Why (American) Women are Unhappy: A Plausible Argument

By Sharon Lerner at DoubleXX.  At first you think, “Oh no, not that again.”  But the evidence mounts up.  What’s interesting to examine is the extent to which both government and business solutions (often government-mandated) in Europe are approvingly cited.

The United States is a glaring exception in the developed world and beyond in having no mandatory paid maternity leave, no nationwide childcare system, few flexible work options, and, as we’ve heard lately, no universal health coverage. So while mothers in the Czech Republic can choose between having their paid leave stretch either from one to three years after giving birth, and every French parent can count on low- or no-cost preschool, women in the United States are bearing the brunt of working motherhood with far fewer supports.

Indeed, specific policies have a direct, documented impact on women’s mood, with the lack of paid maternity being perhaps the most obvious. Research has shown that time off from work to recover after birth can spare women some serious mental health problems. One study of Mexican women in the United States found that those who took at least 40 days to recover—the standard cushion in Mexico—reported less depression in the postpartum period. Whether paid or unpaid, longer maternity leaves are associated with declines in depressive symptoms, a reduction in the likelihood of severe depression, and an improvement in overall maternal health, according to a 2008 working paper issued by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Not surprisingly, the nature and intensity of the work situation women return to also matters. Other countries have found ways to ease mothers back into work—the European Union, for example, has instituted protections for anyone who wants to work part-time, as many parents do. In the Netherlands, which has gone to even greater lengths to create flexible work options, some 75 percent of working women work part-time, as do many Dutch men. Here, we have instead a sort of “postpartum plunge” model, in which women often return to their jobs not only sooner than they’d like, but at full intensity. This, too, apparently takes a toll on the psyche. Mothers of 9-month-olds who work more than 40 hours a week were more likely to be depressed than those who worked that amount or less, according to a 2006 Child Trends study.

Again, it sounds obvious—a mother juggling a newborn and intense work stress will suffer. Yet a bizarre, punishing disregard for the impact of work stress on mothers of very young children permeates our culture. How else can one explain the U.S. Army’s policy of sending female soldiers back to work full-time just six weeks after giving birth and back into war zones just two-and-a-half months after that? Welfare policy reflects a similar disconnect from the reality of motherhood, with some welfare recipients now guaranteed no leave at all from their work assignments after having babies, which can mean being separated from newborns just days after giving birth. Together, these factors may help explain why, at least in the United States, parenthood now tends to be a downer, with both male and female parents more depressed than their childless peers.

In many ways, the pressures mount as women age and continue to feel the unalleviated pulls of working and parenting. Even though they may start out in the same schools and land in the same jobs, as their careers typically don’t offer the flexibility necessary to care for children, women often have to watch the income gap between themselves and their male counterparts grow—a gap that, given the lack of re-entry points onto career tracks, seems to widen even after children are grown. So, while many women, particularly those who can’t afford to “opt-out,” wind up overwhelmed and exhausted by the combination of full-time careers and motherhood, others wind up nudged out of their professions. Some leave the workforce altogether, but many just wind up in lower-paying, lower-status work that accommodates their schedules. Often neither option is what they wanted.

This makes an implicit link between the American fear and loathing of government meddling in private and commercial life, on the one hand, and lingering traditional expectations of women, on the other.  The tacit message I’m hearing (and not trying to pass judgment on just yet) is, “The only way to change ‘natural’ gender roles is through coercive social engineering.  The project of mandating unnatural behavior therefore inevitably gives too much power to the state.  It’s your free choice to depart from those natural gender roles, but we are not going to enable you in doing so, and if you suffer as a consequence, well, accept the wages of defying nature.”

(The obvious counterargument:  it’s human nature to devise all kinds of ingenious ways to both modify and accommodate our nature.  We’ve now reached a point where the talents-and-perspectives part of women’s nature, long neglected, has become for many as important as motherhood, which hasn’t lost any importance either.  This creates a dilemma that is worth solving rather than trying to wish away.)

Why Is This Column Being Moderated By a Man?

The “Desire Lab” at Double XX.

I’m not one of those people who thinks novelists can only write about people just like them.  I don’t think men have nothing to say about female sexuality — in fact, I think dealing with it is to a great extent a man’s job.  Hey, someone has to do it.   (It’s when I imagine navigating the treacherous currents of someone like me that I thank God for not making me a lesbian, mostly.)

But a groundbreaking exploration of the still surprisingly virgin territory of women’s fantasies and desires — come on, isn’t that a woman’s job?  First of all, as we know from quantum physics, the observer affects the experiment.  The overseeing presence of a male may affect what women say, making it more stereotyped, exhibitionistic, or seductive.  There may be some vestigial tendency to play to the vestigial authority figure.  I had a male shrink for a short time in my twenties, and telling him about my sexual life, which pretty much was my life at that age, made me uneasy.  He was a good guy and seemed trustworthy, but I had the feeling that he could be psychoanalyzed to a fare-thee-well and there still had to be some prurience and voyeurism there.  Had to be.  Women’s desire is both elicited and deformed by men’s desire, like a pear tree on a trellis, or a high-cut bikini wax.  To get to the root of it, it might be useful to be talking just among ourselves, even knowing and welcoming that male readers are eavesdropping.  A woman could pose questions to other women that a man would never even think of.

And second of all, this is a good gig.  And why is a guy getting this good gig when the subject is the inner life of women?  Just because, echoing another male authority figure, he wrote a “fabulous” New York Times Magazine article called “What Do Women Want?”

Ugh.  It puts me off Double XX as a whole.  Mind you, most of its columns and blogs are written by women.  It’s just curious that of all of them, this one — on a subject so intimate, so idiosyncratic — was given to a guy.

Published in: on October 3, 2009 at 11:05 am  Comments (13)  

The Last Word on Roman Polanski [UPDATED]

. . . comes not from the right, but from Susan Estrich (who, megapotamus points out in the comments, can fairly be accused of hypocrisy since she ardently supported Bill Clinton against his accusers of sexual harassment, a lesser crime but on the selfsame spectrum):

I’ve got news for the big shots: International cultural events are not safe havens for criminals, nor is there any reason they should be. A criminal is a criminal, even if he is “one of the greatest contemporary filmmakers.” […]

The reason to keep him in prison for far more than one day is that he’s a rapist who fled from justice. Actually, that’s two reasons, and each is sufficient.

Roman the Rapist pleaded guilty. This is not one of those stories where you need to insert an “alleged” or a “purported” before each sentence. This is not a “he said-she said.” He was in his 40s. She was 13. He was a famous director. She was a child. He lied, lured and plied her with drugs and alcohol. […]

Rape is a crime against the state, as well as a civil wrong against the individual. […] The state presses charges, not the victim. Polanski pleaded guilty to a crime against the state. It was “People v. Polanski.” The People — in this case represented by the district attorney of Los Angeles — are not putting the whole thing behind them. Rightly so. […]

When reality intervened and it became clear that a judge might well sentence him to time in prison, Polanski did not seek to withdraw his guilty plea and go to trial. He did not await the sentence and then appeal it. Free on bail pending sentencing, he decided to thumb his nose at the American justice system and flee the country. Fleeing from justice violates the “most elementary” principles of our legal system […] It’s every bit as serious as raping a 13-year-old.

Read the whole thing.  What should be important to everyone is that rape is a crime against society.  In other words, the consensus of society stands firmly behind every girl’s and woman’s right to be inviolable.  If she is violated, it’s not just her outrage, it is our outrage.  This is Civilization 101.  This is what makes us different from the Taliban.

Taking sexual crimes against girls and women less seriously than other crimes?  Allowing the rich and famous exemptions from justice?  This is not where Hollywood’s enlightened (so they think) progressives should want to be.

Published in: on October 1, 2009 at 11:07 am  Comments (7)  

My Body, My Ball and Chain

In the post below, Sara of Shady Sadie kicks off an important category:  how our bodies, or not our bodies (they’re blameless) but our unmerciful attitudes toward them, can be a ball and chain that keeps us women from running, flying, or sometimes even leaving home.

If your body isn’t a vital vehicle for going where you want to go, if it isn’t a trusted source of information and of pleasure, but is rather a stumbling block that’s always in your way, an icky mess of goo you step in no matter which way you turn, a wicked weapon that more than half the time is turned against you, it’s going to put a major crimp in your freedom and effectiveness.

There are fascinating, paranoid feminist writings that describe this problem as a splinter of the “male gaze” left lodged in our flesh, an ankle bracelet from the patriarchy, to ensure that we don’t get too far.  It seems, however, to be something we do to ourselves, with a lot of help from the visual media. Why??

It’s a bottomless subject for women — until we get totally fed up (!) with it and decide never to weigh ourselves or talk about it out loud again.  But then the talk just goes underground.  Thanks to Sara for having the guts to bring it up.

Published in: on October 1, 2009 at 12:15 am  Comments (4)