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'Flux' holds a mirror up to women's lives


THIS WAS GOING to be one of those "Cliff Notes" columns.

You know the type. I digest a new book and spit out the high points for the women who don't have time to get to the bookstore, let alone read.

It is usually a book that elucidates some aspect of our layered lives: kids, marriage, work, health. And when "Flux," by Peggy Orenstein arrived at my desk, it appeared to be an ideal candidate.

"Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids, and Life in a Half-Changed World," read the subtitle. That pretty much covers everything, I thought.

But what started as a book report quickly became an epiphany. How does the song go? "Singing my life with his words."

I have read Gail Sheehy and Gloria Steinem, Susan Love and Susan Faludi, Joyce Maynard and Joyce Carol Oates, Nora Ephron and Anne Tyler, Camille Paglia, and Alice Hoffman, Natalie Angier and Margaret Atwood. But I have never heard my voice or read my life or seen my face in their words.

In "Flux," I did. And suddenly I made sense to me.

Peggy Orenstein, a journalist, stepped into the national spotlight in 1994 with her book "Schoolgirls," an intimate look into the lives of middle-school girls and the sudden skid in both self-esteem and academic achievement they experi- ence at the threshold of adolescence.

The book, like Mary Pipher's "Reviving Ophelia," was a revelation, and Oren- stein was in high demand on the lecture circuit.

It was during one of those lectures that it suddenly came to her that young girls weren't the only ones burdened by the mixed messages they were receiving from without and within.

Orenstein realized with a shock that adult women existed in the same world of double standards, double binds, hypocrisy, mixed messages and fine print.

And we aren't much better at sorting it out than our daughters are.

Orenstein interviewed 200 women between the ages of 25 and 45. Most were college graduates -- a degree multiplies the choices and the expectations women must cope with. Otherwise, the women came in all flavors and all combinations: single, married, divorced, childless. Stay-at-home mothers, mothers with toddlers, with adolescents, single mothers. Part-time workers, high-powered executives, entrepreneurs.

Using the narrative style she employed in "Schoolgirls," she mixed the stories of their lives with the research of sociologists and anthropologists and other journalists in a word picture of what it means to be a woman in a "half-changed world." A world where sexual norms, marital patterns and career expectations have been changing since we were young girls, but where the changes are not complete.

Orenstein writes the old patterns and expectations have broken down, but the new ones are contradictory, unrealistic, unformed. We were promised choices, but often they are painful choices, not choices made from abundance.

None of this is new. But never have I read such a vivid description of my life-by-default.

My guilt, my second-guesses, my insecurities, my longings, my resentments. It is all there in "Flux." I am not crazy. More important, I am not the only one who has been thinking that she is. This is a book you should buy and read because it will relieve you of the isolation and quiet desperation in which we all seem to live because we are too busy having it all and doing it all to comfort or guide each other.

Orenstein traces a woman's life from the open-ended promise of her 20s, where ambition rules, economic independence is the goal and motherhood -- or work in a traditional female field -- is considered a betrayal of that promise.

Even at this moment, a woman begins to lean in the direction she will later bend. Orenstein found in her interviews that young women were assuming they would move in and out of the work force and that eventually family responsibilities would limit both their advance- ment and their earning potential -- but not that of their husbands.

These young women were already factoring inequality into their futures. They were already making decisions that would guarantee that their careers and their incomes would be secondary.

Even before they were faced with any choices, they were limiting their options in a way that not only limited their advance- ment, but limited their leverage in negotiating family life: If she backs off, he will automatically earn more, which will require that she assume more of the domestic burdens so as to protect his time and his energy for his job.

Nothing sharpens the dis- connect between a woman's vision of equality and the reality of inequality than the arrival of a child. If the workplace hasn't kept pace with the changing expecta- tions of women, the institution of motherhood is even further behind.

Women make concessions to parenthood in a way that men still do not. "Words like 'balance,' 'trade-off,' and 'work-family conflict' [have become] as feminine as pink tulle," she writes.

Whether she continues to work full-time, part-time or stays at home, a woman will over-invest in her kids, Orenstein writes, to defend herself against the dreaded "Bad Mother" accusa- tions and, in doing so, she will cut her husband further and further out of daily life and out of the family's emotional heart.

Can you guess the result?

A woman is stressed and pressed and half nuts, but she blames only herself. "If I had more energy ..." "If I were more organized ..."

The distance between her and her husband grows. She is irritated by his lack of participation but ultimately she excuses him because he is a better father than hers was.

"The Flux," ends with the reexamination that comes to men and women at mid-life. Orenstein concludes that women, out of ne- cessity, form a different definition of fulfillment than men do. Women find their sustenance in commun- ity involvement, personal growth and spirituality -- a path that might prove healthy for men.

Women of our generation started our adult lives with the promise that we would have all the choices. We don't. And the choices we have seem more like default settings. But maybe, as Orenstein suggests, we have the one choice that matters.

We can decide for ourselves what is success and what is failure.

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