Still Smarting

By Sunday evening, single women across America were trying to slit their wrists by inflicting a hundred little paper cuts from the Sunday New York Times Magazine, featuring an article by Maureen Dowd, “What’s a Modern Girl to Do?”

Feminism is over, Dowd writes, men only want to date non-challenging, non-career-oriented women, and women are willingly returning to traditional gender roles.

If “Sex and the City’s” Carrie Bradshaw were writing this article, she’d type in her familiar courier font: “Sometimes I wonder … are men threatened by smart, successful women?”

But Carrie’s era has ended, apparently, says the real-life (non-sex) op-ed writer Dowd, pictured in the Oct. 30 magazine in an austere black suit paired with fishnet stockings.

“So was the feminist movement some sort of cruel hoax? Do women get less desirable as they get more successful?” she laments.

I felt like I was listening to my father, or my rabbi — if I still had one (a rabbi, not a father) — with this return to men as providers, women as caretakers and never the twain shall meet.

Dowd’s basic theory posits that “The Rules” — that once-silly guidebook on how to entrap a man, which is now read nonironically, as in The Torah of dating — was just the beginning. The end, a decade later, is women in their 20s who go to law school planning to drop out to get married, women who won’t call a guy because men don’t like to be chased and men marrying nurturers like their secretaries because they don’t desire a challenging woman (like “the boss”). Which leaves some smart, successful women wondering, alone, where they went wrong.

It’s not that Dowd said anything particularly new. It’s just that, well, the thing is … a lot of it is true. I wish I could deny it; I wish I could say that feminism is safe and Dowd is bitter. And that the people she quotes are a small random selection; and that plenty of people find an equal partner; and my friends and I will too someday (soon). But I’ve had too many recent experiences that suggest otherwise:

  • At a recent Sukkot meal I met a single guy, an educated artist-intellectual who was becoming religious. What he found lovely about religion was the “traditional roles that people — women — played in terms of family,” he said, before stopping when he saw the look of horror on my face.
  • My friend’s father recently came out to visit from New York. The man’s a professor at a prestigious university and married to a woman who is also a professor at a better university and who makes more money than him. After I spent the whole night trying to charm him silly, he told his son, “She’s going to have trouble meeting a man. She’s too smart.”
  • I was recently rebuffed by a guy who said, “You’re the type of woman I could bring home to my parents, but my problem is I’m only attracted to stupid, simple women — women whom I’d never socialize with or bring home to my parents.”

He’d go out with these bartenders, dancers — secretaries — for a few months till conversation ran dry and he couldn’t stand the sight of them any longer and then flee like an escaped convict to socialize with the likes of me — people in his “class.” It was not a question of looks.

“You’re just too smart for me,” he said sadly.

Look, I’ve tried dating down. My last two boyfriends were by no means my intellectual equals; they weren’t threatened by my brain, but they weren’t particularly interested either. Or interesting, really. I chucked them in hopes of finding my intellectual equal, my soul mate, the man I can ask advice from and discuss everything with — from literature to politics to religion to child rearing, to even this stupid New York Times article.

But I hear that he’s off dating his secretary, his physical therapist, his nanny, his cook — all the nurturers we thought we could hire while we provided the intellectual stimulation, which he apparently prefers to get from “The Daily Show.”

Look, maybe we can’t have it all — the perfect career and the perfect man and the perfect family — and if I could do it all over again, maybe I’d do some things differently: Maybe I wouldn’t have done all that I’ve done if I had known the price for independence is … being alone.

Maybe. But maybe not.

Dating for women of my generation has always been about the conflict of being yourself vs. behaving like someone else in order to get the prized man. But what kind of guy would I get if I behaved like someone else? Who would I be? What kind of we would there be if I weren’t me?

The women of the generations before me, well, maybe they were lucky. Lucky without feminism, lucky to be in the haven of their traditional roles. And maybe that’s the happy fate that also awaits the women of the future.

What is a Modern Girl to do, Ms. Dowd? Sadly enough she doesn’t answer that question, so I guess this is one article I’m going to have to write on my own.


Dear Deborah

Deborah Berger-Reiss is a West Los Angelespsychotherapist.

All rights reserved by author

Hooked on Rejection

Dear Deborah,

My 17-year-old son is hooked on a girl. She’s everything he sayshe wishes he could be and everything he knows we wish he couldbe. She’s sure to be valedictorian, on her way to Harvard, while heis not a great student. We were thrilled when they started dating.She’s the perfect girl, but her priorities are school and experiencesin life (i.e. dating), and she seems to have a problem stayingcommitted more than a day or two each week.

So each week, they break up, get back together, and the traumathat ensues for my son has rendered him depressed, insecure andconstantly obsessing about how he can be good enough to win her back.He dyes his hair weekly and works out constantly to impress her. Witheach “should we break up” discussion, his self-esteem crashes.

Is there anything we can do to help him break this pattern?


Dear M.B.,

Perhaps the only thing more painful than teen-age emotionalwhiplash is the parents’ helplessness as they witness theseslow-motion collisions. Unfortunately, your son is not likely tolisten to advice, to attempted shoring up of his bruised ego or tomuch else. His girlfriend’s fickleness is only another reinforcementof what he already knows to be true: that his parents wish he couldbe better, brighter and more “perfect” — like his girlfriend.

What he needs to learn is that he is loved whether or not he goesto Harvard, that straight A’s do not make a mensch, and thatperfection is an aberration which doesn’t leave much room for life’spleasures, such as love.

Until he experiences this to be true, he will continue to punishhimself for his failings. Take a hard look at your desire to haveyour son become a Harvard graduate. Is it more important than hiswell-being?

You ask how to help him break the pattern with his girlfriend? Theanswer is to break your own pattern with him.

Leaving a Lover

Dear Deborah,

I have dated a good guy, a gorgeous guy for five months. We wereboth recently divorced and have children, and we just sort of fellinto a relationship — sex on Saturday night, children activitiestogether on Sundays. Our children are close in age and have becomevery attached. At first, I thought it was the real thing; he reallyis a great lover and a fun companion. But, although I could kickmyself for it, I know he is not for me. I can’t say why I don’t lovehim for forever, but I don’t, and I dread telling him and losing thefriendship — for all of our sakes. How can I hang on to thefriendship part and end the romantic part?

Hates to Jilt

Dear HTJ,

Sometimes the real skill lies in getting out of love — not intoit. Unfortunately, however, there are no guarantees that you willhang on to the friendship. So speak the truth, but leech out anypotential toxins. Try something like: “You are a wonderful man, and Ifind you very attractive and a fine companion, but you are not forme.” Tell him how valuable the friendship is, both between the two ofyou and the children. Perhaps when the sting has faded, you will havea friend.

If not, there is a valuable lesson here for you. Leave thechildren out of your love life until you are engaged to be married.They have suffered enough losses.

Momma’s Drama

Dear Deborah,

My mother is in town again for another of her interminable visits.I notice an immediate change in myself the moment I hear she iscoming. I prepare myself for endless drama and criticism, from whyI’m not married to the decor of my apartment. She constantly comparesme to my brothers. She epitomizes the expression, “Enough about me,so what do you think about me?”

When I try to talk to her about how I feel when she criticizes me,she bursts into tears and accuses me of not loving her. Recently,when she was boasting about how well she raised us, I reminded herthat she abandoned us when we were young teens and left us with ourfather to seek higher education and a better life in Boston, and thatif we are successful, it is not because of her. I feel that I’m onlygoing to get past this when she is able to listen to me. But I amworn out from trying.

She follows me around like a dark cloud. How can I make herunderstand?

Doomed Daughter

Dear Doomed,

How can you make your mother stop being self-absorbed andcritical? How can you “make her understand”? Let me ask you aquestion: Could you make Narcissus stop gazing at his own reflection?

Answer: You cannot make anyone be or do anything.

Let’s look at your options. You could move away, change youridentity and enter a witness-protection program. But it is doubtfulthat even such extreme measures could deliver you from the “darkcloud,” because it exists on the inside.

The only person you can change here is yourself. Accept yourmother as she is — or don’t. Create the boundaries you need toprotect yourself, whether that means not allowing her to stay withyou when she is in town, only being with her around other familymembers, getting off the phone after X number of minutes — and soforth. Take her only in the doses you can without overdosing. As shenatters away, respond internally with your own truth, refusing toengage in pointless defenses and not allowing her criticism to pourthrough the sieve at the bottom of your heart.

Who knows? Perhaps if her criticism is met by only dead, emptysilence, she will eventually get a clue. If the river ceased toreflect Narcissus’ image to him, he surely would have walkedaway.

Teenagers at a dance. Photo by Edward Serotta from “Out ofthe Shadows.”
All letters to Dear Deborah require a name, address andtelephone number for purposes of verification. Names will, of course,be withheld upon request. Our readers should know that when names areused in a letter, they are fictitious.

Dear Deborah welcomes your letters. Responses can be given only inthe newspaper. Send letters to Deborah Berger-Reiss, 1800 S.Robertson Blvd., Ste. 927, Los Angeles, CA 90035. You can also sendE-mail: