Thursday, April 1, 2010

Book Review: Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids, and Life in a Half-Changed World

Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids, and Life in a Half-Changed World Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids, and Life in a Half-Changed World by Peggy Orenstein

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Four days later and I'm still ruminating over some of the lessons that I learned from this book. I think that's telling about its quality. The author, Peggy Orenstein interviews many women in their twenties, thirties, and forties to discover how women handle careers, families, and that ever elusive "balance" between the two. Orenstein wanted to know what decisions these women had made (or were in the process of making) and why they had made them. While she does talk a little about sex, it's really not that central to the core of the ideas in the book - I think the title just includes it as the first word to sensationalize and capture the random browser's interest (it's all about marketing).

I appreciated Orenstein's case study approach to these larger issues, narrowing each age group into three examples of women, and then interviewing and examining each woman on why she had made the particular choices that she had made, and then the ramifications of their decisions. She examines the way that modern women, women who have come of age in the aftermath of the feminist movement of the 70s and 80s, balance the mantra "You can do/be anything that you want" and the traditional family model that most families ascribe to: the man/husband/father is the breadwinner/provider and the woman is the "Good Mother", "Perfect Wife" who stays home with the kids. Orenstein wants to know how do women balance this mantra and the traditional family model, or really, if this balance even exists. Can a woman have a successful career AND family AND be happy and satisfied in both? What kind of sacrifices would need to be made? And does having a family signal a death-knell to a woman's career?

I really resonated with this conflict between the mantra "You can do/be anything you want to be" that girls are told growing up and the traditional family model. In this stage of my life, I am a single career woman, who throughout my entire life, has been told that I can do anything that I want to do - and I have believed it! And why shouldn't I believe it? But what really got me was the truth that the odds are set against a woman having a career.

I've never really given this much credence, but through the facts and stories that Orenstein presents, there isn't much denying this truth. The working world is a man's world, set up for men to succeed and earn more, while careers that are traditionally held by women are valued much less (think financial analysts earning $120k each year versus teachers who earn $40k at best). Or the fact that women traditionally gravitate towards careers in non-profit organizations - but those organizations pay half what a man would earn in a for-profit organization, even though a non-profit actually works to change people's lives! It makes me angry and disappointed. And then the fact that if a woman does climb the ranks in a career field traditionally populated by men, her career gets derailed if she decides to have a child. Her earning potential instantly drops. Also disheartening is that women who do climb the ranks in this man's world have less sympathy for women who are trying to do the same and make different choices than they do with their life. This was a hard truth and bitter pill to swallow, but if I'm honest with myself, my own career mirrors this. Money is generally not all that important to me, but I do believe that my work should be valued at high dollar, and if I'm honest with myself, I don't believe that it is.

Orenstein also explores the family choices that women make - ie, whether or not to have a child, and if so, then when to have it, and then after you have it, who will take care of it and at who's career's expense? While I am not at this stage in life, it was difficult to read about and figure out what decisions would I make. And then the more startling thought was, do I want to even have to make these decisions? Do I want to fall into a traditional family model or do I want my family to look more balanced? Could I work and take care of kids at the same time? Would I want a child so much that I would have one without a husband, like one of the women did in the book? Or will I be 40 and single, a loving and doting "aunt" to my friends' and siblings' children? I can't predict those things now, but needless to say they were all questions that I am still confronting and working through.

All in all, I do highly recommend this book. It is hard to read, to look at the lives of all these women and the sacrifices that they have either made or are going to have to make, and whether it is fair in the first place that they even have to make them. The best truth in the book is the woman in the last case study who tells Orenstein to make sure that she tells her readers "It's not easy". Truly, it's not easy for a woman today to negotiate these decisions and choices, but hopefully, it's not impossible either.

As I was told once, "Who ever said life was going to be easy"?

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