Happyless: What’s up with women these days?
Quite a bit has been written lately about women being increasingly unhappy and why this may be (take a gander at Maureen Dowd’s “Blue is the New Black,” Arianna Huffinton’s “The Sad, Shocking Truth About How Women Are Feeling,” and Marcus Buckingham’s “What’s Happening to Women’s Happiness?“). Commentators are responding to a very perplexing new study—appropriately titled “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness”—by Wharton’s Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers.
In a nutshell, the authors initially hypothesized that women should be happier today than in previous decades, seeing as we’ve seen gains in so many facets of life including increased control over fertility, more opportunities in the labor force, higher wages, sexual liberation, etc. You’d think we’d be ecstatic. Instead, over the last 35 years women report being increasingly less happy, both in absolute terms and relative to men. The authors take a few stabs at possible explanations but ultimately throw their hands up in the air, leaving an explanatory vacuum we in the blogosphere are only too happy to fill.
In attempting to understand why women are so damn unhappy, I thought about myself. I do this all the time anyway, but this time I tried to convince myself it was in the name of scientific inquiry.
More about me: I can vote, I don’t need a man’s permission to get a job, and no one is supposed to pinch my ass at work. I may sound flippant, but these are no small feats. And although my generation is known for being completely ungrateful to the bra-burning feminists of yore, I’m deeply thankful for their accomplishments. Promise.
But for all this liberation, on a mundane, day-to-day level all I feel is anxiety—deep anxiety, all the time, about all facets of my life.
It started with the mixed messages. My immigrant parents pushed me to succeed at school; they told me I could be anything I wanted to be and they made spectacular sacrifices to help me along. But I also vividly remember my mom telling me to let my romantic interests think they’re smarter and more successful than me. Men don’t like to lose, she warned. Given that she came of age in socially conservative Soviet Russia, I’ve always taken her advice on these matters with a grain of salt. Still, there’s plenty of evidence right here in the United States that many men don’t feel comfortable earning less than their significant others.
Matters of the heart put aside for a moment, at least I’m supposed to have every opportunity to succeed in the workplace, right? I got better grades than my male peers, the studies say, and every company wants to improve its image by hiring more women. And yet, women still earn less than men (78 cents to the man’s dollar, but who’s counting?). Women are underrepresented in government, in business, in academia—in all the places that I’ve been taught matter.
I don’t see many women who “have it all.” Only 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. And of the senior female managers at those companies, a third never marry and almost 70 percent don’t have children. Plus, there are Mommies at War: one side telling me that if I don’t stay home with my children I will permanently ruin their lives and miss out on the unique glories of womanhood; the other side warning me that if I do stay home with my children no one will talk to me at cocktail parties and I will lose the respect of my husband, other women, society, and myself. The Daddies, apparently, are spared the savagery of War.
I wish I could believe that the “second shift” (housework on top of paid work) was now equitably distributed, but even if men are doing more household labor than before it’s still mostly women who are ultimately responsible for the home and child-rearing. When women marry the number of hours they spend on household responsibilities increases, while when men marry their household work hours decrease. Women are the ones that leave work to drive their sick kids to the doctor. Women are much more likely to interrupt their careers to take parental leave than men (the same is true in Europe, even though paternity leave is a more prevalent option there). Women are more likely than men to work part-time.
Perhaps there are women who “want” to make these career sacrifices. Perhaps they don’t even see them as sacrifices. But from the vantage point of my mid-twenties, I can’t imagine that I will ever want to be the one to do the majority of the housework, be responsible for the majority of the child raising, or make the majority of career sacrifices. Then I worry that perhaps my lack of enthusiasm for these sacrifices means I’m going to make a terrible mother. Or that I’m doomed to be an old maid.
The traditionalists have a point. In some ways, things were much simpler when we had clearly defined gender roles: male breadwinner, female breadmaker. But this study found that happiness levels declined for both working women and stay-at-home moms. In any case, it’s too late. I don’t know how to make bread, and I have little interest in learning. And even if I gave into the worldview of the Caitlin Flanagans of the world—that all women secretly want to be Martha Stuart, and that perhaps women should love their inner housewives instead of loathe them—I wouldn’t want to give up my professional passions. I literally couldn’t give up my professional ambitions, not without giving up a big part of myself, a big part of my happiness.
But living in a country with no paid parental leave, no public child care, a fierce Mommy-track, and an intensive parenting culture, I just don’t know of many women who didn’t have to give up something. At the very least, give up more than the men in their lives did.
So what’s a girl living in a “postfeminist” world to do these days? Do I focus on my career, at the supposed expense of my future children? Will I be able to find a partner who will share the responsibilities at home, take an equal amount of parental leave, relocate if my career necessitated it? Or should I be pragmatic and focus on creating a “flexible” career for myself, one that will allow me to combine work and family life with greater ease, but probably at the expense of prestige and pay?
Recent findings about declining female happiness don’t surprise me at all. Previous generations of women likely felt that their situations were improving and would improve further over time. I know my situation is much better than it was for previous generations of women, but I’m not that confident that it will improve much further—not without profound changes in our society. That uncertainty just adds fuel to my personal anxiety. And I have a strong feeling that various incarnations of uncertainty and anxiety ultimately account for this very modern paradox of declining women’s happiness.