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.)


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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Across the board in every country where depression has been studied, about twice as many women become depressed as men

    If this holds true in Europe and America, then even with greater government intervention, women will still be unhappier than men. Furthermore, this data indicates that what the article is talking about isn’t a female issue; anything that makes people happy seems to make both sexes equally happy. This would be a good point to make if you wanted both men and women to be behind your policies. I think the author was blinded by an innate sexism, and it hurt the argument she was trying to make.

    I would also have liked to see proof of causation. We also need to see the difference in happiness of people with and without children in each of these countries. If people without children in family-friendly countries were happier than people without children in family-unfriendly countries we might doubt the benefit of family-friendly-policies. Maybe that is why this data is never reported.

  2. Fair enough. However (or therefore), questioning the validity of the study means not having to face and deal with the question(s) raised by accepting it, even hypothetically. That could be a good thing, or just a clever dodge to avoid discussing something that needs discussing.

    I’m happy (and older!) and I don’t have kids (though I am not happy about not having kids). I’m happy in spite of (or, some might say, because of) my current lack of choices. This proves nothing, except that perhaps I shouldn’t concern myself with other people’s business.

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