How I came to write Broken Patterns
When I reached my thirties, I had a lot of questions.
I had grown up in the 1950s—an era when men worked and women wore high heels and tight skirts and had babies. I went to college in the late 1960s when drugs, sex, and politics challenged the order of our childhood: the “traditional” family, neighborhood schools, segregation by race and sex. In the 1970s, feminists exhorted us to fight for equal¬ity—to prove women could do things with … as well as . . . better than . . . men. By 1980, I was a successful television journalist in New York City, trying both to challenge “the system,” and be promoted within it. I wanted to marry a fine, sensitive man who had a lucrative, socially- redeeming profession and plenty of time to spend with me and our children-to-be.
To all appearances, I almost had it all. My work sent me jetting around the country to interview some of the important thinkers of the day. I owned my own apartment in Manhattan and was thinking about marrying a surgical resident who had a master’s degree in English litera¬ture. But something was wrong.
Early in my career, I had helped to start a weekly newspaper in order to help fight for the rights of others. I wrote an expose of a migrant labor camp where workers were forced by men with guns to pick tomatoes— and weeds, when there were no tomatoes. Later, I wrote about a woman judge who seemed to discriminate against welfare recipients and blacks. As a radio reporter in New York City, I roamed around 42nd Street investigating prostitution and pornography.
I was proud to have travelled on my own, to have advocated for social justice, to have made a difference. Maybe it was easier then than it would be later on; many of us, just out of college in the 1970s and bolstered by Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, were heady with a sense of mission. Perhaps, working on behalf of others came naturally; as a woman, that is what I had been brought up to do. There was a real sense of purpose, a drive to prove I could do things women didn’t ordi¬narily do—to prove I could achieve equally with men.
By 1980, I had joined the Establishment. Outwardly, I was a hard- driving reporter, competing with men on their terms, and I was gaining recognition, skill, and power. Instead of feeling more competent, how¬ever, I was becoming less sure of myself. The outer world, which I had once explored with gusto, began to feel dangerous. There were, to be sure, real threats—after all, I was living in New York City and as a jour¬nalist I had survived more than a few close calls. A deeper problem was that progressing in the world of work, in that outer world, was beginning to threaten my inner sense of self.
Inside, I felt that the person attending press conferences and grap¬pling with politicians, scientists, doctors, and lawyers wasn’t really me. I knew myself as a shy person who had, as a child, spent hours at the piano, made doll clothes and held tea parties. I had become a journalist to help people and now I was making a name off of their woes. I was reporting on the world from two perspectives—the Establishment’s, and my own. They valued power, speed, money, and machines. I valued, above all else, caring relationships and the enhancement of possibility for every individual. At work, I started to have trouble making decisions; achievement, there, was defined in terms that felt masculine to me. At home, I quit cooking and decorating, which I’d once enjoyed, because they seemed too feminine. I was stuck—unable to move ahead in any realm. Sometimes I felt like a piece of cardboard.
Then, Frank, a fellow reporter, was promoted ahead of me. Partly, he beat me out through luck—if luck means getting to cover a riot that breaks out in Miami while you happen to be there on vacation. But it wasn’t only luck. When it looked as though a nuclear reactor in Pennsyl¬vania might blow up, Frank volunteered for duty. I should have covered the story—my beats included health, the environment, and technol¬ogy—but I opted out, worried about the possible effect of radioactivity on my unborn children. Another reason Frank got the promotion was that he covered business and economics—a clear path to upward mobil¬ity in our shop. Those fields felt foreign to an English and art major like me, and I wanted to give a voice to the people who were losing benefits as the Reagan administration dismantled social programs.
I felt trapped. I wanted equality and I wanted success. I had the skill, I had the opportunity, I had the drive. But I could no longer push forward—because it was no longer clear to me what forward meant. Yes, there was sexism; yes, there was sexual harassment; yes, there were equal pay problems. But I also approached the world differently from many of my male colleagues. I was interested in different stories; I didn’t enjoy competing; I didn’t like the detachment journalism requires of its prac¬titioners; I was uncomfortable with the quest for power over others that so many of my colleagues seemed to enjoy.
Had I chosen the wrong field? Was the problem that I was a woman? Was it that my own strengths were devalued … or that I thought they were? How far would—and could—I bend to gain the respect of the men in charge? Would I ever reach a position in which I could influence how things were done? Or would I be forced to contradict my inner voice to the point where it was silenced? Could I find some compromise?
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Time for a breather. Fellowship. Sabbatical. School. I took a leave from my job for what I thought would be a year. I interviewed other journalists. What did I find?
One high-level reporter was concerned that if she continued to ad¬vance she would become a laughingstock, the butt of jokes. She believed, at some level, that she could not be both successful at work and well- liked as an attractive woman. While she continued to achieve, she played out this conflict in physical terms, through large weight gains and losses, in what she described as a near-obsession with her appearance.
Another journalist had accepted a promotion at the same time her first child was born; her husband took on most of the household and child-rearing responsibilities. She drove herself, convinced that she was “in a harness, uncreative,” and tried constantly to mediate between her superiors and her underlings. This buffer role, she said, was one her own mother had played in her family in the 1950s. This journalist also shared something with her father—each night she arrived home angry and ex¬hausted, just as her father had. “I didn’t want to see my husband or my child,” she said. “I just wanted to go into a room and shut myself off.”
Yet another journalist had spent ten years scrambling from freelance job to freelance job. At thirty-two, she had been offered the job of her dreams—in New York. She had also managed to fall in love with a man who lived hundreds of miles away—in a conservative southern town where most women still didn’t work. He wanted children, but the idea of having them terrified her—she was afraid having a child would make her “ordinary,” like other women. All women, she believed, were devalued by men. She wanted to distinguish herself, to hold power, to run a news magazine. “To me,” she said, “power is an aphrodisiac.” On the other hand, she did not want to live without a man. “You can’t cuddle up with your Rolodex at night,” she said. Like most of the women I interviewed, she was, in her mid-thirties, at an impasse. But why?
Over the next four years, I interviewed more than forty successful career women in their mid-thirties. I wanted to understand the conflicts women were feeling and expressing. These conflicts went well beyond the problems of balancing career and family; I wondered if they might, somehow, be rooted in feminine identity itself. What was the basis of these conflicts? Where had they come from? How were they to be resolved?
For the women I interviewed, 1 had three main questions. First, why had they entered careers when most of their mothers had not? Second, what was it like to make the transition from a “traditional” background to a “man’s” career? And finally, where did they see themselves going?
Answering those questions turned out to be more complicated than I ever could have imagined. The conflicts women expressed involved far more than psychology, sociology, law, organizational behavior, or history could explain. Rather, I found, these conflicts stemmed from the interplay of family, individual, society, and technology, going back generations.
The key to it all, though, was the relationships of women to their mothers and grandmothers.