A couple of nights ago I was the guest author at "Live at the New York Public Library," where I talked about my book, The Feminine Mistake
. Afterward many of those who attended told me they were inspired by my message that women shouldn't have to choose between work and family, and that the most rewarding lives are built from a combination of both.
The program also emphasized the need for women to take responsibility for their own lives instead of depending on someone else to support them. A friend later reported that she'd met one young woman in the ladies room who said my talk made her cry, because it scared her.
I understand such fear. I am decades older than that young woman, but there are still moments when I feel it too. Taking charge of your own life isn't easy, and on occasion it can be genuinely overwhelming. Who doesn't wish, at times, that she could just turn over all the difficult and annoying responsibilities of adult life to somebody else, who would lift those burdens forever? (With April 15 looming, I'd put taxes first on my list. I HATE doing my taxes.)
But that kind of abdication can't be reconciled with being a responsible grown-up. As we get older, our parents don't take care of us any more; in fact, many of us find ourselves caring for aging parents. If we have husbands, we can't just assume they'll always be around to take care of us, either. The divorce rate is fifty percent; the average age of widowhood in this country is only 55. The truth is that women are living increasingly long stretches of their lives without partners. For pragmatic reasons alone, this fact requires women to be prepared to take care of themselves rather than relying on men.
There are far deeper issues here than the purely practical, however. Children grow up so fast, and women who have not found meaningful work and an independent purpose in life are terribly vulnerable to feelings of loss and desolation when their kids leave the nest. That transition period is very different for working women who are engaged with their own careers; when their children grow up, freeing their harried moms from many of the daily domestic responsibilities that have consumed them for so long, these women often sail into the most productive and exciting period of their lives.
And yet our society has made working women feel so guilty for not staying home with the kids that many of us find it difficult to talk about the intellectual and creative satisfactions we derive from our careers. A lot of us are extremely fed up with this narrow, punitive, sexist attitude that women, unlike men, are supposed to sacrifice absolutely everything to their families. And we're just as fed up with the erroneous belief that this is good for our children and husbands.
We're also tired of being made to feel as if we're bad moms for not staying home 24/7, but speaking up about the rewards of our own independent lives just makes us more vulnerable to attacks by those who would enforce more repressive ideas about what women can and should do. I have been the target of hundreds of these attacks in recent days, and I know all too well how painful they are.
But I refuse to let them silence me. Nasty stereotypes notwithstanding, working women love their children just as much as stay-at-home mothers do, and are just as anxious to be good parents. In a culture that continues to idealize full-time motherhood, working moms receive far too little validation for their often heroic efforts to lead well-rounded lives and be good parents while continuing to support their families.
I'm absolutely thrilled that so many working women are finding powerful validation in The Feminine Mistake. One woman wrote that she read the book on an airplane flight and cried all the way to Tampa ? the stewardess had to keep bringing her tissues ? because she was so grateful for its message. It's high time we all spoke up to assert that women are entitled to lives outside the home in addition to our family lives ? and that this choice is also good for our families. By taking responsibility for their own economic fates, working women are taking care of their children as well as protecting their futures.
As for me, my nest isn't empty yet; although my daughter goes off to college in the fall, my fifteen-year-old son will still be home, prowling around the kitchen and asking what's for dinner. He's grown six inches in the last year; he runs seven miles a day; and it seems he's always hungry. I won't be relieved of my responsibilities as chief cook any time soon.
But at 57, I've just published my first book, and I already know what the next three books I want to write after this will be. My mind is crackling with ideas, and I'm as thrilled about the possibilities my own future holds as I am by the wonderful experiences that lie ahead for my children. I don't have to live vicariously through their successes, however, because I have my own.
This sense of opportunity and potential presents a striking contrast with the experience of many stay-at-home wives who find themselves bereft and depressed after their kids leave home and they are unable to find interesting or challenging jobs for themselves. In The Feminine Mistake, I told the story of a Washington journalist whose career was just taking off when she was shocked to receive a telephone call from her mother, who was then the same age I am now.
"My mother asked me, 'Can you get me a job?'" the journalist recalled. "Her kids were grown and gone, and she didn't know what to do with herself. She had nothing left. That was heartbreaking to me."
Her mother never did find a job, but she's still alive today, well into her 90s. Her husband has been dead for decades, and she has spent the last 40 years as a bored widow with little to anchor her days except lunch dates with other unhappy, restless women.
No matter how many children she has, that moment of reckoning will eventually arrive for every woman who has defined her life solely in terms of her family. A mother can do that for a decade or even two, but if she hasn't answered the central question of who she is and what she wants to do with herself, she's just postponing the inevitable.
When the empty nest looms, the need to define your identity jumps out and ambushes you all over again. Who am I, besides a mother and a wife? When the children are gone, what am I supposed to do with myself? When no one needs me any more, where can I find meaning in my life? These questions are a lot harder to answer at forty-five or fifty than at twenty-five, in part because the opportunities to explore them through challenging employment will have shrunk so dramatically.
In trumpeting the virtues of a return to the home, few full-time mothers are willing to acknowledge that this choice represents a fundamental abdication of responsibility for their own lives. In 1949, the French author Simone de Beauvoir scandalized the world with The Second Sex and its rallying cry for women to become independent individuals rather than living through men.
"Society in general ? beginning with her respected parents ? lies to her by praising the lofty values of love, devotion, the gift of herself, and then concealing from her the fact that neither lover nor husband nor yet her children will be inclined to accept the burdensome charge of all that," de Beauvoir wrote.
"She cheerfully believes these lies because they invite her to follow the easy slope: in this others commit their worst crime against her; throughout her life from childhood on, they damage and corrupt her by designating as her true vocation this submission, which is the temptation of every existent in the anxiety of liberty....This is how woman is brought up, without ever being impressed with the necessity of taking charge of her own existence."
The anxiety of liberty: what a haunting phrase. Nearly sixty years after de Beauvoir's ground-breaking work, the temptation to live through our husbands and children continues to offer women a dangerously seductive escape hatch from the necessary business of taking charge of their own existence.
It's time for us all to admit that this is scary ? and then get on with it, despite our trepidation and resistance. "Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility," said Sigmund Freud.
Well, responsibility may be frightening ? but so is dependency, if you allow yourself to think about its longterm consequences. And in the end, grappling with the anxiety of liberty is the ultimate challenge of adulthood.
Sure, it's hard to figure out how to make your own unique contribution to the world ? not as a daughter or a wife or a mother, but as an individual. We can try to avoid this task, or pretend it doesn't exist, but it will always be waiting for us around the next bend in the road. Deferring that challenge through marriage or motherhood is a temporary solution at best, and one that exposes us to myriad risks.
But it will never give us the answer. Whether in our twenties or our forties or our sixties, whether as young woman or divorcee or widow, each of us must eventually confront the question of who we are and how to give our lives meaning when our service to our loved ones is done.
The rewards are priceless.