Sisterhood Blog

American Women — Less Happy or Just More Stressed Because of Good Choices?

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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Maureen Dowd’s recent New York Times op-ed, “Blue is the New Black,” is interesting, but presents some things as facts which seem inaccurate to me, perhaps by dint of their being over-simplified.

Dowd writes of recent studies that indicate that women are growing increasingly unhappy despite the fact that there are more choices and opportunities for women outside the home than there were decades ago. At the same time, men report being increasingly happy as the years go on.

Dowd’s piece says, in part:

In the early ’70s, breaking out of the domestic cocoon, leaving their mothers’ circumscribed lives behind, young women felt exhilarated and bold. But the more women have achieved, the more they seem aggrieved. Did the feminist revolution end up benefiting men more than women?

According to the General Social Survey, which has tracked Americans’ mood since 1972, and five other major studies around the world, women are getting gloomier and men are getting happier. Before the ’70s, there was a gender gap in America in which women felt greater well-being. Now there’s a gender gap in which men feel better about their lives.

When women stepped into male- dominated realms, they put more demands — and stress — on themselves. If they once judged themselves on looks, kids, hubbies, gardens and dinner parties, now they judge themselves on looks, kids, hubbies, gardens, dinner parties — and grad school, work, office deadlines and meshing a two-career marriage.

She quotes a study author who says, in an interview with Dowd, that, “Women are being driven to distraction.”

Dowd writes that:

One area of extreme distraction is kids. “Across the happiness data, the one thing in life that will make you less happy is having children,” said Betsey Stevenson, an assistant professor at Wharton who co-wrote a paper called “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness.” “It’s true whether you’re wealthy or poor, if you have kids late or kids early. Yet I know very few people who would tell me they wish they hadn’t had kids or who would tell me they feel their kids were the destroyer of their happiness.”

I find this hard to believe. It seems, in this study and in Dowd’s column, as if happiness is being confused with ease.

Parenting is not easy, and is stressful in mundane but constant ways (Kids, I cannot hear any of you when all three of you are talking to me at once. You have HOW many forms that have to be filled out tonight? Yes, I know you need X thing to bring to school and I’ll get one as soon as I have a minute. I heard you honey, the first 15 times you told me how much you want to go to the first session of camp instead of the second so you can be with your best friend).

But feeling stressed is not the same as feeling unhappy, and I think on both issues Dowd addresses – the fact that we have choices about the way we want to live our lives that our mothers did not have, and having children – can and do prompt stress and even, sometimes, ambivalence.

I often feel stressed – I admit it! – and sometimes even overwhelmed as I try and juggle my children’s needs and my deadlines and the hundred things that always need doing for the family (bill paying, tenant managing, laundry).

But my children make me happy even as the work of parenting sometimes stresses me out.

Reducing questions of happiness to either-or possibilities does not accurately reflect the wonderfully complicated, fluid reality most of us live.

My mother grew up in the 1940s and ‘50s and did not have many choices – her choice of work was circumscribed, as was the type of man she would marry. She was starved of choice, of possibility, and she was worse for it.

With some difficulty she managed the transition through the cultural changes of the 1960s and ‘70s, which impacted her marriage and her own ability to see what she wanted for herself.

But she raised me and my sister to feel – to deeply know – that we could make our own choices about how we wanted our lives to look. And we have.

We both have lives that look, perhaps, fairly conventional, and remarkably similar to each other’s – we’re each married to good men, have three children and are actively engaged in Jewish religious and communal lives, as well as being working professionals.

But these lives have been borne of our choices. And though God knows there are days when I feel very stressed out by the constant juggle, it doesn’t mean that I’m unhappy.

On the contrary – I am deeply, profoundly happy with my life, which is richer in love and in meaning than anything I even knew to hope for.

elana Wed. Sep 23, 2009

"confusing ease with happiness" -- very well said!

Leah Thu. Sep 24, 2009

Yes. You hit the nail on the head with "confusing ease with happiness." I just finished my post on the subject, and want to say thank you for giving me that perspective in thinking about this. You can check out my response here:

Laura Solomon Fri. Sep 25, 2009

Agreed! If a person equate happiness with ease they will surely be disatisfied. Haven't most adults realized that the most challenging and demanding relationships and endeavors are the most gratifying? I'm thinking marriage, children,and even professional/career development. I also find interesting the quote: "But the more women have achieved, the more they seem aggrieved." Perhaps if we compare the level of complaints now to the 70's it would seem that complaints are on the rise - but I suspect that is not because women are more unhappy. Rather, it's because we now have a voice and feel entitled (dare I say liberated?) to talk about it!

Shifra Bronznick Fri. Sep 25, 2009

We are more stressed -- not because we don't love parenting our children, but rather because our lives and our choices have changed radically. Yet our workplaces have been slow to adapt to the new reality of the way we live and work.

Women still shoulder 2/3 of all household, caregiving responsibilities -- but this is seen as our individual problem to manage, rather than a societal issues which requires support from our institutions for flexibility, child care and parental leave.

I know, we at Advancing Women Professionals are trying to change the way we work -- by influencing Jewish organizations to lead the way in offering good parental leave and flexible work policies. When we feel that work life issues are "discussed and discussable" in our professional worlds, we will feel less stress. And all of us know, that an essential ingredient for happiness is sufficient time and space to pursue it.

Shifra Bronznick

Shifra Bronznick

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