Modern times: This woman's work

What unites us is a guilt-soaked insistence that we have to do it all

It’s night here, and the kids are sleeping, and the choices have been made. Summer’s nearing, but the past months have been dark; the outside washed in grey bad weather and the inside echoing with screaming housebound toddlers. The partner is out of town, and work is exploding. Deadline upon deadline, the dreaded ping of the inbox, the voice-mail light of the phone. Monotony. Joylessness. One foot in front of the other.

I wish I could say that I do not know what this is. But if I scan the decades, I can see the endless struggle to articulate and vanquish this woman’s thing. In 1963, Betty Friedan called it “the problem with no name.” “As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut-butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night – she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question – ‘Is this all?'”

Well, add work to the list and the thing is not exactly cured. By the 1980s, women were doing what Arlie Russell Hochschild and Anne Machung called their book: The Second Shift, the unpaid labour that women undertake on top of their paying jobs. Women had become stuck, as they put it, in a “stalled revolution.” By the self-help ’90s, the problem was our own: female guilt; trying to be the good girl; never saying no. Now here we are, 2008, and women talk about their exhaustion, their overextension, resigned to the I Don’t Know How She Does It superwoman fraud.

But something isn’t working.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in Canada, and women are more likely to be diagnosed than men. A recent American study shows that since 1972, women’s levels of self-described happiness have fallen, and now they rest below those of men. The drop is most pronounced in women 30 to 44, the years when career ascension collides with the simultaneous parenting of one’s children and one’s own parents. Of course, it may be that women are better at reporting their emotions while men are better at fronting happiness. But I don’t think this thing is unhappiness exactly. What it is – what keeps us going, what keeps us in the gloom – is fear. It’s fear of being left behind, of leaving a bad mark on the kids, of not leaving any mark anywhere else. It’s a fear of failing at this act. It’s fear of a world that won’t hold our children for us, that’s getting meaner.

When I can put aside my guilt about even feeling the fear – I’m healthy; I’m financially stable; I’m First World and white; what’s my problem again? – I recognize that swirling in the stomach, that late-night jolt awake, as something closer to terror than sadness. That’s what it is to feel constantly overextended, as if you are letting down everyone, giving fractions of yourself away – it’s terrifying.

We don’t speak often of this fear, because it elicits a collective shrug in the post-feminist age: “You chose this.” But did we? Did we choose this, exactly?

In his book The Paradox of Choice, the social scientist Barry Schwartz writes about how our supra-capitalist society has left its citizens overwhelmed by the endless choices they have to make. “Unlimited choices,” he writes, can “produce genuine suffer­­ing.” Using Schwartz’s theory, a recent article in The San Francisco Chronicle asserted that women, faced with all kinds of lifestyle decisions previously unavailable to them, are the most beleaguered choosers.

Well, no. I feel that excess-choice stress in a supermarket looking at salad dressings, but I didn’t really have a choice about this whole work-life-hamster-wheel thing. A distant relative once told me that instead of daycare, I should work two days a week and look for a “kind neighbour” to take care of the kids. Uh, I’m into eating and not being naked, and the kindliest neighbour around charges $750 a month. The “work or don’t work” debate is left over from another time: prehistoric, or at least pre–Gloria Steinem.

If I want a decent standard of living, if I want children (“But you chose to have children, so shut up!” “Well, that choice was about as much of a choice as breathing, sorry”) and a relationship, then I need to work. And when I’m not working, I’m with Friedan: Something’s missing. Many women don’t feel this way (and please don’t bombard me with your letters: I’m envious that you’re fulfilled by domestic work, and that you can afford it, and sincerely wish you the best) but I do. The mat leaves I spent with my newborn children were profound and magical, but I also felt my inner life eroding. My work is writing, and when I couldn’t do it, I sensed a quiet madness sidling up. I grew resentful of the mind-numbing re­­petition of parenting, the slog of feedings and diapers and clapping games.

But even if I had a partner who could write me big cheques, and for some reason I didn’t want to work, I’d be afraid not to. Consider Terry Martin Hekker, who, in 1979, wrote a book called Ever Since Adam & Eve. Her counterintuitive take on womanhood – the subtitle read The Satisfactions of Housewifery and Motherhood in the Age of Do-Your-Own-Thing – pleased the media, and she became a minor celebrity selling the (by then retro) idea that tending hearth and home was inherently meaningful, and ought to be sufficient for all women.

Then, on her 40th wedding anniversary, Hekker’s husband handed her a sheaf of divorce papers. Financially suffering, socially abandoned and a senior citizen, she suddenly changed her tune. In The New York Times, she wrote: “He got to take his girlfriend to Cancun, while I got to sell my engagement ring to pay the roofer.” She begs young women who have children to reconsider thoughts of leaving the workforce. She’s still working on a sequel to her happy-homemaker tome, called Disregard First Book.

Some days, it’s easy to confront the fear. Join the world, give back, black out the unimportant details of the dirty sink and the list and turn off the television and just be.

I hope that I will look back at this column in 30 years and smile at my ignorance, my inability to measure the insignificance of this mood against the huge challenges lying in wait up ahead.

But other days, it’s deep, and irresolvable. We pretend this mad dance isn’t ridiculous, and we accept the exhaustion because we asked for it. But in the dark, right now, and probably tomorrow, it matters, and it’s not what I chose.

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