For the past few days, I’ve been ruminating about Jonah Lehrer’s New York Times Magazine piece, ” Depression’s Upside ,” which is still hanging around the Web site’s most e-mailed list. He argues that in our efforts to relieve ourselves of the discomfort of depression, we risk missing the message about why we’re sad. Could the same be said about stress? A thought-provoking piece in the current issue of Feminism & Psychology makes a similar case : Our cultural chatter about women’s stress focuses so much on how to manage tension and anxiety that it loses sight of why we’re supposedly so miserable. The real reason is the double burden of career and family care on working mothers, argues Dana Becker, professor at Bryn Mawr’s Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research.
Unlike depression, which tends to surface at various times in one’s life, stress is everywhere all the time. The more people study stress, the more we realize it plays a role in everything from infertility, weight gain, heart disease, sexual disinterest, insomnia, premature death, mental illness, head colds, and irrationality. Although knowledge is power, too much knowledge becomes an onerous responsibility, especially if you wonder whether you could have avoided the sniffles if you’d just meditated more. Women either have to focus on keeping stress at bay or go into high gear to snuff it out. Becker writes: “[Women] are everywhere exhorted to practice behaviors, adopt attitudes, and buy products that will decrease stress or its effects. The 19th-century rest cure has been supplanted by scented candles and pastel yoga mats.”
The bigger goal isn’t about helping women feel better. It’s about protecting the whole family’s well-being, as reflected in the belief, “If Mommy’s OK, then everyone’s OK,” contends Becker. The “stressed-out” woman is not only seen as at risk for becoming sick and not being able to fulfill her care-taking duties, but also inflicting emotional damage by screaming at her husband and children because she is so overwhelmed. She’s got to remain calm at all costs. Thus, responsible women are on a perpetual quest for so-called “balance,” which, of course, is impossible to achieve.
The dangerous implication, Becker argues, is that women are told that they can resolve work-family tensions by fixing themselves. Women see their stress as a personal problem and not a structural one, such as lack of family friendly workplace policies or affordable housing. “As long as women are increasingly helped to view stress-and their own emotional reactions to it-as the enemy to be vanquished, possibilities for widespread social critique and social action will be effaced,” she writes. Becker makes an important point that our cultural obsession with stress reduction is a distraction from the bigger challenges of demanding real change. In the meantime, it would be nice if the few things that busy women did for themselves weren’t regarded as a new category of “work.”