the other night – and I consider him fairly smart, sharp and savvy himself – but he said he’d stopped doing highly political columns because, and I quote, “No one does scathing like Maureen Dowd does scathing.” And she certainly doesn’t retract her claws when it comes to the fairer sex. One look at the scratch marks all over the now shamed and defamed Judy Miller tells us that.

If you’ve got any doubts that Maureen is a complicated woman, just check out the article about her in New York magazine a few weeks ago. (Disclosure: This blog is not going to be one of those late-breaking news type places. Thirty-five years in, I’ve come to accept the fact that I don’t live on the cutting edge. If I’ve heard of it, chances are most other people have too.)

I like how Maureen admits she finds taking a hard-ass stance intimidating, but she takes one anyway. I’m less convinced when she throws around comments about her girlfriends, all of who happen to share her role of prominent NY Times writer, but none of who are as prominent as she is. I’m pretty convinced that Maureen isn’t the type to have a lot of close girlfriends. I think she’s too busy chasing power and influence, which is exactly the same thing Judy Miller was doing only she didn’t do it as cleverly or elegantly and that’s what nailed her in the end. As I culture, I don’t think it’s so much that we don’t like our women powerful as that we don’t like them hamfisted. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this. It seems unfair, since men are allowed to be as hamfisted as they please. On the other hand, I’m not particularly fond on hamfistedness in either gender so maybe pushing women to attack via the smooth and sinuous track is not such a bad thing.

My main point here is that the women we admire, the women we listen to and read about, aren’t the sweethearts. I personally find Maureen kind of fascinating and, yes, a little scary. I don’t know that I’d want to have dinner with her one on one — for all her grousing I think she prefers male company, powerful male company, and besides, I doubt I could keep up my end of the conversation — but I’d sure choose her as a party guest over Laura Bush or even Gloria Steinem or Marie Wilson. Maureen, bless her ambitious and evisceration-happy heart, would tell it like it is.

Note: I’m trying to compile a soundtrack of songs featuring the words woman, girl or lady. Any ideas?