Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Women and the Lifestyle Wars

Well, here I go--writing a post that is likely to get me into hot water.

Conventional wisdom is that women talk about their lives and their feelings a lot more than men do. And whether or not that's true in everyday life (my limited experience suggests that it is), it's certainly true in the world of media. Lives and feelings are discussed on talk shows hosted by women (Oprah, The View) while talk shows hosted by men focus on politics, sports, or show biz. And women writers in magazines or on the Internet often write about their lives and feelings--motherhood, men, sex, marriage, careers, etc. etc.--while their male counterparts do so much more rarely.

Even popular fiction reflects the difference. "Chick lit" novels deal with the problems of everyday life (boyfriends who won't make a commitment, jobs that suck, the angst of urban singlehood), while "Guy lit" either doesn't exist or consists of escapist fare like the techno-thrillers of Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton.

When I think about it, I generally assume that this distinction redounds to the credit of women. Women have the honesty, courage, humility, and realism to talk about real life, while men prefer fantasies about power, money, or violence (or better yet all three, as in NFL football). But there's a downside to the way women "share" about their lives (at least in print), which is the appallingly competitive, judgmental tone that tends to dominate such writing--as if women can't disagree in their lifestyle choices without going to war over them.

A classic example appeared recently in Salon, the best of the general-interest Internet magazines. It started with an article titled "Zen Mama" by Noelle Howey. Howey contrasts her own relatively laid-back, easy-going experience of motherhood with that of the anxious, driven moms who appear in books like Judith Warner's Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, fretting over everything from the age at which their babies start to crawl to finding the most socially acceptable style of decoration for a birthday party.

In her article, Howey ponders whether there is something wrong with her for not sharing the frazzled nerves that are supposedly the common lot of upper-middle-class moms today. Ultimately, of course, she concludes that she likes her life the way it is . . . and then starts drawing broader social conclusions:

I think there are more of us out here than the culture acknowledges -- maybe because just getting along day to day isn't nearly as interesting as being a mess. And maybe because a lot of us don't have the disposable income that might allow us to obsess over whether we should call a parenting coach for tips on potty training. But for every friend who weeps over her inability to replicate Martha Stewart Kids projects at home, several others take their own human foibles and imperfect circumstances in stride. I know a set of parents who are having their second son, without benefit of a third bedroom, much less a full set of Pottery Barn Kids furniture. There are even recovering worriers: Gillian, 36, told me she'd been a huge stressball about her now 2-year-old daughter, Olivia, until she reached a certain point in which "I realized how stupid and unproductive that was. And so I just stopped."

When our own kids were little, Mary-Jo and I were a lot more like Howey than like the anxious over-achieving moms Judith Warner writes about. (Mainly because we didn't have either the time or money to dream about competing for prestigious nursery-school slots or the other accoutrements of "successful" parenthood.) So I identify with Howey to a degree. Nonetheless, her observations struck me as only mildly interesting and far from earth-shattering. I wasn't prepared for the vociferous, nearly violent reaction her piece elicited from another Salon reader--a mom (name withheld by request) who evidently regarded Howey's article as a personal assault on her character:

In my experience, truly Zen mamas do not feel the need to denigrate other mothers in national publications. Truly Zen mamas support other mothers, even if they don't understand them. They do not insult them, they do not marginalize their concerns and they do not talk haughtily about their own superior mothering.

Let me tell you what it's like to live with maternal anxiety, since Ms. Howey lacks the insight and compassion necessary to do so. . . .

The author goes on to describe her personal experience with what she calls postpartum anxiety (PPA) in excruciating terms, mentioning "bloody nightmares," dizzy spells, and joint pain that made her "hobble like a crone." It sounds truly awful. But the anonymous sufferer isn't just seeking our sympathy or understanding--she wants to use her experience to whack Howey over the head:

I don't expect Ms. Howey to know anything about PPA. Most people who haven't had the misfortune of experiencing it don't. But I do expect a basic level of humanity, of recognition that not all mothers parent exactly like her self-congratulatory self. Does she believe that I visited night terrors upon myself because maternal angst is fashionable? Does she really think her friend, the one she dismissively feigns concern for, is lying awake anxious because it's an upper-middle-class trend?

This reaction struck me as wildly over the top. As far as I could see, nothing in Howey's article referred to women like the author of this letter, who appears to be suffering from severe mental (and perhaps physical) illness. But the letter-writer is prepared to bat away that excuse:

Ah, but Ms. Howey will protest, I didn't mean you, with your nightmares and your aches and your dizziness. I just meant those rich mothers, those women who worry about play dates and schools.

News flash: It's two sides of the same coin. It's the same root, the same terror, the same issues at the core. . . .

All right, I see where we are. The anonymous mom is attacking Howey not in self-defense (as if Howey had attacked her), but out of her sense of solidarity with all anxious moms. Howey musn't make fun of the would-be Martha Stewarts because, at the root, they're somehow the same as the crippled, insomniac letter-writer. To criticize one is to criticize all! This means war!

It seems pathetic to me. But the angry defensive tone is all too familiar from the letters column of any magazine that publishes an article about women's lives and feelings. Almost invariably, any piece about one woman's experience of motherhood (or daughterhood or sex or marriage or career) attracts flocks of responses from women who seem to feel compelled to choose up sides. Half of the letters say, "your article described my life precisely" and offer effusive thanks "for finally publishing our side of the story," while the other half treat the article as a personal affront, demanding "how dare you denigrate women like me?" and angrily defending all the women whose lives are different from the one described in the article.

This phenomenon has always baffled me. If Ms. A chooses to remain childless and concentrate on her career, why do Ms. B and Ms. C, happy stay-at-home moms, find it necessary to announce how "devalued" and "degraded" they feel after reading Ms. A's column about it? If Ms. L writes an article about her pleasant experiences raising twins at home, why do Ms. M and Ms. N write angry letters protesting the implicit attack on them for having used day-care services instead?

Women get the short end of the stick in our society in many ways: lower pay, discrimination in schools, sexist condescension from men, domestic abuse, etc. etc. But middle-class and upper-middle-class women have one advantage over men. They have greater social freedom to choose their own lifestyles, provided they can afford it. Some middle-class women have ambitious full-time careers. Some stay home for a time to raise their children; later, some return to the work force, full-time or part-time, while others do not, in some cases devoting time and energy to civic or charitable work. As far as I can see, all of these choices are, broadly speaking, socially acceptable (again with the crucial caveat that only adequate income brings real freedom of choice).

In terms of social values, men don't have the same menu of options. It's true that a very rich man isn't always expected to work. (Although someone like Prince Charles gets a lot of criticism for his idleness--not that I'm defending Prince Charles.) But otherwise, every able-bodied man is supposed to work full-time. If he doesn't, he's more-or-less universally regarded as a "slacker" or (in the parlance of older generations) a "lazy bum."

Even in today's more tolerant climate, it takes quite a bit of nerve for a man to brave convention and spend even a few years as a "Mr. Mom," caring for kids at home while his spouse goes out to work. Abdicating the role of chief breadwinner just isn't manly. But "Ms. Mom" can go out to work or stay home with the kids--it's her choice.

Given the relatively greater lifestyle latitude that women enjoy, I can't quite fathom why women (at least the ones who express themselves in print) seem to feel such a powerful need to attack one another over the choices they make. Isn't it possible that the way of life that's best for one woman is entirely different from the way of life that's best for her next-door neighbor? And if that's the case, why should the difference require holy warfare between them?

Granted, this phenomenon is partly an artifact of our media culture. It's temptingly easy for any mom who notices that two of her friends have started making choices similar to her own to write it up as a "trend" and publish an article or book launching a new front in the lifestyle wars. In this way, small, essentially personal decisions are amplified into cultural markers. But the media dynamic doesn't explain why these musings strike such a responsive chord (Perfect Madness is a best-seller) or why men don't usually get caught up in the same kinds of arguments.

I suppose it ultimately goes back to the relatively broader set of choices open to middle-class women: More options means more uncertainty, more anxiety, and (in some cases) a greater psychological need to defend one's choices (and criticize the choices made by others). Because they basically lack such choices, men generally shut up and direct their frustrations and anxieties over life into symbolic channels (in my case, rooting for the Mets . . . which of course only increases both the frustration and the anxiety).

I wish it were easier for men to talk about their lives and feelings the way women do. And I would like to see more magazines and websites providing a forum for men to write about how their innermost conflicts, worries, dreams, and desires get played out in our everyday lives. But not if it means we have to launch wars with one another over the ways those lives differ.
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