Monday, April 25, 2011

To Each Her Own

So I’m finally watching Mad Men. (Yes, I am quite tardy to that party. In other news, I hear there’s a fancy new way to withdraw money from your account without going into the bank!) Okay, maybe watching isn’t the most appropriate word. I’m devouring episodes at a pace that makes me think the Romans were on to something with that whole Vomitorium concept. (At this point, the only impediment to a complete and utter Mad Men bender is my frugality – I only get two DVDs at a time with my cheap ‘flix subscription.) In addition to being just plain riveting entertainment, the show--like the fictional advertisements Don Draper and company create—engenders a number of thoughts and feelings. Some are flippant: even though I don’t smoke I sure could go for a Lucky Strike right now; when did we stop drinking in the office; we should reinstate drinking in the office; when did we stop having sex in the office, for that matter . . . etc.

But some go deeper . . .

I was surprised to find myself, I’m somewhat ashamed to admit, enticed by the show’s clearly defined gender roles. Men brought home the proverbial bacon and wives kept house, tended to the children, and made themselves pretty. In the office, men wore the suits (good gracious, how they wore them) and women rocked the steno pads. Everyone, with few exceptions, knew their place. Maybe it’s the leaning tower of files on my desk and the 4 weekly little league games and the bottomless craters my boys call stomachs and the fact that my neurotic cat won’t eat unless I’m simultaneously petting him, but--for just a moment--I coveted that life. For someone else to make the decisions. For an either/or existence—either work or family. For blatant in-your-face sexism and gender discrimination instead of the insidious mommy-track.

I came to my senses fairly quickly. Of course I wouldn’t want to travel back to a time when women had fewer choices. And, of course I know the women of the Mad Men era were not models of contentment—a hasty perusal of any Richard Yates novel will tell you that. But I’m not sure the modern concept that women can, and more importantly should, have it all is the panacea, either. Kris and I used to spend precious billable hours debating the issue of whether it was even possible for a woman to “have it all.” We decided that, no, she can’t . . . at least not the way society (which, make no mistake, is still largely male run) defines it. Sure, today we can be wives and mothers and professionals. And that’s to be celebrated. But even as law firms announce "flexible" schedules and Working Mother magazine makes lists of family friendly companies and we stand on the shoulder pads of the brave pioneers before us and roar—we still can’t have it all. At least not in the manner it has been billed by our mothers’ generation. Which is to say, we can’t have the exact same career as the man in the corner office and also the same family life as the woman who makes her own baby food and takes her hand-knit-sweater-wearing, sleep-sharing, violin-playing kid to Kindermusik. Put another way, even if boozy workday lunches were the norm, and even if we’d now be invited to throw back the scotch with our colleagues instead of simply securing the reservation, many of us would have to decline so we could sit in our offices pumping breast milk for our babies in an attempt to assuage the guilt we inevitably feel for putting them in daycare and going back to work in the first place.


Maybe we need to redefine for ourselves and the generations of women to come what having it all means (and hope that my grandmother and Gloria Steinem will forgive us). Maybe we need to recognize that we don’t have to be everything to everyone. That having it all can mean something different to each of us. We imparted Abby, The Pecking Order’s protagonist, with this notion. I do not suggest that our novel is in any way a treatise on the plight of working women or some sort of feminist manifesto. It’s light and it’s funny (and it’s a little racy at times). Still, like most women, Abby struggles with having it all. And, like most women, she often fails by modern social standards. She is at times not likeable or sympathetic, but she is real. And that’s why we have mad love for her.

(If you feel like giving her a chance, you can download the book here.)