To me, Judith Warner’s op-ed column for The New York Times has always come up just a bit short. She’s a good writer who can get way too verbose but I think she’s writing for a very limited group of readers—feminists yes, but also overwhelming white and belonging to the upper middle class. Just like the readership of The New York Times, I can hear people say, and yet I think there’s something pretty weak about constantly preaching to the choir.
But she’s on point in her latest column where she very skillfully breaks down the myth of the so-called “opt-out revolution”. Aside from upper middle class women in their 30s, women really aren’t opting out of the workforce. They’re being forced out. Warner notes that the employment rates of non-mothers and mothers are very close. And moreover, up until 2004, the likelihood that a woman with children would leave the workforce had been dropping dramatically and steadily since 1984.
…[W]hen men in their prime working years drop out of the workforce we don’t say they’ve gone home to be with their kids.
We say they’re unemployed.
The distinction is truly meaningful beyond the neat way it encapsulates our inability to separate ideology from fact when it comes to thinking about mothers and their much-vaunted “choices.” Unemployed people, after all, are entitled to benefits. As a society, we tend to think it’s incumbent upon us to get them working again — for their own good, individually, for the good of their families, and for our collective welfare. Politicians promise to retrain them. Devise policies to retain them. The unemployed still fall under the ever-retracting umbrella of people we consider, to some extent, to be worthy of our care.
Mothers, with their glorious array of post-feminist lifestyle options, have long been seen as something else. They’re individuals, making choices, responsible for the fallout of those choices even if, in point of fact, those choices were made for them by a weak economy, the unaffordability of child care or an inflexible workplace. They don’t need “government handouts” like quality child care, flextime, sick days, family leave and top-notch afterschool programs, because they’ve made their proud choices and, by golly (unless they’re whiners), they’re going to go it alone.
Now I just wish that The New York Times editorial page would own up to the fact that it’s been the most prominent publication pushing for the recognition of the fictional “opt-out revolution” from the very beginning.
P.S. For a laugh, hop over here and read about this poor guy who’s been possessed by Judith Warner. Heh.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: obsessions, the new york times, the truly weird
So I’m obsessed. Specifically, with Bloomsbury. I knew this was going to happen, but after every lecture I go back to my room and spend my time tracking down more information about the group. It’s a good thing I’m being disenchanted and fascinated simultaneously; all these people seemed to do was sit around talking and eating, sleep with each other, and write brilliantly. Lest you get too intrigued however, remember that even these very English bohemians couldn’t get the sexual aspects all lined up; at least half of them seemed to be constantly depressed about their own affairs or the affairs that their partners were having. And of course, one didn’t get mad at one’s spouse for having an affair; instead, one became life-long friends with the lover and suffered great inner melancholy. Which perhaps aided with the writing of brilliant novels. Clearly I have not yet decided what lesson I shall draw from this course vis-à-vis complicated interpersonal relationships.
On a much more explicitly unhappy note, I recently read this fascinating article about suicide in the New York Times Magazine, “The Urge to End It All.” It’s obviously a rather upsetting topic, but author Scott Anderson approaches it in a very unusual way. He speaks with a movement of mental health professionals who, in their attempts at suicide-prevention, focus not on the “why” of suicide but the “how”. In a nutshell, they believe that one of the best ways to prevent suicide is simply to make the act more difficult—put up barriers on bridges, or limit the sale of handguns. Common belief in the medical community is that things like barriers on bridges don’t work because potential suicides will simply find another method to commit the act. In fact, Anderson notes, suicide is such an impulsive act that out of those who have attempted to kill themselves and failed, only 10 percent will ever try again. For most people, it’s not a persistent state of mind, it’s a sudden physical response to a particular and often fleeting spiritual crisis. It may be that most people who attempt suicide only do so because the means of killing oneself is, at that moment of crisis, fairly convenient. Anderson illustrates this rather well with the “British coal-gas story.”
For generations, the people of Britain heated their homes and fueled their stoves with coal gas. While plentiful and cheap, coal-derived gas could also be deadly; in its unburned form, it released very high levels of carbon monoxide, and an open valve or a leak in a closed space could induce asphyxiation in a matter of minutes. This extreme toxicity also made it a preferred method of suicide. “Sticking one’s head in the oven” became so common in Britain that by the late 1950s it accounted for some 2,500 suicides a year, almost half the nation’s total.
Those numbers began dropping over the next decade as the British government embarked on a program to phase out coal gas in favor of the much cleaner natural gas. By the early 1970s, the amount of carbon monoxide running through domestic gas lines had been reduced to nearly zero. During those same years, Britain’s national suicide rate dropped by nearly a third, and it has remained close to that reduced level ever since.
So perhaps writing about this is rather morbid, but I’m fascinated. Anderson tells a story of a man who, having picked out the spot on the western side of Golden Gate Bridge from which to jump, was thwarted when he was grabbed by passersby who noticed him looking despondent. He would have been successful in his attempt if he hadn’t spent so long hanging around the eastern side of the bridge, but he waited because he was concerned about being hit by a car while he tried to cross the road. The man freely admits that when he recounted this concern to a therapist after the fact, they both laughed.
The human brain is a ridiculous and wonderfully complicated thing. How can we entertain such disparate thoughts in our minds simultaneously? Another man in the article, who jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge and survived, talks of the moment when he let go of the rail and thought to himself, how could you be so stupid? How can our brains go so quickly from the lowest depression to such painfully obvious common sense? Basically, this bizarre article made me want to take more cognitive psychology classes.
More importantly, a huge number of petitions to erect suicide barriers at the Golden Gate Bridge have failed in the past for reasons having to do with cost, aesthetics, and “effectiveness.” There are certainly people out there who declare that we have a right to commit suicide if we choose, that choosing how and when to end one’s life is a private decision. That smacks of a particular kind of craziness to me, the same kind that leads people to court and idolize depression as the plight of the brilliant and creative. For the most part, I cannot believe that the majority of those who attempt suicide are simply logically choosing the particular moment of their death. It’s a desperate reaction to crisis, for most it’s a moment of total sadness, not a lifetime. When 90 percent of people never attempt suicide again after a first attempt, when those who survive talk of the moment when they realized, mid-jump, that truly all their problems were small and fixable, how can people actually debate the need for a barrier? After all, if potential suicides are always sure of the finality of their decision, their personal freedom won’t really have been threatened—they’ll just find another way.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: awesome people, feminism, politics, the new york times
A lot of the time I rely on other people to write eloquently on subjects which I care about and interest me. I feel like I’ve always got this tangled mush of thoughts in my head that I’m totally unable to express in the way that I want. I can start to tell people what I believe, but so rarely is what I’m saying the same as what I’m thinking. There’s a horrible disconnect that I can’t overcome. I’m hoping that it’s the sort of gap that closes with maturity and practice.
Thankfully, I’ve got Frank Rich to say exactly what I think, in the sort of stunningly elegant language that I’m incapable of producing. Thanks for the help, Frankie.