Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Balancing Act in America

Feeling a little off-balance lately (have I ever been balanced?), I've been following a new blog called CW that's all about work-life balance.

And Chrysula — neat name — referred me to an intriguing column by NYT's Maureen Dowd, "Blue is the New Black."

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.

It makes sense to me and generally, this can be traced back to one fact: Women put up with a lot.

A whole lot. They sigh and sign on and somehow feel that whether they actually want to do something is entirely beside the point. They constantly feel obligated, and guilty if they say no. Doing something just because they want to, or not doing something because they don't, is nearly unheard of.

Perhaps it comes down to control of your own life. So many women have utterly ceded control of their own lives to their husbands, kids, bosses and family. If you feel you have power and can make your own decisions, you're happier. If you feel yanked about by powers greater than you, even if you choose to be yanked, then you're not happy.

So maybe it's not so much a shock that men grow happier as they age and women grow less happy. As they get older, many men feel they have more control over their own lives -- their careers offer them more autonomy, they get more respect, they remain attractive. Whereas women get deeper into the childraising trenches, juggling jobs and family, which would be fine -- men are doing it too, after all -- except women don't make themselves a priority.

So women feel less powerful. They're spending their days on stuff that is important to others, not to them. (Experts don't think it's because women do most of the housework, by the way, men are working toward more parity.)

I agree with Dowd that it's because of this:

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.

Yikes! No wonder we're miserable! Plus we have to look good doing it all too!

The key word here is, of course, judged. Women judge themselves -- hell, I judge myself -- under a powerful microscope. Every imperfection is highlighted. Do men live this way? I don't think so. They approach everything from an entirely different baseline. Let's say a school event comes up. I'd guess the first question an average guy would ask himself is: "Do I want to go?" The first question a woman would ask herself is: "Should I go?" See, totally different approaches here. Now maybe this guy and gal should go to the event, perhaps the end result is the same -- they go. And they go for the same reasons. But see how that first question makes a difference:

GUY: Hmmm, Back to School Night. A chance to see the kid's classroom and meet the teacher. Do I want to do that? Yeah, sort of. Might be interesting. Nothing else going on. (writes it down) Oh wait, there's a game that night. Well, I should go to this thing -- I'll tivo the game.

GAL: Oh, Back to School Night. A chance to see the kid's classroom and meet the teacher. I should really do this. It will be important to Kid, he'd be embarrassed if he was the only student there without a parent. Plus I'll look like a bad mother if I don't go. (writes it down) Oh wait, there's my book club that night. Well, I just don't have a choice, I'll just have to miss it.

So which one is happier about Back to School Night? The Guy, who has determined he wants to go and has made an independent choice to forgo the game because he feels it's important and he should be there? Or the Gal, who is crushed by the weight of Kid's expectations and other people's expectations? Deep down, she wants to go just as much as the Guy, but is it any wonder that she feels less happy about it?

In the end, this is rather abstract, because people don't fit into such tidy categories. And I think there is a very clear reason why I'm more content today than I was two or four years ago -- I feel more in control. I don't have to prove myself to anyone -- to the other parents or to my colleagues. I don't have to prove anymore that I can be a good editor after four years out of the newsroom. I don't have a toddler or preschooler any more. And now that our finances are more on an even keel, I feel less trapped.

So in the end, I think many women are feeling blue because they often feel powerless and trapped. But I also think that, in many cases, those women voluntarily give up their power and trap themselves.