Patriarchy and women’s sexuality

Yesterday I talked about my parents’ fear of me losing my virginity before marriage which is actually very valid in patriarchal Vietnam. According to my research, these are the three reasons men often cite for wanting a virgin girlfriend: First, they have not had premarital sex and/or are going to abstain and they expect their girlfriends to do the same. Second, they fear that their girlfriends are more sexually experienced than them. Third, they do not like the idea of “sharing” their girlfriends with other guys.

To be clear, abstinence is a totally respectable choice. In fact, for me, every responsible choice is a respectable one. Having certain expectations of one’s future partner is absolutely reasonable. That said, the society’s zealous scrutiny of women’s virginity and sexual activity makes very little sense in a world of widely available contraception. There are countless stories about slut-shaming, “honour” killing of unmarried girls engaging in sexual acts, and girls having to get their hymen “reconstructed” before consummating their marriage. Gender roles in sexuality are evident in our everyday language. What is often implied about women’s first sexual experience is that they are passive with something to lose while men have something to gain: “she lost her virginity”, “he took her virginity”, “she gave it up to him”, “he popped her cherry”. Ironically men engaging in sexual acts is often deemed “biological” or “boys will be boys”. In other words, men enjoy exoneration for their sexual behaviour even in instances of rape, but women don’t. Such double standard of sexuality prevails even among many men that regard themselves as progressive and open-minded.

I am not upset about my parents’ concern although it does not necessarily mean I will conform. They only want the best for me in a society where the prospects of marriage are bleak for “liberal” girls. In their typically patriarchal views, women need men’s protection through marriage, which I disagree.

A while ago I did a little research on why men are so concerned about controlling women’s sexuality and below is an interesting account by BJ Gallagher, a sociologist, best-selling author, and speaker.

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Women’s Sexuality and Men’s Fear

By BJ Gallagher 

Years ago, Mother Teresa was invited to attend an anti-war rally. She declined, reportedly saying something to the effect that: “Anti-war protestors are some of the most war-like people I’ve ever seen. I have no interest in participating in war. But, if you ever hold a pro-peace rally, let me know.”

I recalled that apocryphal story last week when I received an RFP (Request For Proposals) from a large, nationally-know women’s organization. The entire RFP was a rallying cry for women to get into action to combat the “Republican War on Women.” I cringed and deleted the email.

Is there really a “war on women” going on? Or are we simply experiencing a never-ending barrage of fear mongering and over-the-top rhetoric being blasted from both political parties — as well as from religious institutions, women’s organizations and the media? I think it’s the latter. I don’t believe Republicans are waging a war on women, and neither are men.

Male-bashing doesn’t get us anywhere — we don’t need to be anti-men in order to be pro-women. Republican-bashing doesn’t get us anywhere either — there are millions of good people in the Republican party who simply have genuine differences of opinion about what’s best for the country. Demonizing men — and/or demonizing Republicans — is not helpful in finding solutions to our vexing national problems. Hating the opposite sex and/or hating the other political party only breeds more hate.

I’m with Mother Teresa: I’m not interested in speaking the language of war nor participating in war-like gatherings of women. Why do I feel this way? Let me provide some background:

About fifteen years ago, I visited a fascinating exhibit on the “History of Sex” at a prominent museum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. On a business trip to Southeast Asia, I allowed some extra time to take in some of the local culture. The sex exhibit struck me as odd, since my impression of Muslim countries was that sexuality is severely repressed. But perhaps I had been mistaken, since I really didn’t know much about Muslim cultures. This gave me more than one reason to check out “Sex” at the Malaysian museum.

When I arrived, what first caught my attention were groups of young schoolgirls touring the exhibit. Dressed in pastel-colored blouses over long skirts, with matching scarves covering their heads, the girls looked like flocks of lovely little pastel birds flitting from one part of the exhibit to another. Each group was monochromatic — a flock in robin’s egg blue outfits, another flock in flamingo pink, still another in canary yellow — so sweet and pretty, talking quietly among themselves as they took notes. I was struck by the visual anachronism of these young, innocent girls touring a museum exhibit on sex.

The “History of Sex” was a terrific exhibit, with well-researched timelines, archeological artifacts, artistic renderings and scientific writings by archeologists, anthropologists, historians, biologist, physicians, sociologists and psychologists, as well as enriching contributions from the arts. The entire exhibit was very well curated.

And the Malaysian schoolgirls weren’t the only ones who were learning a lot from the “Sex” exhibit. My own “ah-ha” came from a display that explained: “Throughout human history, men have always had a vested interest in controlling women’s sexuality — and they’ve found many different ways to do it.” The museum display pointed to everything from mechanical devices such as metal chastity belts, to modesty clothing like burqas, hijabs and abayas, to laws proscribing what women were allowed to do, be and have. My mind boggled at the myriad ways men have exercised control over women’s sexuality and reproduction throughout the entire course of human history.

Why? Why are sex and procreation so important to men? As a social scientist, I’d surmise that part of the answer can be found in biology: Much as a male lion will kill the cubs of a lioness in order to sire his own cubs with her (thus perpetuating his genes), the human male wants to sire his own children, and he’s worried about unwittingly raising any offspring sired by someone else. His biological imperative is to perpetuate his own genes in the human species, not the genes of another. This instinct is hardwired into the human animal just as it is in the lion … and many other species as well (though not all).

I’d also argue that another part of the answer can be found in sociology and psychology: One of the worst misfortunes that can befall a human male is to be cuckolded by an unfaithful mate. What men want and need most is respect — but a man whose wife or girlfriend has sex with another man is pitied, ridiculed, disrespected and diminished in the eyes of society. Such a threat to his masculinity and self-esteem must be prevented at all costs — making many men hyper-vigilant in protecting their women (and their self-respect) from potential rivals.

(Sidebar: I remember how my father often smiled and said, “It’s always reassuring to the father when the children resemble him,” when people would remark, “Your daughter looks just like her daddy.”)

There are undoubtedly other factors fueling the urgent need men feel to control women’s sexuality. Economics plays a part — as providing for a family is expensive (assuming the women isn’t the primary breadwinner or at least contributing). Relationships and marriage are an investment of money, time and energy. Males are understandably skittish about making such a big commitment if there is any doubt about the wisdom of his investment. Even a hint of unfaithfulness can trigger intense feelings of betrayal and the desire for financial retribution.

The Malaysian museum’s “History of Sex” exhibit reminded me how complex and multi-faceted human sexuality is. We would do well to take a step back from the heated rhetoric of the “war between the sexes” and take a more thoughtful, rational, contextual look at our gender differences. Studying and understanding human sexual behavior from the point of view of ethnobiology, zoology, sociology, history, psychology, economics, anthropology, political science, theology, and the arts as well can help us understand ourselves better. In so doing, we can make progress in finding solutions to our most vexing people problems — including gender and sex problems.

Who knows? Perhaps more thoughtful people will come to realize that no one is “waging war on women.” Perhaps, as the exhbit suggest, men (well, some men) are simply acting out an instinctive biological imperative — reinforced by thousands of years of history and tradition — going to any lengths to control women’s sexuality. The bottom line is: Men feel the need to exert control over women essentially because they’re afraid.

Men and women both have a vested interest in putting a stop to the “gender war” – in America and around the world. Isn’t it time to declare a cease-fire? Isn’t it time we learn to live and work together in peace? Let’s begin by calling a truce in the war of words.

Link: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bj-gallagher/womens-sexuality-and-mens_b_1289564.html

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From Saigon to Singapore

My story is simply one of an Asian girl, having a pretty conservative upbringing, trying every single day to assert herself as an individual and realize her dreams. Penning one’s story is definitely an intimidating thing to do but that said, I hope mine will resonate with girls who may be reluctant to stand up to social pressure.

Everyone has dreams. Sadly it is common for the society to assign lower values to a girl’s dreams compared to a boy’s. Particularly in most parts of developing Asia, college education is more than sufficient for girls, and marriage, not career, is unanimously regarded as their source of security. They are preordained from birth to be the weak, vulnerable kind who is prone to, and has to be constantly protected from, actions of dishonour such as premarital loss of virginity, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and even sexual assaults. A woman’s marital status is almost always under scrutiny to the extent that all the other aspects of her life are not worth considering. Even if she graduates with first class honours, works as a biochemistry scientist or finds the cure to cancer, if she is not married, she is an abject failure.

Asia is undergoing swift social transformations over the recent decades with fast-paced industrialisation, increasing exposure to Western cultures and education, and the changing role of women as independent earners. Foreign observers, such as Roger Cohen of the New York Times, have noted of the “American dream” among the rising Vietnamese upper- and middle-class which entails American lifestyle and education for their children. Nonetheless for millions of Vietnamese young women, defying patriarchal norms continues to be a day-to-day struggle. Escape is not an option, even for those like me who are able to: we do not wish to be alienated in our own home, we yearn to connect with our families, and we want to gain a legitimate place in the community without losing ourselves.

The day I got admitted to a university in Singapore, I knew it was not the end of a year-long “battle” to fulfil my dream of seeing the world. My parents let me sit the entrance exam perhaps because chances were I would fail, or because they were ambivalent about letting go of me. And when they knew I passed, they threw me tons of questions to which I had no answer: am I going to survive college overseas?,  am I going to be able to protect myself (for marriage)?, will I be able to find a job and pay off the student loan?, and so on.

Since a very young age, I had been keenly aware of their overprotective tendency toward me and built up a strong and even cold façade with the hope that they would think I was totally capable of protecting myself. But my tough façade apparently did not guarantee satisfactory answers to these questions. Ultimately it was going to be a four-year period of uncertainty.

My childhood could be described as a series of attempts to break out of the “mould” my Mother had for me. She had always wanted me to excel in maths and science and to become a doctor or a pharmacist. By contrast I sucked at both and instead went on to major in literature and later on English. For university degree choices, I went for Business, Economics and International Relations instead of Medicine and Biochemistry, and I was admitted to read Economics.

Gradually they toned down their stance as their friends and colleagues talked them into letting me go. And so I was allowed to leave for Singapore on the implicit condition that I would preserve myself for marriage.

I love my Mom more than anything else in the world. One time I saw her hit by another motorbike and my heart literally stopped beating until it became clear to me that she was okay. Although it was virtually impossible in my childhood, slowly and surely throughout my college years, I opened up to her and showed her who I really was. I told her about how I loved my major and how wonderful my professors were, about my very first jobs, and the guys I saw.

And after Singapore, it was and still is my incomplete “mission” to show her who I want to become.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on being a feminist

What does it mean to be a feminist?

Watch this hilarious, heartfelt and absolutely insightful talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a renowned Nigerian novelist.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Nigeria in 1977. She grew up in the university town of Nsukka, Enugu State where she attended primary and secondary schools, and briefly studied Medicine and Pharmacy. She then moved to the US to attend college, graduating summa cum laude from Eastern Connecticut State University with a major in Communication and a minor in Political Science. She holds a Master degree in Creative Writing from John Hopkins and a Master degree in African Studies from Yale University.

Chimamanda is the author of Half a Yellow Sun which won the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction, and Purple Hibiscus which won the 2005 Best First Book Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the 2004 Debut Fiction Fiction Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. She was named one of the 20 most important fiction writers today under 40 years old by the New Yorker. She featured in the April 2012 edition of Time Magazine celebrated as one of 100 Most Influential People in the World.

The feminisation of poverty and the myth of the ‘welfare queen’ (Open Democracy 6/3/12)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The single mother; the woman seeking an abortion; the prostitute; the’ welfare queen’: poor women are made to serve as a timeless moral scapegoat.  These classifications need to be rejected. We should recognise the challenges that women living in poverty face and fight to enhance and increase their inclusion in decision making.

By Kate Donald

The ‘feminisation of poverty’ is now an undeniable reality. Worldwide, women are more likely to be poor, employed in precarious, low-paid labour, and less likely to have access to land, credit and education. Not only do they suffer disproportionately from the effects of poverty itself and the human rights denials that accrue from it, but also from the increasingly heavy-handed way in which poverty is governed across the world.  Being female and poor subjects you to unique forms of stigma and control, as well as forcing you to bear the brunt of supposedly gender-neutral policies.

The gender-specific and demeaning measures of control and containment that are applied to women overwhelmingly focus on their bodies and reproductive capacity. In many countries in the world, including most of Latin America, Africa and the Middle East abortion remains illegal except in very proscribed circumstances. Prohibition does not deter women from seeking abortions, but forces them submit to more unsafe abortions, putting their health, fertility or even life at risk. Planned Parenthood estimate that 19 million women and girls worldwide resort to unsafe abortions every year; 70,000 of them will die as a result, more than 96% of them from the world’s poorest countries (in many of which abortion is illegal).  For example, in Argentina, each year, between 460,000 and 600,000 women have an illegal abortion; abortion complications are the main cause of maternal death, with an estimated 400 deaths each year.  Clearly, it is poor women, without any hope of access to a private doctor or international travel who are most exposed to these risks.  Thus such policies, targeted to control female reproductive capacity (as if men were not involved), promote a selective penalisation of the poorest women.

The regulation of sex work is another way in which poor women are exposed to surveillance, invasion of privacy and criminalisationDetention, raids, deportation, evictions and removal of children are often carried out without a formal warrant, arrest or other due process, as if the mere fact of engaging in sex work waived one’s rights. Even worse, in many countries abuse by police and other state agents including extortion, rape and murder is committed withimpunity. Many laws also severely constrict sex workers’ freedom of movement, through zoning and registration, barring them from living together or assigning their work to isolated areas, rendering them yet more vulnerable to many forms of violence. Criminalisation drives sex workers to distance themselves from authorities and public services, entrenching their poverty and isolation and endangering their health. Thus, many sex workers, the majority of whom are poor women, are unable to access their fundamental rights, such as rights to health, equality, privacy, association, family life, housing and education. Sex workers who experience further forms of discrimination because of their sexuality, race, ethnicity or disability are particularly at risk.  Of course, in the criminalisation of both abortion and sex work, it is almost always a woman who is punished for an action or ‘crime’ that undeniably involved a man.

To be female and poor in itself attracts a unique stigma. The 1980s saw the remarkable rise of the ‘welfare queen’ as popular bogey (wo)man of choice in the USA. This was fuelled by Reagan’s ideological crusade against an ‘excessive’ ‘soft’ welfare system and driven by racist and sexist stereotypes of ‘lazy’ African-American women, often single mothers.  Indeed, the single mother is a recurring motif in the rhetoric surrounding welfare and benefits across the Western world.  The idea that single women ‘churn out’ babies in order to generate more income or obtain free housing is commonplace in the UK and was a core part of the vivid American ‘welfare queen’ stereotype.   Attacks on the integrity of single mothers are common; they are portrayed as less capable parents – despite evidence to the contrary – and are improbably blamed for a host of social ills, including, predictably, the riots that took place in the UK in the summer of 2011. The prevalent stigma borne by poor females in many societies is viscerally illustrated by British newspaper columnist James Delingpole who described several of the “great scourges” of contemporary Britain: “aggressive all-female gangs of embittered, hormonal, drunken teenagers; gym-slip mums who choose to get pregnant as a career option; pasty-faced, lard-gutted slappers who’ll drop their knickers in the blink of an eye” (The Times newspaper, April 13, 2006 ). Disturbingly, the stigma of female poverty and single motherhood has become embedded in public policy in many different countries: women are all too often the ‘accidental’ victims of supposedly gender neutral measures, such as budget cuts and welfare reform.

In the UK, the Fawcett Society have shown that women are shouldering 70% of the budget cuts, with the cuts falling especially harshly on single mothers. The Women’s Budget Group has calculated that single mothers will lose 18.5% of their net income due to changes in the tax and welfare system. Rules which take lone parents off income support earlier than previously may create a sharp drop in household income for those women that cannot find work and even force women and their children back into abusive or unhealthy relationships. In other contexts, restrictive welfare provisions deter abused women from leaving abusive relationships by increasing their financial dependency or by making it harder for them to move.  Coupled with cuts to refuges and domestic violence prevention programmes in countries across the globe, there is an increasing likelihood that austerity measures may result in danger to women’s lives. One county in Kansas, USA even briefly ceased prosecution of domestic violence cases, citing budget cuts.

Discriminatory and outdated attitudes are often unashamedly glorified in legislation. ‘Spouse in the house’ policies in parts of Canada that deny women social assistance if they move in with a man, and similar legislation in Australia which restricts parenting payments for co-locating single mothers, perpetuate the discriminatory stereotype that any man cohabiting with a woman must be supporting her financially. The right to privacy is not deemed to apply for welfare claimants. In many jurisdictions, including in Canada, Australia and the US, unannounced home visits by welfare caseworkers is a common strategy to ensure their clients – typically women – are not being supported by another person. In San Diego, California, unannounced home visits precede the issue of benefits, and inspectors may look inside closets, bathroom cabinets and eventrash cans. The UK government has just announced ‘tough’ new sanctions for claimants purporting to be lone parents who are found to be living with someone else.  Benefit fraud is not a practice to be endorsed, but the real issue is whether the perpetrators have genuine economic alternatives, and also the degree to which benefit fraud is pursued and publicised compared to, say tax evasion, which is a far more costly crime.

The shift to conditionality in welfare –  itself revealing of paternalistic quid-pro-quo understandings of welfare as something you have to earn to atone for the personal failing of poverty –  also disproportionately punishes women in poverty.  Schemes that tie welfare payments to a child’s school attendance or enrolment in health programmes  increase the responsibility and work of women (who in most households already assume the principal burden of care and domestic work), remove autonomy and entrench unhelpful gendered roles and stereotypes.  Moreover, such initiatives have not proven to be effective.  Many of these policies have become a core part of welfare regimes and austerity programmes across a number of countries, based on the none-too-subtle view that welfare should be a temporary stop-gap measure until a woman finds a male breadwinner.

The single mother; the woman seeking an abortion; the prostitute; the’ welfare queen’: poor women are made to serve as a timeless moral scapegoat.  These classifications need to be rejected. We should recognise the challenges that women living in poverty face and fight to enhance and increase their inclusion in decision making. A major task in this endeavour is tackling head-on the negative stereotypes of poor women perpetuated in the media and in government policies, and ensuring that the voices of poor women can be heard in public discourse and policy design, both overwhelmingly dominated by wealthy, privileged men.

As Loïc WacquantWendy ChanVijay NagarajDeborah Padfield and others have argued on openDemocracy, the governance of poverty and welfare is becoming more paternalistic in general. To be poor and female is to face double discrimination. We must not allow governments to continue to deny or claim ignorance about the negative effect their policies have on women. This should be understood as an international legal obligation to uphold the universal rights to equality and non-discrimination.  These rights, as well as those to privacy and family life, education, and an adequate standard of living, are severely compromised by these policies.  Governments around the world are constructing social policy according to misrepresentations and stereotypes about poor people and welfare claimants, rather than by reference to the structural inequalities that affect everyone. This must change; gender inequality and economic inequality are two great blights on our societies and must be tackled in tandem.

Link: http://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/kate-donald/feminisation-of-poverty-and-myth-of-welfare-queen

The Female Face of Poverty (The Atlantic 8/1/14)

The “can women have it all” debate among female executives, academics, managers – i.e. female high-flyers – seems to have obscured the fact that millions of women around the world have been struggling to escape poverty in the face of the wide wage gaps between men and women. Let’s not forget about them and their struggles. 

By Maria Shriver

Let me state the obvious: I have never lived on the brink. I’ve never been in foreclosure, never applied for food stamps, never had to choose between feeding my children or paying the rent, and never feared I’d lose my paycheck when I had to take time off to care for a sick child or parent. I’m not thrown into crisis mode if I have to pay a parking ticket, or if the rent goes up. If my car breaks down, my life doesn’t descend into chaos.

But the fact is, one in three people in the United States do live with this kind of stress, struggle, and anxiety every day. More than 100 million Americans either live near the brink of poverty or churn in and out of it, and nearly 70 percent of these Americans are women and children.

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson envisioned the Great Society and called for a War on Poverty, naming my father, Sargent Shriver, the architect of that endeavor. The program worked: Over the next decade, the poverty rate fell by 43 percent.

In those days, the phrase “poverty in America” came with images of poor children in Appalachian shacks and inner-city alleys. Fifty years later, the lines separating the middle class from the working poor and the working poor from those in absolute poverty have blurred. The new iconic image of the economically insecure American is a working mother dashing around getting ready in the morning, brushing her kid’s hair with one hand and doling out medication to her own aging mother with the other.

For the millions of American women who live this way, the dream of “having it all” has morphed into “just hanging on.” Everywhere they look, every magazine cover and talk show and website tells them women are supposed to be feeling more “empowered” than ever, but they don’t feel empowered. They feel exhausted.

Many of these women feel they are just a single incident—one broken bone, one broken-down car, one missed paycheck—away from the brink. And they’re not crazy to feel that way:

  • Women are nearly two-thirds of minimum-wage workers in the country.
  • More than 70 percent of low-wage workers get no paid sick days at all.
  • Forty percent of all households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income.
  • The median earnings of full-time female workers are still just 77 percent of the median earnings of their male counterparts.

For this year’s Shriver Report, A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, we polled more than 3,000 adults to determine how Americans feel about the economy, gender, marriage, education, and the future. Here are some highlights from the poll respondents who are low-income women:

  • Seventy-five percent of them wish they had put a higher priority on their education and career, compared to 58 percent of the general population
  • Seventy-three percent wish they had made better financial choices (as did 65 percent of all those we polled)
  • They were less likely to be married (37 percent, compared to 49 percent of all the men and women we polled) …
  • And more likely than men to regret marrying when they did (52 percent, compared to 33 percent of low-income men)
  • Nearly a third of those with children wished they had delayed having kids or had fewer of them

Overwhelmingly they favor changes that will help balance work and family responsibilities. Eighty-seven percent of low-income women—and 96 percent of single moms—identify paid sick leave as something that would be very useful to their lives.

What’s more, the opinion of the general public is on their side: 73 percent of Americans said that in order to raise the incomes of working women and families, the government should ensure that women get equal pay for equal work. And 78 percent said the government should expand access to high-quality, affordable childcare for working families.

The typical American family isn’t what it used to be. Only a fifth of our families have a male breadwinner and a female homemaker. The solutions we need today are also different. We don’t need a new New Deal, because the New Deal was an all-government solution, and that’s not enough anymore. And my father’s War on Poverty isn’t enough anymore either.

Our government programs, business practices, educational system, and media messages don’t take into account a fundamental truth: This nation cannot have sustained economic prosperity and well-being until women’s central role is recognized and women’s economic health is used as a measure to shape policy.

In other words, leave out the women, and you don’t have a full and robust economy. Lead with the women, and you do. It’s that simple, and Americans know it.

Women have enormous power. Politicians knock themselves out wooing us because we’re the majority of voters in this country. Every corporate marketer and advertiser is after us because we make as much as 70 percent of this country’s consumer decisions and more than 80 percent of the healthcare decisions.

With this power, we women can exert real pressure on our government to change course on many of the issues we care about and deliver on what women need now. Isn’t it strange, for instance, that the United States is the only industrialized nation without mandatory paid maternity leave?

And how about those of us who aren’t in jeopardy? Do we pay the women we hire a living wage—not because it’s the law, but because it’s fair? Do we give them flexibility when they need to take time for caregiving? If we run businesses, do we educate our workers about public policies and programs that can help them?

But the truth is that for so long, America’s women have been divided: women who are mothers versus women who are not, women who work at home versus women who work outside the home, those who are married versus those who aren’t, pro-life women versus pro-choice, white women versus women of color, Democrat versus Republican, gay versus straight, and young versus old. It feels like the last issue where women came together was fighting for the right to vote.

It’s time to come together again. By pushing back and putting into practice the solutions we’re proposing in The Shriver Report, we can re-ignite the American Dream—for ourselves, for our daughters and sons, for our mothers and fathers, for our nation. We have the power—not just to launch a new War on Poverty, but a new campaign for equity, for visibility, for fairness, for worth, for care.

Link: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/01/the-female-face-of-poverty/282892/

26, unmarried, and childless (Converge Magazine 9/9/13)

A heartfelt piece on the enormous pressure women face with respect to getting married. This is undoubtedly a form of gender bias that cuts across cultures, countries and levels of economic development.

I am 26 years old. I don’t have a husband. I don’t have children. I don’t have a career. I don’t have what people expect I should have, but I am abundantly blessed with absurd, exhilarating, and fantastic things I would have never dreamed up on my own.

By Amanda Bast

What’s Next?”

Both of my brothers recently had kids that more than likely complete their families. They’re both older than me, so it makes sense they’re at a different stage. They met and married their wives, they bought dogs and they had kids, all in a nice little sequence. I love watching them build their lives together. It’s a really good thing. When my last brother got married, I was in my early twenties. No one uttered anything about me getting married then.

But now? I’m 26 years old, unmarried, and childless. The comments are starting.

“What’s next?”

“When are you getting married?”

“Babies look good on you!”

“Better get started!”

I shouldn’t be overly concerned with what they’re saying. They’re only teasing or encouraging me with the next step in my life. It’s harmless! No one means anything by it, it’s just time for me to be heading in the same direction as my peers. It makes sense. I get it.

But it doesn’t feel very nice.

Believe me, I am fully aware that I am unmarried and childless. Heck, I don’t even have a real job at this point in time. I’m aware that I’m getting older. I’m aware that I’m not following the same patterns as my parents or my brothers or many of my peers. I’m aware that my biological clock is ticking. OH MY GOSH I AM SO AWARE.

So when you — friends, family, acquaintances, Twitter followers and blog readers — remind me that I’m far behind where one would expect to be at my age, it makes me feel broken. I feel like I’ve done something wrong. I feel like I’m letting you down or making some horrible mistake.

I am 26 years old.
I don’t have a husband. I don’t have children. I don’t have a career.

Instead of relishing in the freedom, blessings and limitless possibilities that this stage of life offers me, I am left frozen, feeling like I’m not enough. Like what I’ve done doesn’t really matter or that I’ve accomplished nothing. I’m an outcast. I’m defective. I’m panicked. When you comment on my life stage as if there was something I could do to change it, it makes me feel inadequate. Most days I truly do love where I’m at right now, but when people question my marital status, I think I’m messing up my chances to do anything worthwhile with my life.

What if my ultimate goal has nothing to do with marriage or kids or a career? What if my aim was to love people well, and to fully embrace the gifts I’ve been given? Would that be enough? What if my life goal was to simply run the race, to be called a good and faithful servant at the end of it all? Maybe that would mean marriage and children and a thriving career, but maybe it wouldn’t. Is it ok if it doesn’t?

When you ask when I’m getting married, I don’t have an answer for you. When you hint at me having kids, it makes me jealous of new parents. When you prod about my lack of a stable career, I get frustrated. When you ask these questions, it doesn’t help me grow. It doesn’t help me feel content with where I am. It does more damage than you realize. Maybe you’re just trying to make conversation or small talk, or maybe you’re genuinely interested in my life. For that, I’m very appreciative.

I would like to suggest one thing, though: instead of asking me what’s next, ask me what’s now. Ask me what God is teaching me, ask me what I’m struggling with, or what brings me joy. I am learning, I am growing, and I am happy. I would love to tell you all about it.

I am 26 years old. I don’t have a husband. I don’t have children. I don’t have a career. I don’t have what people expect I should have, but I am abundantly blessed with absurd, exhilarating, and fantastic things I would have never dreamed up on my own.

So please, my dear friends, don’t ask me what’s next. Ask me what’s now.

Link: http://convergemagazine.com/26-unmarried-and-childless-8736/

Men Can’t Have It All, Either (The Atlantic 26/6/12)

Men weigh in!
JAMES JOYNER is an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.

Life is full of trade-offs. It’s not possible to “have it all.” It never was. And it never will be. For women or for men.

By James Joyner

When my copy of The Atlantic came in the mail this week, I was a bit bemused to see that the cover story featured Anne-Marie Slaughter explaining “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”

In her piece, Slaughter — whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting professionally and interacted with on Twitter — explores the epiphany she had while holding her dream job as director of policy planning at the State Department. After years of building an enormously successful academic career and raising two sons, she realized in Washington that she did not, in fact, have it all. That, by holding her State Department job and doing it well, she was sacrificing time with her oldest son at a critical stage in his life.

When she left government to return to the more flexible schedule of academia, she found that her female peers viewed her with a mixture of pity and condescension. This infuriated her until she realized that she had previously reacted the same way to women who put their careers on hold in favor of work-life balance.

Now, Slaughter is part of the first generation of women for whom it was widely possible to even try to “have it all.” And there’s no doubt that there are unique pressures on women. Although women are approaching something like equality in the workforce, biology still puts the burden of childbirth on women and gives them a limited window in which to do it. So women are often pressured to make sacrifices at a critical point in their careers, whereas men are not. Relatedly, society holds mothers more accountable than fathers for the well-being of their children. And yet, as Slaughter’s story illustrates, superstar women are judged more harshly than their male peers when they choose to put family ahead of career.

That said, men can’t have it all, either. At least, not by the standard Slaughter outlines, and which I happen to think is spot on.

Once upon a time, it was the norm for a successful man to have a wife who gave up her career, if she had one to begin with, to take care of the children. Nowadays, most professional men are married to women with careers of their own. An increasing number of men are less successful than their wives, in terms of income or job title. That’s true of many of my contemporaries, especially those who went into academia and public policy while their wives went on to law school or business.

Until recently, that was my situation. My wife was the chief operating officer of a major political polling firm, having worked her way up from the bottom over 15 years with the company. I’d chosen the less lucrative path of teaching college and, eventually, working in a foreign policy think tank.

She died suddenly last November, leaving me alone with two young daughters, then not quite 3 years and 5 months old.

While I married and had children relatively late, I’d long valued a flexibility schedule and work I found rewarding over long hours and big money. Now, that flexibility of schedule is a necessity rather than a preference.

Not long after my wife’s passing, I was offered a promotion that would have helped bridge the loss of her income but would have required much more time at the office. Professionally, it was a good move. It also made sense financially, even though it would have meant paying for a few more hours of childcare. I nonetheless declined because my daughters needed me to spend that time with them. And, frankly, I needed to spend that time with them, too.

The fact is that life is full of trade-offs. It’s not possible to “have it all.” It never was. And never will be. For women or for men.

MUST SOCIETY CHANGE?

Slaughter calls for changing the workplace culture to eliminate “the need to travel constantly to succeed, the conflicts between school schedules and work schedules, the insistence that work be done in the office.” While I join her in wishing for that evolution, I don’t see how it’s possible.

All things being equal, those willing to put 90 hours a week into their careers are going to get ahead of those willing to put in 60, much less 40. While there is any number of studies showing that working too many hours is actually counterproductive from an efficiency standpoint, there nonetheless is a rare breed of cat who can keep up a frenetic work schedule for years on end. And those workaholics are simply more valuable to the company, agency, or organization than those who clock out at 5. That means that those of us who choose to prioritize our children are going to get out-hustled by those without children, or those willing to let their children spend longer hours with a partner or childcare provider.

Slaughter writes, “Ultimately, it is society that must change, coming to value choices to put family ahead of work just as much as those to put work ahead of family.” Again, I fully agree in principle. In practice, however, it’s easier said than done. Could Slaughter have done her job at State in 40 hours a week? In 60? It’s hard to see how. Aside from the pressures put on her by bosses who worked absurd hours, there’s just not enough time for all the reading and writing, the constant travel, and the real work that gets done at after-hours dinners and cocktail parties.

Indeed, she admits as much, though she points to institutions — such as the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office — that are embracing modern technologies and allowing their employees to do more of their work outside the office.

NOT A ‘WOMEN’S PROBLEM’, BUT OUR PROBLEM

But the most intriguing part of Slaughter’s article is the conclusion, in which she argues that, even more than changing workplace culture, we must rethink our attitudes about the career arc. Given longer lifespans and the tendency to postpone marriage and childbirth, it no longer makes sense for women to get on the work treadmill and keep going. Rather, she writes, they should achieve plateaus, take breaks for children, and then continue their ascents.

But why wouldn’t it make sense for men to do the same thing? Obviously, we haven’t repealed biology; until we do, women are going to continue to do one hundred percent of the childbearing. And to the extent that nursing is advantageous over formula feeding, women will continue to have a unique role in that department, too. Still, there’s no reason men can’t take breaks in their careers — even just dialing it back a few notches and working from home — while their wives get back into career mode.

Amusingly, many of the examples Slaughter gives of family-friendly workplace innovations were introduced by men, like Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. These men are facing essentially the same sorts of choices that Slaughter continues to insist are unique to women.

I’m less optimistic than Slaughter that we’ll ever create a culture that values family time as much as work time — much less one where those who run our government and businesses will do so. But we’ll come much closer if we stop looking at this as a “women’s problem” and instead see it as a societal problem.

Link: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/06/men-cant-have-it-all-either/258890/