Tuesday, September 22, 2009

To be a Woman...

“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.” Have you heard? It's the talk of the town; you can check it out here. Women are unhappy, more unhappy than they were forty years ago before the women's liberation movement, and it doesn't make sense to anyone.

Women have more earning power, more opportunities, more equality: what more could we want? The researchers point out that the argument that says women have taken on the workplace and kept all the work of the homefront isn't the case. In measurable hours, women spend less time working at home (cleaning and cooking) while men have increased the work they do at home. Men, by the way, are happier than they were forty years ago. Stevenson does note that this data doesn't quite give the picture in total because she argues that the emotional weight of the responsibilities of the homelife still rests primarily with women while men get to "help out" without bearing the burden.

This past year, I have been conducting a sociological experiment: I have been staying home employing myself as a housewife (and here my Dad just thought I was unemployed). As we transitioned from Vancouver to Ontario, Andrew and I agreed that I could have a chance to stay home and do some serious thinking about what would make me happy. It has been a remarkable gift to have this time and I am grateful that Andrew was willing to work with me on this.

One of the surprising side effects of our arrangement has been the reaction from those around us. Based on the strong opinions elicited, I often felt that this whole housewife gig has been the most counter-cultural stunt I've ever pulled off. People seemed uncomfortable with the idea that I was wasn't working outside of our house - I could, I was capable, but I just wasn't. For the past year, I have been questioned regularly as to how I spend my time.

In one of my best moments, in reply to the question that is always on the tip of everyone's tongue, "What do you do?" "I enjoy myself." I replied. The stunned party guest eventually moved on to talk to someone who had the decency to answer that they worked in finance or IT. Why do we ask that question of strangers we're meeting? How many of us have jobs that define who we are and what we "do"?

I have not been bored - apparently I have a very high capacity for spending quiet time with only myself as company. There are in fact so many things to do that I've found myself pressed for time. Being home and seeking what it was I want to do has led me to the conclusion that I thrive in this working from and on the home environment. Now, I just need to find a way to make money while doing it, because money is nice and important to make (yes Dad I do believe that). I do regret leaving Andrew to cover the financial burden of our lives.

Now, our upcoming arrival has complicated this little experiment. I had been looking to get back into the workplace in order to again accrue income, when I found that my interviews would be complicated by a deadline. Please hire me and I'll work very hard for you until March or maybe I'll have to quit in February. Now maternity leave in Canada lasts for a year; they do things so well here. But we do know the importance of keeping one of us home with our child when they are young - so I'm looking for some temporary work to bring in a little money before the baby. My housewife vocation has been augmented or perhaps I am to be promoted from housewife to stay-at-home-mom.

But there remains, this paradox of declining happiness in women: it does not seem surprising that the working-mothering-marrying-successful woman is not quite happy. She's busy; we can get busy with things that are put upon us rather than chosen or if chosen, it can be frustrating to spread your time so thin. Having spent the year avoiding that busyness, I have found that I'm a great deal happier than I was in the years before. I don't believe that the women's lib is really to blame and I happily encourage my sisters to conquer the corporate, government, and academic heights- or not - pursue what fulfills you. It may be time to ask what makes us happy. Maybe we should make sure we know how we define happy.

And really, am I on the sure-fire path to happiness-destruction by procreating? That seems hard to believe. At this point there's no going back, I'd better throw on some rose-coloured glasses and skip merrily down the road to the unhappiness that is motherhood. Perhaps, a little attitude is needed: "I'll prove 'em all wrong. I will be happy! Take that happiness statistics."

Excuse me, it's time for me to go throw up.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, your question about how we define happiness is a good one. That's what Coleman and I talked about after we read about this study and its findings. As Christians, we claim to have a somewhat counter-cultural understanding of happiness (at least I hope so!!), and thus, may find that these sociological categories don't entirely work for us. I applaud your experiment and am encouraged to do my own thinking on the subject, but I think I'll start with some thinking on what exactly I mean by "happy." Thanks for the post!