Last week, Tara wrote about the Huffpost article that talked about how data shows that while women have experienced increasing levels of education, opportunities in the workplace, and overall autonomy, they've also reported that their general levels of happiness have also diminished. I've heard these reports before (you can't go to something like the Women's Conference and not hear this sort of thing) and have spent some time considering what it all means. I don't have the answers (because really, can there be one answer to explain away the experiences and emotions of generations of women?) but I do have some guesses.
I'm a working mom, by choice. I have two children - my son Rowan, who is currently 5 years old, and Kate whom many of you know from various fitting room review cameos, who turned 18 months old today. I love them like I love nothing else and am constantly in awe of the fact that somehow, my husband and I have been able to create such incredible little creatures. I mean, they grow! And learn! And do all kinds of amazing things like talk, and laugh, and wind various adults around their little fingers with their sweet smiles! I say I work "by choice," because I have had the opportunity to be a stay-at-home mom (SAHM), and found that while I loved being with Rowan, I neither had the temperament or the desire to do the work attached with being a SAHM. It's hard work! And I sucked at it! (Truth be told, my own mother-in-law told me towards the end of that 5 months, that I was more useful outside the home than in it, and actually helped me find my current job. Embarrassing? A little. The right thing for me and my family? Without a doubt.) I have great respect for SAHMs and on a side note, think the weird rivalry that seems to exist between SAHMs and working moms is bizarre and ridiculous (in the words of Rodney King, "Can't we all just get along?"). I enjoy my work outside my home - it's stimulating, rewarding, and makes good use of my education. That being said, it's not easy to be both a mother and a career woman, and while my husband and I have jerry-rigged a system that seems to work well for us, we still have our dips and valleys from time to time.
I agree with Tara's hypothesis that quite possibly, the decrease in overall happiness for women is closely related to the impossible expectations we have of ourselves. How many of you have heard or read phrases like, "having it all," and "creating a work-life balance?" Yeah, mmhm, me too. And here's the thing - there are no such things. Really. There is no having it all. At least, not in this world. And what does "work-life balance" mean anyway? The way it sounds, you should be able to take your life - or hey, let's use a more manageable unit of time and say, a day - and split it up evenly. You know, something along the lines of 8 hours for work, 8 hours for home and family, and (since we're fantasizing here anyway) 8 hours for sleep. 8 + 8 + 8 = 24, and we have an even number of hours allotted to the three great time-guzzlers in our lives, and as long as we keep these discrete, we have - wait for it - achieved balance. Hm, what? You say there is no having it all? Oh, right...back to that, are we?
What you have then, instead, is an opportunity to manage expectations. I totally expect that there will be days when I'm working well beyond 8 hours. Days on which, long after my children and husband are asleep, I will be sitting up with my rapidly cooling cup of coffee, trying to stay productive and meet a deadline. I also expect that there are days when my children are sick or are having a birthday or need me to attend a "Dinosaur Breakfast" (the events at school which you absolutely must not miss, because if you do, your child will be the only one there without a parent in attendance and s/he will remember that particular heartache forever), and I will cut back on my work hours in order to care for them in my role as their mother. I also expect that I will - once every month or so - be able to sleep a whole 8 hours in one night - though, maybe, not without waking at least once. I expect that I'll probably be harboring a sleep deficit on more days than not. And I expect I may be cranky from time to time because of it. However, I also expect that I'll catch myself and snap out of it, sooner than later. After all, I have so much for which to be grateful. And I expect myself to enjoy it - all of it - as much as I possibly can.
For instance, the simple but overwhelming fun that can be had with Photo Booth (taken yesterday, shortly before bedtime):
It helps enormously that I have a true parenting partner in my husband. From getting Rowan up, fed, dressed, and dropped off to school in the mornings, to caring for Kate when I'm at the office, my husband (who works from home) pulls double duty and then some, when compared against what's usually expected of dads.
And this leads to my other guess at why women are not as happy as may be expected. While expectations surrounding the roles and opportunities for women have increased vastly over the past four decades, the expectations of men have more or less stayed the same.
True, many younger men have stepped up, and like my husband, do much more than log time at the office only to come home, pat the children affectionately on their heads, then put their feet up, open up the newspaper, and ask what's for dinner. I'd venture to guess though, that the great majority of men - young or old - have had little or no preparation for child-rearing, housekeeping, or other traditionally "female"-oriented tasks and duties. This is not at all to say that they can't learn to do these things on the fly or do them well (obviously, my husband did) - but that's a huge leap from having been raised with the expectation that when they reached adulthood, it would be their responsibility to actually do these things on a regular basis, which is usually the circumstance for most women.
So, meanwhile, (surprise-surprise!) women continue to take up the slack on the home front, while simultaneously holding down full or part-time jobs, and are they exhausted? Yes. Do they feel stretched thin? Yes. When standing in front of a poorly-stocked refrigerator trying to figure out what to make for dinner after 8 hours of work with a couple children clamoring for attention, are they going to feel a little stressed and uncomfortably inadequate? God, yes! And when you call them and ask them if they're happy about this, are they going to tell you they are?
Work that one out for yourself, please.
As a working mom; as a woman coming of age in the 21st century in the USA, I - along with all of you - am still making up a lot of this as I go along. The generation before me (the baby-boomers and some of the older Gen-Xers, God bless them) have laid down some of the basic groundwork for us younger women (they say the 30s are the new 20s...^_- ) but there's a whole lot left to be figured out, and maybe Kate and her contemporaries will still be working on these issues when it's their turn. But I do hope, if nothing else, they'll realize from our examples, that being a woman is neither prescriptive or proscriptive. That if nothing else, what they have are choices - the choice to be mothers or not be mothers; to work outside the home, or in it; to be strong, independent, and self-reliant, and still live, love, and work well with a life-partner; to be sensible, smart, and conscientious, while still being silly, fun, and full of whimsy.
To spend their small and precious moments of free time, writing a style blog, if that's what they want.
Sweater: H&M v-neck cardigan, 2009
Top: Gap boat-neck tee, 2006
Skirt: Circle the Globe skirt, Anthropologie, 2010
Shoes: LAMB flats, 2009
Necklace: J. Crew