In one short, 12-day span, The New York Times published two articles that serves as feminist bookends, of a sort, regarding the pitfalls facing women when we try to be too darn nice.
The first was Catherine Newman’s “I Do Not Want My Daughter to Be Nice.” In the piece, this 40-something mother explains why she does not instruct her ten-year-old daughter to smile at strangers or engage in the excessive people-pleasing etiquette Newman (and so many of us 70s daughters) were taught when it comes to interacting with men.
“I want my daughter to be tough, to say no, to waste exactly zero of her God-given energy on the sexual, emotional and psychological demands of lame men – of lame anybodies. I don’t want her to accommodate and please. I don’t want her to wear her good nature like a gemstone, her body like an ornament…I do not [want her to] ‘Say thank you to the nice man who wolf-whistled!’ ‘Smile at the frat boy who’s date-raping you!’”
Then came “The Opt Out Generation Wants Back In” by Perfect Madness author Judith Warner. The piece spotlights elite stay-at-home moms’ mental and economic status a decade after leaving work, as a follow up to Lisa Belkin’s famous “Opt Out Revolution” from 2003. Inadvertently, though, Warner addresses the same issue as Newman: how women’s desire to please our husbands, to be “nice,” complicates our lives, even when it comes to career choices and marriage.
Take Sheilah O’Donnel, today a 44-year-old Maryland mother of three. O’Donnel was one of the stay-at-home moms featured in Lesley’s Stahl’s famous 2004 60 Minutes segment, “The Case for Staying Home.” Definitely very nice. Judith Warner ask O’Donnel to revisit the push-pull of work vs. home, and why she chose to stay home ten years ago, even though it meant abandoning a career where she earned a whopping $500,000 annually.
“Even with the reduced schedule,” O’Donnel explained to the New York Times. “The stresses of life in a two-career household put an overwhelming strain on [her] marriage. There were ugly fights with her husband about laundry and over who would step in when the nanny was out sick.”
There are lots of modern day motherhood issues here. However, to me, the most intriguing subplot was how critical (in both definitions of the word) O’Donnel’s husband was of her desire to work. O’Donnel’s career, and self-esteem, were derailed by her misguided attempt to please her husband. In my view, Catherine Newman is right to warn her daughter to avoid the same mistake.
“‘All this would be easier if you didn’t work,’ O’Donnel recalled her husband saying as she struggled to figure out whether to quit work to ease the marital strife. “I was so stressed. I said, ‘This is ridiculous.’ We’d made plenty of money. We’d saved plenty of money.”
To placate her husband, and to avoid fighting over why on earth he wasn’t helping more with the kids and housework, O’Donnel quit her lucrative job. To keep the peace in her marriage, she traded a life of business meetings, client dinners and commissions, for homework, a “dream house” renovation, and getting pregnant with her third child. She was very nice.
“I really thought it was what I had to do to save my marriage,” she said.
But as Catherine Newman might point out to her daughter, pleasing men is no path to happiness. What Newman doesn’t ask, but I constantly wonder, is: Why are women taught to please the men in our lives, instead of looking out for ourselves? In what ways does our culture teach men to put themselves first, and to assume their wives’ happiness will follow? Do our daughters today feel any less pressure to “be nice” than we did growing up?
I don’t mean to suggest this is a simple gender issue. Men clearly have their own cultural burdens. There is no evidence that men are happier, in general, than women. But being nice didn’t help Sheilah. The troubles continued in O’Donnel’s marriage. Without a salary or an independent work identity, Sheilah’s self-confidence plummeted, complicating her life immeasurably.
“I felt like such a loser,” she confessed to Warner and CBS. “I poured myself into the kids and soccer. I didn’t know how to deal with the downtime. I did all the volunteering, ran the auctions. It was my way of coping.”
After five years at home, Sheilah O’Donnel was hired part time, at low pay, by one of the charities where she had volunteered. She loved being back at work. Unfortunately, her husband didn’t want her there, no matter how much she enjoyed it. And clearly, when his wife stopped focusing on pleasing him, he wasn’t pleased.
“I look back on it as the beginning of the end of our marriage,’ her husband explained to the New York Times. “Once she started to work, she started to place more value in herself, and because she put more value in herself, she put herself in front of a lot of things – family, and ultimately, her marriage.”
Interesting. Not “our” marriage. But “her” marriage. Not so nice. Did his demands that his wife sacrifice her independence and self-esteem play no role in the relationship’s success or failure?
O’Donnel is now a divorced single mom of three. She lives in a small apartment overlooking a parking lot, instead of the custom-built six bedroom house she enjoyed as a wealthy stay-at-home mother. Today she works full time for one-fifth the salary she used to command.
But this isn’t a cautionary tale about the perils of divorce, or the financial risks of staying home to care for your kids. It’s about the conundrum Catherine Newman wants her daughter – and women of the next generation — to avoid, by never learning to be “nice.”
“[My daughter] is tender, fierce and passionate — the kid who can be a pain the neck at a play date, insisting on the rigors of turn-taking, of fair-sharing, of tidying up… That said, though, she’s got your back. She is a patron saint of babies and animals, of the excluded or teased. ‘That’s not right,’ she’s not afraid to say. ‘Stop it.’
She is a beautiful kid, but she is also sure and determined in a way that is not exactly pretty. Which is fine, because God help me if that girl ends up smiling through her entire life as if she is waitressing or pole-dancing or apologizing for some vague but enormous infraction, like the very fact of her own existence.
I picture her at the prom in stripy cotton pajamas, eating potato chips with both hands. I picture her slapping a patriarch-damning sticker on her jacket. I picture her running the country, saving the world, being exactly the kind of good bad girl that she knows herself to be.
And I think: You go.
I think: Fly!
I think: Take me with you.”
Yes. Take us with you. To a place where women can be ourselves, and be loved for who we are, and be the kind of mothers we yearn to be, without fearing criticism or backlash from the men in our lives and the culture in which we live, work, and beget the next generation of women.