Sunday, March 28, 2010

The beauty and burden of choice

An article in Friday morning's Globe & Mail caught my eye. Titled "The beauty -- and the burden -- of having choices," it focuses on the work of Sheena Iyengar. a professor at Columbia Business School who also teaches psychology. She's recently written a book called "The Art of Choosing."

I haven't read the book yet, but I'll be looking for it. Iyengar's theory is that having more choices isn't necessarily a good thing. In fact, it can lead to "consumer paralysis. More was less."

While I am generally pro-choice, in all aspects of that term, I understand where she's coming from. How often have I grabbed a box from the grocery store or drugstore aisle, only to find out when I got home that I grabbed the wrong one? (Instead of Tide Ultra Free HE, I grabbed plain ol' Tide Ultra Free, not formulated for my new high-efficiency front load washing machine.) Will that be bar soap or liquid? Creamy or clear? One of 10 different scents or unscented? (If you can even find unscented.) Decisions, decisions....

I was reminded of a previous post I wrote, which touched on a TV show I had been watching about happiness:
"Then they moved on to talk about happiness & choices, including an experiment in which students were shown works of art. Students in one group were told they could pick any poster they wanted, but they couldn't change their mind later. Students in another group were told they could each choose a poster too, but they were allowed to exchange their posters at any time during the session. The people who were told they couldn't exchange their posters were more satisfied with their choices than those who had more options. The conclusion was that people will find ways to like/make the best of things when they know they're stuck with them. We adapt. We learn how to make lemonade when life hands us lemons."
Although I found the entire Iyengar story fascinating (and I'd encourage you to read it -- it should be available on the site for about a week), there was one paragraph that particularly grabbed my attention:
"Her work touches on all aspects of our lives, from birth to death. Indeed, she writes about one study that compared American and French parents of gravely ill infants who had to be removed from life support. While the American parents had the final say on when the plug was pulled, the French parents were forced to defer to the doctors. And yet, months later, the French parents had evidently coped better with their losses than the Americans, who seemed psychologically stuck at the awful moment of their decision."

As you can imagine, this hit home. In situations like this, in all situations where grief and loss are involved, I think all of us make the best choices we can with the information we have at the time. And despite the conclusions of this study, I'm not sure many of us would want to go back to the days when the medical staff whisked stillborn infants out of sight the moment they were delivered, buried in anonyous, mass graves & told parents simply to forget about it and have another baby.

But it's hard not to second-guess ourselves and wonder whether our choices were the right ones. When you're dealing with stillbirth, or premature birth or a critically ill baby, you're in uncharted territory. There is no manual telling you what to do, what's "normal," what's "permitted." It's hard to make choices when you don't even know what the choices really are in the first place.

Choice was also one of the more frustrating things about infertility treatment for me. How not just to choose, but to make the RIGHT choices, how to decide when to try something else, especially when the stakes were so damned high. It seemed like there was always a new choice, a new carrot, that the doctors could dangle in front of us to keep our hopes alive. Good ol' fashioned sex didn't work? Let's try charting, a la TCOYF. How about some OPKs? Maybe a saliva microscope? How about some Clomid? No? Let's try some injectable drugs. That ones's not working for you? Let's try this one. And next time, we can increase the dosage. How do you feel about IVF? Your eggs getting old -- how about finding a donor? Have you ever thought of adoption? And so on & so on & so on.

In discussing how to resolve infertility, the book "Sweet Grapes" irked me in its insistence that all you had to do was to "choose" to be childFREE, & all would be well. "Some choice," I remember snorting. I still feel that way. (Melissa said pretty much the same thing in her book, "Navigating the Land of If," but I didn't find her presentation of the concept quite so annoying, lol.)

What do you think?


  1. How on earth do you chose to do something you didn't chose? How do you chose something you would have never, ever chosen?

    I can chose how I live with it. I can chose to make the best of it, to learn what I can, but chose to live childfree? Thanks, but no thanks.

    I didn't chose this.

  2. This is such a hard question. I feel that my choices were the right ones for me -- though I certainly understand that other people might (and, in fact, usually don't) make the same choices.

    And yet I'm always having to suppress that part of me that wants to solve other people's problems by making suggestions as to what kind of choices they should make. It's so hard to restrain that part of me that just wants to fix everything.

    My mantra is something like: In the same way others might not agree with my choices, I may not agree with other people's choices. But that doesn't mean the choices are wrong.

  3. I'm kinda with Mrs. Spit on this. I really don't see my decision as a "choice," frankly. It was what had to be done, and we did it, and it truly was the smallest obstacle (if one at all) we had to overcome in our grief.

    Having said that: I think there's a happy medium here. I'm not for totalitarian places where people (especially women) have no choice in any milieu, be it financial, family, or reproductive. On the flip side, sometimes I find the choice in this country (jeebus, have you walked the breakfast cereal aisle lately?) to be overwhelming in a bad way. But I think all things considered, I'd rather have more choice than less. It may give me second thoughts, but it certainly reduces anger and powerlessness.

  4. I could barely choose a mattress! I don't know if this will make much sense, but while we were waiting to adopt and my own nerves were wearing down month after month, I don't know if I could have CHOSEN to be childless. I put a time limit on things and we were quickly approaching that deadline. I chose a time because I was worn down. I was tired or living in limbo and tired of grief. As it's been pointed out to me I could have CHOSEN a waiting child from the ministry, I could have CHOSEN international adoption, I could have CHOSEN to live childfree. At the time, they didn't seem to be like I had a choice about anything. None of those choices I've made since my BODY CHOSE NOT TO GET PREGNANT came without a great deal of soul searching, compromises and sacrifices.

  5. For me right now it's not a choice. It's not a lightswitch that got flipped and now I'm childfree. Ta Da! It's more like getting into a cold have to do it little by little getting used to the cold bit by bit.