My office is marking National Work and Family Month this October by offering two uplifting (not!) programs on work-life balance issues: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Employee Assistance Program and The Sandwich Generation: Caught in the Middle. I much prefer the upbeat festivities we usually have for Women's History Month, Black History Month, and the like. Lots of food, entertaining speakers, films, or music, and a sense of celebration.
My employer's decidedly downbeat approach to National Work and Family Month, though, echoes the media's message about work, women, and family. Instead of recognizing the ways that women are changing the American work force (well, trying to) and applauding the emergence of new work and family initiatives, most of the news has focused only on the negative. Mainly,that American women increasingly are unhappy. Markedly morose.
The unhappy news was touched off by a study released in May, "The Declining Paradox of Women's Happiness" by the non-profit National Bureau of Economic Research, which found that women are less happy, both absolutely and relative to men, than they were 35 years ago. Since then, there's been no let up in the media's focus on our decline into despair.
According the Paradox report and other happiness studies, women are reportedly unhappy across almost all demographic groups. Extracting from the numbers, lots of theories have been tossed about to explain why we're so gloomy. Here are a few:
We are unhappy because we are single.
We are unhappy because we are married.
We are unhappy because we have kids. (But we are not unhappy if we don't have kids!)
We are unhappy because we work.
We are unhappy because we don't work.
We are unhappy because of feminism.
We are unhappy because of discrimination in pay.
We are unhappy because we haven't achieved equality at work.
We are unhappy because we haven't achieved parity at home.
We are unhappy because we have too many choices. (And too many obligations.)
We are unhappy because of Roman Polanski, David Letterman, and Jon Gosselin. (Wait, strike that last sentence, that's a whole other topic!)
The dreary dispatches seem to have gone into overdrive just in time for National Work and Family Month. (Never mind that measuring happiness is elusive and that women may not, in fact, be any less happy than men as some new research shows.) Maureen Dowd's Blue is the New Black op-ed in The New York Times, which points to "choices" as the cause of our collective despair, and Marcus Buckingham's What's Happening To Women's Happiness? (and its followup) in his blog for The Huffington Post, are two of the most recent and most-talked-about pieces in this genre. I won't summarize them here but you'll see that they paint an unappealing picture.
Reading all this makes me unhappy. Sad. Miserable. Grim. (Of course, I've spent the last week removing lice from our home and nits from our heads so that might be influencing my outlook.)
How does this supposed happiness deficit relate to working moms? Well, according to the Paradox study's authors, working women are no less happy than non-working women. Employment and low-down emotions are not necessarily linked.
This makes sense to me. My current mood aside, I and many working moms I know are happy. Yes, we are tired, weary, exhausted, frazzled, and harried, but we are not - as a group - unhappy all or even most of the time. It's often hard to juggle work and family obligations, but we are not sad. At least not any sadder than other women.
Although there are some very real issues about the emotional (and other) effects of our society's lack of social support for working mothers (and fathers) as this article by Sharon Lerner in double X points out, I reject some of the implications others are drawing from the downward trend. To me, the new narrative of women's unhappiness - and the companion conclusion that women today have "too many choices" - gives fodder to reactionaries who want to push woman back into the "barefoot and pregnant" box. Many of the comments posted in response to these articles and blogs I link to in this post blame women generally - and feminists in particular - for the happiness downturn. They attribute the decline in women's happiness since the 1970's to women's desire to work, build some financial security, and play a role in the the wider world.
I don't agree. Although it may be fair to consider (and the Paradox researchers do) whether some portion of women's unhappiness might be attributed to the fact the reality of our lives may not comport with the expectations created by women's movement, it's foul to argue that women would be happier if only they returned to their traditional roles. The end of statutory discrimination against women and the opening up of many professional and personal opportunities for them just doesn't seem to be a cause for mourning.
One of the best pieces I've read in this whole discussion of women and happiness comes from Leslie Morgan Steiner's Two Cents on Modern Motherhood blog on Mommy Tracked. In an "open letter" responding to Maureen Dowd's op-ed, Steiner writes movingly of her mother, a 1956 Radcliffe graduate, who raised her five kids " without benefit of an involved husband, disposable diapers, carseats or even regular use of a car, a microwave, a breast pump, childcare, a computer, the Internet, or even a cordless phone."
Steiner's dad, a prominent lawyer, worked long hours, pursued his intellectual and sports interests when he wasn't working, and eventually dumped her mother. Steiner, looking back, observes: "I saw every day how lonely, and frustrated, and demoralized our culture made Mom feel as a stay-at-home mom and later as a working mother. I don't know if I could survive being belittled, disempowered and diminished every day the way Mom was throughout her life."
Her conclusion: Lack of real choices is much worse than unhappiness.
I agree. Steiner's piece made me think about my maternal grandmother who was a bright, talented, and unhappy woman. Her own mother died (after giving birth to 14 children) while my grandmother was still a young girl. My grandmother didn't have the opportunity or means to further her education, and her husband - a compulsive gambler - left her when my mother was a teenager. She didn't have the same opportunities to go to college and graduate school and work in a professional capacity that I've had although she managed to excel at her jobs and raise her daughter alone. I know that whatever stress or weariness I sometimes feel from the juggle (and from staying up late writing this blog), I am certainly happier than my grandmother and countless other women who did not have the choices that the women's movement opened up for me.
There, I feel happier already! How about you?
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