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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Are Women Unhappier?

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.

But that’s my opinion.  Yours?
Published in: on August 3, 2009 at 2:41 am  Comments (23)