New York Times to Today’s Women: Stay Home, Be Happy

by Lainey Feingold on January 13, 2011

Newsflash from the New York Times: Women no longer find meaning in work. Women (at least the affluent ones that comprise the Times’ target audience) are happier at home, or better yet, in the yoga studio. Especially those women whose mothers’ (the horror!) went to work as 1970’s feminism took root.

On January 9, the New York Times ran an article by Judith Warner in its magazine section entitled “Fear (again) of Flying.” For this child of the 1960’s, the news (if you can call it that) was depressing.

The article’s launching point is “a steady stream of books” about women who chose to go in [to yoga, to housework in a farmhouse] instead of out [to work, to the world]. The Books include Devotion by Dani Shapiro, Gift of an Ordinary Day by Katrina Kenison, and Slippery Year by Melanie Gideon.

According to at least one of these authors, some of these women are acting in “direct rebellion against the outward-bound trajectory that their own mothers took.” Believe it or not, another author is quoted as saying: “in response to my 1970’s mom, I had become a 1950’s housewife.” Aughghgh!

With a nod to the economic reality of our times, Warner recognizes that many of these women and their cohort do hold paying jobs, seemingly kept primarily for the benefits. But their fulfillment is not coming from that work or other engagement with the “outside” world. How can it when the yoga mat, the farm house, or the kids’ homework beckons?

This is depressing on many levels. Another impossible ideal of womanhood with the result – intended or not – to make the rest of us feel lacking. I have not read these books, and I can’t decide if I want to.

When my 20-something daughters were growing up, I had not yet found yoga, and never thought about breathing. But I did find meaningful work which I pursued after the standard four-month maternity leave with each girl. (Of course like everyone else I was constantly balancing, and as a professional married to another professional, I had the deep privilege of both work place flexibility and money to pay for help.)

But the idea of not working through the balancing act, of giving it up for a “more managemenable range of the in-and-out of your own breath” as Warner quotes one of the post-feminist authors, never crossed my mind. (Should that prefix be “post” or “anti”?) I’m glad it didn’t.

I take issue with Warner’s framing (or maybe she’s just reporting the view of other authors) of the mindfulness of yoga and meditation, the contemplative breathing practices that bring steadiness and insight. Practicing mindfulness does not need to equate with abandonning a career. The yoga mat need not be separate from the activist’s life.

The first annual lawyers meditation conference held in Berkeley last Fall belies that navel gazing stereotype. There a group of close to two hundred lawyers, law students and professors talked about the benefits of meditation to an active engaged professional life. Contrary to the binary outlook of Warner’s article, women should not have to choose between active engagement and awareness.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that we now have all these books about the lure of yoga, the car pool lane, and home-made jam. Publishers are all looking for the next Eat Pray Love – a runaway success that supposedly taps into a universal hidden angst, or at least a mid-life fantasy. But where are the books about successful women who manage the balancing act? Women whose children came out great not despite of working moms and alone time in the afternoon, but because of those things?

Warner’s article was in “The Way We Live Now” column. But who is the “we?” At least the Times gives a nod to who it is really talking about: self-described “right-thinking, highly educated, generally affluent folk.” It used to frustrate me that the Times wrote about a tiny slice of society and acted as if their goings on had universal application. At least now – in this article and another one the same day about a high-end closet organizer – the Times comes right out and admits who it is talking about and writing for.

Another unexamined premise is Warner’s description of yoga as as a “multibillion-dollar –a-year escape from the crush of modern life.” First, let me put on my “I love yoga” hat. I am one of those late-to -yoga neophytes who likes to buttonhole friends to gush about how I just discovered I have a front and back shoulder. Or share my new-found knowledge that I can breathe into my back body. Who knew?

So with those bona fides I ask – why call yoga an “escape”? Why isn’t the proliferation of yoga studios a “blessing” of modern life? A perk? A damn lucky development for women who are busy with work, kids, and home? Somehow I can’t see a whole article about men escaping into golf, or their local gym or fantasy football leagues.

And therein lies the fundamental concern with the Times’ article. The piece is about women and can only be about women. Forty years after the authors’ moms went to work, there is still not equality on the home front or adequate policies on the work front to support balanced family life for all family members. We haven’t sufficiently changed the culture so that men worry about the kids or their own interiority the way women do.

Yes there have been tremendous strides, but 40 years later it is not a coincidence that the books at the foundation of Warner’s piece are all written by women.

Judith Warner titled her piece after Erica Jong’s best selling 1973 novel Fear of Flying. Described on Jong’s website as a story of a young woman’s “existential jaunt across Europe” in “pursuit of her own brand of liberation,” the book has sold 12.5 million copies and has been published in 24 different languages; as a twenty-something year old, I still remember the thrill of reading that book. Can’t the publishing industry and the New York Times’ offer today’s young women a better option than the stay-home and be-happy message of the crop of books profiled in Sunday’s paper?

Lainey Feingold is a wife, mother and disability rights lawyer, constantly striving for a regular meditation and yoga practice. You can find her on-line at http://lflegal.com

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