Monday, May 24, 2010

Can Any Woman Really Have It All?

Every so often, I read something that makes me take a deep breath and reconsider my life choices, like “Judging Women” in the latest New York Times Magazine
In that piece, writer Lisa Belkin points out that, if Elena Kagan is confirmed by the Senate, there will be three women on the Supreme Court for the first time – and two will be single and childless.
Many people are ranting about this being a bad decision on the part of the Obama administration, their rationale being that we need a mother on the Supreme Court to truly represent our population. That's an interesting argument, but not the one that stopped me.
No, the bits and bobs that jumped out at me in this piece were the statistics gathered from author Sylvia Ann Hewlett, whose studies show that half of all high-achieving career women (those making at least $100,000) reach that age without having children.
Can a woman really have it all, as in marriage (or a lifelong partner), children, and a “high-achieving” career? That's what I've been thinking about today. You see, I have two college-age daughters, both of whom are driven academically, but also prone to falling in love. Oh, and they both adore kids.
What do I tell them about a woman's choices?
I came of age on the skirts of the women's liberation movement. My mother stayed home with us despite her college degree; in her day, a diploma was simply better bait for a better brand of husband. Nonetheless, my parents expected me to 1) get that college diploma, 2) marry, 3) have a career, and 4) give them grandchildren. All of which I've done, yet none of it turned out quite the way I thought it would.
I had already earned a master's degree and was working as a public relations director for a California school district when I met my first husband and got pregnant. It was a big job with big hours, yet I fully anticipated rushing back to the office after my 12-week maternity leave. I loved my job. I loved making money. Plus, what in the world would I do if I stayed home all day? Didn't babies sleep all of the time?
Ha. Within two months of becoming a mother, I recognized two truths: 1) Because my husband was in sales and traveled three weeks out of four, there was no way both of us could be gone all day, every day, without going broke on day care; and 2) I couldn't bear the thought of leaving this 8-pound person in the hands of anyone else. At least not yet.
After discussing our dilemma for weeks, we made what seemed like a rational decision: My husband earned three times as much money as I did, so he would continue working. I'd stay home for a year, maybe two, then get another full-time job.
We both breathed a sigh of relief as we fell into the roles we knew so well from our childhoods, since both of us had come from families with stay-at-home moms and fathers who traveled for business. In the meantime, I started working as a freelance writer, thinking I'd try to get a job in publishing. As a writer or editor, I reasoned, I could have more control over my work hours than I'd ever had in public relations. That would be a more compatible schedule with mothering. I was adjusting my sights, but still career-bound.
Again, fate bitch-slapped me with an unexpected wake-up call. My husband was promoted and traveled even more just as I got pregnant with our second child. Now day care costs would be even more astronomical. We decided that I should keep working part-time until the kids were in kindergarten.
Fast forward eighteen years. Husband #1 and I are divorced (but still friends). I have, for the most part, continued to raise our children while he has traveled. He rose through the ranks of his company to become a Really Big Cheese. Meanwhile, I kept freelancing. I took more jobs as the kids got older, but I was still the one on call for snow days and sick days, school vacations and summer, juggling what needs to be juggled by mothers everywhere.
I put motherhood before my career. That was my choice. Little did I know that, just by having a baby, I was jeopardizing my career and putting myself at risk for poverty, as so many studies around the world show (,

I am not complaining. I consider myself one of the luckier divorced mothers: I am now remarried and my second husband and I are happy. I love being a writer. But, damned if I didn't do it all over again and have another child with Husband #2.
Between us, my second husband and I have five children – two of his, two of mine, one of ours. He has a steady job as a software engineer. I have continued working as a freelance writer rather than go into another demanding public relations job, simply so somebody is here to manage doctor's appointments, school schedules, grocery shopping, cooking, laundry, whatever.
Husband #2 is a wonderful domestic partner when he's at home. He'd be a better stay-at-home parent than I would be in many ways. However, again the reality is that he makes more money than I do, and he has the health benefits. So, when somebody has to take a day off to meet the appliance repairman or take a kid to sports practices, it's me.
It's me, and it's most working mothers, who – even before we get to our desks every morning – have to wake kids and get them dressed, make breakfasts and lunches, throw in loads of laundry, bake for the PTO sale, fill in the permission slips for field trips, schedule haircuts and oil changes, figure out summer camp and day care and dinner. And, oh yeah, try to get to to our desks on time to meet deadlines. Maybe even while wearing matching socks.
Recently, as husband #1 and I were discussing college tuition expenses for our oldest child, he threw up his hands in frustration when he saw my tax returns and discovered how little money I made last year. “It was a tough year in publishing,” I told him.
“You could have been in sales like me,” he shot back.
He was right. I could have made more money if I'd seen less of our children. And I know he regrets having missed out on so much time with them.
On the other hand, I'm right, too: If I could just waltz out the door every morning and stay gone for eight-to-ten hour work days like the men in my life (and like the men in the lives of most other women I know), I could make a hell of a lot more money. I might have become president of my own PR firm or a New Yorker staff writer. Hell, I might even have become an astronaut or a Supreme Court judge. That would have been a fascinating, fulfilling life. But that wouldn't have been the right choice for me.
The way our society is currently structured, with so little parental leave and no subsidized child care, and very little support in the home by relatives, women can't have it all. Neither can men. All we can do is make our best choices, sacrifice what we must, and hope that we're doing the right thing for ourselves and for the people who depend on us.
That's the answer I'll give my daughters.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Cheers and Tears for American Idol Finalists Crystal and Lee: Singers with Heart

It's easy to make fun of American Idol. There are the judges, filthy rich and full of themselves, so bored that they're passing notes and giggling, especially Sir Simon Cowell, who seems to have already checked out of the show mentally, even if his tightly-t-shirted body is still affixed to its chair. There's groovy Ryan Seacrest, the consummate TV host, smoothly chatting up contestants and building mass tension by moving Idols around like pawns on a chessboard. There are the tiresomely cheerful Ford commercials and tall red Coke cups. As Ke$ha would say, “Blah, blah, blah.” (
Meanwhile, the cameras pan across the audience, lingering on the TV and movie stars planted there to flog their newest commercial ventures, or on the pretty girls swaying on cue with their hands in the air like seaweed as the tide comes in. It didn't help garner more viewers during Season 9 that the two finalists were 1) the clear frontrunners and 2) less mind-blowingly talented than past Idol contestants like Kelly Clarkson and Adam Lambert.
But, somehow, I cried and cheered harder this week for these two contestants than I have for any other. (Yeah, I know what you're thinking: Get a life.) Why? Because Crystal and Lee are both musicians with big hearts, soulful singers who love their families and hometowns with the kind of embarrassing fervor that makes us all stop and think, “Whoa. Maybe it's not such a bad time to be alive after all.”
Crystal is sly and subversive in the best way possible. She went along with the Idol program enough to keep herself from getting kicked off the show. She didn't cut her dreadlocks, but she did pin them up. She let the stylists slick her up with lip gloss and eyeshadow, and even stuffed herself into a gown and heels.
Yet, Crystal has stayed true to her Ohio roots, and is ready to tell anyone who will listen that the recession isn't nearly over for that hardscrabble state. That much was clear during her visit home – and during her conversation with Ryan, when Crystal said that it was only because of American Idol that she has the health care she needs. I cried when Crystal visited her farmhouse in Ohio, thinking about how many farmers, single moms and unemployed factory workers across American are rooting for her. Crystal's victory is something to hope for when everything else is lost.
Lee is that guy who could have sold you paint in the hardware store and wouldn't have gotten impatient if you dithered over colors. He's sexy mainly because he doesn't know that he is. (Husbands and boyfriends don't understand this.) He went home to Illinois; like Ohio, that state ranks among the top ten for unemployment. (Ohio is 40th with an unemployment rate of 11%; Illinois is 43rd; that state's unemployment rate hovers at 11.5%
I thought I was done crying after Lee's soul-searing version of Cohen's iconic song “Hallelujah” on Tuesday night, but no. When Lee wept during his homecoming, overcome by gratitude for the flow of support from the people in Illinois who'd gathered to cheer him on, I cried right along with him. He reminded me of all of the parents like Lee's and Crystals, doing their best during tough times to give their kids a future that's about more than just survival.
Whether it's Crystal or Lee who gets crowned on Idol this season, it doesn't really matter. Both artists have given America a reason to cry, cheer, and move on from what's been ailing us.

Friday, May 14, 2010


I've been following a couple of stories lately. One is about the Massachusetts Catholic school that recently accepted, then rejected an 8 year-old boy because his parents are lesbians ( The other is that juicy media firefight sparked by “Straight Jacket,” the Newsweek story ( questioning why heterosexual actors seem to play gay characters in films and on television, but gay actors can't return the favor ( Part of that particular story focuses on the openly gay Broadway actor Jonathan Groff, who plays new heartthrob Jesse St. James on the television show Glee (
Glee is where the real story is, folks. With singing gay football players, Down Syndrome cheerleaders and dancing wheelchairs, Glee is changing the world, one 12 year-old at a time.
We're not an especially conservative family. I could use that “some of my best friends are gay” line without a blink. Our kids all have friends with gay parents. We live, after all, in Massachusetts, where you can't throw a pebble over your shoulder without bruising a liberal forehead.
Even here in gay-friendly Massachusetts, however, we have a long way to go. Kids still fling around “fag” and “queer” as insults at the high school. There is a valid fear that the same-sex marriage law will be repealed here as it was in Maine. That's why I'm so glad to watch Glee with my 12 year-old. Or rather, so pleased to be in the living room with him as he is prompted to talk about the different characters and issues paraded before us on Glee in ways he never could if it were just Mom lecturing him about acceptance.
Gays abound in Glee. The lead, Rachel, has two gay dads. That quicksilver actress Jane Lynch, who is openly gay in real life, plays Sue Sylvester, that sadistic sort of lesbian coach all of us had at one time or another. Santana, the most conniving Cheerio, gets it on with Brittany, the dumb blond Cheerio, usually in a 3-way, who originated the line, “Did you know dolphins are just gay sharks?”
In fact, the most powerful story line in Glee follows scene-stealing Kurt, the openly gay fashionista played by Chris Colfer. When Kurt first came out to his dad Burt, played by Boston comic Mike O'Malley as a rugged, macho tire salesman, I fully expected the stereotypical showdown. After all, when Quinn (who headed up the Celibacy Club) got knocked up, there was no surprise: Her parents promptly threw her out of the house. Yawn.
But no, no Nanette! Instead, what we got on Glee was something very, very new: a father who accepts his gay son. “I care about you very much, which is the important thing,” he says, “and I'm glad you had the courage to tell me.”
Glee viewers are currently treated to a more nuanced struggle, as Kurt and his dad try to connect now that the truth is out and so is Kurt. There are other questions, too: Will Kurt find a boyfriend? Will Kurt's dad marry Flynn's mom? Who knows? Who really cares?
What matters is that my 12 year-old son – and lots of other kids – watch Glee. They might not want to talk to their parents about acceptance and tolerance, and they might scoff at all of this new anti-bully legislation being touted by their schools. But, when something is on the news like a kid being banned from a Catholic school because his moms are gay, my son and his friends are truly puzzled. They can't imagine why. As they see it, if you're gay, you're gay. If you're not, you're not. What matters is that you're human, you try to be a good person, and you try to love your friends, your family, and – by extension – everyone around you.
A lesson learned from Glee, it's cause for song and dance.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


Whoever watched last night's results definitely deserves a t-shirt saying “I made it through American Idol.”
First, there was that Sinatra medley by our five finalists, all dressed like pallbearers. Then Lee was sent to the Lifeboat Stool while we had to sit through Lady Gaga's taped performance. After she tinkered on her bramble-covered piano in front of the flaming angel statue, we got to watch Gaga do the Zumba with hairless dancing satyrs in their black girdles. During this act, I wondered 1) how long it took the hair and makeup people to get that fishnet stocking over her entire body and 2) how prime time TV was going to react to the sight of Gaga's thonged backside. The answer to 2) is that the Idol children were protected from the glare of that aerobicized tush by fog and camera trickery. Still, we got to see the satyrs pawing at Gaga and one of them apparently having a stroke when he couldn't get through her fishnet, his arm trembling like a cobra above the orgy.
Simon, what was it you said about Siobhan's leaf costume being a distraction?
Harry Connick Jr., the so-called crooner and actor, performed a martini-and-Prozac version of “And I love her.” Then he told a story about screwing up a song in front of Frank Sinatra that was long enough for me to go have my shower and get my own martini and Prozac.
Just when I thought it was safe to go back to the couch, we had yet another medley, this time with Lee rejoining his co-competitors for a mash-up of Connick songs.
A medley on American Idol, it turns out, is the equivalent of those montages in movies where there isn't enough plot or script, and they want you to know that time has gone by because the couple in love is in bed, eating (and usually feeding each other), walking on the beach, and maybe having a pillow fight or pushing each other on swings to show that love is fun. The Idols were trying to act like singing is fun, but they looked as bored as we were.
Just when I was beginning to wonder whether Idol is really a government conspiracy, an opiate for the people meant to distract us from war and hurricanes and volcanoes and that Black Mask of Doom disguised as oil gushing off the coast of Louisiana, we finally got to the results. Ryan sent Lee back to his Lifeboat stool, then dimmed the lights as he put Casey with Crystal and Big Mike with Aaron the Tyke.
What? Casey was safe? Casey, the Cougar Bait?
Now, admit it: Despite the fact that Kara has trouble seeing through that bruised eye makeup, and occasionally has so much neck jewelry that her head floats like a balloon on top of her skinny shoulders, she called it on Tuesday when she compared Casey to a bleating lamb during his Sinatra performance. I hadn't quite pinpointed what that near-vibrato (otherwise known as a “vocal wobble”) sounded like, but yep, it sounded just like a little lost lamb looking for his cougar.
But, this week, anyway, Casey was no lamb led to slaughter, despite the disconcertingly large blonde bun he sported with his purple shirt and vest on Tuesday night. Nope, he'll be grazing in the green grass with the others for another week, anyway, and it's Aaron – so good to his adoptive mom, so clearly never going to have trouble with a prom date, so easily turned into a barbell by Big Mike – who we won't see coming back. But all is not lost: He's going home with a better haircut and he's still only 17.
In fact, not only is Aaron still 17, he still “feels 17,” as Aaron told Ryan last night, when the host tried to save the night but failed. Unlike the rest of us, who have probably aged decades as we watch the Idols flicker and go out, while we refuse to worry about the next disaster headed our way.

Monday, May 3, 2010

"Do Not Snort on NPR" and Other Tips for Authors

What becomes shriekingly clear after you publish a book is this: Nobody cares as much as you do.
I'd been writing for many years before I sold my memoir, The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter. I was thrilled when I landed a contract with a major publishing house and found myself in the competent hands of a skilled, enthusiastic editor and publicist. I felt even luckier when my book garnered praise from reviewers and was featured on radio and TV. Even People Magazine, gadzooks! Surely Oprah's people would want to talk to my people! Could another book contract be far behind?
Alas, 1) literary success doesn't always translate into sales and 2) a second book contract is even harder to land than your first, unless you break out of the box with Really Big Sales.
Oh, and 3) eventually your publicist leaves you for another book.
Nobody is better qualified than you are to advocate for your book as it makes its way into the world. Here are a few helpful tips about book flogging that I've learned during my first year as a published writer:
1.Move Past Online Lurking. There are computer savvy writers. Then there are writers like me. I once wept when my computer seemed to be broken, until my engineer husband removed the strand of uncooked spaghetti lodged between the keys. No matter what your online comfort, it's time to quit lurking on other people's blogs and facebook pages. Blast yourself into the blogosphere. Hire a web site designer if you must, but do the rest yourself. Do this before your book comes out – it takes a while for the web crawlers to find you. (Isn't that creepy? I mean, don't you just picture web crawlers as those worms with sharp teeth that burrow into people's ears, like on Star Trek?)
2.Be a Blurb Slut. You know those little quips on the backs of book jackets? These blurbs catch the eye of potential readers in book stores. They're also important because they give your book heft with the sales team and can be used on promotional materials. Sadly, blurbs don't just magically appear. Whether you want Jodi Picoult or Lady Gaga to endorse your book, they have to know that it exists. You're part of the publishing team now, so get to work. Google the agents and editors of other writers and grovel. Ask friends of friends of friends and grovel some more.
3.Do Not Snort on National Public Radio. If you're lucky, you'll land some radio interviews. These are weirder than TV interviews, where you have actual face-to-face conversations. Why? Because radio hosts call you at home, while you're worrying about why the washing machine is making that noise that sounds like there's a body in there. Plus, you never know what they're going to ask. Have some ready sound bytes written out – note cards are a godsend, and nobody can see you cheating. Oh, and do not snort, as I did on National Public Radio when a man described how he'd tried to save his dying gerbil's life while trying to give it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Sandra Bullock can snort and make it seem sexy. Not all of us have that gift.
4.Bookstore Readings Don't Sell Many Books, But Do Them Anyway. Publishers don't send most authors out on book tours. They'd rather spend money on marketing than on buying you plane tickets to go to bookstores where three people will show up for your readings. But do bookstore readings on your own – it's fun and a great way to connect. Choose bookstores in areas where you know someone, so that you can promote the event yourself. Stop by bookstores anywhere you're traveling and sign copies, too, because that will make them more likely to sell.
5.Ignore the Siren Call of Amazon. Okay, few people can really achieve such a Zen state that they ignore Amazon. Trust me, you will look at your Amazon rankings, and you will despair. Remember: very few writers make it above 1,000. It won't do you any good to compare your numbers to the numbers of your best writer friend, or to the numbers of that writer you hate, either. Amazon numbers fluctuate every hour and only tell you how you're doing relative to other books. THESE ARE NOT REAL SALES FIGURES.
6.Contact Book Clubs. Find book clubs through friends, online, at independent bookstores, and at your local library. Contact whomever is in charge of deciding what the club will be reading and let her know you're available. Most book clubs are thrilled to have authors meet with them. Although these clubs are often small – maybe a dozen people at most, usually women – they offer a chance for you to get important feedback from readers and will make you truly believe that what you do is worthwhile. Plus, most members will buy your book and, if they like it, who knows? Aunt Edna and Cousin Tina might be getting your book for birthday gifts.
7.Even When Your Publicist Quits, You Can't. Eventually your publicist will quit. Not literally. If she's the muse that mine is, she'll still answer your needy calls and emails. However, her job requires her to bring other books to life, many by Big Name Authors who need her to escort them to multiple TV shows, damn them. It's tempting to quit when she does. But you can't. Sure, Curtis Sittenfeld and Elizabeth Gilbert are free to hole up in sweat pants and drink tea while they write clever sentences. But those of us without movie deals have to keep our books alive. Set aside a few hours a week to flog your book. Send press releases to web sites. Blog and comment on other people's blogs, give readings at literary festivals, whatever. Just keep getting out there. Publicizing a book successfully is a lot like writing: all you need is staying power and a willingness to try anything.