Plus, I adored the ending of Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women.”
In the final scenes of the movie, Gerwig deftly manages to have it both ways — to give us a sappy romantic ending and suggest that that ending is pure focus-tested fantasy. We see both Jo racing in the rain to claim her true love and Jo telling her editor that the heroine of the story that we are watching should end up alone. “No,” he replies; for the story to sell, she must marry.
We want both: We want Jo to be a successful, independent woman, happily unmarried, and we want her to be happily married and in love. Thrillingly, Gerwig gives us both.
But “both” is not a feature of real life.
Yes, it’s true that today we can have both children and a career, although as Calhoun points out, that’s harder to do than we were promised. But we can’t both have children and not have children. We can’t be both married and single. We have to choose.
I told my son the other day that I wasn’t the type for a midlife crisis, and he raised his eyebrows and then plucked from my purse my brand-new New York Public Library Card, procured on my last visit to the city. I don’t live in the city. I don’t even live in a city. I live on a farm in upstate New York. I didn’t mean to choose a suburban/rural life, but that’s what I did. And now I find myself carrying a tiny piece of the city around in my purse, a memento of a life I don’t lead.
A midlife crisis is the realization that, whether we meant to or not, we have chosen. Because it presumes choice, the midlife crisis is predicated on privilege — I get that. It still doesn’t feel good.
And it feels worse for women, whose choices remain more limited than men’s. As the New York Times points out, the language of “personal choice” obscures the fact that, absent paid family leave, public preschool and a widespread change in gender expectations, women aren’t really free to choose. Women still bear the children, bear the brunt of child care and elder care, and bear disproportionately the effects of income inequality and a poor social safety net.
Calhoun argues that, despite having more options than our mothers did, Gen X women feel even worse at midlife because we expected better. The first of the Gen X birth years, the mid-1960s, coincided with the passage of Medicare, Medicaid and Head Start. In 1972, smack in the middle of my generation’s emergence into the world, Congress passed Title IX and the Equal Rights Amendment. My sisters and I marched in an ERA demonstration in Harrisonburg, Va., when I was 8.
It totally worked: Virginia ratified the amendment, just 42 years later.
At the time, of course, we didn’t realize all that remained stacked against us in our culture, in our institutions and in our heads. We believed we could be and do anything, that we were Jo but with the pill and the right to vote, Jo but with infinite options.
And though those options were not infinite, they were expansive enough to give us the illusion of infinity. Until the moment we opted for one path over another — then we lost it. Our sense of youthful potential. Our Jo-ness.
Now my sisters and I are all Marmee, if not “angry nearly every day” of our lives then at least suffering what Calhoun describes as “the contrast between our ‘you can be anything’ indoctrination and the stark realities encountered in midlife.”
There is no cure for this condition. Understanding, perhaps, that we both want and don’t want advice, Calhoun does and does not give it. She recommends less social media, more sleep and maybe a regular poker game with the gals. But mostly she settles on the idea that we’ll just age out of it. We need to lower our expectations. If we just wait, time will do that for us.
Meanwhile, we can go to the movies to feel like Jo again, and revel in a moment when “both” seems briefly possible.
When we left “Little Women,” I discovered that my husband was less enchanted than I with the narrative ambiguity, the Möbius-strip quality, of the movie’s ending. It didn’t make sense logically! Did she marry him in the end or didn’t she?
Yes! I cried triumphantly. Yes!