Choice is complicated

The concept of choice has been central in my research, which is expected, since ‘opting’ as in opting out is synonymous with choosing or exercising choice. In other words, when we talk about opting out, we talk about people who choose to do so. Therefore I decided early on not to include people who have had no choice but to leave their careers due to reasons like burnout. I wanted to study why people who at least in principle have the choice to stay decide not to, what it is that drives them, and what it is that they look for instead.

Early on I also realized that there was more to this idea of ‘free choice’ than meets the eye. The reason I saw this was because as I interviewed women, it became more and more clear that opting out – choosing to leave – was a long and often painful process riddled with crises. So either way, it certainly wasn’t an easy choice.

We live in a time of globalization, individualization, consumerism, and constant reinvention, and the rhetoric of choice today is very strong. As traditions become less important (we no longer have to live or do things in a certain way just because that’s the way things have always been done), we are encouraged to choose things like what we want to do and who we want to be professionally, a lifestyle, and what we want to stand for from a myriad of choices. And we’re encouraged to do this again and again. As Anthony Elliott writes in his book Reinvention, “flexibility, adaptability and transformation have become intricately interwoven with the global electronic economy.” We have to keep reinventing ourselves professionally in order to stay competitive, which is enabled and exacerbated by therapy culture and the instant makeover industry. But not only that, reinvention also fulfills another need: “the lure of reinvention is that it is inextricably interwoven with the dream of “something else”.” This I think really hits the nail on its head. In a time when things really are very hectic and it’s hard to keep up, we long for that something else which is always just out of reach.

So choice is evidently an important concept in contemporary society. But not only that, choice also gives us a sense of agency in a time when there is a lot of uncertainty, a sense that we can control and shape our lives. When we opt out, we like to think that it is completely our own choice, and not that there are factors that actually may push us to opt out.

Ten years ago, Linda Hirshman coined the expression ‘choice feminism’, which represents a belief that women can and should choose whether or not they want to have a career, or whether or not they want to take advantage of the opportunities that feminists have spent decades fighting for. According to choice feminism, a woman can choose not to have a career and embrace traditional gender norms and still be a feminist, if she chose it herself.

But for a career woman with small children, there are a lot of other forces at work. Mothering is so intimately linked to femininity that if you fail at your job, you’re just a bad worker; but if you fail at mothering (or don’t prioritize it), you’re a bad woman. Yes, ouch… So if having it all becomes too hard, that is if having two full-time jobs (first at work and then at home after work) or if trying to do it all simultaneously becomes too much to handle, women will more often than not choose mothering over their careers. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t want a career, it just means that we (society) expect women to be superhuman.

Choice is complicated. It’s not always clear what decisions are based on. Sometimes there are coping mechanisms at work (it may just feel better to believe that a decision was based on free choice) and sometimes a narrative is created afterwards to supply a sense of agency and control. The point is, choices (or should I say “choices”) are the result of both individual wants and needs, and societal expectations and social pressures. Not to mention all the internal conflicts that we all grapple with.

So yes, women do get pushed out to a certain degree: they still get discriminated, they get mommy-tracked, and they take care of more than their fair share of household chores and care responsibilities. But again, it isn’t that simple. In addition to push-factors there are also pull-factors. What I have found is that not only have these women been pushed to make a change, they also experience the pull of a life where they can be everything they want to be, and do it in a way that makes it possible. They experience the pull of a life where they feel that they can be themselves, instead of hiding certain parts of themselves (like their femininity or their children…) to get ahead in their careers. Or perhaps they just simply want a life where they can do meaningful work without succumbing.

Now I have just started my interviews of men who have opted out* and it is still too early to tell, but it will be interesting to see how similar or different their opting out journeys are compared to those of the women I’ve interviewed. What are the drivers that push men to opt out? What is it that pulls them in their new lifestyles? And how do they make sense of their choices? It remains to be seen.

* A very big thank you to everyone who contacted me regarding interviews! It has been most helpful! If anyone else knows of any men who have opted out who would be willing to be interviewed, or if you are a man who has opted out, you can still contact me at theoptingoutblog@gmail.com.

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Julia and me (and some thoughts on men, women, and the complexity of being)

My husband asked me the other day when I’m going to write about Julia Kristeva’s work on my blog. The reason he asked is because Kristeva received quite a prominent place in my thesis, and while I was writing my thesis there was a period when basically all I talked about was Kristeva. I was working on my thesis in Adelaide, and every morning for about a week or so, I would go out to the empty, green rugby oval close to our apartment and sit on the bleachers and read Kristeva. I found her work interesting, but also challenging, so I would read what other people wrote about her work as well in order to get my head around what it was she was saying. This may sound a bit crazy, but those bleachers are forever going to be the place where Julia and I got acquainted. So to answer my husband’s question, it’s now.

The reason I got interested in Kristeva in the first place was because she does extensive work on the maternal, which is an important issue in my research. But that isn’t what I’m going to write about today. I’m going to write about something I saw in my Facebook newsfeed the other day, the kind of thing that many of us see every now and then, I’m sure, but which just gets me every time.

Okay here it is: “Trying to understand women is like trying to smell the number 9.”

I mean really, are we still doing this? Aren’t jokes and wisecracks about how complicated and impossible to understand women are old already? I know people who make jokes about this are just trying to be funny, and don’t really mean anything by it, but what they are unintentionally doing, is keeping alive the idea that women aren’t really to be taken seriously. By dismissing women as complicated, difficult, irrational, and hard to understand, even in jest, women are effectively kept in the position of Other, that is someone who is so different or difficult that they don’t really need to be reckoned with. I’m going to say it, these jokes are sexist.

But at the same time I think, come on guys, don’t sell yourselves short! Men aren’t any less complicated or hard to understand than women. Men are just as complex, and filled with fears, hopes, and dreams as anyone else. Anything less wouldn’t be human. Anything less would be boring. Think about it, do you really want to be thought of as one-dimensional, and on top of that, pretty much exactly the same as the next guy: simple, uncomplicated, and uninteresting?

And this is where Kristeva comes in. Kristeva is, by the way, not only a social theorist but also a psychoanalyst, linguist, and feminist to name a few, and has done a vast amount of work within these fields, so this post will in no way do her justice. But she does say something about sex and gender that I think is relevant to the point I’m trying to make. While people generally get categorized by sex or gender (i.e. you are a man or a woman, or you behave or feel like a man or a woman), Kristeva holds that although masculine is often associated with men and feminine associated with women, the feminine is not a category specific to either sex. The feminine belongs to both men and women. The reason, according to Kristeva, is that both men and women come from the maternal body (boys as well as girls are born from, raised by, loved by, and interact with women) and unfortunately taboos and silencing effectively separates men from this dimension of social life. So if it wasn’t for all the social practices, gender norms, and other constructs out there, men’s and women’s behaviors really might not be that different.

This became complicated and difficult to explain in just a few lines. I think I’m going to have to dedicate a whole other blog post to Kristeva at some point, as she really has some compelling, important, and unconventional things to say about the maternal, feminism, and society as a whole. But for now, like many before me, I’m going to ask, so men are from Mars and women from Venus? Please. How one-dimensional isn’t that? I’d say we are all much more diverse and interesting. If we’re going to talk about outer space, then men are from any number of planets in the Solar System and beyond, as are women. But as book titles go, I guess that just doesn’t sound very catchy, does it.

Help that just isn’t helpful

I’m not a big shopper, except when it comes to books, and when I travel I really like browsing through local bookstores. I’ll often buy a book, and this might seem strange, but I remember where I bought which book and what the bookstore was like. Like my used copy of The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (I loved that) that I bought in a tiny store with a wonderful ambience in Greenwich Village in New York. This was right after enjoying some divine cupcakes at The Magnolia Bakery. Or Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter (I haven’t read that yet) that I bought in the combined coffee/bookshop on campus at the University of Keele. Needless to say, the shop smelled wonderful. A couple of months ago I was in Stockholm and bought a copy of Psychobabble: Exploding the Myths of the Self-Help Generation by Dr Stephen Briers, which I’m reading at the moment and really enjoying. (This visit unfortunately included neither coffee nor cupcakes.)

I was interested in this book because through my research I have spent a lot of time contemplating what exactly it is about contemporary society that tends to make people feel overwhelmed. Because that is what many people seem to be – overwhelmed. There is something about life today that seems to make people feel generally less secure than they did in previous times. It is not necessarily more dangerous today than before, and if I’m not mistaken, research has in fact shown that it isn’t, but people are more aware of the risks, partly due to the incredibly fast and efficient global sharing of news and information (and disasters) through media and technology. Then there is of course the insecurity of working in financially precarious times, but there is something else as well.

It’s as if with the makeover culture, the TV shows dedicated to self-improvement (some of which is quite extreme), and all the advice that is not only available to us but that we are constantly bombarded with on how to get better at various things, we are being told that there is still so much room for (needed) improvement. The message we’re getting is that we just aren’t good enough the way we are. If we just lost a bit of weight, managed to give up sugar altogether (which I admit is something I’m seriously contemplating but don’t think I’ll ever manage to do, and this is making me feel slightly guilty), became stronger, fitter, more positive, more patient, and more assertive, we would be happy because we would have finally reached our full potential. Not to mention all the instructions on how to dress, behave, network, and organize ourselves at work in order to have that rocket career. But that’s the thing. With all the help and encouragement out there on how to change our lives and live to our full potential, we are also being told that we really have a long way to go. As we are being fed unrealistic expectations, this full potential becomes something that continues to be just out of reach, or rather light years away, in other words simply unachievable.

Have you been to the self-help section in your local bookstore lately? If you have, you will have noticed that it is packed, with self-help books that is. Researchers often use the term ‘therapy culture’ to describe the reality in which we live. But as Christopher Lasch, author of a book called The Culture of Narcissism puts it, this therapy culture promotes a type of cultural hypochondria. Crisis becomes personal and permanent and people dig deeper and deeper to find their core authentic self in order to deal with the ambiguity and ambivalence of contemporary life.

The reason I like the book I’m reading right now so much, is that Briers goes through the main self-help myths, debunking them one at a time. With every chapter that I read, I feel increasingly relieved to be getting confirmation that I can ignore these social pressures to change my behavior while trying to achieve unrealistic and impossible goals. Although all self-help isn’t bad – there are good and insightful books out there – Briers still maintains that on a whole, self-help hasn’t helped. We’re not any better than before, we’re just unhappier with ourselves.

The people who really need help, don’t need self-help, they need professional help, and I sincerely hope they have access to what they need. For the rest of us, instead of asking ourselves why self-help doesn’t help, we should consider that maybe, just maybe, we don’t need help. Maybe we’re fine the way we are, all different, imperfect, and quirky in our own way. Maybe we just need to accept that and get on with it. Life, that is.

Longing for the authentic

I’m reading a novel at the moment about a housewife in the 1950’s and I’m struck by the quiet and the sheer boredom that hits me on every page as she tries to keep busy in her empty apartment, thinking up new household chores just to pass the hours until her husband and kids come home from work and school. As I turn the pages I feel quite happy that I’m not her; that I don’t have to deal with the insecurity of not being independent, and the lack of confidence that comes from having nothing that’s my own.

I’ve been told that I sometimes make it sound like I think things have taken a turn for the worse, that they were better in the good old days, especially for mothers. Well, some things are worse than back in the day – global warming for one. But a lot of things are better, and I would certainly not want to go back in time. As a woman, I really like being able to vote, having a career, and being able to autonomously make decisions about my life. I like that my husband and I share household chores.

And things aren’t only better for women. Modern medicine and inventions like the vaccine have increased life expectancy; people live longer and living standards are higher. No, I certainly wouldn’t want to go back in time. However, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be critical of life as we know it today.

In the Nordic countries at least, the past few years have witnessed some sort of retro-housewife trend, where the 50’s housewife is romanticized. I’ll paint you a picture: the perfect house, the perfect wife, pretty cupcakes… I’ve been told it has become a question of status to be able to pick one’s kids up early from daycare (although it’s of course mothers who do this, not fathers.). This is certainly not what feminists had in mind when they struggled for decades to give women the same rights and opportunities as men to pursue a career and to have a life beyond the private sphere of the home.

And I do love cupcakes, don’t get me wrong. But this trend is a bit ironic, because I don’t think any of us, if we think about, really want to go back to the 1950’s. However, I do think a lot of people experience a longing for something else – for a simpler life. There is something about contemporary society that is completely different from anything we have ever experienced before. Yes, we have had globalization and travel since ancient times. We have had media and consumption. But it is the sheer speed and intensity of life and work today that makes living in the 21st century different. Way of life in contemporary society has a deep effect on us, on our identities, and on how we make sense of everything.

According to David Boyle, author of Authenticity: Brands, Fakes, Spin and the Lust for Real Life, there is a longing for the authentic and the “unspun”. Downshifting trends and the increased demand for natural, organic, simple, and sustainable products suggest exactly this: that we are simply getting sick of “the fake, the virtual, the spun and the mass-produced.” Now that I can certainly relate to.

Speaking of feminism, one of my favorite quotes of all time is one by Caitlin Moran from her book How to Be a Woman:

“We need to reclaim the word ‘feminism’. We need the word ‘feminism’ back real bad. When statistics come in saying that only 29% of American women would describe themselves as feminist – and only 42% of British women – I used to think, What do you think feminism IS, ladies? What part of ‘liberation for women’ is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay? ‘Vogue’ by Madonna? Jeans? Did all that good shit GET ON YOUR NERVES? Or were you just DRUNK AT THE TIME OF THE SURVEY?”

How do you decide to opt out?

Researching opting out has been incredibly inspirational for me in many ways. It’s been a very personal project – I opted out of my own business career in 2009. But it is also because of all the interesting and exciting discussions I’ve had on opting out over the past five or so years. I don’t think I’ve met a single person who didn’t have at least some thoughts or opinions on opting out. When people find out what I do, they often want to talk about it. They either know someone who has opted out, they might have done it themselves, or they just wish they could do it too.

However, even though they may want to or dream about it, most people don’t opt out. If so many people want to opt out, why aren’t more doing it? I don’t think the main answer here is money. Yes, money plays in, and quitting your job is a risk. But we have to remember, according to my definition of opting out, opting out means opting in to doing something else, to another way of working or living. One opting out myth is that it is only women with rich husbands who opt out. The truth is, most people who opt out need to be able to support themselves and continue to do so after having opted in to a new lifestyle. Many of the women I interviewed were married to husbands who could support them if needed, but I have also interviewed single moms, women who are single and don’t have children, and women who were the main breadwinners in their family before opting out.

No, there is another reason, and that is that opting out is a huge change, it is stepping out into the unknown and that is scary. It is hard to imagine anything other than the way of life you know. In my research I have found that people don’t opt out until they have some sort of defining moment – a crisis of some sort – that pushes them to take the step. It can be health problems, a conflict of interests at work, an identity crisis, a death, anything really, but it is a moment when they realize they can’t go on this way. There is a sense of urgency and they opt out without having any grand plan, and figure it out as they go.

People ever so often ask me for advice on how to opt out. Opting out is romanticized in the media, you often see stories of happy people who have changed their lives and started doing something completely different. There is no shortage of self-help books on how to change your life, how to find your authentic you, how to be happy, and there is a huge market for life coaching. But still, people don’t know how to opt out, and I can’t very well tell them to go and have a crisis and the rest will figure itself out…

A friend of mine posted a quotation on Facebook a while ago: “Never be afraid to fall apart because it is an opportunity to rebuild yourself in the way you wish you had been all along.” – Rae Smith.

I find this worrisome, how can you glorify falling apart? A lot of people who fall apart don’t manage to put themselves back together. How can it be that you need to have a crisis in order to create a life that you can live with?

What if we lived in a culture that didn’t make us want to opt out in the first place? What if working cultures allowed us to be ourselves and embrace who we are, and to combine work and other areas of life in a way that felt meaningful? What would that look like?