Great Sexpectations

Millennial Women and the Two "F" Words

Posted Jun 28, 2012

The enormous amount of media attention paid to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” — a front page article in The New York Times, along with commentaries everywhere — was more extraordinary than the point of view it expressed. Wow, what a surprise!  Has anyone out there ever known anyone (and I’m including men) who’s had it “all”—whatever “all” is. 

Slaughter’s perspective is certainly Empyrean— her education, her work, her spouse — and gives her the leisure to focus on having it “all” (as opposed  to simply having a job to pay the rent and such) but it also seems antiquated.  One of the flaws of the “having it all” position is its assumption that childrearing is easy — a legacy of the first round of Feminist thinking, which disparaged the work of mothering.  (In the 1970s, I must have received a dozen copies of a greeting card, done in  Lichtenstein’s comic book style, that declared “Oh My God, I Forgot to Have Children!”  I probably sent as many as I got.  That was  Feminist-style  pride and humor).  For a really smart woman, it’s surprising that Slaughter was actually shocked that she couldn’t multi-task motherhood.  What made her think that she could?  Feminist perspective?

Millennial women know better.  First of all, they don’t  call themselves “feminists” and they aren’t.  In fact, it’s actually the unused  “F" word as opposed to the one that belongs in  WTF.  Perhaps they will solve the conflicts between self-fulfillment and mothering with greater dexterity, not because the workplace is suddenly going to get mother-friendly as Slaughter hopes, but because they know those conflicts are out there.  And waiting.  They don’t believe that they will “have it all” for a simple reason: They have mothers.  They’ve seen their mothers manage not to “have it all,” one way or the other. As the daughters of working mothers and stay-at-homes, the divorced and never-married or the still-together, they have learned firsthand that the wish list of things that women want isn’t free of contradictions.  If they had working mothers, they are fully aware of the costs.  Some, with high-powered mothers, spent their childhoods being taken care of by hired help.  Some watched their divorced mothers work long hours because they had to in order to keep the family afloat.  They were in daycare or whatever worked, and  latchkey kids by middle school.  The daughters of stay-at-home mothers often learned other lessons about the dynamics in families with a single wage earner, especially if there was a divorce.      

The late and great Nora Ephron — the daughter of a working mother at a time when it was a rarity —noted that she was lucky to be a screenwriter because, once she had kids, she could work at home.  She also said she had a theory that what children remembered of childhood was “when you’re not there and when they threw up.”  It’s funny and has enough truth in it to make any working mother wince.

Millennial women also know that being female in the 21st century is loaded with as many contradictions as opportunities.  They are culturally expected to attain an education, get work, and be economically self-supporting.  Unfortunately, they are outstripping their male counterparts in all of these endeavors, which isn’t actually good news, either in college or out of it, when you’re looking for a man who’ll be an equal partner.  At the same time — amidst this veritable ocean of competence and achievement — the cultural definition of what it means to be a successful female (that is, married with children) hasn’t changed much, no matter how many articles The Atlantic publishes on “manning up,” “the death of men,” or why single is the new married.  Professors Laura Hamilton and Elizabeth Armstrong, whom I’ve mentioned in another post, identifiy the double-bind  between the “self-development imperative” (get educated, achieve, be independent) and the “relationship imperative” (real women want and need emotional connection).  They suggest that women’s participation in the hook-up culture may be a solution to the clash between those imperatives, since the hookup doesn’t take much energy or time.  Then again, the hook-up culture may also be a function of the shortage of men on campus.

Millennial women have learned that they can’t have it “all” before they throw their mortarboards into the air.

Post-college, the ante gets upped.  Thirty seems to be the cultural magic number as in “if I don’t get married by thirty, this is going to be bad.”  The shortage of good guys — already evident in college — is still out there statistically.  But now the hookup, which was the college solution, isn’t working anymore; now, the search is on for a relationship, given the By Thirty Imperative.  But finding a relationship is easier said than done since the workplace — where many moms and dads of Millennials met — is now off-limits.  Millennials try the circle of college friends first, sometimes hoping that what was once a hookup can be converted into something else, as one almost twenty-five year old did.  “We’d been hooking up for four years — two in college amd two after — and we lived in different cities.  It got so awkward, because when I went to see him, everyone assumed we were a couple.  What were we?  Anyway, I wanted to move the relationship to the next level and you will not believe what happened… He basically said ‘no thanks.’  In other words, he didn’t mind sleeping with me but that was all.”

The transition from hookup to relationship is further complicated by what the Pew Center calls “the gender reversal on career aspirations.”  More Millennial women (66%) list a successful (and high-paying) career or profession as a priority than their male counterparts (59%).  That’s actually new news.  What this means in real time is captured by writer Ryan O’Connell in a piece on, which looks at the difference between college and post-grad life.  It’s called “the biggest issue in the relationship” and it’s funny and on point.

College You: He doesn’t text me back ASAP and sometimes he passes out drunk before we can have sex. Oh, and his friends are dumb.

Post-Grad You: We have very different career paths and he’s had trouble supporting himself financially. Money is a “thing” in relationships now and it sucks. In college, you’d be like, “Oh, you can only afford a 3$ falafel for dinner? Sweet. Me too. Let’s stay in!” but now it’s like, “You have no money AGAIN? When will you ever have money? I don’t want to be supporting you for forever. You have to pull your own weight! How can I have babies with someone who can’t afford a 10 dollar hamburger?”

So much for “having it all.”

Then, of course, there’s on-line dating.  I offer the following dispatches from the front, courtesy of  a twenty-five-year-old woman who’s a graduate of a prestigious college and still single.  They are admittedly the funniest responses she got on OKCupid , but keep the words “having it all” in mind as you read. 

“Hi, I’m Ryan.  You seem pretty cool.  Hope I don’t have to write anything too crazy to get your attention considering we barely know anything about each other.”   Well, Ryan, considering you were wearing a Native American headdress in your photo…you’re right, you don’t need to write anything too crazy.  I already know I don’t want to know anything more about you.

“Oh, and I also liked reading your reasoning behind messaging you. I respect an opinionated strong woman who has a great personality…as long as they don’t shove their ideals down others throats.”

I have yet to find a Millennial woman who’s actually read all of Slaughter’s piece.  As one emailed me:  “I read a few paragraphs and then stopped because I was bored, and because the title of the piece already exposed the flaws since there is no such thing as having it all for anyone, and also because I didn’t think the article was going to have anything new to say about the struggles women face in balancing career and family." 

Amen to that.

Hamilton, Laura and Elizabeth A. Armstrong. “Gendered Sexuality in Young Adulthood: Double Binds and Flawed Options.” Gender & Society, vol.23, no.5, October 2009, 589-616.