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Sunday, January 6, 2013

Are modern women losing themselves?

Posted By on 01.06.13 at 09:00 AM

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In college I had a friend, one who in today's parlance would admittedly be considered a frenemy, who swore that once we graduated, she would move to Los Angeles and become an actress. At a time when most of us were perfecting keg stands and wearing pajamas to our morning classes, she was cultivating an air of worldly sophistication with pencil skirts and martinis. She would regale us with tales—true or otherwise—of her trips to Europe and seduction of much older men. She would commandeer any conversation drifting into the quotidian concerns of 20-year-old life and point it firmly towards the gleaming expanse of the future. She was the first to tell you that she was on her way to grander things, the likes of which the small midwestern mind could only dream. Needless to say, we quickly fell out of touch once college was over. But like many people who don't necessarily care for one another in the real world, we became friends on Facebook.

As far as I can glean from her posts, this would-be actress and bon vivant lives somewhere in the hinterlands of suburban LA and has no interests beyond her children. Her Facebook presence is an endless procession of images from Christmas pageants, trick-or-treating, and family vacations unfailingly spent on the beach. Gone are the diatribes on the superiority of French viticulture and vows to appear on screen before age 25. In their place are reports of the most recent tooth lost and an adorable request that the pool be filled with pudding. By all appearances, she is living an ideal upper-middle-class life in sunny southern California. Still, I can't help but look at her and think that she sacrificed herself along the way—that in essence, she failed.

At this point, objections are bound to arise. Most of us aren't doing at 30 what we thought we would be at 20. Our expectations now conform more closely to reality. And isn't the idea of getting older to mature? To become less narcissistic and self-serving and to find meaning beyond ourselves—and isn't that exactly what motherhood is? Facebook is hardly an accurate representative of our actual lives; it's a highly edited version of events, the life we want others to see. And therein lies my point: the self that this woman—who was once poised to grab life by the balls (her words, not mine)—wants us to see is projected entirely through her progeny. As Katie Roiphe so insightfully writes in her new book In Praise of Messy Lives, women like this send the message "I am my children."

It's that quote, which I first read in the New York Times Book Review, that drew me to Roiphe, a fairly prolific essayist whose work I'd never read. Something about the willingness of a woman to criticize the booming mommy culture felt subversive and brave—especially when I found out that Roiphe is herself a mother, a single one with two children fathered by different men. Though my feelings about my Facebook friend can be attributed in some part to schadenfreude at seeing her youthful dreams dissolve, the idea that women are allowing their identities as mothers to eclipse all other facets of themselves is something that has bothered me for awhile. I've witnessed more than one acquaintance give up a promising career and lifelong interests to devote herself to motherhood. And the question that vexes me isn't necessarily whether that decision was right for her as an individual, but rather if we, as a culture, are regressing to a model in which motherhood is a woman's highest calling. And if a woman in pursuit of that calling becomes her children, whom has she ceased to be?

In one of the book's essays, entitled "The Perverse Allure of Messy Lives", Roiphe examines our collective fascination with the show Mad Men, hypothesizing that we're drawn to the relative destructiveness of the past. She holds that we not only derive a voyeuristic pleasure from the sight of guiltless cigarettes, drinks before noon, and casual extramarital affairs, but a sense of historical superiority for having evolved beyond the habits of the 60s milieu. Once the credits roll, we can pat ourselves on the back for realizing the error of our forbearers' ways, have a cup of Whole Foods organic chamomile tea, and be in bed by ten. In some ways this can be read as a metaphor for a certain conception of motherhood: we evolve beyond the desire to sleep until noon and structure our lives entirely around our own needs. As we mature, we put away childish things and replace them with actual children.

Part of the allure of Katie Roiphe is that she herself leads a messy life, at one point comparing her status as a single mother to that of a modern day Hester Prynne. As friends rush to reassure her that she'll marry again, thereby unpinning that shameful letter from her chest, it's clear that being a mother in the nonnuclear sense does not seem to confer the same distinction as being married with two children and a dog. This sentiment reflects a stigma that many women living "unconventional" lives have likely experienced—the idea that one's status as divorced, childless, or single is a malady awaiting the cure. It also points to the troubling resurgence of the retrograde notion that there is such a thing as a conventional life. Maybe my Facebook friend simply lost interest in the things that defined her as a younger woman and developed naturally into the full-time mother she is today. But what Roiphe's essays underscore is my own feeling that there's an impulse in women my age not only to snag the ring, change their names, and become mommies, but to post it all online as if to say See, I'm doing exactly everything I'm supposed to.

Maybe we don't need to watch Mad Men to revisit the past.

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