Is This the New Female Midlife Crisis? "Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses"
In her new book, "Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses," Claire Dederer uncovers a topic that most women are afraid to admit: We are deeply, profoundly imperfect. And yet, we are a generation of mothers, wives, friends and daughters who are consumed with trying to do everything right. For Dederer, this pursuit of perfection started with the birth of her first child -- whose life began with a serious condition that resulted in months of quarantine -- and a lifelong bargaining promise to "do everything perfectly and avert disaster."
From there, this quest was glorified by other moms who adhered to strict standards involving everything from making homemade baby food to avoiding the "wrong toys," to getting in with the right co-op. Even sharing the same bed.
"Attachment parenting -- the general name given to the kind of parenting that involved co-sleeping and breast-feeding on demand and toting your baby around on your person -- had the mothers and fathers of North Seattle in its grip," Dederer writes in her memoir.
"Exhausted, greasy-haired Dansko-shod mothers stumbled into cafes with their babies snugged to their chests, anxious about drinking still more coffee -- how much caffeine made its way into breast milk anyway? No mother within a given set of zip codes had had a full night of sleep in years. We walked into things. I'm surprised we were allowed to drive and that, once driving, we didn't run into each other all the time. It was a crisis, really."
Crisis indeed. We are living in an era where women are challenged to find a state of perfectionism not only in motherhood, but in work, relationships, our homes, our bodies, you name it. The New York Times has gone so far as to suggest that Dederer's inward journey is the hallmark of the new female midlife crisis: We're not joining cults, or jettisoning our husbands. Instead, we take it all to the mat.
Dederer was brave enough to crack open this unwritten set of ideals, poke fun at them and expose how preposterous it is that she -- or any woman -- holds herself to such an unrealistically high set of standards. So we took the time to pick her brain.
After 10 years on the mat, Dederer, 44, who lives on an island near Seattle, doesn't claim to have it all figured out. As a matter of fact, she says some days are harder than ever now. But, just like her gradual acceptance of pigeon pose, today, she is no longer obsessed with doing everything right.
MyDaily: Why do you think women feel such pressure to be the perfect wife, mother, daughter and friend today? How are these roles different now than they were 30 or 40 years ago?
Claire Dederer: I'm not sure where that comes from. There is sort of a way that we're all doing it to each other with this community norm we're all placing on each other. The pressure comes from trying to be our best at everything. We're incredibly well-informed today, and so we look for the ultimate way to do everything. The difference between now and the past is that we hold ourselves to different standards, with the pressures to be very good people in a very specific way. For example, we are working (in outside jobs) more than our mothers and grandmothers did. It's interesting that we have less time now, but have more pressure to do more.
Tell me more about the parental obsession of "attachment parenting." What do you mean by that and how does this motif run through your book?
Attachment parenting is this idea that as a parent your ideal is to have your child literally attached to you as much as possible –- physically, emotionally, etc. [It's] like a giant money belt on you all the time. That works for some, but it's problem for the rest of us who don't want to be attached to our child all the time. Any ideal like this sets you up to seem like you're failing as a parent. Parenting is an enormous job and if you have this enormous set of standards, you're going to be failing all the time. I actually felt like I was succeeding or failing all the time -- and what is that with parenting? I mean, is my child going to be a thug because I don't co-sleep?
Instead of being supportive of each other, why are women and mothers so judgmental of each other?
That's a really good point. In the first line of his book, Dr. Spock said, "Trust yourself, you know more than you think." I think we don't trust ourselves. People feel lost today, like they don't know what they're doing. Many of us don't live near families for support, advice and a reality check, so we end up casting ourselves off, and our insecurities result in judgment of ourselves and others.
You talk about a particular coffee shop being a relief from the constant niceness of our lives. Do you think women of a certain generation feel like they need to be nice all the time?
That's interesting. For me, certainly I feel like that all the time. If I'm not nice all the time, I feel like something is going to explode. I don't know if that's a universal feeling. After I turned 40 though, I just didn't have time for that anymore. There was something that gave me permission to not feel like that anymore. Yoga has taught me to be more connected with what I am actually feeling or experiencing, and it is now OK to have a feeling versus just glaze over it. I don't want to deny my feelings, and I really want to make sure my kids are not denying theirs.
It's been said that women used to flee to find themselves, but now, you seem to suggest that they must look inside, instead of outside, for that wisdom. Is that "search" only for women who feel unhappy or restless in their lives?
I don't think of myself as a spiritual person, so I don't know about everyone else. I was just trying to find a way to get through my life because it wasn't functioning for me. The group of people I do yoga with are very devoted, and some of them really are having a hard time in their lives and some are very happy. Based on that, I would say that everyone wants, deserves and needs the opportunity for that internal growth.
There is this essential mystery in the center of American yoga. The yoga we do is not the same as what was developed in India over thousands of years. Over there, it's more of a way to live. We're all doing "wrong yoga," but that's kind of freeing because you can do whatever works. Mainstream yoga gives us what we need. People here are so uncomfortable with silence, holding still and being in-tune to what they're experiencing, and the yoga here gives us that. It's all pretty beneficial.
There's no doubt that yoga positively impacts our physical selves. How has it most impacted your inner self?
I still come unglued all the time. I'm still amazed at how impactful it is is. It has taught me how to admit and accept what's actually happening. Yoga is really, really, really good at making you see how things are -- not how they're supposed to be. If you ignore reality in yoga class, it can be peril. Yoga has made me slow down, take a deep breath and accept what is happening in my life. It has also translated into my relationships and being a more authentic person.
I am a serious yoga practitioner as well, so I get the "aha moments" that happen on the mat. Explain your best one.
The funny thing about my experience is that it's non-dramatic. It's not like all of a sudden everything changed. It was a very slow change over a period of years. There were a lot of tiny moments. One of those had to do with falling down. I have chronic vertigo so inversions are hard for me. If our teacher wanted us to do a handstand, I would go into the corner and hide. The first time I really committed to it, I fell on my head. It was a yoga humiliation moment. I looked around the room though, and no one even noticed or cared. That experience of having my imperfection being on display was a really essential yoga experience.
At one point in the book, you talk about admiring another yogi in class who could do a perfect lotus pose. Did yoga help you feel less competitive with other mothers/women, or did that same vibe exist in the yoga studio?
It's definitely lessened the competition or given me an out and a way to laugh at it. If there's a lot of looking around the room, or competitiveness, my teacher goes crazy and adds in a lot of jumping and vigorous movements so you are forced to acknowledge that you're not perfect. The tool of humor is much more available to me now.
Do you think yoga can provide salvation for all women who feel "lesser than" or discontent with who they really are?
I think the practice of something that's outside your normal day-to-day experience and comfort zone is beneficial for everyone. Not knowing how to do every single thing and have humility is important. I think yoga is something that everyone can benefit from. In America, there is an image that yoga is only for a certain type of person. There is a strange combination of intimidation and contempt. But it can really benefit people who are having all kinds of mental, spiritual and physical problems. I would love to see yoga being offered to all kinds of people.
Deborah Dunham is a freelance writer. When she's not tethered to her computer, she can be found heels-over-head in yoga. She's especially good at Savasana.
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