The Failed Female Strategy of Life Splitting

March 11, 2013

woman_on_tightropeLeslie Bell, writing in The Atlantic to promote her new book on young women and sexual freedom, observes that in her discussions with 20-something women, they often express shame about desiring a committed relationship. 

Some young women deeply desire meaningful relationships with men, even as they feel guilty about those desires. Many express the same sentiment again and again: “Why do I, a young and highly educated woman in the 21st century, value relationships with men so highly?” To do so feels like a betrayal of themselves, of their education, and of their achievements.

It’s not feminists indoctrinating women, it’s parents, encouraging their daughters to pursue career opportunities and success before allowing their thoughts to turn to “settling down.” Friends, whose parents have raised them with the same set of expectations, provide much needed backup for this strategy, offering bromides over Mimosas during brunch.  It’s the Sex and the City nightmare come to fruition. 

I was raised with this set of expectations myself. My mother felt stifled at home, and my father was convinced I could follow in his footsteps and even surpass his own achievements. From Irish parlor maid to Wharton MBA in two generations; not bad. Yet he would never call himself a feminist; he was simply a proud father who wanted the best for his daughter. 

Like women today, I too felt anxiety about losing focus and taking my eye off the ball, but when at 25 I met my husband, I began making compromises right away. I’d find a job in NY to be with him, then move with him to Boston, then agree to stay at home with a toddler who was miserable in day care. I recall feeling sheepish about these choices well into my 30s, dreading business school reunions, and feeling defensive about my stalled career. I did things like organize school fundraisers with all the confidence of a C level executive, desperate to prove I could be successful at something

When I pursued outside interests to break the routine of being a stay-at-home mom, my father continued to urge achievement and success. The landscapes I painted were amazing – I should send slides to galleries right away. My performance in the play was a show stealer – when would I get my Actors’ Equity card? I had to get downright pugnacious to defend my choices, even at the age of 40! It doesn’t surprise me that many women do as they’re told and prioritize career over marriage and family.

Bell describes a phenomenon she calls splitting, where women actively avoid relationships rather than struggle with the incompatibility between family and a hard charging career:

Anxiety is difficult to tolerate, and rather than experience it, many of the young women I interviewed and work with in my psychotherapy practice split their desire for a relationship off from their professional and self-development desires. Confused about freedom and desire, young women often split their social and psychological options—independence, strength, safety, control, and career versus connection, vulnerability, need, desire, and relationships—into mutually exclusive possibilities in life. Romantic relationships then often become something to be avoided and denigrated rather than embraced.

Katie, a 25-year-old woman I spoke with as part of my research, confided that she worried her single-minded pursuit of a graduate degree might limit her ability to meet a man with whom she could build a life…To put such a high premium on relationships was frightening to Katie. She worried that it meant she wasn’t liberated and was still defined by traditional expectations of women.

Erin Callan, the former CFO of Lehman Brothers, provided a vivid cautionary tale to women adopting this mindset in yesterday’s New York Times. In Is There Life After Work? Callan describes her “leisure time” at the age of 39, when she was well on her way to Wall St. superstardom:

When I wasn’t catching up on work, I spent my weekends recharging my batteries for the coming week. Work always came first, before my family, friends and marriage — which ended just a few years later.

…I don’t have children, so it might seem that my story lacks relevance to the work-life balance debate. Like everyone, though, I did have relationships — a spouse, friends and family — and none of them got the best version of me. They got what was left over.

Callan resigned her job just months before Lehman collapsed in the fiscal crisis of 2008. Without her job, she realized that she had lost her identity as well, and set out to find more meaning in her life. 

I have spent several years now living a different version of my life, where I try to apply my energy to my new husband, Anthony, and the people whom I love and care about. But I can’t make up for lost time. Most important, although I now have stepchildren, I missed having a child of my own. I am 47 years old, and Anthony and I have been trying in vitro fertilization for several years. We are still hoping.

Wow, 47 and still doing IVF – that saddens me. Callan is eager to point out to young women the problem with her failed strategy – the splitting of a life into “now” and “later” doesn’t work very well. 

Sometimes young women tell me they admire what I’ve done. As they see it, I worked hard for 20 years and can now spend the next 20 focused on other things. But that is not balance. I do not wish that for anyone. Even at the best times in my career, I was never deluded into thinking I had achieved any sort of rational allocation between my life at work and my life outside.

…At the end of the day, that is the best guidance I can give. Whatever valuable advice I have about managing a career, I am only now learning how to manage a life.

As women, we face choices. You cannot give 100% of yourself  to a career and another 100% of yourself to your family. You cannot be a superstar in both realms, it is impossible. Over the years, I have known many women who had careers and children – hundreds. I have never known a woman who had a high-powered career and a close relationship to her husband and children. Not one. Maybe Sheryl Sandberg or Marissa Mayer will be the exceptions, but I doubt it. Every single one of us must compromise if we want to find balance in life. 

Think about this now, before you make the choices that will set you irrevocably on one path. What is it that you want to achieve? What kind of legacy do you wish to leave with this one life you have been given? What compromises are you willing to make?

Life splitting is a failed strategy. You can’t afford to save relationships and children for Phase II. Decide what you want your life to be about, and set out to make that happen, beginning today. Your responsibility is not to your parents or your girlfriends. It is to yourself, and your future family, should you decide to have one.