For the past year, I have kept under my desk at home a large cardboard box labeled: Women and Confusion. The box, which is now close to overflowing, contains more than a hundred articles about what it's like to be a woman in today's world.
In it I have gathered a variety of opinions, overviews, underviews, surveys, studies, polls, diatribes and polemics on such women-related subjects as: work, love, sex, men, children, cosmetic surgery, dieting, education, adolescence, divorce, menopause, health, illness, hormones, role models, aging, beauty, assertiveness, money and anything else you can think of.
And, while I make it a practice to read each article before tossing it into the box, I had forgotten -- until last Sunday when I reread some of the material -- just how wildly mixed the messages are that women receive from such articles.
Here, for example, are a few items selected at random from my Women and Confusion box:
Item: Working women who are wives and/or mothers are less apt experience job-related, psychological stress than single, childless women.
Item: Working women who are wives and/or mothers are caught in a no-win juggling act that undermines both their role at work and their role at home.
Item: Women who remain single are less prone to depression than married women.
Item: Women who live in a family setting experience less anxiety and fewer depressive symptoms than single women.
Item: In marriages where husbands actually do a lot of housework and share family responsibilities, there is more -- not less -- conflict between spouses.
Item: Couples who share household duties are more satisfied in their relationships than those who don't.
Item: Men want women to be more assertive in sexual matters.
Item: Men still prefer women who are more submissive in sexual relationships.
4 Does all this confuse you as much as it does me?
So many messages. So many conclusions. What's a woman to believe?
A lot less than we read, in my opinion.
It was author Susan Faludi, of course, who nailed down in "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women" the flimsiness of so many of the "scientific" statistics and studies claiming this or that theory about today's women. Remember all those statistics about women and marriage and terrorists? About women and depression and men?
Faludi scrupulously and relentlessly tracked them back to their sources and totally demolished the credibility of such studies.
But beyond the questionable studies and polls showing what women want -- or don't want -- lies the treacherous minefield of wildly fluctuating popular theories about what constitutes the proper role for today's woman.
In her book, "Erotic Wars: What Happened to the Sexual Revolution?" Lillian Rubin writes that women are placed increasingly in the position of having to make sense of an incredible number of mixed messages:
"Be an equal, but not wholly so. . . . Be assertive, but ready to give way. Make money, but not too much. Commit to a career, but be ready to stay home with the children. Be sexually aggressive, but . . ."
And when it comes to what's an "acceptable" role for women, writes Rubin, men are still calling the shots.
When I think about what's possible for women today, I always get bogged down at the point where work and family intersect. Even if such things as good day care, understanding employers and supportive husbands were universally guaranteed to working mothers, I'm not sure that women can ever fully avoid the "discontinuity" of a mother's life.
"I have never had a 'career,' " wrote Nobel Prize winner Alva Myrdal, an author and diplomat who began her professional life at 47, after her children were grown. "My path was more like a pleated ribbon where I, myself, nevertheless managed to insert one self-created activity after another."
Years later, Alva Myrdal's daughter would write that she learned from observing her mother that "the most profound curse on every woman's life . . . is the uncertainty of her life plan, given the conflicting hopes and expectations she faces."
Every working woman with children knows what it means to be caught between conflicting hopes for yourself and the expectations of family.
Is it a dilemma that can be solved by equalizing the roles of men and women? By dividing up parenthood more equitably between mothers and fathers? Time, I guess, will tell.
As for me: My head says yes. But my heart says no.