New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has just penned a provocative piece called “Liberated and Unhappy” that briefly analyzes a new study entitled “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness” by economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers.
Here’s what Douthat says about the study:
“[T]he achievements of the feminist era may have delivered women to greater unhappiness. In the 1960s, when Betty Friedan diagnosed her fellow wives and daughters as the victims of “the problem with no name,” American women reported themselves happier, on average, than did men. Today, that gender gap has reversed. Male happiness has inched up, and female happiness has dropped. In postfeminist America, men are happier than women.”
Douthat takes a moderated approach in his analysis of the situation, eschewing either a “strict feminist” or a “gender-role traditionalist” line:
“Feminists and traditionalists should be able to agree, for instance, that the structures of American society don’t make enough allowances for the particular challenges of motherhood. We can squabble forever about the choices that mothers ought to make, but the difficult work-parenthood juggle is here to stay. (Just ask Sarah and Todd Palin.) And there are all kinds of ways — from a more family-friendly tax code to a more accommodating educational system — that public policy can make that juggle easier. Conservatives and liberals won’t agree on the means, but they ought to agree on the end: a nation where it’s easier to balance work and child-rearing, however you think that balance should be struck.”
He concludes with these on-target suggestions:
“But a new-model stigma shouldn’t (and couldn’t) look like the old sexism. There’s no necessary reason why feminists and cultural conservatives can’t join forces — in the same way that they made common cause during the pornography wars of the 1980s — behind a social revolution that ostracizes serial baby-daddies and trophy-wife collectors as thoroughly as the “fallen women” of a more patriarchal age.
No reason, of course, save the fact that contemporary America doesn’t seem willing to accept sexual stigma, period. We simply don’t have the stomach for permanently ostracizing the sexually irresponsible — be they a pregnant starlet, a thrice-divorced tycoon, or even a prostitute-hiring politician.
In this sense, ours is a kinder, gentler, more forgiving country than it was 40 years ago. But for half the public, it’s an unhappier country as well.”
I’m thankful that Douthat covered this topic in a highly influential publication. The spotlight he can throw on this issue as a NYT columnist is significant, and I’m glad he did. Though many in the media and academy won’t want to talk much about this subject, it is well worth considering.
I don’t agree with everything Douthat says. I don’t think, for example, that the “work-parenthood juggle” is as hard as some make it out to be. Sarah Palin is a highly gifted woman, but she is not the first. Highly gifted women have served their families at home in highly significant ways for millenia. As numerous biographies of important figures show, their work has produced incredible results.
Indeed, the line that talented women only do justice to their gifts through full-time work is a myth, nothing more. Full-time mothering involves skills and tasks too numerous to mention and almost too varied to believe. In a traditional home, women may well assume some burden for education, requiring a fast and flexible mind. They must solve countless domestic problems. They must engage in significant moral formation each day, handling challenging ethical situations. They must budget well. They have to plan. The sheer amount of planning alone in the life of a young wife and mother is staggering and took a young, naive husband by surprise early in my marriage.
So the cultural line that draws so many women out of the home and into the workplace is just plain silly. God made women complex, highly nuanced, multitalented, and the demands of the home call for just such an individual, one who can manage many tasks at once, negotiate the shifting moods and needs of a child, and provide emotional and physical support for a husband. The home is not too small for a woman; it is almost too large for her (and men, so adept at various forms of work, are simply no match for it, as the briefest of motherly absences abundantly proves).
I’m all for “socially ostracizing” the growing corps of jerks who call themselves men. The problem, as Douthat rightly notes, is that we have largely lost the ability to stigmatize such men. We have cut our worldview out from under ourselves, and thus we have little grounds on which to make such clear moral pronouncements. If the leaders of our society would make strong statements on such matters, things could change. But at present, few do so. Who stands to suffer in such a climate? Women and children, those who historically suffer from the evil deeds and attitudes of men.
In sum, I feel badly for many women today. They have been sold a false bill of goods. They have been told that they can have it all–career and motherhood at the top of the list. Ludicrously, they have been persuaded that they can perform the impossible task of balancing full-time domestic work with full-time vocational work. It is a testament to the strength of womanhood that so many modern women are able, in the end, to care for their children on some level while working outside of the home. Yet such achievement comes, as the study shows, at great cost. Women are not happy today; their children, we may assume, are not either.
Remarkably, there is a solution. There is a cure. But it will come at a cost. It will mean that women–as it seems they are in increasing number–must reject the modern offer. They must reject the cultural myth that they can “have it all” and, more significantly, that “having it all” as culturally defined is actually their best life option. From here, they will find great joy and fulfillment in embracing the not insignificant responsibilities of the home. They will not find in it an easy or quiet life, necessarily. They will find, though, greater happiness, less stress, more fulfillment.
Modern women are unhappy. But hope for happiness exists. In the traditional model of feminity, they can find it. The church, which believes in gender roles out of faithfulness to Christ and His Word, has an opportunity to demonstrate to unhappy women everywhere that a better life exists. This life is not necessarily easy, it is not always fun, and it involves considerable sacrifice. But it is full of significance, full of joys both small and great, and full of the grace of a Savior whose blood offers all people forgiveness they so desperately need and fulfillment that will take an eternity to experience.