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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us. To put things simply: If women today were happy, "Ally McBeal" would not be such a huge TV hit — a television phenomenon that not only provokes endless discussion nationwide but also has the distinction of mention in a Time Magazine cover story addressing the state of feminism.
The anxiety-riddled character "Ally McBeal" has tapped into something simmering beneath the surface of today's professional, "successful" women. It's called misery. Worse, it's called misery without a comprehensible origin. It is this odd, pervasive unhappiness that Danielle Crittenden confronts in her fascinating, enlightening book What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us.
The premise of What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us is that with all of the success of feminism — all of the doors that have been opened, all of the new freedoms women of this generation enjoy — "we may have inadvertently also smashed the foundations necessary for our happiness." Crittenden does not in any way suggest women revert back to the pre-Feminine Mystique days of suburban housewife malaise, but she does confront the possibility that there might have been some crucial good in many of the old patterns of living that women today reject entirely. Crittenden explains that women in the '90s have "heeded their mother's advice: Do something with your life; don't depend upon a man to take care of you; don't make the same mistakes I did. So they have made different mistakes. They are the women who postponed marriage and childbirth to pursue their careers only tofindthemselves at 35 still single and baby-crazy, with no husband in sight. They are the unwed mothers who now depend on the state to provide what the fathers of their children won't — a place to live and an income to raise their kids on. They are the eighteen-year-old girls who believed they could lead the unfettered sexual lives of men, only to have ended up in an abortion clinic or attending grade twelve English while eight months pregnant. They are the new brides who understand that when a couple promises to stay together 'forever,' they have little better than a 50-50 chance of sticking to it. They are the female partners at law firms who thought they'd made provisions for everything about their career — except for that sudden, unexpected moment when they find their insides shredding the first day they return from maternity leave, having placed their infants in a stranger's arms."
What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us examines the new problems in today's society and outlines the erroneous ways of thinking that created these problems. With a lighthearted tone and good humor throughout, Crittenden intelligently leads readers through an exploration of love, marriage, motherhood, and even aging. Her examination of dating among women in their 20s and 30s is fascinating, harsh — and yes, depressing. She paints a stark portrait of women in their 20s who brush aside sincere suitors because they believe they're too young to consider marriage, only to discover in their mid-30s that the crowd beating down their door has thinned considerably — and perhaps irrevocably. There is perhaps no more salient truth in Crittenden's book than her statement, "It is usually at precisely this moment — when a single woman looks up from her work and realizes she's ready to take on family life — that men make themselves most absent." Further, it is impossible to deny that in terms of sexual appeal, men have a longer shelf life. A successful man can attract women of any age well into his 50s, 60s...or beyond. They can father children well into old age. And according to Crittenden, "this disparity in sexual staying power is something feminists rather recklessly overlooked when they urged women to abandon marriage and domesticity in favor of autonomy and self-fulfillment outside the home."
According to Crittenden, even when a young woman today manages to get married, she is most likely not headed down the path to wedded bliss. In striving so furiously not to be taken for granted as wives were in previous generations, women today often err too far in the opposite direction. Crittenden makes ironic mention of Gloria Steinem's remark that women have become "the husbands we wanted to marry"; Crittenden suggests that perhaps women today are more likely to resemble the husbands we left behind: "balky, self-absorbed, and supremely sure that our needs should come before anyone else's." Crittenden warns that a sense of entitlement devoid of compromise is not likely to lead women into enduring, happy unions.
But the most significant arena of mixed messages is the realm of motherhood. Crittenden is unflinching in her look at the tug of war between work responsibility and the job of motherhood. She explores the myriad decisions and conflicts that arise upon the birth of a child. Some women are eager to return to work but feel guilty leaving their child. Some women are desperate to remain at home with their child but cannot afford to do so. Other women would prefer to remain home with their child, and can afford to do so, but are wary of leaving their jobs because if they ever need to return to the workforce they will have lost their foothold. Crittenden is critical of our culture's pervasive attitude that suggests a woman is not "doing anything" once she steps out of the workforce — an attitude that could only hold weight in a society such as ours in which "the virtues of work have been so inflated that we can no longer appreciate anything that's not accompanied by a paycheck." And as for the idea that work is a liberating alternative to the drudgery of housework and childrearing, Crittenden suggests that the number of people who have interesting, fulfilling jobs are in the great minority. Crittenden calls for women to reevaluate what they have been socialized to believe — that work offers a more defining sense of self than raising children.
So, what did our mothers never tell us? Maybe they did not tell us what Crittenden explains very carefully: Women can't have it both ways. They probably can't have "it all." Life, relationships, careers...all are full of compromises that are natural and not necessarily a threat to who we are as individuals. Crittenden asserts that "If we wish to live for ourselves and think only about ourselves, we will manage to retain our independence but little else."
What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us offers a revised perspective on womanhood that is truly liberating.
— Isabel Rifkin