The Problem With Being "Nice"

In one short, 12-day span, The New York Times published two articles that serves as feminist bookends, of a sort, regarding the pitfalls facing women when we try to be too darn nice.


The first was Catherine Newman’s “I Do Not Want My Daughter to Be Nice."  In the piece, this 40-something mother explains why she does not instruct her ten-year-old daughter to smile at strangers or engage in the excessive people-pleasing etiquette Newman (and so many of us 70s daughters) were taught when it comes to interacting with men.


“I want my daughter to be tough, to say no, to waste exactly zero of her God-given energy on the sexual, emotional and psychological demands of lame men - of lame anybodies. I don’t want her to accommodate and please. I don’t want her to wear her good nature like a gemstone, her body like an ornament…I do not [want her to] ‘Say thank you to the nice man who wolf-whistled!’ ‘Smile at the frat boy who’s date-raping you!’”


Then came “The Opt Out Generation Wants Back In” by Perfect Madness author Judith Warner.  The piece spotlights elite stay-at-home moms’ mental and economic status a decade after leaving work, as a follow up to Lisa Belkin’s famous “Opt Out Revolution” from 2003. Inadvertently, though, Warner addresses the same issue as Newman: how women’s desire to please our husbands, to be “nice,” complicates our lives, even when it comes to career choices and marriage.


Take Sheilah O’Donnel, today a 44-year-old Maryland mother of three. O’Donnel was one of the stay-at-home moms featured in Lesley’s Stahl’s famous 2004 60 Minutes segment, “The Case for Staying Home.” Definitely very nice. Judith Warner ask O’Donnel to revisit the push-pull of work vs. home, and why she chose to stay home ten years ago, even though it meant abandoning a career where she earned a whopping $500,000 annually.


“Even with the reduced schedule,” O’Donnel explained to the New York Times. “The stresses of life in a two-career household put an overwhelming strain on [her] marriage. There were ugly fights with her husband about laundry and over who would step in when the nanny was out sick.”


There are lots of modern day motherhood issues here. However, to me, the most intriguing subplot was how critical (in both definitions of the word) O’Donnel’s husband was of her desire to work. O’Donnel’s career, and self-esteem, were derailed by her misguided attempt to please her husband.  In my view, Catherine Newman is right to warn her daughter to avoid the same mistake.