Old Wives' Tales: Or, Why We Should All Just Give Up Now

The New York Observer's Irina Aleksander coins a meme: the Cautionary Matron - basically a generation of women disappointed in their lives and passing on their tales of woe to impressionable youth. But can we handle the truth?

Says one of Aleksander's youthful friends of her particular CM, "Rarely do I hang up the phone with her and feel comforted. Usually, I feel anxiety and paralysis about the decisions that I need to make to avoid everything she warns me about." The Cautionary Matron is all about soul-baring, stories of disillusionment, failed relationships, the realities of marriage, the hazards of staying single. They write essays and books and star in sitcoms, and their message is: the reality's not all it's cracked up to be.

Aleksander interviews both a number of these professional confessors, as well as the younger women they've traumatized. Says writer Sandra Tsing Loh, who wrote memorably about her disillusionment with marriage, she and her ilk are moved to bare their souls,

I think because we're really surprised! In our 20s, the world was totally our oyster. All those fights had been fought. We weren't going to be '50s housewives, we were in college, we could pick and choose from a menu of careers, and there were all these interesting guys out there not like our dads. We were smart women who had a lot of options and made intelligent choices and that's why we're writing these pieces. We're shocked!...It must be very confusing...We were the protégés of old-guard feminists: ‘Don't have a baby, or if you must, have one, wait till your 40s.' We were sold more of a mission plan and now you guys … Well, sadly, it all seems like kind of a mess. There is no mission. Even stay-at-home moms feel unsuccessful unless they're canning their own marmalade and selling it on the Internet. You just have a bunch of drunk, depressed 45-year-old ladies going, ‘A-BLAH-BLAH-BLAH!'"

And, eulogizes one of the author's friends,

They are the first generation of women who were presented with choices...I think they are in the process of reflecting on a half-century of existence and are realizing that ‘having it all' was really a lie. Sometimes I think the idea of ‘having it all' can almost be more disempowering than ‘having it all' because one is never allowed enough time or energy to excel in one area of their life.

So, is this the way of the world? Are things really so bleak? And are we in a creepy, antagonistic us-and-them relationship with women half a generation older? Sometimes it seems that way. After all, why are these writers bent on saying all this, sharing all this, imparting this "advice?" Part of it's the natural instinct towards sharing and guiding, I really do believe. But I also think there's something else at work. This isn't really about helping people make better choices. It's not really about other women at all. Rather, it's about themselves. The same people thought they were fascinating and representative in their 20s, and nothing has changed as their lives have followed a course that wasn't novel when Flaubert and Tolstoy took it on in the 19th century. There was always disillusionment. There was always age. And there was always youth, just not openly deified. Sometimes today it seems like every generation wants to co-opt youth. Our parents did it - never again would Youth Culture match theirs. Now we're being told we'd better not even compete with those a few years older; these few writers have done youth, and it's overrated. If they can't have it, it sometimes seems, no one can.

So. If there's one lesson I think we can learn from this spate of self-congratulatory self-flagellation, I'd say it's not about when you marry or who you marry or whether or not you have kids. At the end of the day, each of these stories is personal and particular and it's the assumption of smug, knowing universality that's most annoying. Because what can you say? As writer Lori Gottlieb tells Aleksander, when younger women don't want to hear these hard truths,

I think it's part denial and part arrogance. I get it because I used to be that way in my 20s. I wanted the fairy tale. I thought that I deserved to have it, that it was my inalienable right! So that's the arrogance, and the denial is that they simply can't acknowledge that they, too, could become these older regretful women who wished they knew what was important in love earlier on. We're not envious-we're wiser.

Hey, she's the one who used the word "arrogance."

First of all, I don't think these women represent their generation, married women, anything. If I were their age, I think I'd quite resent being painted as a disillusioned, embittered casualty of idealism. These are squeaky wheels, and, dare I say it, narcissists who assume that their experiences must be universal. No one objected to Elizabeth Wurtzel's bizarre Elle I-hate-aging piece because we couldn't handle what she was dishing out, but because it was pretty clear her priorities, which she presented as universal, didn't speak for the rest of us. We weren't weirded out by Gottlieb's "Marry Him!" essay in the Atlantic because it burst our ideological bubble, but because it seemed flatly contradicted by so much reality.

And, assuming she is representative, what does Gottlieb want? For younger women to accept her words as law, throw in the towel, have kids/never have kids/settle/not settle and all-around admit that our lives are bound for disappointment? The piece is rife with young women getting depressed by their elders' gloomy prognostications. But, really, this violates every tenet of youth, and I don't really see how it would help anyone, save that maybe we'd crank out fewer personal essays ourselves.But, that said, there is wisdom to be gained. A big danger, to me, seems to be everyone thinking she's the protagonist - tragic, or comic, or romantic. And the truth is, most of us aren't protagonists, we're bit players or sidekicks or secondary storylines, and there's nothing wrong with that. For the most part, surely, our experiences are both unique and common. I don't think people always felt entitled to the spotlight; and maybe Rita Wilson's less glamorous than Meg Ryan's Annie, maybe Celeste Holm is less dramatic than Margot or Eve, but I'm guessing their lives are calmer, happier, or at any rate more private. There are worse things. I'm not a heroine; I'm a best friend, an observer. It's a good deal easier and if that's settling, it's a kind I can handle. (Oh, and let me add here something that Commenter Coreybear said: "What people need to remember is that they're not the heroine of EVERYONE's story, and that seems to be the problem with these women." Much better put, but that's what I meant to say!)

The Cautionary Matrons [NY Observer]

Related: Let's Call the Whole Thing Off [The Atlantic]
Marry Him! [Atlantic]
Failure To Launch: When Beauty Fades [Elle]