Having been raised in California – birthplace of est, vegan bacon, and aerobics – I grew up thinking of life less as an “adventure” than as a relentless self-improvement campaign. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I got more than my fair share of personal affirmation at home, but no matter how special my parents insisted I was, the prevailing message of the culture around me was that with a little work I could be “specialer”–or at the very least skinnier, healthier, and more well-adjusted.
I figured out relatively early on that this was a losing battle, but it has still left me with irrational feelings of guilt at failing to meet my “optimum potential,” which is why this article – Does self-help breed helplessness? – immediately caught my interest.
The article is an interview with Jennifer Niesslein, an otherwise sane woman who spent two years dutifully following the advice of a smorgasbord of self-professed self-help experts only to come out the other end ten pounds lighter and markedly more jaded. In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll tell you that: a) I haven’t read the book, and b) I don’t intend to. Not because it doesn’t look like an entertaining piece of armchair scholarship, just because the review was enough to clear my conscience. Yet another author has dipped her toe into the self-improvement pond and come away feeling more psychically damaged and exhausted than improved. (See. I was right all along.)
Still, one passage in the article did get me to thinking. I’ll quote the section here:
Interviewer: I found it interesting that you mention in both your marriage chapter and your housecleaning and organizing chapter that most of the burden of improvement tends to fall on the woman.
Niesslein: Self-help is very old-school in that way. I think it’s changing, in the same way that our culture is changing — women are moving into the traditional men’s realm, but it’s taking a lot more time for men to move into the traditional women’s realm, into the domestic stuff . . . But housecleaning and relationship advice is still very much targeted to women.”
This idea may seem blindingly obvious to the female readers out there, but it isn’t one that you see written about very often, and I’m glad to see it finally being introduced into the public discourse. Because it’s true: In recent decades, women have successfully moved from the private to the public sphere, but the reverse doesn’t seem to be happening as quickly as it should.
Modern men are now perfectly content to see their wives become breadwinners in their own right–but the majority of them seem loath to accept an equal share of responsibility for the “domestic duties,” traditionally assigned to women. The result is that most of the professional women I know spend a good chunk of their leisure time trying to motivate the “enlightened” men in their lives to pick up their socks, do the dishes, and take out the garbage. And when they’re not haranguing their men about the chores, they’re often performing what I call “relationship upkeep duties,”–hounding their partners to talk about their feelings, and address the small resentments building up in the relationship.
Now, call me a militant feminist if you want, but does this sound “leisurely” to you?
When you keep this domestic imbalance in mind, it seems clear why a recent study of married couples, conducted by Iowa State University researchers, found that: “Wives, on average, exhibit greater situational power [at home].”
On its face, this may sound like good news, but I’d argue that it’s just more evidence of the fact that the onus for relationships and home life is placed squarely on the shoulders of women. Consider this statement by Assistant Professor Megan Murphy, the woman who spearheaded the research: “Women are responsible for overseeing the relationship — making sure the relationship runs, that everything gets done, and that everybody’s happy.”
If this is true, it’s no wonder that women tend to “dominate” the home. After all, if they didn’t, who would ensure that “everything gets done” and that “everybody’s happy?” Hmmm? I’m willing to bet that most women would be more than willing to relinquish this “power” given the opportunity.
I’m not looking to vilify the modern American man here. Hell–I love the modern American man (particularly the one I live with). But I think that this imbalance is taking its toll on women’s well-being and I do wonder whether being overburdened is one of the many factors contributing the high rate of depression among women.