Sunday, December 04, 2005

The Perils of Maureen

I’ve noticed a new phenomenon among single, college-educated women in their mid-thirties to mid-forties. I call it the “Maureen Dowd Effect.” It’s similar in content to that mid-eighties “women over 40 have a better chance of getting killed by a terrorist than getting married” hysteria and it goes something like this: “Oh my god, did you see/hear that piece on Maureen Dowd in/on (insert The New York Times, New York Magazine, NPR etc.). If someone like Maureen Dowd can’t find a man then I’m definitely doomed,” usually accompanied by melodramatic hand gestures.

Now that terrorist study was proved flawed, notably by Susan Faludi in her book Backlash, and I’m assuming that Maureen Dowd, who’s not even a study but an individual, will prove flawed as well. But I think this fear she awakens, that as smart and ambitious single women we’ve done something wrong which ensures we’ll never find love, is very much worth addressing. And though I don’t agree with Maureen that smart men are looking for dumb women, I don’t entirely disagree with her either.

The thing is, relationships – particularly the long-term sort – require work. And in the past, most of that work was taken on by women. We didn’t have careers and other weighty outside concerns the way men did. Nobody was expected to do it all. Instead, there was this tidy professional/domestic labor split. Men tended to the outside world, women to the in. Obviously that’s now changed. These days women – and I think the real heavy surge starts with women in the 35-45 range who grew up in the seventies – are pursuing careers just like the guys do, with all the investment of time and energy that entails. But in the throes of the women’s movement, we forgot that, with everyone working so damn hard on their careers, no one would be working on the relationships. Except, of course, those women who aren’t chasing success as hard as their male counterparts. These women can feel threatening because they’re rolling in what so many career women either can’t find or are so precariously juggling, marriage and family. It’s unfair and condescending of us to call those other women dumb – in fact choosing not to get on some professional rat-track could be considered the most brilliant choice around – but these women and their choices can, understandably, feel threatening.

The results are twofold. First, now that women are taking a greater part in the professional world men will have to take a greater hand in the domestic world. That doesn’t just mean more vacuuming (though that would be good too). That means successful two career relationships require both parties tending to the home fires. And those hyper-powered men Maureen Dowd is chasing frankly don’t have time for that. Their jobs are their lives. Much as they may enjoy her clever company, the demands of being a CEO or Editor-in-Chief often require a support structure rather than a sparring partner, and that support is what a non-career woman has time to provide.

I don’t think the solution here lies in batting our eyes and pretending to be sorority sisters turned first grade teachers. It’s admitting that you – the female you or the male you - have to take time off the “I’m going to be so powerful and successful” track to foster a relationship if you really want to have one. And sure women get the short end of the stick here because it’s a lot harder to find a man who will fall in to that supporting role than it is to find a woman. But I think that if Maureen had gone ahead and questioned people who have orchestrated a literal or figurative marriage of equals – and there are plenty of them out there - she would find such relationships hinge on compromise. We come back to that new old chestnut. You can’t have or do it all.

In closing, I’d like to say that we also need to step back for a moment. Yes, it’s frustrating and discouraging to hear the biological clock ticking away and see no prospects on the horizon. Yes, we want to feel like someone else has an answer, even a depressing one. But let’s get real here. You are not Maureen Dowd. The fact that the only female columnist at the New York Times can’t seem to land a man isn’t all that relevant to anyone’s life but her own.

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