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December 14, 2012

Do You Measure Up?

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Photo Credit: David Levinthal/David Levinthal

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"It's perfectly normal," explains Jennifer Tanner, a developmental psychologist at the Institute for Health at Rutgers University. Tanner says that registering and responding to social cues and expectations is a vital part of adulthood, especially in today's fractured society, when we marry later, live far from our families, and conduct so much of our socializing online. Keeping up with the Joneses helps us figure out how to comport ourselves and solve thorny problems — like balancing work and family, or reviving a flatlining marriage. To illustrate the point, she cites mousy copywriter Peggy and sexy office manager Joan on Mad Men. "They looked at each other to see what one another had," says Tanner, and ultimately, the exchange benefitted both. "Getting feedback from like-minded people within your own community is valuable. It's healthy to have that intrinsic feeling: I want what she's got. How do I get it?"

As Tanner tells it, yardsticking can be an act of self-improvement. It becomes problematic only when it overrides common sense and better judgment. In other words, it's OK to covet what your best friend has, or even to cave to importuning friends needling you to stay for one more drink. The key is being able to discern the difference between a harmless longing and reckless striving.

Case in point: At a holiday party last year, I watched a petite brunette, a friend of a friend, take an ill-advised puff on a joint in a lame attempt to fit in with her husband's hard-partying friends, real estate professionals and regulars on New York City's nightclub scene. Though she hadn't smoked in years, she got caught up in the raucous, boozy atmosphere and, I suspect, wanted to prove to her husband as much as to his crew that she was still spontaneous and cool enough to hang with the best of them. It was like a scene out of an after-school special: She took one hit and was hobbled by a coughing fit. And once the pot kicked in, she was reduced to a hazy mess, teetering on the edge of a couch, refusing to talk to anyone. Not long after, her shamefaced husband ushered her home in a cab. Not a good look for either of them.

Or take a friend of mine we'll call Lisa, a globe-trotting finance-wife and mother of one blessed with ample resources and a stimulating social network. This otherwise levelheaded woman admits to unraveling upon learning of an acquaintance's big-ticket expenditures — say, a new pair of diamond earrings — which invariably sparks a bitter scuffle with her own husband about his measly gifts and her out-of-control spending. Privately, Lisa has confessed to me that she feels "shortchanged and underappreciated" by her husband relative to how other wives in her set get treated.

It's easy to write off this kind of adult peer pressure as the next iteration of affluenza, just another gimme-a-break affliction of the 1 percent. But I've seen it play out among smart, professional women who are also vulnerable to the all-consuming urge to keep up and fit in. It has mangled relationships, ravaged credit ratings, and wreaked emotional havoc. And I've witnessed it all too often among women desperately pursuing today's ultimate female status symbol: motherhood. One friend nearly went bankrupt after shelling out for several rounds of IVF (at $15,000 a pop, courtesy of the same doc treating the other women in her neighborhood) and then a costly nanny for the twins she finally conceived. The financial strain was such that her family left Manhattan for a lower-priced rental in the suburbs, and the last time I saw her, she was a shadow of her former self #8212; gaunt, exhausted, doing piecemeal freelance work to pay the bills, and bemoaning her exile from the buzzy life she once led.

I hear horror stories like that and can't help but acknowledge that I've done pretty well for myself: two well-received novels; a devoted husband; three beautiful children; a spacious, sunny home in one of New York City's trophy neighborhoods. And yet, I'm constantly measuring myself against every woman I meet who's also managed to create a nice life for herself. Awful, right?

Mulling Tanner's observations, I surveyed my social landscape once more. What was it about all those other women whose lives I coveted? Mostly, I imagined that they weren't doing it alone, like I was — trying to foster a career while cooking every night and ferrying three kids around town. What I needed, I realized, was a once-a-week housekeeper or regular babysitter, someone to lighten my load and give me time for myself — to work, cook, whatever. Sounds small, I know, but the very idea brought me peace of mind. And I wouldn't have reached the conclusion (obvious though it was) were it not for my run-in with that blonde, leggy think tank lawyer. Turns out, I just wanted the freedom to do my own thing, a few more hours for myself. The next time I see her, I'll be sure to thank her.


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