We westerners live in a culture that is predicated on the belief that having more options gives us greater freedom, which leads to greater happiness. We’re talking more options for everything from what we eat to whom we marry. We face a multitude of choices for the big, daunting questions like, “What line of work should I pursue?” alongside the smaller, daily questions like, “What should I wear today?” (And then, “Which jeans should I wear?” And then, “When should I do laundry?” And then, “Advil or Tylenol?”)
There’s just one problem with this belief: it’s a false one. This is not news to those with an interest in psychology. Most of us have encountered some form of the research that says a greater number of options not only leads to a more stressful decision-making process but ultimately produces greater regret and dissatisfaction. It turns out, the human brain is remarkably well-equipped to make peace with inescapable circumstances; it has a much more difficult time making peace with choosing from a plethora of options. (Have you read Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness?) But we continue to seek out more options for everything, because on some level, it just does not compute that we could possibly be happier with fewer choices.
One of the (many) areas in which this frustrating conundrum plays out is the choice between work and family. It is extremely difficult to balance career and home life; we all know this, whether we’re parents or not. Of course, the choice between focusing more on work or family affects men as well as women — and this is something that I do know from personal experience, as my father was the stay-at-home parent until I was 12. (These days, my parents both work full-time, but my mother works both at home and in the office, while my father is more able to leave his work at work and takes on the majority of the home-related responsibilities.) That said, here I’m going to focus more on the work-family choice as it affects women.
Now, let me say something loudly and clearly: The fact that women have the option to choose to focus on work or family (or balance the two) is a product of so many years of hard work by so many people, and I do not take that for granted. It is absolutely wonderful and a huge benefit to society at large, that both genders can make their mark on this world through their work. But equally important is that women (and men) nurture their families. This is not just because offspring comprise the next generation of happy workers; this is for the sake of the mental health and well-being of each and every one of us, however we may be spending our time.
Next, let me say something else, perhaps slightly less loudly but (hopefully) just as clearly: I think women are suffering because of this choice. It’s not that the choice itself is a bad thing, of course; it’s just that it is very challenging to cope with competing desires for how to spend the vast majority of one’s time and energy– and the guilt, self-imposed or otherwise, that naturally follows when one chooses EITHER option. After all, family and career constitute the bedrock of human existence. What we do with the rest of our time, if it exists, is reduced to the phrase, “hobbies and interests.” (You know, that last section of your resume that you can easily omit if you run out of room after tooting your own horn for a few paragraphs… or build up if you can’t think of enough “legitimate” things to say.) Because work and family are the two most significant aspects of our lives, it makes perfect sense that our decisions about either one of these things would involve some of the most anxiety-inducing thought processes we ever undertake. Now consider when these two categories interact—when we are trying to decide whether to focus on one or the other at a particular time in our lives, and when we feel pulled back to the other thing after spending some time trying to devote ourselves more solely to one. Consider the pressure of expectations, both from oneself and from others, in both of these categories, because that’s what breeds the internal anguish.