Who does the choosing in life?

Who does the choosing in life?

I started this (too long!) essay about two years ago. Dear reader, feel no obligation. This is imperfect and at times inelegant, but I’m posting to refer to and build upon in the future.

1. Choosing to be a Homemaker

I didn’t start out caring about gender, the chromosomes and cultures that shape us as women and as men. I started out focused on libertarian economics, that curious middle-American blend of freedom and capitalism which lets us think that we can forge our own lives, independent of all others who came before and who come after.

In this world, I respected my independent mother and her stay-at-home peers. I watched these women pursue their own interests, manage children and a household on their timing. And this is how I was raised: to get married and have babies, to cook and clean, watching the sheep through the lace curtains in the kitchen, sending the children out for eggs and weeding the garden. To emotionally support the husband, buy the groceries, file the paperwork. There would be work. But observing the determined women of rural Ohio, I also saw what seemed like freedom, the chance to run my little world as I chose.

This was my parents’ life: father debugging code late into the night, mother managing a household around the clock.

So it’s not surprising that our homeschool textbooks were themselves a guide to gender: Far Above Rubies taught a genteel world history while reminding us that a woman is self-effacing, modest, and never takes the credit. Like Elsie Dinsmore, my homeschool classmates down the road baked cupcakes and tidied their rooms with graceful smiles. No one asked what a woman should want, independent of husband or children. And even in 2000, we were prepared for “wife careers” stable enough to provide for a family in case of a man’s illness or unemployment. Ultimately, we would support the breadwinner, the central person of the household.

But reality has been different. The world has shifted, or at least its Facebook reflection: friends who married their true love in high-school are now divorced. Others are single mothers who work double shifts in the precarity economy. Catholic classmates have settled down to raise five and six children, and even the radical men and women who swore they’d never marry–well, now they’ve got rings, a house and dog, two careers, a retirement account, and a baby on the way.

What happened?

2. Choosing and Chosen For

Like any child, I didn’t like to get caught.

“I couldn’t help it!” I argued, when found liberating snickerdoodles from the cupboard.

My mother frowned, handing me a children’s book. The message: “you always, always have choices.” You can choose, no matter what temptation or pressure you’re under.

In college, even Aristotle agreed with my mom: we have a choice unless our actions arise from ignorance or are forced from the outside, as when Dorothy and Toto are:

“carried somewhere by stress of weather, or by people who have [them] in their power” (Nichomachean Ethics, Book III).

Given what I knew at fourteen, I chose a homemaking life. So I was surprised when my father took me to tour local colleges. I excelled, yet never made the leap to become like my wealthy classmates. And I tried moving down the class ladder, but something kept pulling me back to the middle, intellectual classes.

For all my worries about making it, I look back to see a life with bowling bumpers, the faint curve of a racing track directing our possible paths before we can even see its shape. No matter how I adjusted career goals (writer? social scientist? librarian?), I found myself travelling parallel paths.

“You chose this,” my father reminded me, when I was frustrated that I kept landing low-paid ‘female’ fields.

Yet did I? I think of M. Frye’s image of a birdcage, not visible until we take the wider view:

“Consider a birdcage. If you look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires… unable to see why a bird would not just fly around the wire any time it wanted… It is only when you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one, microscopically, and take a macroscopic view of the whole cage, that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere… the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon.”

And so I look around at the men and women, rich and poor, that I know on LinkedIn: who among us sets out to gain the title of associate business analyst, anti-trafficking coordinator, expert manager, corporate recruiter, or “chief word wrangler”?

Who sets out to become a father of five working in a materials processing office, or a great-aunt who is also a mid-level manager at a telecom?

But wasn’t it better than the alternatives, at the time? Didn’t we choose this?

3. Choosing: when a girl’s path is narrow

I’m no longer a libertarian, because I see how important we are, as humans, to each others’ survival. And I make choices each day, but my parents still haven’t convinced me that pure choice exists.

Instead, I find that we struggle, adjust, and persist in paths that preexisted us. We combine and diverge in our commitments: Latina professor, queer Christian, immigrant entrepreneur, blue-blooded surfing instructor.

Sometimes we go against the grain, yet often we find ourselves — even in our independence — doing what, statistically speaking, could be expected of us, liking what white people like. We find that some of our choices are magnified by the approval of others, while others are set aside in the face of external doubts or discouragement.

The Kazakhs of Central Asia have a saying:

Kizdin joli jinishke,

Or, “a girl’s path is narrow.” In nomadic Muslim communities, women were valued for their labor: making meals, caring for children and elderly in-laws, milking the sheep and goats, tending the yurts and the men in their lives. In such a past, a good girl’s path was narrow: she learned domestic skills, married a suitable arranged match, tended to his family, and raised her sons and daughters to do the same.

As my Kazakh friend Bena told me once, she was the youngest and her brothers never had to do chores in the house, “didn’t make beds, or lift a cup to clean it.” But when she protested, her mother would answer: “Go do it. You’re the girl.”

Now, of course, urban Kazakhs have more choices than in the past. Bena’s moved to the city, rising quickly in professional roles. In many democracies, people of all classes and colors are (theoretically) free to vote, to study for advanced degrees, to hold property, to work in the professions, to run their own businesses. No longer bound to their fathers’ professions, men also find their choices widened, if still constrained by the invisible strings of class, geography, and expectations.

We all choose our own paths now.

Yet the results when women and men (or rich and poor) choose the same path are still not the same. Affluent men rise quickly in business and politics; women are nudged towards nonprofits or “opt out” in a world where tax codes, lack of daycare, and family expectations tilt even the most talented women towards stepping back to raise the children they share with men.

We chose this. But like Aristotle’s unknowing man, or one carried away by force of weather, we both see and don’t see the choices we’re making, the forces shaping our lives.

4. Choosing to Serve

When Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) came to Kazakhstan, they trained their workers to smile. In the streets of Almaty and the food courts of Astana, young post-Soviet workers cluster behind the counter, offering “friendly” help as they serve a line of customers.

Perhaps the most vexing thing about working while female is this service. As a university student, I loved oceanography, prehistory, strategy, data analytics, and economics. Yet in the “neutral” world of business, I applied for analysis, management, or organizational roles– yet was told that I had a friendly smile, that I “looked” like the sort of person who belonged out front.

As one post-college job led to another, my resume began to reflect this: not a free choice, but the choice to take what was at hand.


In Jacobin, P. Frase contrasts “fake American smiles” with the “sincere Soviet rudeness” of a past era, noting the cheery emotional labor we project in public spaces. Emotional labor, of course, is often what women and support staff are expected to do for men and affluent women. As R. Hackman writes in the Guardian (worth a read!):

We remember children’s allergies, we design the shopping list… we are just better at remembering birthdays. We love catering to loved ones, and we make note of what they like to eat. We notice people’s health, and force friends and family to go see the doctor. We listen to our partner’s woes, forgive them the absences, the forgetfulness… we applaud success when it comes: the grant that was received, the promotion. It was their doing, and ours in the background. Besides, if we work hard enough, we can succeed too: all we need to do is learn to lean in.

But what if, much like childcare and house keeping, the sum of this ongoing emotional management is yet another form of unpaid labor?

And it’s true: as women move into the workforce, they don’t lose responsibility for the small tasks and needs and moods of a household; instead, they gain additional responsibility for the emotional well-being of strangers and colleagues at work, in a sort of second shift of the heart. As Hackman continues:

In a work context, emotional labor refers to the expectation that a worker should manipulate either her actual feelings or the appearance of her feelings… It also includes influencing office harmony, being pleasant, present but not too much, charming and tolerant and volunteering to do menial tasks…

5. Choosing to Adapt

In Why So Slow, V. Valian suggests that small choices have grand effects: small differences in gender schemas shift our lives through the affirmations and disapprovals we give each other. Some differences are biological: curvy hips on women, higher testosterone in (some) men. But others are cultural: ideas about which roles go to ambitious men and women, affirmations when women do what is ‘nice’ or when men do what is ‘brave.’

So unless it’s a terrible fit, most of us adapt to the gender roles of our culture. We love guns, or cupcakes. We play macho or femme. In some cultures, men cook; in others, women do. Here men fish, and there women do. All cultures assign some roles, emotions, or tasks by gender, even though the specifics vary widely. And through a thousand stray comments, middle-class Americans grow accustomed to the idea that boys should take more chances, that women should express their nurturing side.

As I wrote the first draft of this essay in 2013, I watched a little boy carry a toy rifle across a Kazakh café, and thought about the “natural” differences that shape our families and careers. His mother likely left her job to care for him, while his father continued long hours at KazBank.

As Valian wrote, men who are preparing for a child are not urged to put life “on hold” for a family, to cut back, to tidy the house, and to support their wives’ careers (p. 60). Yet in Kazakhstan and in America, female leaders step back to watch children jointly shared with their husbands, even as their husbands move ahead in the public world.

It’s the most rational decision: where else can a family find good care for infants? Who can afford it? Wouldn’t child-loving men be shamed for staying home? If two people can’t both hold 70-hour careers, whose is the first to go?

Yet the impacts are lasting for women, as individuals and in reinforcing stereotypes as a whole. Yet in a fragmented economy, living far from extended families, sometimes we wonder what other choices we have.

6. Choosing a new reply

“Oh I kept the first for another day

Yet knowing that way turned on to way

I doubted if I should ever come back.” (Frost)

As we see above, choice isn’t just what we do. It’s also how we respond to the gender norms that the world throws at us: when a coach tells a boy to “man up,” when a manager won’t hire women because “you might get pregnant,” when male friends shame a guy for supporting his wife’s carer; when a husband reassures his wife she can always step out of the workforce. We do have choices: choice is in all of our actions, our responses to the thousand things our parents, bosses, lovers, customers, and friends hope from us. As T. Slee writes of behavioral economics:

Instead of thinking about choices as revealing preferences, it pays to think of choices as ‘replies’ to the actions or likely actions of others. The best choice you can make is the best reply to the likely actions of others (24).

Or as L. Kipnis writes:

When it comes to sexual pleasure, whatever inequities nature has imposed on women can be overcome… yet when it comes to [children] this mostly still translates into [women] taking on the social role of raising them, too. Even with men doing more parenting than before, the majority of women are still left facing the well-rehearsed motherhood-versus-career dichotomy. But it’s not a dichotomy; it’s a socially organized choice… There would be all sorts of ways to organize society and sexuality that don’t create false choices if we simply got inventive about it. So let’s make new choices together.

So we can outline the gender challenges we face: a dual burden for women of emotional labor at work and at home; the pressure on men to not express emotion, touch, or bond with male friends (which just increases the burden on their loving wives); the ever-expanding ideals of a good parent; the isolating ideals of the absent provider father; the lack of affordable childcare; the cultural pressure for a man to show his worth by providing and a woman by supporting; the idea that girls tidy up; boys don’t cry.

7. Choosing to Act

But let’s not make any man or woman’s road narrow.

Instead, let’s make new choices together. Let’s see all men and women have the opportunity for good relationships, rewarding work, impact in their community, and a stable income and retirement. Le’s let everyone be strong and flexible, aggressive and nurturing. Let’s

Explore thought experiments: If Stacy was Jonathan, would you be training her for a promotion? If Josh were Margie, would it be such a bad idea for him to take a break and support his family? How much of what seems normal is just because confirmation bias leads us to see what we’re already looking for?

Gender-swap a few words: What happens if you call a little girl handsome? If you refer to a male colleaue as “sweet”? K. Kelsky recommends that recommenders mentally switch gender when writing reference letters, to ensure that they’re not giving women faint praise. D. Sucher wrote a Chrome extension that switches the genders in every sentence you read online, something that I promise makes the comments sections a bizarre experience.

– Valian has other advice for women as well: persist in the face of setbacks, think hard before opting out, seek as much information and networking as you can, work long and hard and take every small opportunity, choose to pioneer in unusual and powerful roles, bargain on role responsibilities, develop valuable expertise, and find authority figures who will recommend you just as they do men. Although I wrote this post before Lean In came out, Sheryl Sandberg’s advice also addresses how individuals can lean in, complementing Valian’s focus on how institutions can eliminate those subtle and unjust differences in how we treat people.

– Advocate for social change. Anything that makes workplaces more flexible and shares out the responsibility for children and household maintenance more equally is likely to help both male and female parents. Good options include:

  • Public childcare for children under 5 (just as we already support children 5-18 through the public school system).
  • Expansion of paid maternity and paternity leave, sufficient in combination to cover the time until daycares will accept infants.
  • Gender-blind and class-blind means of evaluating employees.
  • A shorter and more focused working week, and/or more flexible hours to allow parents to work from home.
  • Library and community programs to encourage grandparents, uncles and aunts, and community members to support working families.

I’m sure you can think of more.

This was a long essay — an attempt, an initial reflection.

But the message is: let’s choose a broader path. Let’s support each other, men and women, in making new paths, in a world that is always partially chosen for us.

Thoughts? Leave a note here!