A Crisis of Our Own Making

Jan 27, 2005 |Megan Basham

Some say 30 is today's 20. Authors Rubin and Macko say for women, 30 is mid-life — crisis and all.

When Julie was 29 she was pregnant with her first child. She had a great job, but planned to scale back by telecommuting once the baby was born. Her husband, Tom, was supportive and frankly, she said, she couldn't wait to leave behind the pressure of the office — and the requirement of nylons and skirts.

Many women on the verge of 30 aren't so settled about what lies ahead. They're hitting the gym in order to maintain (or achieve) perfect bodies; starting 10- to 12-hour workdays that they hope will win them a seat in the boardroom; and running home from work to make a quick change into what they hope is an alluring dress to meet a friend of a friend's brother who could possibly (please God) turn out to be "the one."

And behind it all, there's a faint ticking. For some, it's a reminder of the next major project due at work, or believing that if they don't make their big career mark before they have kids, they'll be too busy to make it after. For others it's an anxiety that all of the good men are already taken — snatched up while they were climbing the coporate ladder. Some hear their biological clocks alerting them to research that getting pregnant becomes more and more difficult every year after 35. Maybe it's not ticking at all but simply the sound of their minds slowly cracking up as they resist the urge to hide under the covers, overwhelmed by the feeling that something is wrong, something they just can't put a name to.

Two journalists, Kerry Rubin and Lisa Macko, believe they have finally been able to identify the "problem with no name." Though the women experiencing this panic-laced malaise tend to be between 25 and 37 years of age, Rubin and Macko's research suggests that what they are suffering from is akin to midlife crisis.

While working on their new book, Midlife Crisis at 30: How the Stakes Have Changed for a New Generation and What to Do about It, the authors interviewed hundreds of 20- and 30-something women from all walks of life. What they found is that today, 30 is to a woman what 50 is to a man. They write:

What women are experiencing at 30 mirrors the loss of control a man may feel when, at 50 ... his sense of power shifts, and he sees younger, eager, qualified (and less expensive) men start to gain on him in the professional arena. He knows that if he'd planned on a stellar breakout career, he'd better be well on his way by now ... But unlike men [whose] midlife crises [are] rooted in questions about where the time has gone, our midlife crises grow from fears about where the time is going.

Compounding the problem is the perception that we have less time to make our breakout. If we follow the master plan our progressive mothers promised would lead to the ideal life, we have to take each step sequentially: school, career, then marriage and kids. Following this path finds us with no family support system in place and becoming increasingly obsessed with getting one, or with a career taking off just about the time our families make escalating demands on our time and energy. According to research cited in the book, the problem comes down to having too many choices and inflated expectations:

Ironically, part of the reason an entire generation of grounded young professional women are having these premature midlife crises is that in many real ways, the Anything Is Possible message of our youth ... has also proved to be too good to be true. Over and over again, the women we interviewed ... described feeling as if their professional lives and their personal lives were on a collision course with each other. The prevalence of the Midlife Crisis at 30 phenomenon suggests that we are all dealing with this building sense of anxiety by panicking...

The book so accurately identifies the feelings of crisis that young women will likely feel someone has finally tapped into their private pangs. Unfortunately, for all their insights, Rubin and Macko's solutions are more of the same socio/political engineering that created the problems they hope to solve.

If the authors have their way, Generations X and Y will simply mirror the activism of their mothers, demanding that corporations change to fit their widening horizons — along with their widening bellies. They want us to organize, politically, and demand paternity leave from our employers and a restructured workweek from politicians. They chide women who are searching for creative individual alternatives, saying, "It's the responsibility of Gen X women ... to stop thinking so much about ourselves and how to make our individual solutions work out and focus on ... demanding political, social and corporate changes that will allow us the time we need to develop the real equal partnerships and parenting opportunities we claim to want."

Rubin and Macko seem limited by their "high-achieving-careerist-mother" view of the world. They don't recognize alternate paths to success and ignore reality: whether at home or in an office, work is still work and children are still children, and both require full-time attention.

The only time they begin to hit on a truly progressive concept, though they never flesh it out, is when they suggest that because we're living longer we may have more time to meet our goals than we realize. Perhaps the conventional wisdom of the last 30 years wasn't as wise as we thought. While some women manage to juggle "it all" at the same time, others may decide to space things out over the course of their lives.

So we're not the writers, teachers, executives or [fill in your dream here] we imagined we'd be by 30. Who's to say we won't be by 40, 50 or even 60? If, as feminists insist, we can do anything, why not spend our most fertile years building families with plans to write our bestsellers and run our companies after we've found love, reared children and watched our nests empty. For those already on the fast track, there's nothing wrong with slowing down to find a mate.

Part of wisdom is knowing when to turn down an option simply because it isn't the right time. Ecclesiastes 3:1 says, "There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven." And the time for everything doesn't have to be now.

Copyright 2005 Megan Basham. All rights reserved.  

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