Thursday, April 22, 2010

Chocolate, no, make that pistachio

What Women Want Next

Even now, I still have no idea what I really want; I even struggle to pick a flavour of gelato. There are days when I love being married, and days when I long for solitude; days when I enjoy being home with my children, and days when it feels like a prison sentence; days when I know what to do, and days when I haven't a clue. Most weeks, I just do what needs to be done, and aim for a little reflection and gratitude. After all, by virtue of birth, education and marriage I have power, money and choices that would make most women in the world ecstatic; I suspect most of the frustrations I have about my life result from too much choice. The grass is always greener.

From this little muddle, I looked forward to reading Susan Maushart's book What Women Want Next. If I don't know what I want, does she?

Of course, Maushart's answer is not, and cannot be, straightforward. Despite the myriad opportunities available to them, Maushart points out that many women do not feel fulfilled – in fact, they tend to feel more guilty than anything. She goes on to draw from a wealth of sociological studies to investigate why, looking at work, parenting, homemaking, partnership and old age.

Maushart starts from the assumption that, post the revolution, life is what we make of it. For example, she argues, we can work if we so choose; any absence of women in the professional fields says more about how women make choices than about the options open to them. Maushart notes studies that show that many high-achieving women drop out, either to have children or to pursue more holistic lives; and as women have less of a tendency to grant work an all-encompassing role in their lives, their career paths are not limited by external factors, but are self-limiting.

In theory and in law, Maushart's initial assumption may be correct. In practice, however, many workplaces play out differently. More than one of my friends has been sidelined at work, explicitly told that they will probably have kids so the firm won't invest in their future. This is illegal, but it is difficult to prove or prosecute – and who wants to take on one's employer on such an issue? It just leaves one working in a hostile workplace, vulnerable to the next wave of redundancies. More subtly, the lack of job sharing or permanent part time positions at management levels means many women with children never advance far beyond entry level roles as they are committed to collecting their children from school and meeting other family responsibilities. I'm not convinced that our options are as open as Maushart states; many workplaces are structurally hostile to primary caregivers (and they're usually women) whether in overt or more subtle ways.

So I disagree with her initial assumption. Despite this, I do concede that we have significantly more choices than women of two generations ago, and I accept her claim that much of the responsibility for our happiness now rests on our choices.

This revolutionary freedom of choice is wonderful; yet Maushart suggests that it is perhaps an impediment to a sense of fulfilment. Like me, at home with kids for years now and wondering if I should instead be working, while many of my working friends no doubt wonder if they should spend more time at home with their kids, many of us find decision making difficult. With this in mind, Maushart suggests that one thing we want may be the wisdom to make our decisions well and the courage to live them out fully.

Maushart's investigation into what women want focuses on happiness. This raises a deeper question for me: is happiness so important? There are times at the gym when a great sense of wellbeing descends and I feel intensely happy, even although I am bored out of my skull. At other times, I may write something difficult and good, something that makes me weep or rage or both, that leaves me feel empty, fragile and vulnerable. I can't say writing it makes me happy, but it invests my life with meaning in a way that dumbbell flies never will. Of course, I keep going to the gym to get the endorphin kick – but I can get along without it. I'm not sure I could live without putting words on a page. I even wonder, feeling terribly subversive, if it's possible that happiness is just a teensy-weensy little bit er... boring?

Maushart doesn't investigate this, and although she does touch on our desire to infuse our lives with meaning, it's in light of its contribution to happiness. Yet I'm not convinced that a sense of meaning always contributes to a sense of happiness. Many people make meaningful life choices knowing they will be painful and difficult. Ministers of religion and artists are often cases in point; people holding fast to difficult relationships, another. I find myself wondering how important happiness really is, and whether other, deeper, values drive our lives.

However, I am a reasonably happy person (even if bored at the gym, driven crazy by my children, and forever consumed by doubt about my choices) so perhaps I underestimate the pall of an unhappy life, or the effect on overall wellbeing that meaning-making gives me. Then again, Maushart writes that dancing, exercise, volunteer work and religious participation are major indicators of happiness for a woman; I do three of them, so perhaps that accounts for my mostly even keel.

While I certainly don't agree with all of Maushart's conclusions, or even her premises, What Women Want Next is funny, feisty, informative, confessional and engaging. Maushart intersperses questions of women's liberation with stories of her daughter, age six, dressed in a bridal gown vacuuming the front hallway, and discussions about sex with jokes about blow jobs and notes on her own sex life; and she is never averse to a wry one-liner (a section on how to negotiate housework and relationships ends with, "Of course, I am single."). As I have come to expect from Maushart, What Women Want Next is a pleasure to read, and provides much food for thought, not least the revelation that sociology can be sexy!

> Susan Maushart What Women Want Next (Melbourne: Text, 2005).

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