28 January 2014

Midlife wrinkles

Midlife crises have long been the privilege of men in society.  The seemingly impulsive desire for a sports car or the beginning of an extramarital affair or the sudden ending of a marriage have been emblematic markers of, and excuses for, midlife crises for some men.  (I'm not sure that this is applicable to Monsieur le Président Hollande of France whose current philandering was the subject of my previous post--see La trahison, Jan. 2014--but for whom such behavior seems typical rather than tied to his particular age.)  In the sociological literature on the topic of midlife crises, there are plenty of articles exploring men's midlife transitions; one even considers the possibility of male menopause (Isaac 2002, citation below).   Midlife crises though are no longer the exclusive domain of men.  We've heard a bit about midlife crises from the U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama who revealed last year that cutting her hair into bangs was her midlife crisis (Michelle Obama's "midlife crisis" bangsby Morgan Whitaker, MSNBC 2/19/13), and who, upon turning 50 recently, hinted at her midlife interest in the dermatological wonders of Botox treatments (A First Lady at 50, finding her own path, by Jennifer Steinhauer, The NY Times 1/16/14)  Had my French been better, I probably would have recognized similar attention to women's midlife crises in France, but now I am certainly hearing more about U.S. women who are in that midlife demographic and who are experiencing what sound like crises or turbulent life transitions.  Some of these are on the order of big personal changes such as extramarital affairs and comings-out, or sudden departures from well-established careers, while other manifestations are of the Michelle Obama variety, such as a new or renewed interest in combating facial wrinkles and blemishes and the other physical outcomes of aging or menopause, and the thinking about one's social role and functions as one's children leave childhood.

Obviously, midlife as a human age affects men and women alike, but it does so only as society and its members define and recognize it as a salient time in one's life.  There may be physical and hormonal shifts that affect the human body at midlife, sure, but it is the social construction of this period of life that probably has a more important effect. (We socially construct the meanings of all ages of life: see my postcards of 'little adults' in my post La jeunesse, July 2013 for how we have done this with childhood.)  At the midway point in human life, be it at age 50 or in the range say between 40-60, besides physical changes, people may experience boredom, discontentment, emotional upheavals: work conditions are changing, one's children are reaching early adulthood while other loved ones are becoming ill or dying.  These events will affect how we as individuals understand and experience a particular life stage, and how our society as a whole then constructs the meanings around that stage of life.  Broader social forces, like prevailing economic conditions and political climates, are also going to affect our personal and the social conceptions of midlife, or any other stage.  Previously, midlife was thought about as a mostly male transition but today, the social temporalities have changed, to put it more sociologically (citation below for Kearl and Hoag's seminal piece on midlife crises and this idea of social temporalities, 1984).  Our perceptions of this time of life, they are a' changin. Today, we recognize and accept, as a society, that women may experience midlife transitions as men have, some more or less publicly, dramatically, and radically than others.  Helping to make midlife crises more accessible and acceptable for women is the presence of strong, outspoken, visible women who tell us about theirs.  Certainly, midlife crises are not something we may want to celebrate--think of the potentially disruptive and damaging effects on families and friendships--but the explicit acknowledgement that women can have these too is a small step towards gender parity.  Perhaps we'll really be 'there' when middle aged men begin to publicly consider their wrinkles and the merits of bangs and Botox.

Isaac, E.P. 2002. Male menopause and men of African descent.  Journal of African American Men, 6(4), 3-16. 
Kearl , M.C. and L.J. Joag. 1984. The Social Construction of the Midlife Crisis: A Case Study in the Temporalities of Identity. Sociological Inquiry 54(3), 279.

16 January 2014

La trahison

C'est l'amour....apparently, for the current French president who has been discovered in a romantic liaison (affair) with a woman other than whom we thought was the French first lady.  And that first lady was actually not really his 'first' lady but the one that followed a woman with whom he had a longer intimate relationship and with whom he had four children.  François Hollande has apparently never been married but he has managed to keep alive the French presidential tradition of having mistresses, and the French don't seem overly concerned about his latest escapades. This is in contrast to the probable reaction in the U.S. were the president here to engage in an affair.  Such behavior would likely be characterized as adultery (since all modern U.S. presidents have been married ones), and would likely cast some doubts as to his judgment, political viability, and moral goodness.  As an editorial in today's NY Times suggests, the different outlook and attention is probably rooted in the differences between the U.S. and France in social attitudes about sexuality, morality and privacy.  (See The François Hollande Affair, Jan. 16, 2014, The New York Times.)

Sociologically speaking, the current president's relationships do point to some very modern permutations and understandings of coupling relationships, and invite some thinking about how to interpret relationship betrayals in regards to newer coupling arrangements and how gender might influence our impressions.  In many ways, Monsieur Hollande has been a front runner in terms of coupling modes; in most Western societies today, marriage is no longer the only means by which we couple for the long term.  It remains the most common form of coupling, but increasingly, couples cohabit for long periods, or permanently, while some even couple without living together.  (The newer LATS phenomenon has been sociologically recognized and studied for some time.  Here's a short overview, "Living Apart Together" by Constance Rosenblum, Sept.13, 2013 The New York Times).  In some societies and among some social groups (notably the less educated), cohabitation has become a substitute for marriage, rather than a precursor to it.  In France, civil marriages or PACs (pacte civil de solidarité) are increasingly common too, where couples can form a legal relationship that comes with some legal rights and responsibilities (taxes are jointly filed), but is short of a full-on marriage.  This registered coupling option has been available to same-sex couples as well.  (See "In France, Civil Unions..." by Scott Sayare and Maia de la Baume, Dec. 15, 2010 The New York Times.)

Yet, the more choices we have for coupling, the less consistent we are in our interpretations about situations where unfaithfulness is present.  My impression is that the French see cheating as somewhat expected and less damaging or less of a trahison (betrayal) when one's partner isn't a married one.  Yet, at the same time, they seemed to have considered the president's relationship with his first lady as a legitimate one.  (Maybe they just don't like her, or maybe they see this as no one's business?)  In any case, Americans perhaps have less public experience with all of this, since our leaders are mostly married heterosexual men.  But is there a qualitative difference in the emotional investments made in different kinds of couplings and how are we to understand and talk about cheating as it occurs in registered but legally unmarried couples, or unregistered cohabiting couples?  (Is it adultery?  We can't refer to extramarital affairs; are they extra-relationship affairs? Intimate betrayals?)  And, does the lesser legal commitment in the relationship really mean that intimate betrayals are more tolerated, less significant, less painful?   President Hollande's jilted first lady, has reportedly been hospitalized in emotional shock over the affair.  We have to recognize that marriage no longer has the monopoly on true commitment and love, and that couples in all kinds of relationships are going to have similar, visceral reactions when faced with wandering partners, regardless of the legal basis of their relationships.  And think about the families formed out of coupling relationships: today, the numbers of children born to couples who are not married is growing, and these couples, regardless of the state of their legal relationships, represent 'mom and dad,' or 'dad and dad' or 'mom and stepdad' to these children.  (Monsieur Hollande formed such a family with a former partner.)  So, an affair or couple breakdown is going to affect these kids just as much as an extramarital affair and divorce may affect others. I guess I'm saying that marital and non-marital couplings are increasingly similar today in their functions and meanings to people, and so to are the ways in which such couplings are affected by betrayals.

Finally, what does the Hollande affair suggest about gender?  I'll just end with some provocative questions in this regard: What would the reactions be if the tables were turned?  Would the French shrug their shoulders if it was the first lady who was having an affair, and would it matter if she was the married or unmarried first lady? Would the press be as tolerant?  For that matter, how many women around the world can reach elected public office while in cohabiting relationships or with lovers in tow?! And what kind of public reaction might we get if these women were ever caught cheating?!

02 January 2014

A fish out of water

One of the most indelible images from our first few months in France was of the asylum-seekers I saw storming the door at the prefecture in Marseille one morning.  The foreigners were mostly men, and the speed and aggression with which they approached the doors at opening time revealed so clearly and painfully their desperation and their need.  They were grabbing as hard as they could for the chance to find a safe place for their families to re-build a home and a life.  My family was in the longer, more sedate line, of legal immigrants, of people with residency permits in process, all of us with far greater prospects for staying in France.  The road to residency was still not an easy one, even for us as temporary seekers (see Les documents Sept. 2011, for a small example of the monumental pile of documents we needed), but we did not have the added pressures of a lost home or the painful memories of a lost life.

I've been thinking a lot about those asylum-seekers as well as of the thousands of refugees that were passing very close to France's southern shores in the months before we left, those Eritrean and Somalian refugees arriving by the boatload to Italy's islands (see for example, Italian coastguard rescues 700 refugees, Oct. 25, 2013, France24news)  Then there were, and are, the enormous waves of Syrian war refugees fleeing their villages and country to re-start their lives in Europe, adding to the pressures of those tasked with helping refugees.  And finally, in November, a natural disaster on the other side of the globe created more refugees, by uprooting the homes and lives of thousands of Filipinos.  Meanwhile, my family prepared to leave our temporary home in France, and we arrived fairly calmly and to open arms to our 'home' in the U.S.  Yet, because our physical home, our house, is currently occupied by renters, we have since had a very small taste of what life must feel like for those forced to move from shelter to shelter, bed to bed.  We've slept in 7 different beds since we moved out of our French apartment a little over a month ago, carrying our winter clothes in two suitcases each, and bags of books, electronics, and food.  Certainly, our welcome has been significantly warmer (after all, we have returned to what we call 'home'), and our shelters have been much more comfortable than the government-issue tents or makeshift lean-tos of scrap wood and metal used by the Eritrean, Syrian, and Filipino refugess.  But we understand a little of what it must feel like to lead a nomadic existence all the while trying to work, to attend school, and to manage the mundane tasks that every family needs done, day in and day out.  It's very different from moving about say as tourists, because being a tourist is such a temporary, and more luxurious and artificial experience of daily life.  Not having a real place to call home in the long-term, in which to settle in, to rest, to recharge is debilitating, on both a personal and social level.   I've discovered how rootless one feels living out of unpacked bags and suitcases for weeks on end, and how disorienting it is to wake up in so many unfamiliar beds.  It's like being a fish out of water, not a good situation in the long term.  My family's status is quite temporary and far from being detrimental, but imagine if we had to figure out how to get water, cooking supplies, and food, and access to toilets and showers, on a daily basis for months to come, as many thousands of families all over the world are right now, or if we had to deal also with the lingering personal and other traumas related to forced and dangerous departures, such as those resulting from political unrest or war in one's country, or a natural disaster in one's town, or even abusive relations in one's home.  Without stable, safe, permanent places in which to catch one's breath, in which to lick one's wounds, in which to prepare for one's social roles, children can't do well in school, and adults can't be effective employees and contributors to society.  Homelessness hurts on so many levels.