Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Female unhappiness


Interesting article on female unhappiness ... surveys show fewer women report being happier than they did 50 years ago, prior to the sexual revolution. Proposed causes from the article include: "Women are not wired for the working world," "Women are required to work more and still do the household stuff," "the continued struggle against the glass ceiling," etc.

But I favor another hypothesis:

I think women are much more attuned to social expectations than men are. I think in the 60s, women were expected only to run a great household. Now they're expected to run a great home and have a highly successful career. It's miserably difficult to accomplish both. But I know a huge number of women that have internalized both obligations -- and feel intense guilt at their failure to live up to both ideals.

How many times have I heard women feel guilty about spending time with their family when they feel they "should be working," and feel guilty about working when they feel they "should be spending time with their family."

This is peripherally related to the "double shift" hypothesis in the article, but discernably different I think. It's not about "women are doing more work than they did before." It's about "Women feel like they have to live up to a new, unattainably high ideal." Pre-sexual revolution society had much lower expectations of women. They weren't expected to be the peers of men in terms of their intellectual prowess and professional reputation. Raised demands = lower degree of success relative to those expectations = lowered self-esteem = lowered happiness.

How often it seems women do that to themselves.

And this leads me to the ultimate irony I've always perceived about the sexual revolution. I don't understand why they wanted it. If society told me all I needed to do was stay home and care for the kids, I'd do a spectacular job, and have a love of fun doing it. I could read books, surf the web, garden ... I'd love it. I hate going to "the office" every day.

Why the hell did they want to WORK?

The easy answer is, of course, "They wanted the option to work." Well and good. But what they imposed on themselves (with peculiar feminine logic) was an EXPECTATION to work, and not only work, but work well, at high paying, prestigious, meaningful jobs, as the equals or superiors of men. That's a very different proposition from "having the option to work," an option which I think they should well have. But they gave themselves more than they bargained for, I think.

All of this is of course deeply subjective at heart. They're concerned with "whether they're a good person" much more than "what needs to be done." If they were concerned with "what needed to be done," they would likely make efforts to simplify their lives and reduce the demands from both sides. But that wouldn't satisfy the narcissistic urge to be the "uber-woman." And so they make themselves miserable based on self-imposed expectations of perfection in all realms of life.

Meanwhile, men, who are generally much less driven by social expectations, find their load lightened. They aren't solely responsible for the financial and physical security of their family. Many of their women find themselves driven by misplaced pride to be the primary breadwinner ... and many men are willing to say, "Fine, if you say so -- I'm going back to playing Wii."

The key, I think, is to focus not on social expectations, but on the objective requirements of life. Two sets of jobs need to be done -- money-making in the marketplace, and care of the home. Some division of labor is required, and specialization of labor is one of the key mechanisms for increased efficiency. Does that mean that women should stay home? No. But it means that if they choose to work, they need to recognize the costs it imposes on themselves and their families. The family loses the advantage of specialization of labor. It loses the stability of a person who is rested and relaxed enough to care for the emotional needs of the family. It loses the availability of a person who can take care of the endless needs of domestic life. Fine, go to work for your pride, that's well and good -- but do it knowing the effects of your actions.

But I speak in the language of enlightened self-interest, rather than the language of social expectation. And the response, in the language of social expectation, goes something like, "Well now you're just making me feel bad by reminding me of all the things I'm failing to do in the house." And on it goes.


Anonymous said...

Hi. I would like to learn more about the history of the women's lib movement because I think there is something more to the story. For one thing, it may not have been the majority of women who wanted "liberation," or that all women understood it in quite the same way. Also, I wonder who were the "major players" of the women's liberation movement.

Most women in their prime now are not the women who fought for woman's liberation. Would they still want the same liberation? It is much harder to go back though isn't it? Some women and men do assert that "traditional" roles are the best for both men and women. The "traditional" roles movement has some support, but it is mostly a religious one.

ungtss said...

Interesting questions! I think you're probably right and the story is much more complex than the story we're spoonfed. My instinct is that it was driven by an adoption of the industrial mindset -- that economic power and prestige were valuable and keeping a nice house was less. My wife, for instance, strenuously objects to people calling raising children a "job," because "a job is something you get paid for in the marketplace, and those women who 'just raise kids' want to have the prestige of a 'job.'" Why is it more prestigious to have a job than to raise a family? The former involves complete alienation of labor -- the latter does not. I'd much rather raise the kids all day. Yet somehow, our culture went from placing women in a position of prestige for maintaining an excellent home to considering them to be somehow "less" than the working man.

I wonder if it happened when the quality of work began to shift as we moved into the information age. In the industrial age, the bulk of work was tilling the soil, mining coal, and smelting. Not very sexy. In the information age, the bulk of work became service work, leadership, management, etc ... maybe that's why "work" became more prestigious than "homemaking."

What do you think?