"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Stress, Avoiding It, and The Girl From Ipanema

In her new book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, Brigid Schulte writes about how Americans – particularly women – are feeling stressed and increasingly unable to cope with the many competing demands on them.  Being a wife, mother, and successful lawyer or corporate executive exact a big-time toll; and if that isn’t enough, women stress about being stressed. They are ‘overwhelmed’.

Very understandable, and it is no surprise that women in the middle of their restless nights may think back to a simpler era when they were homemakers, housewives, and keepers of the flame in the family hearth.  “Maybe it would be better for everyone if I gave up my job”, they feverishly consider, “and returned to caring for my family as women once did”. After all, they reason, caring and nurturing have been women’s anointed roles since time immemorial. 

Then the reality of never-ending routine of peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, play groups, dirty diapers, and the crushingly boring outings to the park hits home.  What self-respecting woman with a degree from Harvard could possibly agree to a life of pushing a playground swing and sharing mother stories.  “Well, my two-year-old…”goes the operatic overture; but alas, no Ivy League education can make Acts I-IV any more than first steps, pre-school admissions, and unprocessed baby food.  The libretto is very weak indeed.

But oh, the angst, the visceral, perhaps even XX chromosome, gene-driven angst about motherhood and responsibility!  Only women can have babies, these restless, sleepless overwhelmed women think in the middle of the night.  Doesn’t that tell us something? Can we – or better should we – ignore our biological imperative?

If all this weren’t bad enough, women have to spread their legs for a husband who is frustrated at his work and wants at least some satisfaction at the end of a hard day.  Is it any surprise that half-drunken marital sex is a fumbling, inept affair?  And how trite is his  “What was wrong? You didn’t seem to enjoy it”.

So, modern women really do have a hard time, and men don’t fully realize it.  They pitch in far more than ever before, but still pull way less than half the load of diapers, dinners, and folding the laundry. However, society’s demands for gender equality is taking its toll on them as well.

But it doesn’t stop there. I (Brigid Schulte) soon discovered that men are beginning to feel as much or more overwhelm than women, now that so many no longer just want to be the distant provider father, or just the fun Dad or helper parent, but truly involved at home. They’re doing now what women did 30 years ago—giving up time for sleep and personal care and spending almost all their “leisure” time with their kids (In an article by Rebecca J. Rosen, The Atlantic, 3.25.14).

The children of these manic couples turn out manic as well.  Of all the supposed factors contributing to ADHD, parental mania is perhaps the most important but the least discussed.  If you were a kid with a helicopter mom and a Type A father who absolutely, positively had to play horseshoes, darts, soccer with you, and take you bowling, you too would be jumpy, irritable, and restless by the time Monday rolled around.

Something’s got to give.  One option is for women to forego their careers and rejoin the female stream that began in the Paleolithic.

Can mergers and acquisitions really compare with childbirth? Can torts and contracts possibly compete with raising a child to be a moral, ethical, and responsible adult who thanks to mothers will never see the inside of a courtroom?

Another fevered reverie in the tortured Hours of the Wolf.  Theoretical, academic nonsense.  We live in an age of outsourcing – transferring contractual responsibilities to those who are better placed to perform the repetitive, often menial, but critical tasks of the economy.  So why not outsource parenting? Even thirty years ago parents in Northwest Washington fought like rabid hyenas to get their children into St. Margaret’s, the premier pre-school in the city.  Not only would the caring teachers of St. Margaret’s provide full-time intelligent attention to their children; they would take them off their hands for six hours.

If women farm their kids out to accredited schools, make partner, and manage to maintain at least a civil relationship with their husbands, the battle is only half won. What about aging Mom and Dad in Burlington?  Or sister Mae who went off the straight-and-narrow when she was fourteen?

Last but not least is a social life. Many stressed-out, lean-in, be-all-you-can-be women are getting drunk once a month with the girls at Happy Hour on K Street, and how unsatisfying is that?

I feel a lot of sympathy for young women who are stressed out by the incredible demands placed on them; but except for those relatively few men who have bought into the sharing partnership routine and given up male independence for feminist ideals, most have figured out a way to ease the pain. First, they have not given up their millennia-old right of sexual conquest.  They have figured out a way to have mistresses, girlfriends, and slight Folies Bergère paramours just like the French.  The cinq-a-sept liaison is no longer a thing of the Paris upper classes.  It is alive and well in America. Men may pay lip-service to modern fatherhood, but they are as serially unfaithful as men of 1000 years ago.

I have a friend who used to take his kids with him for his after-work tryst with his lover.  He made love to her while little Laura and Lars played Barbies and He-Man figures in the playroom.  Sometimes he did double-duty on the playground swings, adding duty hours to compensate for his drunk Sundays rolling around the mousy rug of his girlfriend’s Adams Morgan walk-up.

Another friend calls his wife every evening from his beachfront hotel in Ipanema before having dinner with his café-au-lait Brazilian beauty.  He chose his profession – International Development Consultant – as much for the sexual opportunity as for the professional challenge. His wife suspected his dalliances, but was none the wiser despite her suspicions.  When he returned home, he was really home.  He dug into childcare and housework like a trooper, working off whatever residual guilt remained as a result of his indiscretions and infidelity, but was actually only building up good karma with his wife for his next sexual escapades. 

As far as I could tell, he never had a stressed day in his life.  He figured out early on how he wanted to lead his life and managed his choice of wife and profession accordingly. Of course there were down times.  He spent more tedious vacations where she wanted to go and agreed only to build up marital equity. As he got older the allure of sexual adventure and risk lost some of their allure.  Life became more predictable, routine, and ordinary; but there was no doubt that most of his long life was spent happily and most importantly without tension, stress, and unnecessary conflict.

Women complain about their lot in life. They are either sexual objects; called whiny and bossy; or become conflicted moms,saints, whores, and trailer-bound housewives.  I have a great deal of sympathy for these modern women because they really do have a more difficult row to hoe than men.  They, like racial and ethnic minorities, are always bumping up against some stereotype or artificial glass ceiling. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t; while men go about their business as they have for millennia.

Women’s problem is that they have too many balls in the air and too many spinning hoops to jump through.   They can’t triage and focus, do a Nietzschean will-and-power thing like Goneril and Regan, Volumnia, Tamora and scores of other determined Shakespearean women.  They are not Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, Laura, or Rebekka West who understand that the complete, uninhibited expression of will is the only validation of individual humanity. They could be, but they are not.

Men still can.  For us, life is simple – sex, power, and dominance as it always has been.  Women call us simplistic or puerile for this seemingly unsophisticated worldview.  Testosterone, they say disparagingly, but secretly envy men’s uncomplicated ignorance and willful acceptance of their biology.

In any case, stress can be avoided; and I have little sympathy for women who say they are conflicted and tense; and no patience with men who unsuccessfully fight their maleness.  Have fun, I say.  You can do it!

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