Tuesday, November 4, 2003

The Opt-Out Revolution

This article from the New York Times, from which I excerpt the passage below, recently came to my attention.

Wander into any Starbucks in any Starbucks kind of
neighborhood in the hours after the commuters are gone. See
all those mothers drinking coffee and watching over
toddlers at play? If you look past the Lycra gym clothes
and the Internet-access cellphones, the scene could be the
50's, but for the fact that the coffee is more expensive
and the mothers have M.B.A.'s.

The article seems to ask two questions. First, why would educated women with promising careers leave the job force (actually the article is really talking about the corporate fast track)? Are they doing so to have children? Or, are they just using children as an excuse? Second, have these women somehow let down the cause of feminism?

The issues broached far exceed the scope of that one article. An interesting counterpoint might have been provided by examining the lives of women who persevered on in exactly the same careers these women left. What sacrifices did those women make, did they also have ambivalent feelings? Such an investigation might have pointed out what many of us instinctively know: raising children isn't exactly compatible with a sixty-plus-hour, scramble-to-the-top corporate workweek. If you wanted to have some presence in your children's lives and not outsource them to a nanny, are you realistically going to make partner in a top law firm? Equity partner? If you're a producer at a top network and escape each round of firing with your job intact, how secure's that job going to look after a few months off and a request for reduced travel and work hours?

The first inkling you get that it might be convenient to have a wife is in reading the different approaches to childbirth in women and men's blogs. The men tend to write the following sort of excerpt: "The young prince/princess and inheritor was born on such and such day," obligatory photo of the little cherub in a moment of angelic repose...and now back to grid computing or torts or whatever it is they blog about. The woman, however, never quite gets back to grid computing or torts or whatever it is she blogs about. Her accomplishments seem to take a landslide down Mazlow's hierarchy of needs and center on things like getting a shower before 4pm or tidying up the breakfast dishes or getting out of the house with the children. Men seem to be impressed by the event of childbirth, the pain and endurance; whereas, women soon learn that the real endurance event is the next eighteen years of their life, or maybe more, if you have a Latin sensibility. My husband tells me of a comic by the well-known Spanish cartoonist, Forges, with a man and woman lying in bed. The woman turns to the man and says "The child is crying. Why don't you go see about him." The man replies "El nino tiene quarenta anos" (the "child" is forty years old). To which the woman responds "Y tu no tienes corazon" (And you have no heart).

It's a wonder anybody who takes an active role in raising children or keeping up a house can put two thoughts together before the child gets sick, or the woman who looks after them is calling you because the evil spirit that inhabits the kitchen plumbing has finally had enough of the lint from the 1970s washing machine and backs up and floods every water-related kitchen appliance in the deluge from hell, or your child comes home with a note that she has been given a charity lunch because you forgot to turn in the form for that quarter's meal plan.

Issues of raising children aside, are women the only ones who might feel the corporate world is a little overrated? Or does the minority discussed in this article, upper middle class women with husbands who can and will support them, simply enjoy a lifestyle that many men secretly envy and would choose if dropping out of the corporate rat race were considered as socially acceptable for men as it is for women, and if they had the financial wherewithal and wives/partners who would support them? "Oh no dear, you don't need to go to work today...why don't you just go to the gym for a little, work on that tummy, relax in the sauna after your work out, meet your friends for coffee at Starbucks, play some video games, smoke a doobie, read something mentally enriching or maybe just rent some porn..." I guess you could even get used to the keeping up your personal appearance is part of your job thing--regular workouts, salon visits, manicures, pedicures, taking care of your skin, shopping. Oh wait, that's only the upper part of middle class. Is the middle class lot then suburban, minivan-driving, coupon-clipping hell? Or are we just talking caricatures and there are plenty of us who prefer to reduce our standard of living rather than do work we don't enjoy or allow work to take over the major part of our lives.

I remember my last year of college when I was going through the whole recruiting thing basically because I had no idea what to do with myself and I asked a good friend what her ambitions were. She replied, "Oh no, none of that's for me, I think I shall be content to continue my creative writing and subsist on academic grants." While the ghost of Cotton Mather might have been rattling around in some vestigial Protestant part of my psyche whispering vague sermons of how the wrath of God might smite those unencumbered by financial ambitions, I was secretly smitten with admiration at such audacity.

In English, for instance, the word retirement sounds extremely negative. Like something that no longer serves a useful function and has been "retired." In Spanish, in contrast, the word is "jubilado" or the overjoyed. I know of no English equivalents for the French "flaner," which always conjures up Baudelairian images for me--not just to stroll, but to amble along, with no purpose, no destination, lost in daydreams and the pleasurable passtime of detached observation. Of course, it helps if you have intriguing things to look at it. When I lived in the older part of Paris known as the Marais, I had a particular fascination with the blue glass bottles in an antique apothecary shop. What wondrous lotions, unguents, perfumes might they hold? Each bottle seemed to contain some sort of mysterious possibility, lost secrets from another time, all the more intriguing because unknowable. And the rhythm of the walk is punctuated by the sights and geography and other people you pass on a city street. From there it is easy to fall in love with rhythm and meter, to revisit imagery through the tumbling syllables in lines of verse.

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those were pearls that were his eyes;

Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Ding Dong
Hark now I hear them -- Ding dong bell.
(Shakespeare, The Tempest)

So when I see that "sea change" is one of those expressions that has gone and gotten popular for writing about technology, I immediately am skeptical. So, that old rotten idea will now undergo a "sea change" into a promising, high-potential, with-it kind of concept. And it's all good alchemy, but somehow it won't communicate my idea of "something rich and strange." Dammit where's the poetry? Where are the pearls, the bells, the sea nymphs?

There I've gone and done it...started one place, gotten to another, come to no real conclusion in between. And I had things to say about Bertrand Russell and Dr. Johnson, Virginia Woolf and feminism. More on them later. I have kids. And a job.

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