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Happiness and Having It All

08/13/2012 12:12 pm 12:12:24 | Updated Oct 13, 2012

Anne-Marie Slaughter's recent article in the Atlantic, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," has once again raised in public a question that has been privately vexing women for the past several decades (...or longer): How can we pursue our talents and contribute to culture significantly and be the devoted mothers that so many educated women want to be?

How do we slay this dragon? Slaughter, who should get many kudos for her frank presentation of the whole megillah of this dilemma for women at the highest echelons, falters here. Sure, I agree when she says that we need new values to make this work. But which values? The tricky thing is that there are two competing value sets from the two spheres of modern life: public (business and politics) for men and private (children and home) for women. The private sphere's system of values presents being a good, selfless mother as a 100 % occupation, while the public sphere demands to achieve and excel and create the world is equally 100 %. Therein lies our problem: It's not actually possible to take on two vocations simultaneously that demand 100 % of your time and dedication.

That means we will have to choose -- or really change our values. I know how hard this is, but from a different angle. While I never wanted to get married (except for a period of panic in my mid-twenties), I had always thought that I would have children and made career plans so that I could be independent enough to manage kids solo, if I had to. I never got there -- and surprisingly have never regretted not having children of "my own." But the amount of soul-searching and thinking involved in the whole thing took up an enormous amount of energy and required that I go against my own impulses, ignore raised eyebrows from people I cared about and risk the angst of my formidable mother. Slaughter said that it felt "natural" to leave her high-powered job in order to support her struggling teen son. Of course it does -- because we women are often so deeply identified with the private sphere that values us as caretakers, which is reinforced by nearly everyone and everything around us. It's not just "natural" simply because we give birth. (Did you know that it's not at all clear that women were "naturally" affectionate and caring with their children in medieval times?) Culture determines what feels natural far more than we may think. And that in turn gives shape to our visions for happiness.

In fact, I'm reminded of my favorite sci-fi story, the 1976 classic Woman on the Edge of Time, in which Marge Piercy creatively explores what it will take to create true equality between women and men. The future is poised between dystopia and utopia, and the outcome depends on the actions of one woman in the present. The dystopia is brutal: a polluted, fascist wasteland in which women are only our sexual function -- boobs and buttocks hormonally inflated and surgically enhanced so that we become sensually indulgent, passive mounds of flesh for men to pleasure themselves with. Men, juiced up on steroids, seize their maleness through raping and pillaging every living thing on the planet. The strange idea that men and women are "opposite" sexes -- rather than the same species -- has exploded into a nightmare in which we are lost to each other. The utopia, meanwhile, is radically egalitarian, where gender, race, and sexual preference were no longer divisive but became the source of creative friction, curiosity and growth. Real democracy, with a highly educated populace aided invisibly by sophisticated technology, makes it possible for individuals to develop remarkable autonomy while working together to perfect their systems of commerce and community. But the most interesting thing is that Piercy, a feminist, tells us that equality came at an interesting cost to women. To achieve the prize of true equality -- women and men co-creating culture -- women had to give up giving birth to children. This, apparently, was the most difficult thing that this utopian society had to do: convince women to give up their most fundamental role, source of identity and sense of power and worth. In this new world, women's eggs and men's sperm were harvested, and when any three adults (not two, as in the Modernist nuclear family) decided to have a child, the miracle of technology would assist the miracle of nature in supporting the transformation from zygote to fetus to newborn.

Will we have to go this far to level the playing field? I actually don't know. If you think about it, technology, in the form of the birth control pill, freed women in the 20th century, and new technologies might end up freeing us from the tyranny of the biological clock. Regardless, I am concerned that we are pinning our happiness and sense of identity on the beliefs and attitudes of a worldview that is crumbling. The twin towers of modernity -- the supposedly boundless material success of the capitalist marketplace and the profound domestic bliss that is the pot of gold at the end of the romance story -- are collapsing. The product of the two, the modern nuclear family, once snugly ensconced in countless "custom" tract homes in suburbia, is no longer the norm. Not only do fewer than one in four households fit that mold, but the uniquely American "right" to homeownership has been a major contributing force to the instability of the global capital markets. The belief that each of us can fully pursue our desires to have the dream of one of those Tyvek-and-sheetrock cavernous specials (with detached garage) filled floor to ceiling with top level consumer gadgets and inhabited by the smallest intimate circle that one has is increasingly a myth. Not just because it's financially ever more difficult for the middle class to maintain this "keep-up-with-the-Joneses" fiction, but because it's also an environmentally ruinous way to live.

This Shangri-La of Modern happiness was a unique and most likely fleeting moment in history, brought about by ideas and circumstances that are no longer current or relevant to the future that we need to create together on a planet that we realize is increasingly interconnected and interdependent. Yet the expectations of Modernity still have a hold on us. As Slaughter says, they feel "natural" and make us happy. But we are, as Kate Bolick points out in another great Atlantic article, All the Single Ladies, in the midst of a rapid and profound transformation of just what happiness is. For us women, we need to put our current situation in context and realize that most of what we consider to be both normal and ideal about the dating, mating and babymaking game have only been part of Western culture for the last four hundred years, at the very very most. The romance story and the love match (rather than an arranged marriage) has been the norm for middle class Westerners for a wildly short time -- perhaps, really, only since the 1950's or, at best, since the late 19th century. In fact, the romance story -- smart, plucky young woman of modest means wins the heart of a wealthy man who will take care of her -- was the female equivalent of the Horatio Alger "rags-to-riches" story for men. Because in the 18th and 19th centuries women couldn't easily hatch a scheme and bring it to market or stand up and run for office (remember we couldn't vote?), the romance story was an instruction manual for class climbing. Women's only avenue to success. Women's ultimate fulfillment was to come from being the Angel in the House -- helpmate and mother, creator of domestic bliss for husband and children. To peg our hearts and happiness on that narrative now, when women have both access and agency to shape our own destinies, strikes me as anachronistic at best and dangerously deluded at worst.

Depressing? I don't think so. I find it thrilling -- and so very necessary for our world and planet. Instead of living our lives in the shadow of modernity's past, struggling to make something work that isn't really working anymore for reasons so much bigger than our individual selves, we need to pay attention to the creative edge of culture. To the new social ventures that are breaking down the difference between doing well in capitalism and doing good for others and the planet. To amazing new technologies that mimic biology and leave less of a footprint. To co-housing and other forms of creating "family" and living together that leave the nuclear family behind. There's so much percolating at the edges that hold the promise of a new future. I'd like us to pay more attention to those fresh new promises. We've done it before and we can do it now: we can create new narratives to describe the aim and purpose of our lives that will open up potentials for human happiness that we have barely begun to imagine.