Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
When the going gets tough, lower your expectations


Given that it is International Women's Day, Maud Newton's blog post today reads as particularly disheartening.

Newton links to Meghan O'Rourke's essay in Slate entitled Desperate Feminist Wives: Why wanting equality makes women unhappy. O'Rourke refers to a recent study by sociologists at the University of Virginia on happiness within marriage. The study discovered that the "single most important factor in women’s marital happiness is the level of their husbands’ emotional engagement — not money, the division of household chores or other factors. The study also finds that women whose husbands earn the lion’s share of income, who don’t work outside the home, or who share a strong commitment to lifelong marriage with their husbands report the highest levels of marital happiness — in sharp contrast to academic conventional wisdom." What the study seems to show is that when a wife's expectations of marriage are in alignment with the marriage's realities, she tends to be happy. And since in "traditional" marriages, the expectations of marriage tend to be more clearly defined and agreed to by both parties than in more "progressive" marriages (where things such as division of labor tend to be negotiated throughout the marriage), it is no surprise that the "traditional" wives claim to be happier.

But instead of seeing the study as evidence that the more narrow the gap between expectations and reality, the happier one tends to be (otherwise known as 'aim low'), O'Rourke seems to use the data as an opportunity to jump on the 'Now that Betty Friedan has died, it's OK to bash her' bandwagon. O'Rourke writes: "Feminist ideals, not domestic duties, seem to be what make wives morose. Progressive married women -- who should be enjoying some or all of the fruits that Freidan lobbied for -- are less happy, it would appear, than women who live as if Friedan never existed."

She sings the praises of having low expectations: "The sexual revolution tried to free women and men from set-in-stone roles. But the irony turns out to be that having a degree of certainty about what you want (and being in a peer group that feels the same way) is helpful in making people happy. Having more choices about what you want makes you less likely to be happy with whatever choice you end up settling on. Choosing among six brands of jam is easy. But consumers presented with 24 types often leave the supermarket without making a purchase." Right. Well, if those 6 jams so happen to be strawberry, peach, grape, raspberry, apricot and gooseberry, then fabulous, good for you, the lack of choice worked out really well. But if the 6 jams happened to be liver, onion, alum, ipecac, eye of newt and manure -- well, you'd probably be wishing that you had a bit broader selection from which to choose.

Choice has enabled women to leave abusive relationships. Choice has enabled women to escape poverty. Choice has freed us from the notion that biology equals destiny.

And yes, the choices fought for by feminists like Betty Friedan have added a measure of complication to our lives. Sometimes it feels like navigating the modern marriage of equals is a lot of work. It is hard to determine the best division of labor and to figure out what paid work/childrearing combination works best. The "man wears pants, woman wears dress" approach would be a lot simpler. Ignorance, after all, is bliss.

So why stop there? Let's ditch democracy. All of those choices about who to vote for -- golly, that sounds complicated. I'm so confused. I wish that someone would just tell me to go and bake a pie or something.

Blaming the feminist movement for raising women's expectations of what life can be is bunk.

Lobbying for fewer choices is bunk.

Telling women that happiness is simply a matter of aiming low is bunk.

Jen Lawrence is an MBA and former banker who left the world of finance for the world of sippy cups and goldfish crackers. She writes about her experiences on her blog MUBAR (Mothered Up Beyond All Recognition). She is an Editorial Assistant for Literary Mama’s Reviews section and also contributes to the Literary Mama blog. Her work has appeared in The Philosophical Mother. She lives in Toronto, Canada with her husband and two children.

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BRAVA, Jen! Well said. Thank you.
I understand (and agree) with what you are saying. However, I feel that we need to shift our language--or at least spend as much time talking about "acknowledging and overcoming constraints" as we do talking about "choice." Telling women to "aim low" is, indeed, "bunk." Continuing to tell them to "aim high" is not always effective and often reveals more about our privilege relative to many other women than about anything else.
Making claims that are based upon suppositions about what happiness actually is (and specifically, what it might look for women/mothers) is also bunk. It would be interesting to know how the researchers 'measured' the happiness of the women in their study - did they simply ask, "Are you happy? (scale 1 - 10)"? Did they do measures across different axes of "happiness"? How did they define happiness? Whatever the case, O'Rourke certainly doesn't consider the possibility that women might understand their happiness differently - and that many women might describe their *good* lives in terms of fulfillment, reward, challenge and/or other terms that might not fit neatly into the category of 'happy.' Most days, if you asked me if I was happy, I would have to pause and give it some thought, and would probably end up using such other terms - terms that, like happiness, reflect feelings and experiences that I think are unquantifiable - to report my state of mind and heart. I'm a mother, ferchrissake - I'm always both deliriously happy and completely miserable. And? Your point/example of democracy is a important one, because it underscores the challenge/difficulty/tensions that are always involved in the lives most worth living. We might not be blindly, blissfully happy living with choices - but would we have it any other way? The alternative - deadened Stepford Wife/Brave New World bliss - is scary. Thanks for a great post.
I see your point, except that you're implying that women who choose traditional roles (and are happy doing so) are, by definition, "aiming low." And that I have to disagree with.
At the risk of being unpopular, I don't really interpret these findings in this way. First it makes perfect sense to me that women who have a strong commitment to their marriages would be happier than those who don't. Because if you consider staying married your only option you have more incentive to do what's necessary to create/maintain a happy marriage. There's a possibility that you would work harder to fix issues so you CAN be happy than to just half-way check out because you're mentally packing your bags anyway. Also, it makes perfect sense that women whose husbands earn most or all of the money are happier because truth be told, a good majority of women WANT to choose to stay at home or work part time after having children and if THEY are the ones earning most of the money they often don't have that choice. (to say nothing of the fact that having plenty of money is a great stress reliever in general regardless of who's earning it) And to the Betty Friedan bashers, we are all so much better off today because of her, even though a lot of our day-to-day lives look a lot like the housewives' of her day. It's not just about who changes the diapers, it's also about having options. No one HAS to sit at home on tranquilizers listening to soap operas today. We can all take care of ourselves if we need to. That doesn't mean it doesn't make us "happy" if instead we have the option to cook, shop and blog does it? Some feminists don't seem to get that point. And some anti-feminists don't seem to get the point that we CAN be "happy" with traditional gender roles today BECAUSE of the feminist movement not in spite of it. Sorry to go on and on...
I was a little confused by Staci's comment, since I don't see how a commitment to traditional marriage is the same as a commitment to lifelong marriage per se. Then I read the piece again, and here it is: The study also finds that women whose husbands earn the lion’s share of income, who don’t work outside the home, or who share a strong commitment to lifelong marriage with their husbands report the highest levels of marital happiness. I feel like I'm on Sesame Street, now: two of these things belong together, two of these things are kind of the same! Those three things are in no way related--I earn the lion's share of the income in my family but I also share a strong commitment to lifelong marriage with my husband. Is there a slippery "feminism equals easy divorce" subtext here? Anyway, I am so tired of hearing feminism blamed for the failures of contemporary life. Sure, living in a two-income household can be stressful. Working outside the home can be stressful. Is that feminism's fault, or the workplace's? Did anyone ask the husbands if they wanted to stay home? If they were happy in their work? This kind of report always seems to use its premises to prove its conclusions with a breathtaking circularity. It makes me tired. Brava, Jen, for your words. I just wish we didn't have to keep saying them.
Hey Jen, I love your writing, thanks for putting this together. Here's to more real choices, Miriam
Check out what the Happy Feminist has to say about the question of does feminism make women happy: It's the wrong question! We never see articles that talk about whether democracy will make the Iraqis happy or whether equal rights for African-Americans have made them happy or whether our civil liberties make us Americans happy. I don't think those who fought the American Revolution said to themselves, "Wouldn't we be happier if we simply accepted taxation without representation rather than fighting this rather unpleasant war?" You can read the whole post here.
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