never married, over forty, a little bitter


What was the impetus for deciding that your experience with becoming a single mother would be your next film project?

I made a film in 2008 [about love and dating] called “Always a Bridesmaid.” Having a history of personal films and freaking out about my biological clock, I felt I was the person to tell this story. I saw what other people were going through, and what I was going through. Every party I went to, it seemed people were talking about these things. I tried to allude to that via other characters in the film, about what it’s like every time you get a wedding invitation or birth announcement, or when you’ve dated guys who ran away because they didn’t want children.


It feels like one of the feminist taboos is this idea of having it all, whenever we want it. I really loved how you were so open about the biological reality of how things change for a woman after 40. That seems a very feminist statement.

One of the things I find most powerful in the film is when I ask a friend’s mother if she think we’re better off now, and she says, “I would choose what you’ve had, being your own person.”

If I can help somebody get closer to their dream and feel empowered by doing it and being happy, it’s a feminist film. In a way, one thing that needs to happen for equality is for women to feel like they can have something they’re wanting, something that they don’t have to feel men are withholding from them. But we have a long way to go.

escape hatches

The economic landscape had changed greatly since these women — buoyed by their prestigious jobs and degrees, supported by their high-earning husbands, secure in their abilities to shape a new life worthy of their past successes — first decided to leave work and head home. In the years they were out of the work force, many of the professions they left contracted and changed; even once rock-solid fields like law were becoming insecure in ways that no one had previously thought possible.

The culture of motherhood, post-recession, had altered considerably, too. The women of the opt-out revolution left the work force at a time when the prevailing ideas about motherhood idealized full-time, round-the-clock, child-centered devotion. In 2000, for example, with the economy strong and books like “Surrendering to Motherhood,” a memoir about the “liberation” of giving up work to stay home, setting the tone for the aspirational mothering style of the day, almost 40 percent of respondents to the General Social Survey told researchers they believed a mother’s working was harmful to her children (an increase of eight percentage points since 1994). But by 2010, with recovery from the “mancession” slow and a record 40 percent of mothers functioning as family breadwinners, fully 75 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that “a working mother can establish just as warm and secure a relationship with her children as a mother who does not work.” And after decades of well-publicized academic inquiry into the effects of maternal separation and the dangers of day care, a new generation of social scientists was publishing research on the negative effects of excessive mothering: more depression and worse general health among mothers, according to the American Psychological Association.

I wondered if these changes affected the women who opted out years ago. Had they found the “escape hatch” from the rat race that one of Belkin’s interviewees said she was after? Were they able, as a vast majority said they had planned, to transition back into the work force? Or had they, as the author Leslie Bennetts predicted in her 2007 book, “The Feminine Mistake,” come to see that, by making themselves financially dependent upon their men — particularly at a time when no man could depend upon his job — they had made a colossal error?


Looking back on the last few years, I wonder if I’ve excused myself from a number of friend-making occasions and conversations largely because it was hard for me to imagine bonding with someone for whom orthodontia — not to mention school lunches, tech use rules and homework — was simply a thing of the past. They said, “Nope, no kids,” and maybe my eyes were the ones to glaze.

That’s the perception Ms. Sandler found among some of the people she interviewed:

“It’s toughest in your late 30s and early 40s,” “Going Solo” author Eric Klinenberg says. That’s when social isolation tends to peak among people without kids. “What people report everywhere is this experience of watching friends just peel off into their small domestic worlds. That’s the real stress point,” he says, not aging and dying alone, as people fear — and strangers and family members alike tend to admonish — but the loneliness between when friends have babies and when they become empty nesters.

opting in

Yet it turns out the past ten years have not been all a blissful transition from developmentally appropriate baby toys to violin recitals for those moms who jumped off the track. In fact, Judith Warner’s new NYT story shows that many of those original opters are now back in the workforce. For some of them, the road back to employment has had a smooth, particularly Junior League feel, with those motherly years of volunteering proving a unique networking opportunity. But others are struggling to get a professional footing, grappling with the self-esteem questions that a long time out have brought. One mother tells her now 12 year-old daughter unhesitatingly, “You need to work.” Still others have faced relationship tensions and the challenges of single parenting. As one estranged husband bitterly, memorably explains, “Once she started to work, she started to place more value in herself, and because she put more value in herself, she put herself in front of a lot of things — family, and ultimately, her marriage.”

quitting time

On Sunday I got a Facebook message from a friend in Abu Dhabi, asking if I’d written a story about when it’s OK to take a sabbatical from work, “especially when you are in your mid-40s (like me).” This friend, a former journalist, has a high-paying job in corporate communications. But, she wrote, “Desperately want out for six months–but I am terrified I won’t get another job at the end of it. I am curious to know how people who take a half ‘gap’ year at this time of life are viewed.”

It may seem like a strange time to write a story on quitting your job. With unemployment stuck north of 9% and hiring sluggish, why would you walk away from a good salary and benefits? One consequence of the dim hiring picture is that many workers have stayed in jobs they don’t like, fearing they won’t find work if they leave.

In an effort to answer my friend’s question, I checked in with one of my best career sources, Eileen Wolkstein, a longtime coach in New York City. I also interviewed a woman I’ll call Karen, who left her job as a high-powered lawyer at the end of July because she wanted to take time to look for a new position.

The bottom line: It takes courage, planning, soul-searching and financial resources, but it can be totally worth it to resign and take some time for yourself. You will find work again, if you engage in a serious search that involves diligent networking and careful follow-up.

the means

I have certainly liked some jobs better than others, but I don’t think I’ll ever love a job. I’m thinking more along these lines now when considering my options on the job market:

“I am a writer, but I love sex more than I love writing,” author Penelope Trunk observed a few years ago. And I am not getting paid for sex…. But I don’t sit up at night thinking, should I do writing or sex? Because career decisions are not decisions about ‘what do I love most?’ Career decisions are about what kind of life do I want to set up for myself.”

the show

I was a loser, too, when I moved there:

Of course, a new narrative of L.A. shouldn’t stop with this good news. As pretty as we are, we have plenty of flaws. For one thing, we are, fundamentally and literally, a city of losers. We are people, or descendants of people, who lost at politics, commerce, love, family, or religion someplace else. (I’m one such loser—descended from Okies who had to flee the Dust Bowl and a great-grandfather who came West after a Midwestern business failure.) All of the booms covered in “Becoming Los Angeles”—railroads, agriculture, oil, aerospace, war manufacturing—ended in bust. We stuck around anyway. When you lose in Los Angeles, the sun will still be shining.

We’re still good at losing. L.A.’s unemployment rate is significantly higher than the state’s, and we have relatively high rates of bankruptcies and business failures. Maybe that’s why this city is so obsessed with winning (Go Lakers!) and keeping up appearances. We’ll tell you we’re having a great day when we aren’t. And many of us endure long working hours and brutal commutes by summoning the ancient stage adage that the show must go on.

Why should developing a coherent narrative about a place so rich in human story be so hard? We could stake a claim to being The Enduring City, in the good and bad senses of that word. Or perhaps The Surprise City, since we weren’t supposed to be here.

But the best choice would be The Human City, a true reflection of our species in all its artifice and ambition: complicated, irrational, creative, crazy, grandiose, glorious, sublime, corrupt, maddening—and still too much a stranger to itself.

the deep end

I’m not sure if Ms. Wurtzel has gone off the deep end, but just like in Bitch, she can still write some great passages:

It had all gone wrong. At long last, I had found myself vulnerable to the worst of New York City, because at 44 my life was not so different from the way it was at 24. Stubbornly and proudly, emphatically and pathetically, I had refused to grow up, and so I was becoming one of those people who refuses to grow up—one of the city’s Lost Boys. I was still subletting in Greenwich Village, instead of owning in Brooklyn Heights. I had loved everything about Yale Law School—especially the part where I graduated at 40—but I spent my life savings on an abiding interest, which is a lot to invest in curiosity. By never marrying, I ended up never divorcing, but I also failed to accumulate that brocade of civility and padlock of security—kids you do or don’t want, Tiffany silver you never use—that makes life complete. Convention serves a purpose: It gives life meaning, and without it, one is in a constant existential crisis. If you don’t have the imposition of family to remind you of what is at stake, something else will. I was alone in a lonely apartment with only a stalker to show for my accomplishments and my years.

I was amazed to discover that, according to The Atlantic, women still can’t have it all. Bah! Humbug! Women who have it all should try having nothing: I have no husband, no children, no real estate, no stocks, no bonds, no investments, no 401(k), no CDs, no IRAs, no emergency fund—I don’t even have a savings account. It’s not that I have not planned for the future; I have not planned for the present. I do have a royalty account, some decent skills, and, apparently, a lot of human capital. But because of choices I have made, wisely and idiotically, because I had principles or because I was crazy, I have no assets and no family. I have had the same friends since college, although as time has gone on, the daily nature of those relationships has changed, such that it is not daily at all. But then how many lost connections make up a life? There is my best friend from law school, too busy with her toddler; the people with whom I spent New Year’s in a Negril bungalow not so long ago, all lost to me now; every man who was the love of my life, just for today; roommates, officemates, classmates: For everyone who is near, there are others who are far gone.

Please understand: I live specifically, with intent. The intent is, I know now, not at all specific, except that I have no ability to compromise. Most people say that as a statement of principle, but in my case, it is about feeling trapped when I am doing something I don’t like, and it is probably more childish than anything else. I likely do the right things for the wrong reasons. But it has also meant that I have not disciplined myself into the kinds of commitments that make life beyond the wild of youth into a haven of calm. I am proud that I have never so much as kissed a man for any reason besides absolute desire, and I am more pleased that I only write what I feel like and it has been lucrative since I got out of college in 1989. I had the great and unexpected success of Prozac Nation in 1994, and that bought me freedom. And I have spent that freedom carelessly, and with great gratitude. Why would I do anything else? I did not expect, not ever, to be scared to death.

I was born with a mind that is compromised by preternatural unhappiness, and I might have died very young or done very little. Instead, I made a career out of my emotions. And now I am just quarreling with normal. I believe in true love and artistic integrity—the kinds of things that should be mentioned between quotation marks—as absolutely now as I did in ninth grade. But even I know that functional love includes a fair amount of falsity, or no one would get through morning coffee, and integrity is mostly a heroic excuse to avoid the negotiating table. But I can’t let go. I live in the chaos of adolescence, even wearing the same pair of 501s. As time goes by.