What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman

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In this thoughtful and witty book, Danielle Crittenden looks at the big topics in women's lives: sex, marriage, motherhood, work, and the personal vs. the political.
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Overview

In this thoughtful and witty book, Danielle Crittenden looks at the big topics in women's lives: sex, marriage, motherhood, work, and the personal vs. the political.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The 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

Elizabeth Powers
...[A] systmatic rebuttal of myths that, for most young women, conservative and liberal alike, still count as gospel truth....There are few rhetorical flourishes in this book, but the cumulative effect is weighty...
Commentary
Elizabeth Gleick
...Crittenden correctly homes in on some naggting questions....but the author would like to have things both ways....[T]he book's greatest flaw is that Crittenden virtually ignores the ...the changing nature of work itself....perhaps the problem is...the relatively recent notion that "happiness" is within our grasp, that we can everything we want, when we want it, without making sacrifices.
The New York Times Book Review
Sarah Hinlicky
[Crittenden] takes a long hard look at the results of women's lib and is gravely disappointed....[She details] how feminism has betrayed its commitment to real choices for women, imposing instead a rigid new set of feminist prejudices.
National Review
Library Journal
The founder of the Women's Quarterly, which in four years has attracted lots of attention, pro and con, argues that today's young women are unhappy because they have been taught to put independence first and blame men for everything.
Elizabeth Gleick
...Crittenden correctly homes in on some naggting questions....but the author would like to have things both ways....[T]he book's greatest flaw is that Crittenden virtually ignores the ...the changing nature of work itself....perhaps the problem is...the relatively recent notion that "happiness" is within our grasp, that we can everything we want, when we want it, without making sacrifices.
The New York Times Book Review
Elizabeth Powers
...[A] systmatic rebuttal of myths that, for most young women, conservative and liberal alike, still count as gospel truth....There are few rhetorical flourishes in this book, but the cumulative effect is weighty...
Commentary
Sarah E. Hinlicky
[Crittenden] takes a long hard look at the results of women's lib and is gravely disappointed....[She details] how feminism has betrayed its commitment to real choices for women, imposing instead a rigid new set of feminist prejudices.
National Review
Kirkus Reviews
Another attempt to solve contemporary women's troubling conflicts about the need to stay home with the kids vs. the option of juggling job, home, and children. Crittenden is the 35-year-old founder of a Washington, D.C.-based periodical, the Women's Quarterly; she's also married and the mother of two young children. Women today, she claims, are going about it wrong: They're starting careers and postponing marriage and childbearing until an age where their choice of partners is limited. If a woman waits to mate until she is past 30, then her pool of available men will be filled with "misfits and crazies" — or she's likely to get stuck in an existing stalled relationship.

Crittenden blames the feminist movement, in part, for promoting female self-absorption and obsession with independence. Her solution: Marry young, stay home with the children until they start school, and then launch a career. Why should the mother stay home instead of the father? Because women want to, argues the author, citing the results of various polls, as well as anecdotal material describing the "guilty tension that is felt by every working mother." Crittenden also (mistakenly) blames feminists for elevating the value of work outside the home over work inside it. In fact, that prejudice existed long before the 1970s feminist movement began; actually, feminism attempted to critically address it.

Crittenden writes persuasively about the rewards of long-term marriage and the complications of sexual freedom but seems less sensitive to issues of women aging, describing the post-45 period as the time when a woman's "body finally fails her" and she becomes "less seductive." Older mothers, she adds,are less capable of chasing toddlers in the playground.

From the Publisher
Meredith Maran author of What It's Like to Live Now They're all here — the modern woman's hot buttons: love, marriage, motherhood, aging, and yes, sex....[This] thoughtful analysis will achieve its purpose: to make every one of us think.

George Will The Washington Post [A] deeply humane book, two copies of which should be given as wedding presents to every couple....

Suzanne Fields Los Angeles Times Syndicate Wonderful and witty.

Camille Paglia Salon.com A thoughtful critic of current mores.

Mary Leonard The Boston Globe Crittenden aims her appeal at twenty-somethings who take women's rights for granted but are not sure their stressed-out working mothers were right when they said they could have it all. Crittenden...[tells] women they can embrace more traditional values, find contentment and even have some fun without donning a dowdy housedress and becoming June Cleaver.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684832197
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 1/18/1999
  • Pages: 202
  • Product dimensions: 6.44 (w) x 9.56 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Danielle Crittenden has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and Ladies' Home Journal, among other publications. She is the founder of The Women's Quarterly, published by the Independent Women's Forum. She has appeared on NBC's Today show and is a frequent commentator on many national television and radio programs. She lives with her husband and two children in Washington, D.C.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter Two

About Love


Our grandmothers, we are told, took husbands the way we might choose our first apartment. There was a scheduled viewing, a quick turn about the interior, a glance inside the closets, a nervous intake of breath as one read the terms of the lease, and then the signing -- or not. You either felt a man's charms right away or you didn't. If you didn't, you entertained a few more prospects until you found one who better suited you. If you loved him, really loved him, all the better. But you also expected to make compromises: The view may not be great, but it's sunny and spacious (translation: he's not that handsome, but he's sweet-natured and will be a good provider). Whether you accepted or rejected him, however, you didn't dawdle. My late mother-in-law, who married at twenty, told me that in her college circles in the mid-1950s, a man who took a woman out for more than three dates without intending marriage was considered a cad. Today, the man who considered marriage so rashly would be thought a fool. Likewise, a woman.

Instead, like lords and sailors of yore, a young woman is encouraged to embark upon the world, seek her fortune and sow her oats, and only much later -- closer to thirty than twenty -- consider the possibility of settling down. Even religious conservatives, who disapprove of sex outside of marriage, accept the now-common wisdom that it is better to put off marriage than do it too early. The popular radio host Laura Schlessinger, traditional in so many of her views, constantly tells her listeners not to consider going to the altar before thirty. In 1965, nearly 90 percent of women aged twenty-five to twenty-nine were married; by 1996, only 56 percent of women in this age group were, according to the Population Reference Bureau in its 1996 survey, "The United States at Mid-Decade." Indeed, the more educated and ambitious a woman is the more likely she is to delay marriage and children, the Census Bureau reports. And if she doesn't -- if such a young woman decides to get married, say before she is twenty-five -- she risks being regarded by her friends as a tragic figure, spoken of the way wartime generations once mourned the young men killed in battle: "How unfortunate, with all that promise, to be cut down so early in life!"

I remember congratulating a young woman upon her recent marriage to a friend of mine and commenting perfunctorily that both of them must be very happy. She was twenty-four at the time. She grabbed my hand, held it, and said with emotion, "Thank you!" As it turned out, I'd been the only woman to offer her congratulations without immediately expressing worry that she'd done the wrong thing. Her single female friends had greeted her wedding announcement as a kind of betrayal. A few had managed to stammer some grudging best wishes. Her best friend nearly refused to be a bridesmaid. They simply couldn't fathom why she'd tossed away her freedom when she was barely out of college. And she, in turn, couldn't convince them that she really had met the man she wanted to marry, that she didn't want to keep going out to bars in the evenings and clubs on the weekends, postponing her marriage for half a decade until she reached an age that her friends would consider more suitable.

In this sense, we lead lives that are exactly the inverse of our grandmothers'. If previous generations of women were raised to believe that they could only realize themselves within the roles of wife and mother, now the opposite is thought true: It's only outside these roles that we are able to realize our full potential and worth as human beings. A twenty-year-old bride is considered as pitiable as a thirty-year-old spinster used to be. Once a husband and children were thought to be essential to a woman's identity, the sources of purpose in her life; today, they are seen as peripherals, accessories that we attach only after our full identities are up and running. And how are we supposed to create these identities? They are to be forged by ourselves, through experience and work and "trial" relationships. The more experience we have, the more we accomplish independently, the stronger we expect our character to grow. Not until we've reached full maturity -- toward the close of our third decade of life -- is it considered safe for a woman to take on the added responsibilities of marriage and family without having to pay the price her grandmother did for domestic security, by surrendering her dreams to soap powders, screaming infants, and frying pans.

The modern approach to romance was perfectly captured in an item I came across one week in the wedding announcements of The New York Times. It was a short, lively description of a ceremony that had taken place between a twenty-eight-year-old graphic designer and a thirty-two-year-old groom. "I'm fiercely independent," the bride told the Times reporter. "My mother always told me, 'You don't need a man in your life. If you believe you need a man, you won't pursue your own goals.'" And pursuing her own goals is what the woman had done in the five years since meeting her future husband at a party in Portland, Oregon, where both had grown up. The bride, who looked like "a sturdier version of Audrey Hepburn," according to the Times, "slim enough to wear cigarette pants, but [also] as if she could change a tire or chop wood," dated but finally broke up with the man in order to move to Manhattan by herself. She said, "I never stopped loving [him], but we were doing our own separate things. Sometimes I think you have to do that in a relationship. It's easy to get complacent and not put yourself first." The man, who couldn't stop thinking about the woman, quit his job and followed her to New York a year later. Eventually they were engaged. As the Times noted, "While some couples see their wedding as the moment when everything from their bank accounts to their taste in food must merge," the bride would have none of it. "I think our independence has made us closer, because we both bring something to the relationship," she said. "D. H. Lawrence writes about two people in a relationship being like two stars who rotate around each other, attracted by each other's energy, but not dependent on each other." Their wedding took place, appropriately enough, on July Fourth.

But there is a price to be paid for postponing commitment, too, one this wedding announcement hints at. It is a price that is rarely stated honestly, not the least because the women who are paying it don't realize how onerous it will be until it's too late. The bride (whose photograph does show her to be nearly as pretty as a young Audrey Hepburn) embodies the virtues of a modern-day heroine: She is evidently free-spirited, self-confident, and determined to live, as Virginia Woolf exhorted, "an invigorating life" unimpeded by men. But she is lucky, too. For in order for this bride to realize her independence, she must remain so constantly self-centered that even when deeply in love, she cannot risk, as she puts it, becoming "complacent" and forgetting to put herself first. What if she hadn't found a suitor so willing to accommodate her quest? The groom isn't quoted in the article but is described by his friends as being "remarkably sweet-tempered." He would have to be! While he demonstrated that he was willing to quit his job and move to a new city just for the chance of being with her, she announced -- to The New York Times, no less -- that she wasn't prepared to make any such sacrifice on his behalf.

Of course, her attitude doesn't have to be read this way. And it usually isn't. How often have you watched a TV show or seen a movie or read a novel in which a woman is celebrated for finding the courage "to be herself" by leaving a marriage or starting a new career or telling a boorish husband he'll have to make his own dinner from now on? Her actions are not seen as selfish -- or when they are, her selfishness is seen as payback for all the centuries of women's selflessness and sacrifice to men. Almost anything she does in the name of her own salvation and independence is justifiable. This rebellious model of womanhood, or the Selfish Heroine, as she might be called, began appearing in first-person magazine stories in the early 1970s and has been upheld by a generation of feminist writers and thinkers since. Virtually hundreds of novels and television movies-of-the-week have recycled the same plot. The story usually begins with an ending -- the ending of a marriage. We meet a woman who is thwarted and depressed in her life as mother and wife. We then follow this woman's gradual enlightenment -- her "journey of self-discovery" -- as she comes to realize that true happiness lies in learning to value and love herself. She will begin putting her own needs first, until her old self is shed, and she blossoms into an entrepreneur or a congresswoman or maybe (if it's TV) a private detective. Newly confident, she'll trade in her insensitive, staid husband for an artistic and sensitive lover -- a college professor or, possibly, a sculptor. Or she'll simply strike out on her own -- with her kids or without them -- to live a fuller, richer, and autonomous life peacefully by the seaside or in a funky downtown loft, surrounded by her own possessions. The modern fairy tale ending is the reverse of the traditional one: A woman does not wait for Prince Charming to bring her happiness; she lives happily ever after only by refusing to wait for him -- or by actually rejecting him. It is those who persist in hoping for a Prince Charming who are setting themselves up for disillusionment and unhappiness.

"[I]t is a novel in which the narrator grabs us by the arm and hauls us up and down the block, to one home after another, and demands that we see for ourselves the ways in which, over and over, suburban housewives of the fifties and sixties came to live out a half-life," writes Susan Faludi in an afterword to a reissued edition of The Women's Room, Marilyn French's best-selling 1977 novel. "I had hoped for signs of outmodedness, but the same damn problems French identifies are still with us...." You don't have to subscribe to Faludi's or French's hard-core feminist ideas to have absorbed their certainty that domesticity remains a threat to women's happiness. The idea that dependency is dangerous for women, that if we don't watch out for ourselves we risk being subsumed by men and family, that lasting happiness cannot be found in love or marriage -- these are sentiments that are not considered at all radical and with which many more moderate women would agree. And while it's impossible to chart these things, I suspect it's this fear of dependency -- more even than fear of divorce -- that is primarily responsible for young women's tendency to delay marriage and childbirth.

Well, why not? Why should we tie ourselves down too young or believe that our only hope for happiness rests in finding lasting love? As we read in The New York Times of the groom who makes all the accommodations to the woman's plans, we may think, Bravo for her. Bravo for staying true to herself. This is progress. I remember having, in my early twenties, long and passionate conversations with my female friends about our need to be strong, to stand alone, to retain our independence and never compromise our souls by succumbing to domesticity. And yet at the same time, we constantly felt the need to shore each other up. We'd come across passages in books -- paeans to the autonomy of the individual, replete with metaphors of lighthouses, mountains, the sea, etc. -- copy them out carefully (in purple ink, on arty cards), and mail them to each other. It was as if despite our passion for independence, despite our confidence in ourselves as independent women, we somehow feared that even a gentle gust of wind blowing from the opposite direction would send us spiraling back into the 1950s, a decade none of us had experienced firsthand but one that could induce shudders all the same. Our skittishness is all the more surprising given that most of my friends' mothers, as well as my own, worked at interesting jobs and had absorbed as deeply as we had the cultural messages of the time. When I look back upon it, I think our youthful yearning to fall in love must have been enormously strong and at war with our equally fierce determination to stay free. We were fighting as much a battle against ourselves as against the snares of domesticity. And if one of us were to give way, the rest would feel weakened in our own inner struggles, betrayed by our friend's abandonment of the supposedly happy autonomous life. For the truth is, once you have ceased being single, you suddenly discover that all that energy you spent propelling yourself toward an independent existence was only going to be useful if you were planning to spend the rest of your life as a nun or a philosopher on a mountaintop or maybe a Hollywood-style adventuress, who winds up staring into her empty bourbon glass forty years later wondering if it was all damn worth it. In preparation for a life spent with someone else, however, it was not going to be helpful.

And this is the revelation that greets the woman who has made almost a religion out of her personal autonomy. She finds out, on the cusp of thirty, that independence is not all it's cracked up to be. "Seen from the outside, my life is the model of modern female independence," wrote Katie Roiphe in a 1997 article for Esquire entitled "The Independent Woman (and Other Lies)." "I live alone, pay my own bills, and fix my stereo when it breaks down. But it sometimes seems like my independence is in part an elaborately constructed facade that hides a more traditional feminine desire to be protected and provided for. I admitted this once to my mother, an ardent seventies feminist...and she was shocked. I saw it on her face: How could a daughter of mine say something like this? I rushed to reassure her that I wouldn't dream of giving up my career, and it's true that I wouldn't." Roiphe then goes on to puzzle over how a modern woman like herself could wish for a man upon whom she could depend. "It may be one of the bad jokes that history occasionally plays on us," she concluded, "that the independence my mother's generation wanted so much for their daughters was something we could not entirely appreciate or want."

Unfortunately, this is a bit of wisdom that almost always arrives too late. The drawbacks of the independent life, which dawned upon Roiphe in her late twenties, are not so readily apparent to a woman in her early twenties. And how can they be? When a woman is young and reasonably attractive, men will pass through her life with the regularity of subway trains; even when the platform is empty, she'll expect another to be coming along soon. No woman in her right mind would want to commit herself to marriage so early. Time stretches luxuriously out before her. Her body is still silent on the question of children. She'll be aware, too, of the risk of divorce today, and may tell herself how important it is to be exposed to a wide variety of men before deciding upon just one. When dating a man, she'll be constantly alert to the possibilities of others. Even if she falls in love with someone, she may ultimately put him off because she feels just "too young" for anything "serious." Mentally, she has postponed all these critical questions to some arbitrary, older age.

But if a woman remains single until her age creeps up past thirty, she may find herself tapping at her watch and staring down the now mysteriously empty tunnel, wondering if there hasn't been a derailment or accident somewhere along the line. When a train does finally pull in, it is filled with misfits and crazy men -- like a New York City subway car after hours: immature, elusive Peter Pans who won't commit themselves to a second cup of coffee, let alone a second date; neurotic bachelors with strange habits; sexual predators who hit on every woman they meet; newly divorced men taking pleasure wherever they can; embittered, scorned men who still feel vengeful toward their last girlfriend; men who are too preoccupied with their careers to think about anyone else from one week to the next; men who are simply too weak, or odd, to have attracted any other woman's interest. The sensible, decent, not-bad-looking men a woman rejected at twenty-four because she wasn't ready to settle down all seem to have gotten off at other stations.

Or, as it may be, a woman might find herself caught in a relationship that doesn't seem to be going anywhere or living with a man she doesn't want to marry. Or if she does want to marry the man she lives with, she may find herself in the opposite situation from the woman in The New York Times: Maybe the man she loves has taken at face value her insistence that nothing is more important to her than her independence. He's utterly bewildered by -- or resentful of -- her sudden demand for a wedding. Hasn't she always said a piece of paper shouldn't matter between two people who love each other? And because they are now living a quasi-married existence, she has no power to pressure him into marriage except by moving out -- which will be messy and difficult, and might backfire. Whatever her circumstances, the single woman will suddenly feel trapped -- trapped by her own past words and actions -- at the moment other desires begin to thrust themselves upon her.

So much has been written about a woman's "biological clock" that it has become a joke of television sitcoms: career women who, without warning, wake up one morning after thirty with alarm bells ringing in their wombs. Actually, the urge for children and everything that goes with them -- not just a husband, but also a home and family life -- often comes on so gradually that it's at first easily brushed away. What a woman is aware of, at around the age of twenty-six or twenty-seven, is a growing, inchoate dissatisfaction, a yearning for more, even if her life is already quite full. Her apartment feels too quiet, her work, no matter how exciting or interesting, is less absorbing, and her spare time, unless packed with frenetic activities, almost echoes with loneliness -- think of an endless wintry Sunday afternoon unbroken by the sound of another voice. She starts noticing the mothers all around her especially young, attractive mothers -- pushing strollers down the street, cooing at their babies in supermarkets, and loading up their shopping carts with enormous quantities of meat, vegetables, cans, jars, boxes of detergent, and packages of diapers, as she purchases a few meager items for her own dinner. All the horrors she once connected with babies -- their noise and messiness, their garish plastic toys, their constant crying and demands that wear down and dull even the most strong-minded of women -- are eclipsed by their previously underestimated virtues: their cuteness, their tiny shoes and mittens, their love and wonder, and, perhaps most enviable of all, the change of life they cause, pulling a woman out of herself and distracting her from her own familiar problems.

Alas, 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. This is when the cruelty of her singleness really sets in, when she becomes aware of the fine print in the unwritten bargain she has cut with the opposite sex. Men will outlast her. Men, particularly successful men, will be attractive and virile into their fifties. They can start families whenever they feel like it. So long as a woman was willing to play a man's game at dating -- playing the field, holding men to no expectations of permanent commitment -- men would be around; they would even live with her! But the moment she began exuding that desire for something more permanent, they'd vanish. I suspect that few things are more off-putting to a man eating dinner than to notice that the woman across the table is looking at him more hungrily than at the food on her plate -- and she is not hungry for his body but for his whole life.

So the single woman is reduced to performing the romantic equivalent of a dance over hot coals: She must pretend that she is totally unaware of the burning rocks beneath her feet and behave in a way that will convince a man that the one thing she really wants is the furthest thing from her mind. She might feign indifference to his phone calls and insist she's busy when she's not. When visiting friends who have small children, she might smile at them or politely bat them away or ask questions about them as if they're a species of plant and she's not someone particularly interested in botany. Whatever she does, though, she cannot be blamed for believing, at this point in her life, that it is men who have benefited most from women's determination to remain independent. I often think that moderately attractive bachelors in their thirties now possess the sexual power that once belonged only to models and millionaires. They have their pick of companions, and may callously disregard the increasingly desperate thirtyish single women around them or move on when their current love becomes too cloying. As for the single woman over thirty, she may be in every other aspect of her life a paragon of female achievement; but in her romantic life, she must force herself to be as eager to please and accommodate male desire as any 1920s cotillion debutante.

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. The generation of women that embraced the feminist idealization of independence may have caused havoc by walking away from their marriages and families, but they could do so having established in their own mind that these were not the lives they wanted to lead: Those women at least had marriages and families from which to walk away. The thirty-three-year-old single woman who decides she wants more from life than her career cannot so readily walk into marriage and children; by postponing them, all she has done is to push them ahead to a point in her life when she has less sexual power to attain them. Instead, she must confront the sad possibility that she might never have what was the birthright of every previous generation of women: children, a home life, and a husband who -- however dull or oppressive he might have appeared to feminist eyes -- at least was there. As this older single woman's life stretches out before her, she'll wonder if she'll ever meet someone she could plausibly love and who will love her in return or whether she's condemned to making the rest of her journey on the train alone. She might have to forgo her hope of youthful marriage and the pleasure of starting out fresh in life with a husband at the same stage of the journey as herself. She may have to consider looking at men who are much older than she is, men on their second and third marriages who arrive with an assortment of heavy baggage and former traveling companions. These men may already have children and be uninterested in having more, or she'll have to patch together a new family out of broken ones. Or, as time passes and still no one comes along, this woman might join the other older single women in the waiting rooms of fertility clinics, the ones who hope science will now provide them with the babies that the pursuit of independence did not.


A woman's decision to delay marriage and children has other consequences -- less obvious than the biological ones and therefore harder to foresee. It is not simply the pressure of wanting a baby that turns those confident twenty-five-year-old single career women you see striding through busy intersections at lunch hour, wearing sleek suits and carrying take-out salads to eat at their desks, into the morose, white-wine-drinking thirty-five-year-old executives huddled around restaurant tables, frantically analyzing every quality about themselves that might be contributing to their stubbornly unsuccessful romantic lives. By spending years and years living entirely for yourself, thinking only about yourself, and having responsibility to no one but yourself, you end up inadvertently extending the introverted existence of a teenager deep into middle age. The woman who avoids permanent commitment because she fears it will stunt her development as an individual may be surprised to realize in her thirties that having essentially the same life as she did at eighteen -- the same dating problems, the same solitary habits, the same anxieties about her future, and the same sense that her life has not yet fully begun -- is stunting, too.

When a woman postpones marriage and motherhood, she does not end up thinking about love less as she gets older but more and more, sometimes to the point of obsession. Why am I still alone? she wonders. Why can't I find someone? What is wrong with me? Her friends who have married are getting on with their lives -- they are putting down payments on cars and homes; babies are arriving. She may not like some of their marriages -- she may think her best friend's husband is a bit of a jerk or that another one of her friends has changed for the worse since her marriage -- but nonetheless, she will think that at least their lives are going forward while her gearshift remains stuck in neutral. The more time that passes, the more the gearshift rattles, the more preoccupied the woman becomes with herself and all her possible shortcomings in the eyes of men until she can think about little else.

This may be the joke that history has actually played upon us -- and a nasty one it is. Switch on the television or wander into a bookstore and it is striking how many programs and books are now aimed at a market of thirtyish single women who are unhappy and fretful about their solitary state. What is fascinating about the self-help books in particular is not so much the advice they give but the reader their authors believe they are speaking to -- a reader who scarcely existed a generation ago. This woman is not using her hard-won freedom and her hard-won money to move beyond herself and her immediate personal problems. She is using it, rather, to delve ever more deeply into herself, buying up volume after volume of cheap psychology that only pushes her further into nail-biting introspection. While the authors of these books attempt to differentiate their theories by offering pseudoscientific systems (measuring their readers' "pleasure pattern" or "receptivity to love") or dividing single women into tidy psychological categories ("the Sexual Martyr," "the Co-Dependent," etc.), the conclusion that emerges is always the same: Millions of women need constant reassurance about their self-worth.

The authors of the 1996 best-selling how-to-catch-a-husband book, The Rules, took for granted a readership of single women so neurotically self-absorbed, so desperately out of control, that they needed to be reminded of such things as not to "babble on and on" to their dates, not to reveal "that getting married is foremost on your mind," and not to stay on the phone with men "for an hour or two recounting your feelings or every incident of the day." As feminist writer Katha Pollitt cruelly put it in a review of the book: "The woman depicted as in need of The Rules is a voracious doormat, the sort of woman who sends men Hallmark greeting cards or long letters after a single date, who rummages in men's drawers and pockets, suggests couples therapy when brief relationships start to crumble, throws away a new boyfriend's old clothes, cleans (and redecorates) his apartment without asking, and refuses to see the most obvious signs of disengagement." Pollitt gamely goes on to argue that the woman who behaves like this does so only because she is not a confident feminist who has learned to value her own company. "Her problem isn't too much liberation; it's incredibly low self-esteem," she writes. And that incredibly low self-esteem has to be a product, of course, of this sexist world we live in, one in which men and women continue to "need" each other only for such superficial reasons as "acceptability in a society organized around the couple." It would not occur to someone like Pollitt that a woman might be driven to this kind of behavior precisely because she has spent her adulthood relentlessly pursuing the feminist goal of independence and now feels so inescapably independent that it's driving her nuts.

Yet the self-help gurus, even those who aren't avowedly feminist, by and large agree with Pollitt. In book after book, they repeat the stereotypical feminist attitude of the past thirty years -- that any form of dependence upon a man is potentially harmful and unhealthy to a woman's identity. "Many women still end up in relationships where their wants, beliefs, priorities, and ambitions are compromised under relationship pressures," writes the best-selling author Harriet Lerner in Life Preservers. "The best way to work on an intimate relationship is to work on the self." "If you spend more time worrying what others think than working on what you want or need, you will always be disappointed," warns Dr. Wayne Dyer in his book Erroneous Zones, which has sold more than 6 million copies. Its cover exclaims: "Dyer shows that only you can make yourself happy and points the way to true self-reliance [italics mine]."

This level of self-absorption, however, has the perverse effect of making it even more difficult ever to attract, let alone keep, someone. (As the single heroine of Helen Fielding's 1996 novel, Bridget Jones' Diary, resolves to herself: "I will not sulk about having no boyfriend, but develop inner poise and authority and sense of self as woman of substance, complete without boyfriend, as best way to obtain boyfriend.") My single male friends in their thirties complain about going on dates with women who spend the entire evening talking about themselves and analyzing themselves aloud. These women are no longer capable, it seems, of holding a general conversation or of even feigning interest in a general conversation. They've become female versions of the eccentric bachelor -- like Professor Higgins or his modern-day equivalent, Jerry Seinfeld -- who are so set in their quirky habits, perverse likes and dislikes, and long-standing relationships with equally eccentric friends, that they cannot seriously involve themselves with anyone else. Instead -- like the chronically single TV character Ally McBeal, who exclaims, "I like being a mess. It's who I am" -- their problems now define their personalities; and without these problems, they wouldn't know who they are. A horrified Time magazine put Ally McBeal on its June 1998 cover over the headline "Is Feminism Dead?" To the editors of Time, the character of McBeal, in her self-absorption and sex-craziness, betrayed everything the women's movement was supposed to stand for. But what after all could better express the spirit of feminist autonomy than this line from another of Time's traitors to her sex, the confessional author Elizabeth Wurtzel, in her 1998 book, Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women: "I intend to scream, shout, throw tantrums in Bloomingdale's if I feel like it and confess intimate details of my life to complete strangers. I intend to answer only to myself."


From a feminist view, it would be nice, I suppose -- or at the very least handy -- if we were able to derive total satisfaction from our solitude, to be entirely self-contained organisms, like earthworms or amoebas, having relations with the opposite sex whenever we felt a need for it but otherwise being entirely contented with our own company. Every woman's apartment could be her Walden Pond. She'd be free of the romantic fuss and interaction that has defined, and given meaning to, human existence since its creation. She could spend her evenings happily ensconced with a book or a rented video, not having to deal with some bozo's desire to watch football or play mindless video games. How children would fit into this vision of autonomy, I'm not sure, but surely they would infringe upon it; perhaps she could simply farm them out. If this seems a rather chilling outcome to the quest for independence, well, it is. If no man is an island, then no woman can be, either. And it's why most human beings fall in love, and continue to take on all the commitments and responsibilities of family life. We want the warm body next to us on the sofa in the evenings; we want the noise and embrace of family around us; we want, at the end of our lives, to look back and see that what we have done amounts to more than a pile of pay stubs, that we have loved and been loved, and brought into this world life that will outlast us.

The quest for autonomy -- the need "to be oneself" or, as Wurtzel declares, the intention "to answer only to myself" -- is in fact not a brave or noble one; nor is it an indication of strong character. Too often, autonomy is merely the excuse of someone who is so fearful, so weak, that he or she can't bear to take on any of the responsibilities that used to be shouldered by much younger but more robust and mature souls. I'm struck by the number of my single contemporaries -- men and women in their early to mid-thirties -- who speak of themselves as if they were still twenty years old, just embarking upon their lives and not, as they actually are, already halfway through them. In another era, a thirty-three-year-old man or woman might have already lived through a depression and a world war and had several children. Yet at the suggestion of marriage -- or of buying a house or of having a baby -- these modern thirtysomethings will exclaim, "But I'm so young!" their crinkled eyes widening at the thought. In the relationships they do have -- even "serious" ones -- they will take pains to avoid the appearance of anything that smacks of permanent commitment. The strange result is couples who are willing to share everything with each other -- leases, furniture, cars, weekends, body fluids, holidays with their relatives -- just as long as it comes with the right to cancel the relationship at any moment.

Unfortunately, postponing marriage and all the responsibilities that go with it does not prolong youth. It only prolongs the illusion of it, and then again only in one's own eyes. The traits that are forgivable in a twenty-year-old -- the constant wondering about who you are and what you will be; the readiness to chuck one thing, or person, for another and move on -- are less attractive in a thirty-two-year-old. More often what results is a middle-aged person who retains all the irritating self-absorption of an adolescent without gaining any of the redeeming qualities of maturity. Those qualities -- wisdom, a sense of duty, the willingness to make sacrifices for others, an acceptance of aging and death -- are qualities that spring directly from our relationships and commitments to others.

A woman will not understand what true dependency is until she is cradling her own infant in her arms; nor will she likely achieve the self-confidence she craves until she has withstood, and transcended, the weight of responsibility a family places upon her -- a weight that makes all the paperwork and assignments of her in-basket seem feather-light. The same goes for men. We strengthen a muscle by using it, and that is true of the heart and mind, too. By waiting and waiting and waiting to commit to someone, our capacity for love shrinks and withers. This doesn't mean that women or men should marry the first reasonable person to come along, or someone with whom they are not in love. But we should, at a much earlier age than we do now, take a serious attitude toward dating and begin preparing ourselves to settle down. For it's in the act of taking up the roles we've been taught to avoid or postpone -- wife, husband, mother, father -- that we build our identities, expand our lives, and achieve the fullness of character we desire.

Still, critics may argue that the old way was no better; that the risk of loss women assume by delaying marriage and motherhood overbalances the certain loss we'd suffer by marrying too early. The habit of viewing marriage as a raw deal for women is now so entrenched, even among women who don't call themselves feminists, that I've seen brides who otherwise appear completely happy apologize to their wedding guests for their surrender to convention, as if a part of them still feels there is something embarrassing and weak about an intelligent and ambitious woman consenting to marry. But is this true? Or is it just an alibi we've been handed by the previous generation of women in order to justify the sad, lonely outcomes of so many lives?

What we rarely hear -- or perhaps are too fearful to admit -- is how liberating marriage can actually be. As nerve-racking as making the decision can be, it is also an enormous relief once it is made. The moment we say, "I do," we have answered one of the great, crucial questions of our lives: We now know with whom we'll be spending the rest of our years, who will be the father of our children, who will be our family. That our marriages may not work, that we will have to accommodate ourselves to the habits and personality of someone else -- these are, and always have been, the risks of commitment, of love itself. What is important is that our lives have been thrust forward. The negative -- that we are no longer able to live entirely for ourselves -- is also the positive: We no longer have to live entirely for ourselves! We may go on to do any number of interesting things, but we are free of the gnawing wonder of with whom we will do them. We have ceased to look down the tunnel, waiting for a train.

The pull between the desire to love and be loved and the desire to be free is an old, fierce one. If the error our grandmothers made was to have surrendered too much of themselves for others, this was perhaps better than not being prepared to surrender anything at all. The fear of losing oneself can, in the end, simply become an excuse for not giving any of oneself away. Generations of women may have had no choice but to commit themselves to marriage early and then to feel imprisoned by their lifelong domesticity. So many of our generation have decided to put it off until it is too late, not foreseeing that lifelong independence can be its own kind of prison, too.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments 9
Introduction: What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us 13
Chapter 1 About Sex 27
Chapter 2 About Love 59
Chapter 3 About Marriage 77
Chapter 4 About Motherhood 113
Chapter 5 About Aging 145
Chapter 6 About the Political--and the Personal 163
Epilogue: What We Tell Our Daughters 181
Index 193
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First Chapter

chapter two: About Love

Our grandmothers, we are told, took husbands the way we might choose our first apartment. There was a scheduled viewing, a quick turn about the interior, a glance inside the closets, a nervous intake of breath as one read the terms of the lease, and then the signing -- or not. You either felt a man's charms right away or you didn't. If you didn't, you entertained a few more prospects until you found one who better suited you. If you loved him, really loved him, all the better. But you also expected to make compromises: The view may not be great, but it's sunny and spacious (translation: he's not that handsome, but he's sweet-natured and will be a good provider). Whether you accepted or rejected him, however, you didn't dawdle. My late mother-in-law, who married at twenty, told me that in her college circles in the mid-1950s, a man who took a woman out for more than three dates without intending marriage was considered a cad. Today, the man who considered marriage so rashly would be thought a fool. Likewise, a woman.

Instead, like lords and sailors of yore, a young woman is encouraged to embark upon the world, seek her fortune and sow her oats, and only much later -- closer to thirty than twenty -- consider the possibility of settling down. Even religious conservatives, who disapprove of sex outside of marriage, accept the now-common wisdom that it is better to put off marriage than do it too early. The popular radio host Laura Schlessinger, traditional in so many of her views, constantly tells her listeners not to consider going to the altar before thirty. In 1965, nearly 90 percent of women aged twenty-five to twenty-nine wwomen were raised to believe that they could only realize themselves within the roles of wife and mother, now the opposite is thought true: It's only outside these roles that we are able to realize our full potential and worth as human beings. A twenty-year-old bride is considered as pitiable as a thirty-year-old spinster used to be. Once a husband and children were thought to be essential to a woman's identity, the sources of purpose in her life; today, they are seen as peripherals, accessories that we attach only after our full identities are up and running. And how are we supposed to create these identities? They are to be forged by ourselves, through experience and work and "trial" relationships. The more experience we have, the more we accomplish independently, the stronger we expect our character to grow. Not until we've reached full maturity -- toward the close of our third decade of life -- is it considered safe for a woman to take on the added responsibilities of marriage and family without having to pay the price her grandmother did for domestic security, by surrendering her dreams to soap powders, screaming infants, and frying pans.

The modern approach to romance was perfectly captured in an item I came across one week in the wedding announcements of The New York Times. It was a short, lively description of a ceremony that had taken place between a twenty-eight-year-old graphic designer and a thirty-two-year-old groom. "I'm fiercely independent," the bride told the Times reporter. "My mother always told me, 'You don't need a man in your life. If you believe you need a man, you won't pursue your own goals.'" And pursuing her own goals is what the woman had done in th e five years since meeting her future husband at a party in Portland, Oregon, where both had grown up. The bride, who looked like "a sturdier version of Audrey Hepburn," according to the Times, "slim enough to wear cigarette pants, but [also] as if she could change a tire or chop wood," dated but finally broke up with the man in order to move to Manhattan by herself. She said, "I never stopped loving [him], but we were doing our own separate things. Sometimes I think you have to do that in a relationship. It's easy to get complacent and not put yourself first." The man, who couldn't stop thinking about the woman, quit his job and followed her to New York a year later. Eventually they were engaged. As the Times noted, "While some couples see their wedding as the moment when everything from their bank accounts to their taste in food must merge," the bride would have none of it. "I think our independence has made us closer, because we both bring something to the relationship," she said. "D. H. Lawrence writes about two people in a relationship being like two stars who rotate around each other, attracted by each other's energy, but not dependent on each other." Their wedding took place, appropriately enough, on July Fourth.

But there is a price to be paid for postponing commitment, too, one this wedding announcement hints at. It is a price that is rarely stated honestly, not the least because the women who are paying it don't realize how onerous it will be until it's too late. The bride (whose photograph does show her to be nearly as pretty as a young Audrey Hepburn) embodies the virtues of a modern-day heroine: She is evidently free-spirited, self-confident, and determined to live, as V irginia Woolf exhorted, "an invigorating life" unimpeded by men. But she is lucky, too. For in order for this bride to realize her independence, she must remain so constantly self-centered that even when deeply in love, she cannot risk, as she puts it, becoming "complacent" and forgetting to put herself first. What if she hadn't found a suitor so willing to accommodate her quest? The groom isn't quoted in the article but is described by his friends as being "remarkably sweet-tempered." He would have to be! While he demonstrated that he was willing to quit his job and move to a new city just for the chance of being with her, she announced -- to The New York Times, no less -- that she wasn't prepared to make any such sacrifice on his behalf.

Of course, her attitude doesn't have to be read this way. And it usually isn't. How often have you watched a TV show or seen a movie or read a novel in which a woman is celebrated for finding the courage "to be herself" by leaving a marriage or starting a new career or telling a boorish husband he'll have to make his own dinner from now on? Her actions are not seen as selfish -- or when they are, her selfishness is seen as payback for all the centuries of women's selflessness and sacrifice to men. Almost anything she does in the name of her own salvation and independence is justifiable. This rebellious model of womanhood, or the Selfish Heroine, as she might be called, began appearing in first-person magazine stories in the early 1970s and has been upheld by a generation of feminist writers and thinkers since. Virtually hundreds of novels and television movies-of-the-week have recycled the same plot. The story usually begins with an ending -- the e nding of a marriage. We meet a woman who is thwarted and depressed in her life as mother and wife. We then follow this woman's gradual enlightenment -- her "journey of self-discovery" -- as she comes to realize that true happiness lies in learning to value and love herself. She will begin putting her own needs first, until her old self is shed, and she blossoms into an entrepreneur or a congresswoman or maybe (if it's TV) a private detective. Newly confident, she'll trade in her insensitive, staid husband for an artistic and sensitive lover -- a college professor or, possibly, a sculptor. Or she'll simply strike out on her own -- with her kids or without them -- to live a fuller, richer, and autonomous life peacefully by the seaside or in a funky downtown loft, surrounded by her own possessions. The modern fairy tale ending is the reverse of the traditional one: A woman does not wait for Prince Charming to bring her happiness; she lives happily ever after only by refusing to wait for him -- or by actually rejecting him. It is those who persist in hoping for a Prince Charming who are setting themselves up for disillusionment and unhappiness.

"[I]t is a novel in which the narrator grabs us by the arm and hauls us up and down the block, to one home after another, and demands that we see for ourselves the ways in which, over and over, suburban housewives of the fifties and sixties came to live out a half-life," writes Susan Faludi in an afterword to a reissued edition of The Women's Room, Marilyn French's best-selling 1977 novel. "I had hoped for signs of outmodedness, but the same damn problems French identifies are still with us...." You don't have to subscribe to Faludi's or French's hard-co re feminist ideas to have absorbed their certainty that domesticity remains a threat to women's happiness. The idea that dependency is dangerous for women, that if we don't watch out for ourselves we risk being subsumed by men and family, that lasting happiness cannot be found in love or marriage -- these are sentiments that are not considered at all radical and with which many more moderate women would agree. And while it's impossible to chart these things, I suspect it's this fear of dependency -- more even than fear of divorce -- that is primarily responsible for young women's tendency to delay marriage and childbirth.

Well, why not? Why should we tie ourselves down too young or believe that our only hope for happiness rests in finding lasting love? As we read in The New York Times of the groom who makes all the accommodations to the woman's plans, we may think, Bravo for her. Bravo for staying true to herself. This is progress. I remember having, in my early twenties, long and passionate conversations with my female friends about our need to be strong, to stand alone, to retain our independence and never compromise our souls by succumbing to domesticity. And yet at the same time, we constantly felt the need to shore each other up. We'd come across passages in books -- paeans to the autonomy of the individual, replete with metaphors of lighthouses, mountains, the sea, etc. -- copy them out carefully (in purple ink, on arty cards), and mail them to each other. It was as if despite our passion for independence, despite our confidence in ourselves as independent women, we somehow feared that even a gentle gust of wind blowing from the opposite direction would send us spiraling back into the 1950s, a decade none of us had experienced firsthand but one that could induce shudders all the same. Our skittishness is all the more surprising given that most of my friends' mothers, as well as my own, worked at interesting jobs and had absorbed as deeply as we had the cultural messages of the time. When I look back upon it, I think our youthful yearning to fall in love must have been enormously strong and at war with our equally fierce determination to stay free. We were fighting as much a battle against ourselves as against the snares of domesticity. And if one of us were to give way, the rest would feel weakened in our own inner struggles, betrayed by our friend's abandonment of the supposedly happy autonomous life. For the truth is, once you have ceased being single, you suddenly discover that all that energy you spent propelling yourself toward an independent existence was only going to be useful if you were planning to spend the rest of your life as a nun or a philosopher on a mountaintop or maybe a Hollywood-style adventuress, who winds up staring into her empty bourbon glass forty years later wondering if it was all damn worth it. In preparation for a life spent with someone else, however, it was not going to be helpful.

And this is the revelation that greets the woman who has made almost a religion out of her personal autonomy. She finds out, on the cusp of thirty, that independence is not all it's cracked up to be. "Seen from the outside, my life is the model of modern female independence," wrote Katie Roiphe in a 1997 article for Esquire entitled "The Independent Woman (and Other Lies)." "I live alone, pay my own bills, and fix my stereo when it breaks down. But it sometimes seems like my independence is in part an elaborately constructed facade that hides a more traditional feminine desire to be protected and provided for. I admitted this once to my mother, an ardent seventies feminist...and she was shocked. I saw it on her face: How could a daughter of mine say something like this? I rushed to reassure her that I wouldn't dream of giving up my career, and it's true that I wouldn't." Roiphe then goes on to puzzle over how a modern woman like herself could wish for a man upon whom she could depend. "It may be one of the bad jokes that history occasionally plays on us," she concluded, "that the independence my mother's generation wanted so much for their daughters was something we could not entirely appreciate or want."

Unfortunately, this is a bit of wisdom that almost always arrives too late. The drawbacks of the independent life, which dawned upon Roiphe in her late twenties, are not so readily apparent to a woman in her early twenties. And how can they be? When a woman is young and reasonably attractive, men will pass through her life with the regularity of subway trains; even when the platform is empty, she'll expect another to be coming along soon. No woman in her right mind would want to commit herself to marriage so early. Time stretches luxuriously out before her. Her body is still silent on the question of children. She'll be aware, too, of the risk of divorce today, and may tell herself how important it is to be exposed to a wide variety of men before deciding upon just one. When dating a man, she'll be constantly alert to the possibilities of others. Even if she falls in love with someone, she may ultimately put him off because she feels just "too yo ung" for anything "serious." Mentally, she has postponed all these critical questions to some arbitrary, older age.

But if a woman remains single until her age creeps up past thirty, she may find herself tapping at her watch and staring down the now mysteriously empty tunnel, wondering if there hasn't been a derailment or accident somewhere along the line. When a train does finally pull in, it is filled with misfits and crazy men -- like a New York City subway car after hours: immature, elusive Peter Pans who won't commit themselves to a second cup of coffee, let alone a second date; neurotic bachelors with strange habits; sexual predators who hit on every woman they meet; newly divorced men taking pleasure wherever they can; embittered, scorned men who still feel vengeful toward their last girlfriend; men who are too preoccupied with their careers to think about anyone else from one week to the next; men who are simply too weak, or odd, to have attracted any other woman's interest. The sensible, decent, not-bad-looking men a woman rejected at twenty-four because she wasn't ready to settle down all seem to have gotten off at other stations.

Or, as it may be, a woman might find herself caught in a relationship that doesn't seem to be going anywhere or living with a man she doesn't want to marry. Or if she does want to marry the man she lives with, she may find herself in the opposite situation from the woman in The New York Times: Maybe the man she loves has taken at face value her insistence that nothing is more important to her than her independence. He's utterly bewildered by -- or resentful of -- her sudden demand for a wedding. Hasn't she always said a piece of paper shouldn't matter between two people who love each other? And because they are now living a quasi-married existence, she has no power to pressure him into marriage except by moving out -- which will be messy and difficult, and might backfire. Whatever her circumstances, the single woman will suddenly feel trapped -- trapped by her own past words and actions -- at the moment other desires begin to thrust themselves upon her.

So much has been written about a woman's "biological clock" that it has become a joke of television sitcoms: career women who, without warning, wake up one morning after thirty with alarm bells ringing in their wombs. Actually, the urge for children and everything that goes with them -- not just a husband, but also a home and family life -- often comes on so gradually that it's at first easily brushed away. What a woman is aware of, at around the age of twenty-six or twenty-seven, is a growing, inchoate dissatisfaction, a yearning for more, even if her life is already quite full. Her apartment feels too quiet, her work, no matter how exciting or interesting, is less absorbing, and her spare time, unless packed with frenetic activities, almost echoes with loneliness -- think of an endless wintry Sunday afternoon unbroken by the sound of another voice. She starts noticing the mothers all around her especially young, attractive mothers -- pushing strollers down the street, cooing at their babies in supermarkets, and loading up their shopping carts with enormous quantities of meat, vegetables, cans, jars, boxes of detergent, and packages of diapers, as she purchases a few meager items for her own dinner. All the horrors she once connected with babies -- their noise and messiness, their garish plastic toys, their constant crying and demands that wear down and dull even the most strong-minded of women -- are eclipsed by their previously underestimated virtues: their cuteness, their tiny shoes and mittens, their love and wonder, and, perhaps most enviable of all, the change of life they cause, pulling a woman out of herself and distracting her from her own familiar problems.

Alas, 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. This is when the cruelty of her singleness really sets in, when she becomes aware of the fine print in the unwritten bargain she has cut with the opposite sex. Men will outlast her. Men, particularly successful men, will be attractive and virile into their fifties. They can start families whenever they feel like it. So long as a woman was willing to play a man's game at dating -- playing the field, holding men to no expectations of permanent commitment -- men would be around; they would even live with her! But the moment she began exuding that desire for something more permanent, they'd vanish. I suspect that few things are more off-putting to a man eating dinner than to notice that the woman across the table is looking at him more hungrily than at the food on her plate -- and she is not hungry for his body but for his whole life.

So the single woman is reduced to performing the romantic equivalent of a dance over hot coals: She must pretend that she is totally unaware of the burning rocks beneath her feet and behave in a way that will convince a man that the one thing she really wants is the furthest thing from her mind. She might feign indifference to his phone calls and insist she's busy when she's not. When visiting friends who have small children, she might smile at them or politely bat them away or ask questions about them as if they're a species of plant and she's not someone particularly interested in botany. Whatever she does, though, she cannot be blamed for believing, at this point in her life, that it is men who have benefited most from women's determination to remain independent. I often think that moderately attractive bachelors in their thirties now possess the sexual power that once belonged only to models and millionaires. They have their pick of companions, and may callously disregard the increasingly desperate thirtyish single women around them or move on when their current love becomes too cloying. As for the single woman over thirty, she may be in every other aspect of her life a paragon of female achievement; but in her romantic life, she must force herself to be as eager to please and accommodate male desire as any 1920s cotillion debutante.

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. The generation of women that embraced the feminist idealization of independence may have caused havoc by walking away from their marriages and families, but they could do so having established in their own mind that these were not the lives they wanted to lead: Those women at least had marriages and families from which to walk away. The thirty-three-year-old single woman who decides she wants more from life than her career cannot so readily walk int o marriage and children; by postponing them, all she has done is to push them ahead to a point in her life when she has less sexual power to attain them. Instead, she must confront the sad possibility that she might never have what was the birthright of every previous generation of women: children, a home life, and a husband who -- however dull or oppressive he might have appeared to feminist eyes -- at least was there. As this older single woman's life stretches out before her, she'll wonder if she'll ever meet someone she could plausibly love and who will love her in return or whether she's condemned to making the rest of her journey on the train alone. She might have to forgo her hope of youthful marriage and the pleasure of starting out fresh in life with a husband at the same stage of the journey as herself. She may have to consider looking at men who are much older than she is, men on their second and third marriages who arrive with an assortment of heavy baggage and former traveling companions. These men may already have children and be uninterested in having more, or she'll have to patch together a new family out of broken ones. Or, as time passes and still no one comes along, this woman might join the other older single women in the waiting rooms of fertility clinics, the ones who hope science will now provide them with the babies that the pursuit of independence did not.


A woman's decision to delay marriage and children has other consequences -- less obvious than the biological ones and therefore harder to foresee. It is not simply the pressure of wanting a baby that turns those confident twenty-five-year-old single career women you see striding through busy intersections at lunch hour, wearing sleek suits and carrying take-out salads to eat at their desks, into the morose, white-wine-drinking thirty-five-year-old executives huddled around restaurant tables, frantically analyzing every quality about themselves that might be contributing to their stubbornly unsuccessful romantic lives. By spending years and years living entirely for yourself, thinking only about yourself, and having responsibility to no one but yourself, you end up inadvertently extending the introverted existence of a teenager deep into middle age. The woman who avoids permanent commitment because she fears it will stunt her development as an individual may be surprised to realize in her thirties that having essentially the same life as she did at eighteen -- the same dating problems, the same solitary habits, the same anxieties about her future, and the same sense that her life has not yet fully begun -- is stunting, too.

When a woman postpones marriage and motherhood, she does not end up thinking about love less as she gets older but more and more, sometimes to the point of obsession. Why am I still alone? she wonders. Why can't I find someone? What is wrong with me? Her friends who have married are getting on with their lives -- they are putting down payments on cars and homes; babies are arriving. She may not like some of their marriages -- she may think her best friend's husband is a bit of a jerk or that another one of her friends has changed for the worse since her marriage -- but nonetheless, she will think that at least their lives are going forward while her gearshift remains stuck in neutral. The more time that passes, the more the gearshift rattles, the more preoccupied the woman becomes with herself and all her possible shortcomings in the eyes of men until she can think about little else.

This may be the joke that history has actually played upon us -- and a nasty one it is. Switch on the television or wander into a bookstore and it is striking how many programs and books are now aimed at a market of thirtyish single women who are unhappy and fretful about their solitary state. What is fascinating about the self-help books in particular is not so much the advice they give but the reader their authors believe they are speaking to -- a reader who scarcely existed a generation ago. This woman is not using her hard-won freedom and her hard-won money to move beyond herself and her immediate personal problems. She is using it, rather, to delve ever more deeply into herself, buying up volume after volume of cheap psychology that only pushes her further into nail-biting introspection. While the authors of these books attempt to differentiate their theories by offering pseudoscientific systems (measuring their readers' "pleasure pattern" or "receptivity to love") or dividing single women into tidy psychological categories ("the Sexual Martyr," "the Co-Dependent," etc.), the conclusion that emerges is always the same: Millions of women need constant reassurance about their self-worth.

The authors of the 1996 best-selling how-to-catch-a-husband book, The Rules, took for granted a readership of single women so neurotically self-absorbed, so desperately out of control, that they needed to be reminded of such things as not to "babble on and on" to their dates, not to reveal "that getting married is foremost on your mind," and not to stay on the phone with men "for an hour or two recounting your feelings or every incident of the day." As feminist writer Katha Pollitt cruelly put it in a review of the book: "The woman depicted as in need of The Rules is a voracious doormat, the sort of woman who sends men Hallmark greeting cards or long letters after a single date, who rummages in men's drawers and pockets, suggests couples therapy when brief relationships start to crumble, throws away a new boyfriend's old clothes, cleans (and redecorates) his apartment without asking, and refuses to see the most obvious signs of disengagement." Pollitt gamely goes on to argue that the woman who behaves like this does so only because she is not a confident feminist who has learned to value her own company. "Her problem isn't too much liberation; it's incredibly low self-esteem," she writes. And that incredibly low self-esteem has to be a product, of course, of this sexist world we live in, one in which men and women continue to "need" each other only for such superficial reasons as "acceptability in a society organized around the couple." It would not occur to someone like Pollitt that a woman might be driven to this kind of behavior precisely because she has spent her adulthood relentlessly pursuing the feminist goal of independence and now feels so inescapably independent that it's driving her nuts.

Yet the self-help gurus, even those who aren't avowedly feminist, by and large agree with Pollitt. In book after book, they repeat the stereotypical feminist attitude of the past thirty years -- that any form of dependence upon a man is potentially harmful and unhealthy to a woman's identity. "Many women still end up in relationships where their wants, beliefs, priorities, and ambitions are compromised under relationship pressures," writes the best-selling author Harriet Lerner in Life Preservers. "The best way to work on an intimate relationship is to work on the self." "If you spend more time worrying what others think than working on what you want or need, you will always be disappointed," warns Dr. Wayne Dyer in his book Erroneous Zones, which has sold more than 6 million copies. Its cover exclaims: "Dyer shows that only you can make yourself happy and points the way to true self-reliance [italics mine]."

This level of self-absorption, however, has the perverse effect of making it even more difficult ever to attract, let alone keep, someone. (As the single heroine of Helen Fielding's 1996 novel, Bridget Jones' Diary, resolves to herself: "I will not sulk about having no boyfriend, but develop inner poise and authority and sense of self as woman of substance, complete without boyfriend, as best way to obtain boyfriend.") My single male friends in their thirties complain about going on dates with women who spend the entire evening talking about themselves and analyzing themselves aloud. These women are no longer capable, it seems, of holding a general conversation or of even feigning interest in a general conversation. They've become female versions of the eccentric bachelor -- like Professor Higgins or his modern-day equivalent, Jerry Seinfeld -- who are so set in their quirky habits, perverse likes and dislikes, and long-standing relationships with equally eccentric friends, that they cannot seriously involve themselves with anyone else. Instead -- like the chronically single TV character Ally McBeal, who exclaims , "I like being a mess. It's who I am" -- their problems now define their personalities; and without these problems, they wouldn't know who they are. A horrified Time magazine put Ally McBeal on its June 1998 cover over the headline "Is Feminism Dead?" To the editors of Time, the character of McBeal, in her self-absorption and sex-craziness, betrayed everything the women's movement was supposed to stand for. But what after all could better express the spirit of feminist autonomy than this line from another of Time's traitors to her sex, the confessional author Elizabeth Wurtzel, in her 1998 book, Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women: "I intend to scream, shout, throw tantrums in Bloomingdale's if I feel like it and confess intimate details of my life to complete strangers. I intend to answer only to myself."


From a feminist view, it would be nice, I suppose -- or at the very least handy -- if we were able to derive total satisfaction from our solitude, to be entirely self-contained organisms, like earthworms or amoebas, having relations with the opposite sex whenever we felt a need for it but otherwise being entirely contented with our own company. Every woman's apartment could be her Walden Pond. She'd be free of the romantic fuss and interaction that has defined, and given meaning to, human existence since its creation. She could spend her evenings happily ensconced with a book or a rented video, not having to deal with some bozo's desire to watch football or play mindless video games. How children would fit into this vision of autonomy, I'm not sure, but surely they would infringe upon it; perhaps she could simply farm them out. If this seems a rather chilling out come to the quest for independence, well, it is. If no man is an island, then no woman can be, either. And it's why most human beings fall in love, and continue to take on all the commitments and responsibilities of family life. We want the warm body next to us on the sofa in the evenings; we want the noise and embrace of family around us; we want, at the end of our lives, to look back and see that what we have done amounts to more than a pile of pay stubs, that we have loved and been loved, and brought into this world life that will outlast us.

The quest for autonomy -- the need "to be oneself" or, as Wurtzel declares, the intention "to answer only to myself" -- is in fact not a brave or noble one; nor is it an indication of strong character. Too often, autonomy is merely the excuse of someone who is so fearful, so weak, that he or she can't bear to take on any of the responsibilities that used to be shouldered by much younger but more robust and mature souls. I'm struck by the number of my single contemporaries -- men and women in their early to mid-thirties -- who speak of themselves as if they were still twenty years old, just embarking upon their lives and not, as they actually are, already halfway through them. In another era, a thirty-three-year-old man or woman might have already lived through a depression and a world war and had several children. Yet at the suggestion of marriage -- or of buying a house or of having a baby -- these modern thirtysomethings will exclaim, "But I'm so young!" their crinkled eyes widening at the thought. In the relationships they do have -- even "serious" ones -- they will take pains to avoid the appearance of anything that smacks of perma nent commitment. The strange result is couples who are willing to share everything with each other -- leases, furniture, cars, weekends, body fluids, holidays with their relatives -- just as long as it comes with the right to cancel the relationship at any moment.

Unfortunately, postponing marriage and all the responsibilities that go with it does not prolong youth. It only prolongs the illusion of it, and then again only in one's own eyes. The traits that are forgivable in a twenty-year-old -- the constant wondering about who you are and what you will be; the readiness to chuck one thing, or person, for another and move on -- are less attractive in a thirty-two-year-old. More often what results is a middle-aged person who retains all the irritating self-absorption of an adolescent without gaining any of the redeeming qualities of maturity. Those qualities -- wisdom, a sense of duty, the willingness to make sacrifices for others, an acceptance of aging and death -- are qualities that spring directly from our relationships and commitments to others.

A woman will not understand what true dependency is until she is cradling her own infant in her arms; nor will she likely achieve the self-confidence she craves until she has withstood, and transcended, the weight of responsibility a family places upon her -- a weight that makes all the paperwork and assignments of her in-basket seem feather-light. The same goes for men. We strengthen a muscle by using it, and that is true of the heart and mind, too. By waiting and waiting and waiting to commit to someone, our capacity for love shrinks and withers. This doesn't mean that women or men should marry the first reasonable person to come along , or someone with whom they are not in love. But we should, at a much earlier age than we do now, take a serious attitude toward dating and begin preparing ourselves to settle down. For it's in the act of taking up the roles we've been taught to avoid or postpone -- wife, husband, mother, father -- that we build our identities, expand our lives, and achieve the fullness of character we desire.

Still, critics may argue that the old way was no better; that the risk of loss women assume by delaying marriage and motherhood overbalances the certain loss we'd suffer by marrying too early. The habit of viewing marriage as a raw deal for women is now so entrenched, even among women who don't call themselves feminists, that I've seen brides who otherwise appear completely happy apologize to their wedding guests for their surrender to convention, as if a part of them still feels there is something embarrassing and weak about an intelligent and ambitious woman consenting to marry. But is this true? Or is it just an alibi we've been handed by the previous generation of women in order to justify the sad, lonely outcomes of so many lives?

What we rarely hear -- or perhaps are too fearful to admit -- is how liberating marriage can actually be. As nerve-racking as making the decision can be, it is also an enormous relief once it is made. The moment we say, "I do," we have answered one of the great, crucial questions of our lives: We now know with whom we'll be spending the rest of our years, who will be the father of our children, who will be our family. That our marriages may not work, that we will have to accommodate ourselves to the habits and personality of someone else -- these are, and always have been, the risks of commitment, of love itself. What is important is that our lives have been thrust forward. The negative -- that we are no longer able to live entirely for ourselves -- is also the positive: We no longer have to live entirely for ourselves! We may go on to do any number of interesting things, but we are free of the gnawing wonder of with whom we will do them. We have ceased to look down the tunnel, waiting for a train.

The pull between the desire to love and be loved and the desire to be free is an old, fierce one. If the error our grandmothers made was to have surrendered too much of themselves for others, this was perhaps better than not being prepared to surrender anything at all. The fear of losing oneself can, in the end, simply become an excuse for not giving any of oneself away. Generations of women may have had no choice but to commit themselves to marriage early and then to feel imprisoned by their lifelong domesticity. So many of our generation have decided to put it off until it is too late, not foreseeing that lifelong independence can be its own kind of prison, too.

Copyright © 1999 by Danielle Crittenden

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Introduction

introduction: What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us

Not long ago I found myself sitting at a restaurant table with the editors of a glossy women's magazine. They were three ladies in their early to mid-forties wearing power suits and slightly scuffed pumps. They'd brought along blank notepads and slender pencils and were waiting, flatteringly, to jot down my thoughts on the state of modern womanhood.

Their interest had been piqued by a story I'd written for The Wall Street Journal about magazines like theirs. Women today enjoy unprecedented freedom and opportunity. So why, I'd wondered, were the articles in women's magazines so relentlessly pessimistic? I'd pulled thirty years' worth of back issues of Mademoiselle, Glamour, Vogue, Redbook, Cosmopolitan, and McCall's from the stacks of the Library of Congress. It was partly from reading magazines like these that Betty Friedan had concluded in 1963 that the women of her generation felt unhappy and stifled. A huge social transformation had taken place between Friedan's day and mine. Had it made women any happier? If the truth about women can be found in the magazines they buy, then the answer was, resoundingly, no. In fact, these magazines portrayed my contemporaries as even more miserable and insecure, more thwarted and obsessed with men, than the most depressed, Lithium-popping, suburban reader of the 1950s.

This wasn't altogether surprising. The longings and passions of human beings don't change much from generation to generation. Women's preoccupation with love and their looks is part of the eternal female condition that no political movement could ever change. But what was surpriroom, I was reminded of the day I discovered an orange suede micro-miniskirt hanging in the back of my mother's closet. "How could you have worn this?" I asked her, holding it against my waist. She shrugged: "It was the sixties." The women's magazines of the 1990s likewise shrugged off their old enthusiasms. Having your own apartment has ceased to be novel and nowadays it's unlikely that you're going to invite a man you've just met home for sex -- that is, assuming you are able to meet a man at all. For if there is one attitude that unites the women's magazines of today, it is their pessimism about their readers' love lives. Editors -- particularly those of publications aimed at women in their twenties -- now seem to take for granted a readership that is whiling away a lot of solitary evenings at the gym. When the magazines are not terrifying women into celibacy with articles on the dangers of "date rape" and sexually transmitted diseases, they are offering desperate "tips" to catch a man's attention ("Spill a drink on him!" suggested Cosmo). And once you have managed to turn a man's head, it's assumed that you will have no end of trouble keeping it pivoted in your direction ("Will He Cheat?" asked Glamour. "What Are Your Chances of Staying Married?" And so on). If these women's magazines are any indicator, rather than losing all their value in women's eyes -- as the liberationists had predicted -- men have instead seen their stock skyrocket and split two or three times. In some instances, the very same editors who had urged their readers to walk away from men twenty years ago are now, like crazed commodities traders caught short in a bull market, urging women to snatch them back up at almost any price. In an issue of Cosmo from 1989, I came across an alarming, if unscientific, report on the nation's "man shortage." For the romantically desperate, there was a map showing the cities where the male population outnumbered the female; Cosmo also helpfully included job prospects, cost-of-living indexes, and profiles of the local economies. A lonely woman was urged to pack up and move to Ames, Iowa, or Gainesville, Florida, the two most promising places. "Much of the archery equipment used in the U.S. is made in Gainesville -- increasing chances you'll be hit by one of Cupid's arrows!"

And to snuff out the last flickering source of consolation, editors no longer promise that romantic disappointments can be assuaged by career satisfaction. By the late 1970s, the magazines had ceased to regard the workplace as an exciting unexplored frontier. They now describe the office as just another source of frustration and boredom -- that is, when it's not a venue for sexual harassment, or the cause of the exhaustion and distress of working mothers.

What happened?

This was what the editors who had invited me to lunch wanted to know. As their pencils hovered and our plates arrived, I was nervously aware that my opinion on the subject was not exactly the stuff of upbeat headlines ("Ten Reasons Why the Modern Woman Is Unhappy and What to Do About It!"). Indeed, as I began to explain how I thought the unhappiness expressed in the magazines' pages was the inevitable outcome of certain feminist beliefs, I saw disappointment cross the editors' faces. They discreetly put down their pencils and sipped their mineral water. When at last they responded, it became clear that what they hoped I'd offer them was not a criticism of feminism but rather a positive indication of where the women's movement should, as they put it, "go next." It was true, the editors agreed, that some feminists lately had gone "too far," and polls suggested the majority of women curled away from the word feminist as if it were a rotting substance found at the back of the fridge. But that didn't mean, the editors insisted, that we should abandon feminism entirely. We just needed to polish up its image find "the new Gloria Steinem," who could market some improved brand of feminism, one that might appeal to the millions of young women who seemed uninterested in the whole subject.

In some ways, the editors' unwavering belief in the power of feminism was inspiring. Feminism was their faith. It was as feminists that they had come of age; it was feminism that had defined their identities as women. Its failures and disappointments were no reason to give it up; to the contrary, they were the reason to press forward more keenly than ever. As they listened to me, first with bafflement, then with irritation, and finally with anger, I thought of an apparatchik I'd met in Slovakia shortly after the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. He was still occupying an office in a government building in central Bratislava. He had not been fired because he wasn't perceived as one of the "bad" Communists: In his years of work for the municipal bureaucracy, he'd sent no one to prison, and had even modernized the city's plumbing. He was bewildered by the popular rejection of an ideology he'd spent his entire life implementing and still fervently believed in. How would the masses live without it? he fretted. What would protect them from unbridled capitalism and American cultural imperialism? So too these magazine editors could not imagine a society in which feminism did not reign over the minds of women, or at the very least over those who hold political and judicial power. Without feminism, they feared, we were in danger of "going back" -- back to what, exactly, was never spelled out because to them it was self-evidently terrible. Domestic servitude? Beehive hairdos? Might we even lose the vote?


It's common now for the elders of the women's movement to express disappointment in my generation of women -- the "daughters of the revolution" now in their twenties and thirties -- who came of age long after the last feminist brassiere had been burned. As they see it, we are enjoying the spoils of their victories without any gratitude for their struggle. We get up in the morning and go to our jobs as doctors, executives, plumbers, soldiers without devoting a second's thought to the efforts that were spent making these jobs seem completely normal. We deposit our paychecks without having to worry whether we are getting paid less for the job we're doing because of our sex. We enroll in science courses with every expectation of being taken seriously as scientists; we apply for postgraduate degrees with every expectation that we will use them and not let them languish when we become mothers. When we graduate, our first thought is not, Whom will I marry? but, What will I do? And when we do marry, we take for granted that our husbands will treat us as equals, with dreams and ambitions like theirs, and not as creatures uniquely destined to push a vacuum or change a diaper. If Virginia Woolf, in the early part of this centu ry, modestly hoped that women would attain "rooms of our own," we have, at century's end, not only achieved rooms of our own but apartments of our own, offices of our own, bank accounts of our own, judicial seats of our own, constituencies of our own, and even corporate empires of our own.

In that sense we are enjoying the spoils of our elders' struggles. But if we seem ungrateful, or indifferent, it is not because we don't believe in the ideas that were bequeathed to us. Just a few months before my lunch with the magazine editors, I'd spent some time driving around colleges in the Northeast -- small elite schools like Smith and Yale and larger state schools like the University of Massachusetts -- talking to female students for another article I was writing. I was curious to know what (if anything) feminism meant to women who had grown up in a world long altered by the activism of their mothers. While it was true that most of the students I spoke to -- women who said they were going to be doctors and lawyers, professors and bankers -- declined to describe themselves as "feminist" ("I'm not sure what that word means anymore" was the usual explanation given), every opinion they expressed would have warmed the heart of the most fiery "libber" a quarter century ago. A twenty-year-old Ivy League student said that she was planning to have children outside of marriage because she feared a husband might "threaten her individuality." Another told me that she had stopped dating a man she loved because neither one of them was willing to make concessions to the other's career plans. With few exceptions, the students expressed quite casual attitudes about sex. They spoke of their affairs with detachment and be came passionate only when discussing their ex-lovers' reluctance to do the dishes. Virtually every young woman I interviewed put her job aspirations ahead of any hopes for marriage or children (even if she claimed to want those things eventually). Each one of them worried that too serious an attachment to a man or, worse, to children might compromise her sense of who she was.

Few of these students had read Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique or other feminist classics. Only a handful had joined the campus women's groups. It didn't matter. Their generation had provided the laboratory mice for the social experiments of the past twenty-five years. They had grown up with working mothers, day care, and no-fault divorce. Their primary school textbooks were illustrated with little girls flying planes and little boys mopping the floors. They took coed classes in shop and metalworking instead of home economics. They'd participated in frank discussions about birth control and sexuality with their grade-school teachers. Their developing intellects had been bombarded by feminist cultural messages: the proudly menstruating heroines of Judy Blume novels, the supportive articles about single mothers in the lifestyle sections of newspapers, the applause on daytime talk shows for women who divorce their husbands in order to "realize themselves." The students I interviewed had neither adopted nor rejected feminism. Rather, it had seeped into their minds like intravenous saline into the arm of an unconscious patient. They were feminists without knowing it.

Indeed, when I sought out those who did consciously and proudly call themselves feminists, I usually found myself on the fringes of student society, am ong women with odd personalities and carefully cultivated grievances: lesbians who had moved out of the dormitories to form separatist communes; women's studies majors who, like the Marxists of the 1930s, had undergone an almost religious conversion and now spoke about even the weather in stark, ideological terms; activists who would protest anything from the cruelty of chicken farming to the patriarchal tyranny of English grammar and punctuation. I remember arriving to interview the head of one university's women's center -- the feminist gathering places that are now as common on college campuses as sports arenas -- only to find a young woman dressed from head to toe in black, lying in the middle of the floor surrounded by half-finished signs for an upcoming demonstration. Her hair was dyed bright green and styled as if by electric shock. As she sleepily came to (she was hung over, it turned out), she described herself as being "a socialist feminist, I guess, but really I'm all over the place -- Marxist, radical -- but not anywhere near liberal feminism" (a phrase she pronounced with contempt). Women who did not see the conspiracy mounted against them by "the patriarchy" she said wearily, were just "so f -- ing passive."

It is because women like these call themselves feminists that so many others have decided that feminism has gone "too far." But in their own way, these extremists also embody feminism's success. Ideas that once seemed radical -- whether it was equal pay for equal work, or rebelling against housework and marriage, or storming boardrooms and military academies -- have been so completely absorbed by our society and accepted by its institutions all the way up to the Supreme Court tha t the only way left to be truly radical is to become a nut.

Still, leaders of the women's movement will frequently say that the success women have achieved is not enough. They warn us that the same forces that brought about our oppression could rise again or are on the rise again. Thus, in 1996, the fantastically successful female editor of The New Yorker could put together a special issue on women that, in one gulp, left the reader with the impression that to be a modern woman is to live in constant danger of rape, wrongful imprisonment, "patriarchal atrocity," lascivious bosses, right-wing zealotry, and murder on the job. Thus the new feminists like Susan Faludi and Naomi Wolf can argue, to a largely credulous press, that women are being brainwashed back into the 1950s by a male-dominated media and its female stooges or that women diet and wear eye shadow because they unthinkingly accept the impossible beauty standards of the (again) male-dominated advertising industry. Thus feminist organizations can float unsubstantiated whoppers like "wife battery escalates on Super Bowl Sunday" and not one reporter pauses to question the statistic before it has been broadcast across the country. Thus the legal definition of sexual harassment can be stretched to include a bungled pass or an undesired compliment.

And this is what those women's magazines I waded through that day in the library so vividly reflected. Their readers, no matter how depressed or thwarted the articles indicated they felt, are not depressed or thwarted in the same way their mothers were. The women who buy these magazines today have heeded their mothers' 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 to find themselves at thirty-five still single and baby-crazy, with no husband in sight. They are the unwed mothers who now depend upon the state to provide what the fathers of their children won't -- a place to live and an income to support their kids. They are the eighteen-year-old girls who believed they could lead the unfettered sexual lives of men, only to end 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 fifty-fifty 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. They are the young mothers who quit their jobs to be with their babies and who now feel anxiety and even a mild sense of embarrassment about what they have chosen to do -- who look over their fences at the quiet backyards of two-career couples, wondering if they haven't done a foolish thing, and feeling a kind of isolation their mothers never knew. Above all, these women are the majority of us, women who are hoping to do everything -- work, children, marriage -- only to ask ourselves why the pieces haven't added up the way we'd like or why we are collapsing under the strain of it all and doing everything so badly.

The urgent and compelling questions that haunt us from moment to moment are ones to which the women's movement offers no answers -- or, when it does, answers that are unhelpful. Is work really more important and fulfilling than raising my children? Why does my boyfriend not want to get married as much as I do? Why is the balance between being a good mother and working so elusive? Why could my mother afford to stay home with her children while I cannot? By giving up my job, am I giving up my identity? Should men and women be trying to lead identical kinds of lives, or were there good reasons for the old divisions of labor between mother and father, husband and wife? If so, do these divisions make us "unequal"?

In a way, the situation women wake up in today is more dire than the one of thirty years ago, when Friedan first sat down to write about the gnawing "problem with no name." For unlike the problem about which Friedan spoke -- which afflicted educated suburban wives trapped and unfulfilled in their well-upholstered ranch homes -- this new problem with no name affects the female executive high atop the city in her glass office as much as the single mother struggling to lift a stroller onto a bus thirty storeys below. Despite sweeping government programs, tens of billions of dollars in social spending, and massive social upheaval in the name of sexual equality, you only have to glance through a newspaper or switch on the news to be subject to a litany of gloomy statistics about today's women: We are more likely to be divorced or never married at all than women of previous generations. We are more likely to bear children out of wedlock. We are more likely to be junkies or drunks or to die in poverty. We are more likely to have an abortion or to catch a sexually transmitted disease. If we are mothers, even of infants and very small children, we are more likely to work at full-time jobs and still shoulder the bulk of housework as well.

These troubling indicators of female distress are debated at election time and elaborately discussed in the press. But all too often they are treated as a hundred distinct issues. Yet just as Friedan recognized that the million individual breakdowns and lithium addictions taking place in American suburbs indicated a more general problem among women, so must this modern problem with no name be recognized. In Friedan's time, the problem was that too many people failed to see that while women were women, they were also human, and they were being denied the ability to express and fulfill their human potential outside the home. The modern problem with no name is, I believe, exactly the reverse of the old one: While we now recognize that women are human, we blind ourselves to the fact that we are also women. If we feel stunted and oppressed when denied the chance to realize our human potential, we suffer every bit as much when cut off from those aspects of life that are distinctly and uniquely female.

Those aspects of life -- whether it's the pleasure of being a wife or of raising children or of making a home -- were, until the day before yesterday, considered the most natural things in the world. After all, our grandmothers didn't agonize over such existential questions as to whether marriage was ultimately "right" for them as women or if having a baby would "compromise" them as individuals. Yet we do. We approach these aspects of life warily and self-consciously: A new br ide adjusts her veil in the mirror and frets that she is selling out to some false idea of femininity; a new wife is horrified to find herself slipping into the habit of cooking dinner and doing the laundry; a new mother, who has spent years climbing the corporate ladder, is thrown into an identity crisis when she's stuck at home day after day, in a sweatsuit, at the mercy of a crying infant. It is because of feminism's success that we now call these parts of our lives into question, that we don't thoughtlessly march down the aisle, take up our mops, and suppress our ambitions. But feminism, for all its efforts, hasn't been able to banish fundamental female desires from us, either -- and we simply cannot be happy if we ignore them.

For if we, as women, were all to sit down and honestly attempt to figure out what sort of lives would make us happy, I suspect -- assuming the basics like food and adequate income and leaving aside fantasies of riches and celebrity -- that most of our answers would be very similar to one another's, and quite different from men's. They would go something like this: We want to marry husbands who will love and respect us; we want to have children; we want to be good mothers. At the same time, many of us will want to pursue interests outside of our families, interests that will vary from woman to woman, depending upon her ambition and talent. Some women will be content with work or involvements that can be squeezed in around their commitments at home; some women will want or need to work at a job, either full- or part-time. Other women will be more ambitious -- they may want to be surgeons or corporate executives or lawyers or artists. For them, the competing demands of family and work will always be difficult to resolve. But I think when we compare our conditions for happiness, most of our lists would share these essentials: husband, children, home, work. (The Roper Starch polling firm has asked American women every few years since 1974 about their preferences for marriage, children, and career. The poll conducted in 1995 shows that the majority of women -- 55 percent -- hope to combine all three, and a further 26 percent want marriage and children but not a career.) The women who don't desire these things -- those who like living alone or who find perfectly fulfilling the companionship of their friends and cats or whose work eclipses their need for family -- may be sincerely happy, but they should not be confused with the average woman.

Unfortunately, that confusion is now the prevailing wisdom, one that has been advocated -- and continues to be advocated -- by the most vocal and influential women's groups. For nearly thirty years, the public policies and individual ways of life that feminists have encouraged, and the laws they have pushed through, have been based on their adamant belief that women want more than equality with men or options outside their families; they want full independence from husbands and family. This is why the "solutions" we hear proposed by these feminists so dramatically fail to appeal to the majority of women. Abortion on demand and condoms in the classroom have failed to prevent millions of unmarried teenagers from becoming mothers before they're old enough to vote. Affirmative action may have propelled some women through the executive ranks, but it has done little for the vast numbers of women who build their work around their family obligations. "No-fault divorce" and other sex-blind laws have perversely punished women, whose special circumstances no longer receive special consideration. Generous welfare benefits to single mothers and shrill warnings about male violence have not dissuaded most women from wanting to share their lives with men. The most liberal family-leave policies cannot begin to address the day-to-day madness that drives so many working women into the ground, nor does "cheaper and better child care" seem any sort of answer to mothers who are already guilt-ridden and concerned about leaving their babies every morning.

It is at this intimate level that feminism has failed women, and maybe no group of women more completely than those who became the very models of feminist achievement. The women who now leave their families every morning to board commuter trains -- the women who have traded in their housecoats for business suits, vacuums for computers, carpeted and upholstered living rooms for carpeted and upholstered offices, demanding, tantrum-throwing children for demanding, tantrum-throwing colleagues -- may well wonder if they haven't simply traded in one form of unhappiness for another. After all, it should strike us as strange, given the freedom we now enjoy, that happiness should continue to be so elusive. Yet to achieve the very reasonable list of "essentials" that I mentioned previously, all in some sort of balance, seems, for millions of women, as probable as stumbling across the Holy Grail.

This isn't to say there are no solutions to the new problems. To find them, however, will require a new way of thinking about modern women's lives. To do that we must begin by accepting that our pro blems originate not in our oppression but, as the writer Midge Decter has wisely observed, in our new freedom. And that new freedom is a great accomplishment. Yet if we are to enjoy it, and not be defeated by it, we must learn to think in ways quite unlike the ways that feminism has taught us to think. We must reconsider some of the assumptions that have brought us to our current impasse. This does not mean nostalgically wishing to "go back" -- as if that were even possible but it certainly does mean looking back, honestly, at what we may have lost in pursuit of the freedom we have won, and asking ourselves whether there is any way to recapture what was good in the old ways we cast aside.

For in all the ripping down of barriers that has taken place over a generation, we may have inadvertently also smashed the foundations necessary for our happiness. Pretending that we are the same as men -- with similar needs and desires -- has only led many of us to find out, brutally, how different we really are. In demanding radical independence -- from men, from our families -- we may have also abandoned certain bargains and institutions that didn't always work perfectly but until very recently were civilization's best ways of taming the reckless human heart.

There are a great many women unhappy because they acted upon the wisdom passed along to them by the people they most trusted. These women thought they did everything right -- only to have it turn out all wrong. That the wisdom they received was faulty, that it was based on false assumptions, is a hard lesson for anyone to learn. But it is a lesson every woman growing up today will have to learn -- as I, and thousands upon thousands of women of my generation, had to learn, often painfully. In this book I can't offer women, as I couldn't the magazine editors, any simple ten-point plan for making our lives easier. But I can sketch out what the new problems are and pinpoint some of the wrong assumptions that created them. So many of us are in the habit of approaching our problems as those arising from inequality and sexism that we cannot imagine any other way to think about them. But we must, urgently, begin to do so. For if we are ever to resolve these problems and take advantage of our new freedoms, we are going to have to look them squarely in the face, unhampered by ideology, and not shy away from what we see.

Copyright © 1999 by Danielle Crittenden

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