Than we used to be? Than men are? And if so, why?
There’s a real eye-rolling feeling of “Here we go again” about this study. I read the headline with incredulity. First of all, I thought the new complaint was that it’s now men and boys who are getting the short end of the stick as the culture is feminized and women and girls are endlessly flattered, fussed over, and catered to. And second of all, I can’t relate, personally. At all. Despite all my own considerable mistakes, regrets, failures, and sacrifices as part of the generation that volunteered to be the scarred “experimental animals” of social change, I know I am by far happier and more whole than I would have been if none of it had happened.
This in spite of giving up motherhood, the focus of my awe-filled childhood anticipation. (There wasn’t much else to anticipate if you were a girl in the 1950s. That doesn’t make it any less awesome.) That’s a permanent grief, and it was a tragically misguided road-taking, and the ambitions feminism had released, without the confidence or entitlement to pursue them and/or motherhood wholeheartedly, played a part. Still I’m happier. Where do I even start? I got to lay hands directly on words and ideas, and to take them as my birthright as much as a male’s. (I’ll never forget the thrill of seeing a beautiful young woman with a cloud of ripply red hair, like Botticelli’s Venus, holding the yad, the pointer in the form of a slender silver hand, with which you follow the words of the Torah as you read them aloud in synagogue. Not that long ago, strictly forbidden: a woman’s touch would have defiled it, its touch would have spayed her. See previous post.) I got to walk around in the world as a free and inquisitive being. So the study doesn’t ring true to me. But maybe if you were born into this new freedom and take it for granted, you could be unhappy. I don’t know.
Joelle Klein, who blogs at Discovery.com’s Slice of Life, does such a good job of rounding up links on this study that I considered just inviting her to cross-post here. (There are so many other things I should be doing . . .) Finally, though, I couldn’t resist visiting those links myself. I’m just doing it now, so come with me as I liveblog the trip.
Here’s Ross Douthat in the New York Times. I admit I get my back up when I just see a guy holding forth on these subjects, because I anticipate him scolding that my hunger for things soaring and undomestic (vain to protest as well as, not instead of, the earthly and domestic!) has cut the legs out from under society and that any unhappiness I might feel is well-deserved. For instance, here’s my friend Blake (who scolds me sternly from time to time for not being more unswervingly conservative — unswervative?) scolding me on Twitter:
[Feminism and socialized medicine] are not unrelated. Undermining religion, family, business–anything that can oppose the state–is always the goal.
Also, “freedom” is wildly over-stated. Feminism came with an attitude of “is that all?” for women who chose to do “women’s work”.
That would be unfair to Douthat, though. Accepting the premise that women are now the unhappier sex, and speculating why, he strikes a balance between extremes:
The feminist will see evidence of a revolution interrupted, in which rising expectations are bumping against glass ceilings, breeding entirely justified resentments. The traditionalist will see evidence of a revolution gone awry, in which women have been pressured into lifestyles that run counter to their biological imperatives, and men have been liberated to embrace a piggish irresponsibility.
There’s evidence to fit each of these narratives. But there’s also room for both.
Feminists and traditionalists should be able to agree, for instance, that the structures of American society don’t make enough allowances for the particular challenges of motherhood. […]
They should also be able to agree that the steady advance of single motherhood threatens the interests and happiness of women. Here the public-policy options are limited; some kind of social stigma is a necessity. […]
[Except] that contemporary America doesn’t seem willing to accept sexual stigma, period. We simply don’t have the stomach for permanently ostracizing the sexually irresponsible — be they a pregnant starlet, a thrice-divorced tycoon, or even a prostitute-hiring politician.
In this sense, ours is a kinder, gentler, more forgiving country than it was 40 years ago. But for half the public, it’s an unhappier country as well.
Lorna Martin of the Daily Mail‘s women’s page — “Femail”– brings a British perspective and some other guesses. For one, in the context of “ongoing inequality,” she points out that “of the six million carers of elderly or disabled relatives in the UK, 62 per cent are women.” (Wow, only 62 percent?) Thank you for noticing, Lorna. That’s me, too — traditional, confining, burdensome female work, for years now. I’m still happier. He’s asleep and I’m online writing this like a bandit.
But Martin’s main thesis is that we’re the victims of sky-high expectations and media images of unattainable perfection:
My guess is that it has something to do with the unprecedented pressure on women these days to live up to totally unrealistic ideals. This, coupled with the very idea that happiness is a worthwhile and achievable goal in itself, seems to have created a plague of unhappiness, leaving so many of us with the feeling that we’ve fallen short. […]
The images and messages we are bombarded with – in women’s magazines, parenting manuals, self-help books – are of confident, sexy, successful people, looking thin and beautiful, surrounded by equally gorgeous family and friends. These ‘people’ are permanently happy, effortlessly having it all.
Of course, everyone knows that these images are aspirational. If they reflected reality they would have no appeal. But they are also insidiously powerful and, according to some psychologists, they are damaging our mental health. […]
It has been said that the greatest obstacle to happiness is the modern myth of happiness itself.
At HuffPo, Elizabeth Debold, a disciple of the “modern spiritual master” Andrew Cohen and a major mover in his elite EnlightenNext project, which styles itself as contributing to the next step in human evolution, takes a more existential view. She sees women as freed for the first time since civilization began to create culture side by side with men, yet feeling lost at sea between the comfortable old role and the undefined new one, and being treacherously sucked downward by a materialistic culture into a new self-commodification and exploitation instead of rising to a new spiritual agency:
We are freed of the necessity to reproduce, liberated from our biological role, but the choices that we have won have left us unmoored. Who are we or who should we be now?
I’m obviously not the first person to note this — although most voices expressing such a view come from the right, urging us back to the safety and familiarity of hearth and home. I’m providing this context not to suggest that this is our God-given role, but rather to show how conditioned we are to see this as who we are and should be. And to explain why we would feel discontent, unease, and even a lack of simple happiness because we don’t have a clearly culturally sanctioned role to guide how we live our lives.
I’m arguing that we have further to go. Our ties to our biology are being broken so that now for the first time in femaledom we can shape culture with men. […]
Note that I’m not saying that mothering is bad or wrong — just that it’s almost all that the females of the species have been doing for the last 100,000 years. Only very very recently do we have the freedom to create new ways of being that could be the ground for a new order of relationship, creativity, and innovation that will evolve culture to a higher level. […] To me, it makes sense that women are less happy. We’re in a huge transition. There is no one before us. And what is happening — as women’s sexuality is pried from reproduction and commodified — is frightening to anyone who is seeking a life of meaning and purpose. Where are the examples of women who are forging from depth and dignity something new, joyous, and creative? Where are the role models for a new world? Without some women daring to ask who we can be now, risking everything to free themselves from the women they have been to discover the woman of the future, young women will be left adrift in the marketplace, selling themselves short. Isn’t that enough to make any sensitive woman unhappy?
Joelle Klein and I both have more myopic, earthbound explanations — obviously autobiographical — for this unhappiness, if in fact it exists. (I remain unconvinced. As Thurber and White wrote in Is Sex Necessary? that in persons of literary bent “the writing of love [is] directly attributable to the love of writing,” in academic studies of women the finding of need is directly attributable to the need of finding.) Klein:
The one explanation that probably carries the most weight is that, in spite of our vast educational and professional opportunities, new reproductive choices, and legal protections we are still responsible for the brunt of childcare/rearing and household chores even though we too work a 40 hour work week, or more. The NY Time’s Douthat discounts this theory, too, saying that recent surveys actually show similar workload patterns for men and women over all.
But this theory works for me, and the rebuttal does not. Even if men and women have similar workloads, the responsibility load is off kilter. Men, no doubt, are happier that they are no longer solely responsible for the financial well-being of their families, but have not fully signed on to fifty percent of the child or household tasks. So even if men’s workload is similar to that of women’s, their responsibilities are less than they used to be.
I can attest as a working mom that I’m frequently torn between working more hours and bringing in more money, and spending more time with my daughter. My husband does not feel the same pull.