I began with the best intentions. A few weekends ago, while my husband was away working out of town, I planned to work at least ten hours on my dissertation, crank out a 1,500-word article and two blog posts, prep for some upcoming interviews, dissect a single chapter of John Paul’s Theology of the Body with a friend, and finally read (and write a review of) three other books in preparation of an upcoming speaking engagement. While this schedule may seem crazy and chaotic to some, for me this breakneck speed felt normal just a little under a year ago. Anything less and I felt unaccomplished and downright bored.
Enter my daughter, Little Miss Marathon, who on her very best days slept three to four hours straight and ate only the minimum required for her age. For the past six months (i.e., her whole life), we’d been trying to figure out ways to get her to sleep and eat — but it seemed that all she wanted to do was go, go, go. Her energy levels made even me feel like a century-old centipede. And all this came to a roaring head that particular weekend. After twenty-four hours of her screaming and not sleeping and fighting food at every turn, I finally decided just to step back, relax, and let her decide how much she was going to eat and when. By Sunday, she was a new baby — both her eating and her sleeping had regulated themselves into a more normal pattern. On one hand, I felt successful in my role as a mother because my baby was now comfortable and content; on the other, I felt like a failure, and rather than focusing on what I had “done right,” I honed in on all that was left undone — namely, every single thing on my to-do list.
Apparently, in my temptation to be dissatisfied with my achievements, I am not alone. Wharton professors and husband-and-wife research team Betsy Stevenson and Justin Wolfers review the evidence for what they call, “the paradox of declining female happiness.” Every year since 1972, the height of the feminist movement, the United States General Social Survey has polled 1,500 men and women regarding various aspects of their lives. The participants cut across all education levels, income levels, and marital statuses. In one question, participants are asked, “How happy are you, on a scale of 1 to 3, with 3 being very happy, and 1 being not too happy?” Across the board, women’s levels of happiness have progressively declined. And this study is only a representative; Stevenson and Wolfers review several other studies that reveal the same problem: despite unparalleled growth in educational opportunities, greater financial stability, and progress in the work sphere, women are more unhappy than they were before the 1970s.
Markus Buckingham at the Huffington Post aptly summarizes : “Wherever researchers have been able to collect reliable data on happiness, the finding is always the same: greater educational, political, and employment opportunities have corresponded to decreases in life happiness for women, as compared to men.”
These findings have understandably stirred up a great deal of discussion and debate with many voices trying to make sense of the data. While no single theory can probably fully explain the trend, some researchers believe that women have more freedom today to be honest about their level of unhappiness than they did thirty years ago, while others argue that women’s unhappiness points to escalating pressures in a global society. Stevenson and Wolfers speculate that the decline in happiness for women is largely due to women’s rising expectations for themselves. In other words, it’s no longer sufficient to be a devoted “stay-at-home mom” or a “successful business woman” because women are now expected (and expect themselves) to be proficient in both areas at once. And single women, young and old, are not immune to rising expectations and other societal pressures.
Stevenson and Wolfers’s explanation is scandalous because it seems to fly in the face of what feminism has taught us over the last forty years: that more opportunities and freedom for women would automatically correspond to increasing levels of happiness for all. At the same time, their explanation is poignant because it underscores the challenge contemporary women face every single day: the intense pressure of piecing together the spheres of work, hearth, and home in a way that honors the integrity of both. In the face of such huge expectations, women inevitably fail to achieve all that they set out to accomplish — and in turn, thwart their own general happiness and satisfaction with their lives.
So can women, particularly Christian women, respond to this tension? How can we bolster our level of happiness without continuously compromising anyone else’s (be it at home or in the workplace)? I believe three steps are crucial in combating our declining level of happiness.
First, expect less.
Expecting less from ourselves and the situations that life presents to us seems counterintuitive, especially given Western society’s entrenched attitudes about “expecting more.” Yet true contentment in life is not related as much to absence of difficulties and problems as it is to the ability to be satisfied even amid those problems. In Philippians 4:11–13, the apostle Paul writes, “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” Regardless of his outward circumstances, the apostle Paul had learned that the secret of contentment consisted of (1) modifying his expectations to meet current reality and (2) depending on God and His provision. By curbing our expectations for what we can accomplish in life, work, and family, we are more prepared to celebrate our successes than our failures.
Second, remember that life is a patchwork quilt, not an afghan.
Folded in the bottom of the oak armoire my husband and I received as a wedding gift from my parents is an assortment of handmade afghans and quilts. I watched my mother sit in our living room on countless evenings and knit those afghans, and I remember thinking on more than one occasion that I wanted my life to be like those afghans — neat, color-coordinated, and perfectly looped. Yet in my life as a wife, a mother, an academic, and a writer, I’ve realized that life is not anything like an afghan and is rather more like the crazy quilts my grandmother made — humble, brave, uneven, and messy. Sometimes the pieces don’t fit together seamlessly. So it is with our lives as women in contemporary society. As Time magazine reporter Nancy Gibbs writes, “If there is anything like consensus on an issue as basic as how we live our lives as men and women, as lovers, as parents, partners, it’s that getting the pieces of modern life to fit together is hard enough; something has to bend.” Releasing ourselves from the expectation that everything will “fall into place” if we only try harder, if we only push a little further, gives us the freedom to more fully appreciate our lives as they are — a bold, beautiful patchwork of love and work.
Third, resist comparisons.
The urge to compare ourselves to others is practically second nature for most people, especially when it comes to the spheres of family and career. For women, comparisons to others can be especially bitter. Single women compare themselves to married women, and married women compare themselves to single women. Stay-at-home moms compare themselves to working moms, working moms compare themselves to stay-at-home moms, “hybrid moms” compare themselves to both, and women who want to be mothers compare themselves with everyone. Each group thinks that another has it “easier” or “better.” But the act of comparing ourselves to others is ultimately deceiving because no matter how well we think we know others, we never have full access to how God is working in another person’s life.
A good example of this dynamic is Jesus himself. In the very midst of striving for opportunities and advancement, most Christians say they want to be like Jesus, a dusty-footed itinerant preacher without a home or physical heir who never wrote a single sentence and was buried in a borrowed grave in what was viewed, at the time, as one of the most inconsequential places in the world. At least, that’s what it looks like this side of heaven. But in and through the life of this less-than-enviable character, God was building a kingdom. Indeed, this less-than-enviable character was God living and working redemptively among us. By resisting the urge to compare ourselves to others, we make room to celebrate not only the ways that God is working in our lives, but the way that God is working in the lives of others.
Both the importance of women’s leadership in religion, industry, commerce, and politics and the importance of building a stable home should be celebrated and esteemed, for women’s involvement in each of these areas brings with it a certain fullness and richness. As a new mom and an academic seeking for ways to merge these two spheres in ways that honor both, Stevenson and Wolfers’ assessment rings a chord with me.
Take the weekend with my daughter as a case in point: despite my daughter’s giggles and sighs of relief for finally getting enough food and rest, despite deep moments of satisfaction and well-being, I could not shake the nagging burden of my own self-created to-do list. I wondered where all my time had gone. I wondered how on earth I was going to finish a dissertation while raising a young family, even with shared household duties. Rather than savoring the moment, I let my expectations get hold of me, my emotions, and how I assessed what a “successful” weekend alone with my daughter looked like. It’s not that I think I can’t be a mother and a professional; it’s just that it’s probably more realistic for me to realize that I can’t be “all things to all people excellently all at once.” So even though the balance and perfection of the afghan life appeals to me in a deeply profound way, I want to wisen up enough to release my great expectations: to embrace, wholeheartedly and without reserve, the crazy quilt life — humble, brave, uneven, and sometimes, yes, quite messy.