Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

Do It My Way: Women Telling Women How to Live

Presumptuousness is not grounds for good advice

Many years ago, I read a book by Elsa Walsh called Divided Lives: The Public and Private Struggles of Three American Women. Walsh set her sights on three strikingly talented women, with all sorts of advantages such as great educations and financial resources, who nonetheless were targets of second-class treatment in the workplace, relative to their male colleagues. I found it insightful and sobering.

Today, in my opinion, Elsa Walsh has devolved into one of those sad, sad figures urging women to lead limited lives. In fact, the title of her recent opinion piece at the Washington Post is “Why women should embrace a ‘good enough’ life.” Now, Walsh wants to take it all back about women’s commitment to jobs they love. She’s all about making more time for marriage and kids.

In the rest of this piece, I will mock Walsh’s derogation of women seeking fulfillment primarily in their work or the passions they pursue and not in marrying or having children. First, though, I want to make a bigger point. What I really resent are all of the people peddling just one message: “There is only one right way to live, and it is MY WAY.”

If Walsh had wanted to share what made her life work for her, to explain why it was so fulfilling, but then acknowledge that other people find fulfillment in other ways, I would have found her piece less troubling. To me, it would have been boring, to be sure – does the Washington Post really need to devote all that real estate to a woman urging other women to make more room in their lives for marriage and children? Really? Maybe the “hook” was that Walsh was totally dedicated to her career earlier in her life and now, at 55, she thinks she is much wiser. The media always loves a story about a high-powered woman who takes herself down a notch (or many notches) and admits that she should have been more devoted to her husband and kids all along.

There are lots of different versions of the message, “MY WAY is the only way to live.” Walsh’s essay is about career-bashing. Early on, she whines that too many of the current conversations about women do not fully celebrate the role that marriage and family should have in our lives (and she means family in the 1950s sense of nuclear family). The question we should be asking, she proclaims, is:

“How can women have full lives, not just one squeezed around a career?”

That sentence, all by itself, tells you everything you need to know about Walsh’s current stay-in-your-place rule-book for 21st century women. A “full life” is contrasted to a life dedicated to a career or some passion other than marrying and having or raising kids. If you care about a career, you are “squeezing” a full life around it.

There was a time when Walsh thought she would never want to marry or have children. But now she sees herself as oh-so-enlightened. Now, she bestows her own seal of enlightenment only on those women who draw the same life lessons as she has.

Walsh is now Mrs. Presumptuousness. Even when another woman declares her love, even giddiness, with her own life, Elsa Walsh presumes to know better. You may be living your own life, but Elsa Walsh thinks she knows how you should be living it.

I haven’t read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, so I’m not commenting on that. What Walsh says about it, though, is telling:

“Sandberg is almost giddy when she describes getting up at 5 a.m. to answer e-mails before her children wake up and getting back on her computer once they are asleep.

“Facebook is available 24/7 and for the most part, so am I,” she writes. “The days when I even think of unplugging for a weekend or a vacation are long gone.”

Does Walsh commend Sandberg for writing joyfully, instead of whiningly, about working creatively and tirelessly? Of course not. Instead she wags her finger:

“Imagine what that life looks like to a child. Imagine what it looks like to yourself when you are 80.

“That is not how I want my daughter to live, and it is not how I want to live.”

I want to hear from Sandberg at age 80, too. I’m not so sure she will be writing a Walsh-like “oh dear me, I should have spent more time with my husband and kids” apologia.

I’m guessing there are some people reading this who are thinking that I, too, am guilt of offering “MY WAY is the only way” sort of advice. My reason for focusing overwhelmingly on the joys of single life is that those of us who are single-at-heart do not get much air time or space on the pages of elite publications. We are too often pushed into feeling defensive about our choices. “Choice,” though, is the operative word. When nudged about the ways I talk about single life, I once wrote a post called, Even more than single life, this is about authenticity and choice. I stand by my bottom line:

“My most basic wish for all of you is that you can acknowledge to yourself how you would most like to lead your life, and then pursue that path that is most meaningful to you.”

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UCSB.

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