Arts & Culture

On Weddings, Help-Wanted Ads, and “Having it All”

Last May, my eldest daughter celebrated the 10th anniversary of her college graduation. Her college alumni magazine ran a special feature about the special group of six female friends, my daughter among them, who had remained as close during the … Read More

By / November 6, 2008

Last May, my eldest daughter celebrated the 10th anniversary of her college graduation.

Her college alumni magazine ran a special feature about the special group of six female friends, my daughter among them, who had remained as close during the post-graduate decade as they had during their college years. Now they numbered two teachers, a poet, photographer, a literature scholar, and a comedian.

And when the group reunites this upcoming May, it will be to celebrate another milestone, my daughter’s wedding. It’s been a wonderful fall, with me cheering on my daughter and her fiancé as they joyfully create their wedding plans. It was very different for my generation, both in terms of the timing of our marriages and the commandments we received from our parents on how to conduct our nuptials.

At 32, my daughter has seen a few of her friends precede her to the altar, but not many, and in this I think she is typical of her generation. Marriage or a committed relationship (with a man or woman) or serial entanglements or none at all—each individual precedes at her own pace and with little of the frenzy that affected the women of my generation. Most of my friends were engaged or married in the year after graduation and some before, and if not, they were seriously looking and hoping. Most of us had our children in our twenties. When I gave birth to my first child at 34, the words “elderly primapara” appeared on my chart. The obstetrician treated me like the anomaly which he (and I) both thought I was. What a difference a generation makes!

Mine was the generation that had no female professors, that graduated into a world where “Help Wanted” ads appeared in male- and female-segregated columns, where on my first CV I listed my typing speed and my height and weight (I still am astonished at that, let alone how thin I was), right after my Phi Beta Kappa award. This was the early 1960s and a lot was about to happen.

For the most part, the changes have been astonishingly positive, both in terms of identifying the social problems that confronted women and finding remedies. Yet so many mind-boggling problems remain; in many arenas, the freedoms that women have won seem fragile and partial at best.

Even when they are settling down to lives that seem full of promise, young women tell me about the pressures they feel. Whether it be demands to have the “perfect” wedding (let’s skip that, daughter # 1, okay?) or to become “perfect” mothers with “perfect” careers, somehow the prescriptive rules of the era I thought we had left behind seem to be resurfacing with a vengeance. With ever rising standards of achievement and without proper social supports (like decent employment options and adequate maternity leave), young mothers today are learning that “having it all” may be a vain delusion.

But though such a goal may seem both out of reach and as old-fashioned as those sex-segregated "Help Wanted” columns or throwing wedding bouquets to gaggles of hopeful women, my message to my daughter is to keep fighting for it. Having it all–whatever “it” is–will be worth the trouble, if you can get it on your own terms. At the end of the day, each woman can shape or hold her own proverbial bouquet in ways as unique as she is.

Joyce Antler author of You Never Call! You Never Write!: A History of the Jewish Mother, will be guest blogging on Jewcy this week. Stay Tuned.