Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Opt-Out Problem

Ladies and gentlemen -- ladies, in particular -- I seem to have opted out.

As I sat down this afternoon to write a letter -- on a floral-patterned card with a creased envelope that I rescued from a nearby thrift store -- I had to acknowledge the drastic change that preceded this adventure. None of these lifestyle changes would be possible if I hadn't stopped working. I wouldn't be the one writing letters. I would be failing to answer them. I wouldn't be the one rescuing pretty cards from thrift stores. I would be stuffing them down the sides of a donation bag in an effort to suppress my own domestic clutter and unfinished thoughts. I certainly wouldn't be the one planning to go for a year without the internet. I would be too busy using the internet, to work and to network, to instruct and to debate, to publicize and to promote. Today I had no choice but to acknowledge this: to the two loved but several-years-neglected friends in the address line, an Esther that doesn't work was going to be hard to explain.

In my first year out of college I put in my 40 hours in corporate America, while also running eight shows a week. Even as I gained traction in the theatre world I never, ever slowed down. Until I stopped. That my choice to abandon my high stress/high reward career path coincides neatly with the birth of my second child is not a statement that I like to make in public. I'm not a believer in the "opt-out revolution," as it has been referred to in media circles since Lisa Belkin's now-aging 2003 New York Times Magazine piece. We all know now that the idea that middle class women are dropping out of the work force in droves is not supported by census data. Rather, the numbers and percentages of women who work for wages continue to increase. But Belkin's opt-out story line continues to surface, as one of many faces to a much older and more insidious myth, one deeply entrenched in the American psyche and one I've spoken about quite harshly in the past: the fallacy that if women are not running the world these days, it is simply because we don't feel like it.

Of course, all that was before I started to not feel like it.

My sense of the importance of female leadership in the theatre has not diminished in the slightest. I'm very concerned about gender imbalance in arts and entertainment. Movies are overwhelmingly written and directed by men. Plays are overwhelmingly written and directed by men (although somewhat less so than movies). What we consider to be fine art is overwhelmingly created by men. Even as men and women become more and more likely to claim that gender imbalance is a thing of the past, the stories of our lives continue to be told from a singularly male perspective.

As a female director I have always been in the minority. As the working mother of an infant I was even more unusual, but not -- at least in my circles -- unique. Kirsten is reading this, and she and her husband wore their baby in a bjorn from prelim design meetings right through tech. Delicia will read it eventually, when she has time, and she has corralled her two children in green rooms all over San Diego. I pledged more than once to stick it out. "I can do this," I said. "I can help prove that it can be done."

And I could have. There is no doubt in my mind that I could have stuck it out. I could, if I wanted to, walk out my door right now -- even in this economy -- and find somewhere to ply my craft. And I could put on a good show. I could draw an appreciative review, or maybe two. I could take gorgeous pictures of the show and file them away with my newspaper clippings, which live in a wooden hope chest painstakingly crafted by my husband's brother in the days before he also had kids.

Or I could fill that hope chest with pictures of children playing in fall leaves, with recipes for banana bread where you freeze the bananas and then thaw them so it turns out really moist, with correspondence with the half dozen truly special -- no, extraordinary! -- friends with whom I have failed to communicate over the years.

Is this how it happens? Does this explain the wealth gap? That according to the Survey of Consumer Finances never married women have slightly less than half as much wealth as never married men? Is it because women are slightly more than twice as likely to notice that we all have better things to do?

As days and months at home bring detachment from various personal ambitions, I am also becoming detached from a certain well-learned image of myself as a success: the image of a successful woman. As she drifts out of the foreground of my own picture, I begin to wonder if gender differentiation is likewise serving -- quite effectively -- to obfuscate a broader question. How can we -- the whole of humanity -- both work and live? The two efforts appear to be at odds with one another. I say work-life balance and it appears in my mind as a set of scales. Work in one side. Life in the other. But who separated them out? How can there possibly be a division? Since when was our labor conceived as something other than the sustenance, even the mainstay, of life?

Each day that I spend in my home -- or out of it, chasing seagulls on the beach (I know, seriously!) or shaking maracas with a room full of toddlers at Tuesday story hour -- the dichotomy shifts. Where I used to see a conflict between career and family, between authority outside of the home and authority inside of the home, I'm beginning to see a conflict between commerce and life. And on the ground, in a world in which commerce and the pursuit of commerce tends to define or affect just about everything, I see a conflict between participation and separatism. By dropping off the internet for one year, I am refusing to participate.

As we all know, but don't always consider, the internet is powered by advertising revenue. The financial reward for gathering an audience gives content creators real reason to play down to our emotions, and the so called "battle of the sexes" is one story that just keeps on getting hits.

I just told Doug (in comments on the Connection post) that I'm not ready to extrapolate beyond my imperfect single point perspective into criticism of the social machine. And I am, as I accused my mother, short of citations here, in the interest of making my committed post-per-day schedule. But I can say that as I live my life outside of the workplace, my gender is less an issue for me than it has ever has been before. In this one magical year before Milo starts preschool, nobody is asking whether Mommy and Daddy fulfill our gender roles or we don't. The seagulls are not taking notes.

I am not interested in giving up my stripes as a radical feminist. I believe that sex-class oppression is widespread, historical and current. I am philosophically opposed to the commodification of the female body, even as it is expressed in a gesture so apparently mild as wearing lipstick in exchange for power. I will continue to be watchful -- especially around young people -- for the pervasive woman-as-commodity language that I believe entrenches rape culture and feeds the ranks of rape apologists.

But I am also a person, and as such I am looking forward to spending a year on the sidelines, where anxiety regarding the "opposite-ness" of the two genders is not fed to me as a part of my balanced media diet. I can even hope (in my never ending idealism!) that when I do return to the work force I can do so with some additional perspective, one more layer of skin with which to resist participation in the more fruitless fronts of the "battle" and possibly even to see more clearly the path into the future.


Lisel said...

Esther, another beautifully written essay....

some thoughts:I have felt this for many years (well, since the birth of *my* second child to be exact), but career ambition is no longer a character trait I find in myself. my ambition seems to be manifesting in my desire to bring up worthwhile, functioning (no EXCELLING) and contributing members of our future society....in a way, I feel I've passed on my own career to feed the future (is that corny? I've only had one cup of coffee this morning so forgive me if i sound ridiculous).

second point: i used to have an extensive list of blogs I read and then after not having internet for 2 weeks (a summer vacation with no laptop) I returned to find that I didn't once miss the feeling that I had been living some one else's life but not my own while reading those other blogs. Instead of feeling inspired, too often I was feeling like there was no way i could ever accomplish what all these other moms seemed to be able to do: can their own peaches! sew their own clothes! write eloquent blogs! take beautiful pictures! now I only look at a few blogs that really get me thinking. I will miss this one, for sure.

and here I am being hypocritical, reading and writing on a blog while my kids are yelling at each other in the other room.

Maybe that's it, maybe I can't stand how the internet makes me feel like such a hypocrite all the time?


Esther said...

Lisel, I don't think it's corny at all. It does raise big questions, like, What's Important?, and What Are We Here For?, which are maybe not so good with only one cup of coffee. But I'm on cup number three, so I love it. My babies are younger than yours, so this just happened to me, that I've started to feel like I'm teaching Milo, and you can hear in my posts here that I've sort of gone through the roof over it. It feels genuinely important, and I have integrity when I do it, and I can work hard at it, and succeed.

Also, your point makes me realize that I made a mistake in my post. I won't fix it, because we're talking about it now, but I really like to wrap things up neatly at the end and my concluding sentence isn't completely honest. I don't know that I will "return to the work force." In those last couple of years as a freelance theatre artist I'm not sure I was really in the work force anyway. And I don't have any idea what I'm going to bring back. Maybe I'll be feeding the future, too.

On your other point, I also have had seasons where I had to stop reading the blogs. A few of them. But unlike you, wise woman, I keep coming back. (There is a post on addiction that I'm going to have to do at some point.) Good for you for knowing what they do for you and what they don't!

D. W. Jacobs said...

"I'm not ready to extrapolate beyond my imperfect single point perspective into criticism of the social machine." In the context of this blog, doesn't this really mean... "As I completely retreat from the contemporary practices of the social machine, no critique is intended, suggested or to be implied or construed by these actions." It sounds like Descartes, in one of his prefaces, professing completely harmless intentions to the church, as he makes preparations to dismantle thousands of years of scientific and theological synthesis. If you genuinely establish either a perfect or imperfect single point perspective, that's inherently an active criticism of the social machine. Isn't it?

Esther said...

Indeed, Doug, point taken and well taken. I've said a few times lately that I'm nearly done with softening my point of view, which is rare but, in my humble estimation, well founded. And, just as you infer above, that is the only estimation that I have. Perhaps a more truthful statement would be, "Although I do believe that the social machine encourages destructive thinking in myself and in the people that I love, I'm nervous about telling you that, just in case you think I'm wrong, or in case it makes you mad to hear that, or in case you reject my point of view summarily as too extreme and stop reading my blog."

D. W. Jacobs said...


D. W. Jacobs said...

PS... sometimes you need to escape the social machine to find a genuine social impulse.