Monday, June 25, 2012

Reality, Knocking

This article has given the Matron pause.   If you haven't, read Anne-Marie Slaughter's piece in The Atlantic, "Why Women Still Can't Have it All."     Slaughter's title is the article's summation:  she argues that it's impossible for a well-educated, professional woman with children cannot have both pinnacle family and career.

The Matron agrees.  Completely.

But of course, from her vaulted position of critic and feminist scholar, she has Additional Comment and Observation.

Slaughter's 'all' that women aren't having is clear:  it's financial, professional and family success.  Having it all is the dazzling career dulled only by the brighter shine of successful and well-attended happy children (and spouse).  One simply cannot be Time magazine's Woman of the Year and tuck your five-year old in at night while tomorrow's steak is marinating.   Got it.  True.

There's been no small amount of hoopla over Slaughter's argument -- commentary every which way one can imagine and too many too link here.  But Google may just have met its match with "anne-marie slaughter response."

The one vein that bothers the Matron is this:  "I DO have it all, just on my own terms" or "family IS having it all."   Online and on-the-ground, the Matron has heard that Slaughter's goal itself -- having it all -- is actually, well, just undesirable or over-rated.

That's precisely the problem.

Women reject 'having it all' or redefine what this means precisely because achieving 'it' is actually impossible, as Slaughter maintains. We all know this trick on a lesser scale.   The Matron sees this play out in her own household when Elder Son has an item Youngest Son covets.  It's tasty.

Youngest Son:  "Hey, I want that candy too!"
Elder:  "Well you can't have it."
Youngest:  "I didn't want it anyway.  Who cares about that crummy candy?"

You cared, kid.  But since the candy is in the steel grip of that sixteen year old brother, it is as good as non-existent.  It's psychologically sound -- sane, even -- to not only learn to accept what we cannot have, but to retrain ourselves not to desire the unattainable in the first place.

It is the Matronly theory that much of the "I don't want it all" is simply learning not to desire what one can't have.   Sure, she herself would like to be rolling around some Ivy League college lawn or watching her books fly off the shelf.  The sacrifice this would require -- just the attempt, not an assured win -- is untenable.

 Wait!  She can still hear it!  It is the Matron herself succumbing to the wiles of capitalism, the siren song of external success:  "who needs all that!  Family is all.  I have enough."

The social system we all live in values and rewards personal, financial and professional success.  It's natural, normal, logical to desire life achievements that are awarded respect within our culture.  It feels good to be seen as successful.  There's power and security in having one's own self-worth mirrored by the approving world around us.

Do you feel better wearing a size six or sixteen?  Forget how your legs feel:   which size gets the approving cultural eye, from medicine to fashion to the bus driver?   Unemployed for a long enough period and instead of happy chatter following you at parties, the mood gets grim.  Nobody wants to know.  America loves a success story -- so why wouldn't we want success?  Smile and the world smiles with you -- and who could not help but smile back? And so on.

Now, the Matron fully appreciates that there are among us many who have made conscious and painful choices to live a life decidedly not valued:  she sees these people often at the Zen Center, people living on sazen and a dime.   She knows whole families that never buy new, don't own cars (in Minnesota winters, folks --that's a commitment) and grow their own food out of deep philosophical commitment.   People devote their lives to religion and serving the poor -- these people have made thoughtful choices.  They sacrifice much in terms of financial security and socially-sanctioned success for ideals that loom larger.    She's not talking about those people.

No, the Matron is talking about her own fine breed, those of middling success:  a satisfying job, happy family, enough money to feed the children and a few stray cats.   Those of us who could have done more.  But won't.  The Matron hasn't devoted her life to the alleviation of suffering or a greater good.  Most of her considerable energies have been directed toward creating a life for herself.    She's exactly the type of woman Slaughter is describing (okay, maybe a little lower on the pay scale and cultural hierarchy than Washington power types, but still . . . ).

It's not that the candy isn't tasty or that she has acquired new, more altruistic tastes -- it's just that the goodies are in a steel-grip, out of reach.