Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Independent and happy women: A myth?

I have been rattled. I'm confused. And I'm not sure what to believe anymore. All my life, I've been brought up to trust in one thing: My career is a continuous strive towards perfection marked by never ending successes. Of course family comes first, but work is pretty damn close. This is the only way to get respect and be treated as an equal. I work 9-10 hours a day and come into the office on weekends more often than not. Sure I've had my setbacks but I've always tried to remain focused. If I am not happy with my job, it's because I need to change it. I never considered an alternative.

Enter Dutch women. I just read this article, written from the point of view of a workaholic American woman who was investigating why so many Dutch women work part time. In a nutshell? Because they want to and they are happier that way. They are not concerned with the prestige and power struggles of corporate and political life. They want to enjoy their own life, have coffee with friends, raise their children the right way, volunteer in causes they care about, and explore their passions. In numbers, only 25% of working Dutch women are full timers such that women in Holland contribute only 25% of the household income. Hardly a sign of the modern female. The American writer was dumbfounded. "Have we gotten it all wrong? After all, studies of female happiness in the U.S. find that even as our options have increased and we have become financially more independent than in any previous time in our history, American women as a whole are not getting any happier."

So what about us? We haven't even come close to the level of equality that American women have fought so hard for and I'm already doubting the struggle. What are we fighting for exactly? To be able to contribute 50% of the household income and still have to take care of our children, though not have enough quality time to spend with them? But let's say we go Dutch, wouldn't we be giving up our right to have a say in our world? Isn't that what it's all about?

This got me thinking. What would be an ideal life for me? The first option would be living like I do now. 40% of my waking hours are spent working, 40% are spent de-stressing and relaxing and 20% are spent doing something I actually enjoy. The other option would be to cut down my working hours making it almost impossible to climb the ladder of success because of the stigma placed on part-timers in our society. I will also lose the financial comfort zone I've become accustomed to. However, I could expend more of my remaining energy enjoying sunlight, reading that book that normally spends months on my night-stand, dedicating a reasonable amount of time to blogging, until that venture fails (I'm an optimist at heart), then moving on to another hobby. I can also exercise to get rid of those neck pains and hang out more with friends and family.

I had recently read a BBC article on happiness in which a survey concluded that people were most likely to be happy when they are exercising, having a conversation or making love. People were likely to be unhappy when they are resting, working or using computers. (which is what I do 80% of my time!) So with this reasoning, the full-time option will lead to general unhappiness while the part-time one will lead to, let's say, a happier life. But will that satisfy us? And by us I mean women with ambition who want to have a major role in the world. Or do we have it all wrong? Maybe we can be part of this world without giving our all to our careers.

The answer is not that simple and I don't know if I will ever find it. Maybe there is a hidden option that I'm missing. But hey, there's a silver lining here, at least we have have the option. Men rarely do.


Zainab said...

Bless you and your thoughts :) I always think about this, and as you have said; The answer is not that simple and I don't know if I will ever find it.

Najla said...

Interesting, except that there are people who enjoy their work, especially the productive, creative aspect of it. Doesn’t the feeling of real contribution give us satisfaction? Some kind of work is really enjoyable, and makes one happy. So I think it's unfair to place all kind of ‘work’ in the same basket.

Sireen said...

As someone who works at least 10 hours a day and suffers neck pains, fatigue and ugly dark circles around my eyes (any way we can increase the number of hours a day???), I have asked myself that same question. I believe that in the quest to find our voice and rights as women, we may have lost ourselves. Dont get me wrong, I am proud of what my fellow females have achieved and I believe that there is more to be done. My point of contention is in the definition of independence and what it means to be an "equal". Perhaps it has more to do with the perception of what is a more valuable contribution: raising a healthy family or having a successful career. In theory they are equal, but in reality the perception is not so clear. And until this perception changes, we (as women) will always be struggling. At the end of the day, we live in a man's world, and we have to play by their rules!!

Nis said...

As an old tired/retired feminist/post-feminist I have to stress that all that we ever fought for (or they fought for) was to expand our options as a woman kind, to be able to choose.

I don't think men are happier than us (we still outlive them by a decade) and even if the rules are theirs, we still have the option to carve out a little more space and carry out civil disobedience from time to time.

Nidal said...

Lovely post, Lama. The choice you say we now have (which I agree that we do) gets us closer to achieving what is ideal in the pursuit of happiness –- attending to the activity one engages in, not whether it is for work, family, or leisure (as Najla commented, these could very well be combined.) Completing a task or goal that one sets for herself is itself rewarding, regardless of whether the goal advances the woman's career or enhances her family/interpersonal conditions. That's why behavioral psychology works -- it is about the behavior of the individual in his/her environment (not group-based, random statistics), but that's another story...

Talal said...

I believe happiness is a subjective state of mind. I’m sure if you ask ten different people of different backgrounds each will give you a varying definitions which can range from purely philosophical to outright shallow, and they would all be right in their own understanding of this ever-elusive set or blend of positive emotions.

I can safely assume that we can never experience real happiness unless we go through misery, which means that aside from it being subjective it’s comparative as well, which all assert the fact that what, for instance, might be the source of your happiness will not necessarily be the source of mine, it all depends on several attributes according to our gender, age, background, upbringing, socioeconomic status and several others. Of course there are basic and universal prerequisites once fulfilled the subjectivity and comparativeness kicks in.

Another thing I believe in is that there is no such thing as a “happy person” in it’s abstract sense. I can never find anyone who is absolutely happy, day in, day out, with tragedies only putting small yet curable dents in their constant level of contentment. Therefore, what we’re left with is tiny bits of very personal happy moments and little pleasures (which some find them too silly to even tell) that can elevate us to a higher level of contentment. These moments and little pleasures turn into an acquired need to experience them repeatedly.

I’m going to be cheesy for a bit to got closer to my point. You have the crappiest of jobs, but when you go home and your kid, or loved one greets you with an anxious hug, you forget all about whatever you were going through. But it’s always downhill after that.

The process of elevation along with anticipation to being elevated is what I think happiness is, it’s the uptrend in our “state of mind vs time” trend line. With the peaks being the most happy we can ever get and troughs the least we will ever be.

This could be a simplistic way of looking at it, but as I said I believe there’s no universal preset rules that one can follow to make them happy.

Razan said...

My answer to happiness is: Go and start your own company! hire men to run it and then go and have all the fun you want!...I wish ;-)

May said...

Love this...I think it is a daily thought in many of our minds. I honestly think that when we find the job, the hobby, the life we truely enjoy we find that balance therefore find the happiness. I think a lot of us aren't really enjoying our jobs, we are just in our comfort zone (be it for financial reasons or just don't realy know what we want so stick to what we have)...if we know what we really want to do we with our career and go for it we would be happy and that would then reflect on our personal life making us happy women and really free women.

Annika said...

I agree with Nis' thoughts. The struggle women have fought was about the option to choose.
It does not necessarily mean we have to work full time, have to be in a managerial position including children and a phd.
It means we are given the option without being restricted by men, society or overcome ideas.

The article about the Dutch was interesting for me because I am German (and young and female) and its astonishment wasn't something I felt or could relate to while reading it. Germany and the Netherlands are similar in a variety of aspects.
Both countries are - even though to a declining degree - welfare states. With that in mind, it is easier to think about why the Dutch women feel less pressured to work full time. There is a social net helping out. The state pays maternity leave (in Germany up to a year and 70% of your income), childcare is provided and it's cost are a percentage of your income. The tuition fees for universities are less than at American universities leaving graduates to a smaller debts if at all. And that just names a few.

Those are all factors that should be taken under consideration.
What the Dutch article also fails to state is the degree to which Dutch men are involved in the day to day affairs of household chores.
It's interesting how the comments stirred away from this aspects and fully to the direction of the pursuit of happiness.

If you truly love the job you do, I believe it makes you happy. And the findings of BBC studies are just numbers that don't have to apply for you.
If you want it all (work, marriage, kids) you need to find someone who wants you to have it all. And this, I believe, is the bigger problem in Middle Eastern societies.

kmango said...

As a working mom, who has never been so stressed in her life, I'd have to say it's a tough choice. I work part time or flexible hours and it helps, but it still feels like work gets more of me than I do! I think the Dutch have the right idea, but you'd have to be, looking for self actualization for it to work, not career ladders or success, whatever that is?