Monday, June 30, 2008

Community for the Single Woman

I've mentioned before that many single women actually enjoy larger and stronger communities than many coupled people and I know that for me, building a strong community is a conscious priority. But I admit that I have also sometimes lamented that doing so requires such a concerted effort; somewhere in my brain, I think couples must have it easier because they don't have to do anything, they have an automatic support system, even if it is only a community of two. Of course, I know that good relationships take effort too, though it's a different type of effort. At any rate, I have often wondered if other singles also struggle with this, with finding the energy to deepen relationships and build stronger ties with people, absent a romantic relationship, or if it's just me. So I found it particularly interesting to read a recent Blogher post asking are academics the loneliest professionals? since part of my 'is it just me' wondering has included wondering if it has something to do with my profession. Academics spend a lot of time alone - even if you have co-authors on papers, much of the actual research and writing is done on your own, and even if you are at a large university, there may be few opportunities to interact with colleagues outside your own department. I have often listened to my non-academic friends talk about their interactions and social outings with co-workers and been a bit envious. On the other hand, I've also listened to their stories about bosses or co-workers from hell and been exceedingly grateful for my job so I do understand that it cuts both ways! But I do wonder if it is easier for people in other occupations to find lasting friendships through work. Anyone care to enlighten me?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

What does 'single' mean to you?

I'm always curious about how and why people define 'single' the way they do. That is, I think that for most people, when they meet someone who identifies themselves as single, that means something specific, but what it means varies from person to person. To me, it just means not being in a serious relationship; I guess I equate it with 'available'. But I know that for some, it distinctly means 'unmarried' (so for example, my aunt would be considered single because even though she has been living with the same man for about 30 years, she never married him). To others, it means NEVER married - apparently, Dear Abby falls in that camp, since she told a divorcee that calling herself single would not be appropriate. I'm guessing she'd say the same to someone who was widowed. As with many 'rules' of etiquette that haven't kept up with the times, that bugs me. If someone wants to call themselves single, who in the world has the right to tell that person he or she is 'wrong'?

But what I find particularly interesting about the multiple definitions of 'single' is that it means single women have a choice about how to identify themselves and, to me, that choice can be telling. That is, single is uniquely a state of being, in and of itself, whereas divorced, widowed and unmarried are all associated with states of not being (i.e., they are all states of not being married). And I think that people who aren't comfortable with their singleness are more likely to avoid identifying themselves as being in the single state, choosing instead to associate with the married state. So if you choose to call yourself single, when you could just as easily say 'divorced' or 'widowed' or 'unmarried' or whatever your options are, that seems to convey two things: 1) you are not currently married, whatever your past status might have been, and 2) you are OK with that. Similarly, I think that people who don't want single women to call themselves single are partly conveying their discomfort with women who are OK with being single. Does that ring true to anyone else?

Friday, June 13, 2008

Choice and responsibility: self-help or just good economics?

A recent post on Zen Habits talks about taking responsibility, pointing out that many people fail to take responsibility for their lives; everything is someone else's fault. As a teacher, I see this all the time in my students (the excuses are generally more creative than 'the dog ate my homework' but they are excuses nonetheless). But as an economist, I have a hard time dealing with people who take this too far. Economics is the study of choices and what I try to get across to my students is that economists simply don't believe one can ever say, "I had no choice". Sure, some decisions are so trivial (do you get up when the alarm goes off or hit snooze?) or so easy (your money or your life) that we may not think twice about them but they are still choices - other people (or even you, on a different day) may choose a different option and when you do one thing when you could have done something else, then it's a choice to do what you did, conscious or not.

Usually when someone says they "had no choice", what they really mean is that the consequence of the alternative was so awful that the choice was obvious. But while it may be horrible to consider disappointing your parents or losing your job or even dying, that doesn't mean you have no choice about going to college or working overtime or handing over your wallet. Now I'm certainly not advocating that students drop out of school or employees tell their bosses to to jump in a lake. My point is just that when you realize that all your actions are choices, it's harder to play the victim, to avoid taking at least a little responsibility.

I don't want to sound like an unsympathetic hard-ass. I'm as likely as the next person to bitch and moan when faced with choices that suck. But the upside of seeing that everything is a choice is that although you can't avoid some responsibility, it also means you gain a lot of control, over the good AND the bad. As I like to tell my students: being between a rock and a hard place isn't fun but at least you have options! Making good decisions requires being clear about the costs and benefits of your options but first you have to recognize that you HAVE options. I often think that if I can just get this one idea across to my students, to get them to REALLY believe it, then I will not only have taught them some economics but I will have helped them to become better people.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Do conservatives think women are clueless?

Over on Have Children or Not, Beth asks whose 'fault' is it that women have delayed having children? She quotes an article that essentially blames feminism for giving women so many choices that they don't think about having kids until it is too late. My first thought was, "Who could possibly believe any woman could 'forget' to have kids?" Even as someone who is pretty darn sure that I don't want kids, I still sometimes worry that I might wake up one day and suddenly realize I really do want kids and what if that happens when it's 'too late'? The fact that I can't shake that possibility from my head is what keeps me from saying I'll never have kids. And I just can't believe there are very many single women who don't have similar thoughts - it's simply too deeply ingrained in our society that as women, we are supposed to want kids so it's virtually impossible to make the opposite decision without giving it some serious thought.

Or maybe what the author of that article was thinking was that women don't know that they don't have all the time in the world, that there are women who do want kids but don't know there is a biological limit on their ability to do so and therefore they just go about their single, career-driven lives (which feminism now allows us to do) and then when they do get around to the kids thing, they are shocked to finally be told that there's an expiration date on their eggs? I'm not going to say that's not possible (I am often surprised by the bizarre ignorance of many people about many things - maybe these clueless women see the stories about older women having babies and think that means it's easy?), but again, the idea that every woman has a biological clock that must be ticking down is so prevalent in the media and society that I have a really hard time believing that any woman could possibly get to her mid-30's without knowing her fertility days are numbered.

I guess my point is that whenever one is trying to change the status quo, one naturally focuses on the changes, just as feminism has focused on telling women that they do have options, options that didn't used to be available to them. Feminism doesn't spend a lot of time educating women about the options that have always been available because it assumes we already know all about those and it is obvious that these new options are additions to the choice set. The fact that more women are choosing not to have kids doesn't mean they are clueless - for many, that choice is a very difficult one - but it simply means we are taking advantage of our new options. Maybe there will come a day when there truly is no 'norm', when it is so established that every option is equally valid that women will need just as much education about the kid option as the non-kid option, but even if you live in California, we've got a long way to go before that's a reality...

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Multiple dimensions of confidence

I am a pretty direct person. If I'm curious about something, I will usually ask; if I'm upset with someone, I will talk to them about it; and my colleagues know that if I have an opinion at work, I'm not shy about sharing it. I'm not always comfortable doing this but I don't think I'm obnoxious about it (or if I realize later that I might have been obnoxious, I usually go back and apologize). But when I read Zandra's story about striking up a conversation with a guy at the gym, my first thought was, "Wow, I could never do that!" I also recently discovered Holly Hoffman's blog and she's had a few posts in the last month about confidence at work and with guys. All of which has me thinking about why it is that in some situations, I seem to have oodles of self-confidence but in other situations (primarily involving people I don't know but would like to), I might as well be back in junior high. Obviously, fear of rejection has something to do with it - it's easy not to take it personally if a waiter gets annoyed with me for saying my steak is over-cooked but detachment is a lot harder if I say hi to someone and they look at me like I've got two heads. At the same time, online dating has taught me to have a pretty thick skin and I think I've gotten pretty good at handling 'rejection' in that forum. So why does the idea of trying to talk to strangers seem so difficult? And I don't mean just guys - anytime I'm in a situation where I don't know anyone (for example, professional conferences), I find it incredibly difficult to meet people. Once I've been introduced to someone, I can make small talk until the cows come home but there's just some switch in my brain that flips from self-confident to insecure when I have to meet new people on my own. Does anyone else have these sorts of isolated insecurities?