Journalism professor Barbara Kelley noticed a surprising trend among her women students: they were bright, successful, highly motivated—and terribly confused. Raised with great expectations by parents who told them they could do anything, they worked hard, earned top grades, polished their résumés, began impressive careers, then collapsed in metaphysical uncertainty, anxious and overwhelmed.
Curious about this “deep sense of dissatisfaction from women who seemed to have it all,” Kelley wrote an article about it for the Christian Science Monitor in 2008. Then she and her daughter, journalist Shannon Kelley, teamed up to write their new book, Undecided, an oral history profiling over 100 women from their 20s to their 60s. They found that feminism and the women’s movement still have “growing pains.” According to Barbara Kelley, “We’ve come a long way but we’re not there yet.”
Dazzled by apparently unlimited options, women in their 20s and 30s can suffer from “analysis paralysis,” or “the grass is greener syndrome,” says Shannon Kelley. The
Kelleys tell how one woman felt like a failure at 24. Molly had always excelled, as her parents expected, writing for the school paper, earning A’s and journalism awards in college, determined to become a star reporter. After graduation, she got a job at The Economist in New York City—but it was entry level, not as a reporter. The heady atmosphere of Midtown Manhattan, expensive suits and rapid promotions were not enough. Lost and disillusioned, Molly quit, finding that her dream had been a mirage, realizing that she needed to slow down and start making her own choices. “It’s hard to adjust to being a grownup” she admitted (Kelley & Kelley, 2011, p. 31).
Chasing images of success, many young women push themselves with lives on the fast track, afraid of being left behind. When Lori, another young woman, who graduated 13 years ago, got together with eight women friends from college, she found that “every one of us has advanced degrees. We’re lawyers, doctors, nonprofit leaders, Ph.D. candidates” (Kelley & Kelley, 2011, p. 69). But now they’re wondering how they can combine their fast-track careers with marriage and motherhood, let alone a meaningful relationship with themselves.
Psychologist Barry Schwartz has written of “the paradox of choice.” His research has shown that too many choices can leave us confused and depressed, actually undermining our ability to choose wisely (Schwartz, 2004). In what the Kelleys see as a generational problem, today’s young women have grown up with a panorama of possibilities—well-meaning parents have raised them to be overscheduled superstars, yet our culture is haunted by old patriarchal expectations and women still do most of the housework and child care. The resulting confusion stems from a crazymaking combination of great expectations, conflicting demands, and often a “second shift” on the home front after a long day at work.
As the Kelleys conclude, the key is awareness. Exercising mindfulness calls us back to ourselves, to focus on what is most important in our lives. Today’s young women—and all of us—need to make time to listen to ourselves, to be sure we’re making our own choices, not chasing after someone else’s dreams.
Kelley, B. & Kelley, S. (2011). Undecided: How to Ditch the Endless Quest for Perfect and Find the Career—and Life—That’s Right for You. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press.
Schwartz, B. (2004). The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. New York, NY: Harper Perennial