Oct 7th, 2009 by admin
In my clinical work with women, in individual psychotherapy and counseling, when we explore the areas of stress that make them overwhelmed and unhappy, the picture that often emerges is one of multiple – often conflicting – demands and expectations. These demands come from a society that still expects women to be the keepers of the family, the primary parents to their children, the bedrocks of relationships, the facilitators of emotional connections. These beliefs and expectations are internalized by women who see themselves as indeed responsible for all these areas. Their families expect them to be all this as well. There is no escape. These multiple and at times conflicting expectations contribute to give women the same message: they have to perform because people they love depend on them.
Relationships, as many studies have shown, are barometers for women’s happiness. If relationships don’t go well, women’s feelings of unhappiness increase. And, because women to a great extent are still made to feel responsible for the quality and longevity of relationships, when there are problems, women feel heavily burdened and often feel personally responsible for them. Worst of all are women’s responsibilities when it comes to children, as who children are and who they will become as adults is assumed to be affected by how well or how badly they were mothered. To these enormous responsibilities, I would add that, because women are spread much thinner today than in the past – they often work outside the home or go to school, for instance, – they may not be as omnipresent as they used to be, increasing chances of problems developing.
So, how different is the current situation for women compared to the past?
The French have a say: “the more things change, the more they remain the same”, which relates to changes that are more apparent than real. I think this say aptly applies to women’s changes in the last forty years or so.
Let’s explore in detail what’s different and what’s the same in women’s lives.
In the preceding post, I argued that the positive changes we see in today society – more school and career opportunities for women, an upward trend in men’s involvement in family and housework, some improvement in remuneration for women’s work – are good but, in my opinion, more superficial than substantial.
This is so because, while these changes occurred, expectations, responsibilities and pressures on women continue to be very much the same as they used to be in more traditional times. In fact, demands on women have increased from all directions. And women are not getting more help in this.
Buckingham “disputes the idea that women are more unhappy than men because they carry a heavier burden of work.” I suggest that it is not the number of hours per se that creates unhappiness, but the heavy burden of responsibility and the fact that women often operate in emotional isolation and without much support. Isolation and lack of support prevent women from sharing and spreading responsibilities, which in turn makes what they do more burdensome and emotionally and physically overwhelming. There seems to be little time for women to take care of their needs; there is little precious time for relaxation and recreation.
Let’s see how this picture looks from the women’s viewpoint. Because we have internalized the notion that we are responsible for a lot of people we love, we can never tune things out, even when we are not actively working. We feel unhappy when we do not meet other people’s expectations, which have become ours as well. Unhappiness also comes from being disappointed that life is not what we expected it to be. Alone and overwhelmed, we realize often there is no one at home who feels the same responsibilities as we do. We feel everybody’s pain, we carry everybody’s burden and feel alone in this role. We may resist asking for help, because this would be a further indication of failure.
This sense of responsibility also prevents us from getting in touch with our anger, which is turned inwards and reinforces our feelings of helplessness, inadequacy and failure.
Can you identify with this picture? Or is your experience as a woman in today’s society different than the one I described?
Please share your thoughts with us. Make a comment below….