Access and Advice July 23rd, 2013
Who’s at the top of your phone tree when you need advice? Especially when it comes to matters of parenting, where do you go? To your mother or sister? Perhaps an aunt or grandmother? Maybe your mother-in-law or a kind older neighbor? Or do you go to Gwyneth Paltrow or Jessica Alba?
I got to thinking about this question after reading this blog post by Kate Spencer over at HuffPo. It is mostly about how our culture focuses too much on regaining your “post-baby body” at the expense of much more important aspects of motherhood. And Spencer makes some very worthwhile points on that score. However, it was the issue of mentorship that struck me most.
Spencer comments, “Not that celebrity culture is the only way we stay informed. But while women a hundred years and fifty ago got answers from elder women around them, it seems like we now look more toward public figures for instructions on how to live our lives.” Why is that? I suspect it’s something to do with access.
Much as we like to believe that our country and culture are fully democratic, they are far from it. Attorneys jump to the front of courthouse lines to get their speeding tickets waved away. Huge corporations with deep pockets wield disproportionate amounts of political power. So called “legacy” offspring of alumns of prestigious universities are admitted with lesser qualifications than unconnected applicants. Throughout our culture the well-heeled and well-connected have access to “better” of almost everything.
And so this leads us to look to the Paltrows and Albas for advice. Aside from the whole affiliative desire that celebrities spark in us, we believe (and rightly so) that the routines and regimes they follow are reflective of better inputs than most of us have access to. We want to know what they know. Whether it’s a skincare regimen, a meal plan, a bedtime routine, or a time management tip – we want in on the secret, which isn’t necessarily a bad approach.
The catch, of course, is that these women’s lives are strikingly different from the lives of most American women. They do not work in an office for eight hours a day. They do not clean their own homes. They may not even do their own grocery shopping. This isn’t to say that their lives are charmed and free from the often-mundane aspects of normal family life (toddler tantrums, shedding dogs, picky eating, favorite pants are at the cleaners when you need them, etc.). But it is to say that the parts of life where they have the resources and bandwidth to achieve the ideal, probably don’t align with mine.* And for the parts of life where they are subject to the same trivialities of life that I am, their advice is probably no better than that of my best girlfriends.
This current celebrity fixation wasn’t always the case, of course. I wonder what it would be like to live in a bygone era – an era when we didn’t have 24-hour access to (and obsession with) what Celebrity A wore to put gas in her car and what Celebrity B ate for breakfast. I wonder what it would be like to live in an era when we looked primarily, or even exclusively, to women around us who have walked these paths before.
My mother participates in a group at her church called Project Day. Once a month women gather together and sew shirts, receiving blankets, and other baby essentials for the church’s mission in Africa. My mother is in her mid-60s and is, by at least ten years, the youngest member of the group. She loves participating in Project Day because of the perspective these women provide. She marvels at all that they’ve been through. “There is nothing this group hasn’t experienced,” she has told me. The loss of a spouse or a child. The birth of a grandchild or great-grandchild. Cancer. Conquering a long-standing fear. Remarriage. The betrayal of a friend. Arthritis. Cataracts. 70th, 80th, and 90th birthdays. Some of their advice may be dated, but their perspective is not. They have traveled through the forests of younger years and can see those trees clearly now from the meadow on the other side.
There is value in a shared experience. There is a comfort and a bond from going through something together. This is why my closest girlfriends and I relish in the opportunity to trade war stories (both the ones where we win and the ones where we lose). We know that we are not going it alone. But there is also value in the perspective of someone who traveled this path before you and can warn you of the places where you might trip, and assure you that the bloody scrape on your knee right now will heal soon and be nothing more than a memory in due time.
In a way, women who have gone before us have a level of access that no amount of money or privilege can buy. They have access to a lifetime’s worth of experiences. And the value of that is immeasurable.
*The flip side of this coin, of course, is scrutiny. These women have to pursue the ideal when it comes to their appearances because their livelihood depends on it. I am sure there are many days when women who have to maintain unreasonable levels of perfection all the time wish that they could go for a week without someone judging their value based on their looks alone.