It’s really all of the above. We do talk about how busy and overwhelmed we are all the time—think about how we talk to each other. “How are you?” “Fried. You?” “Same.” When was the last time someone said, “I’ve been doing absolutely nothing.” We usually launch into an exhausting laundry list of stuff.
But we are also, truly, doing more. We’re working more hours—more extreme hours at one job at the upper end of the socio-economic spectrum and cobbling together several jobs to try to make ends meet at the lower end. Our standards for what it takes to be a good parent, particularly a good mother, are insanely high and out of proportion to all reality. Working mothers today now spend as much or more time with their kids as stay-at-home mothers in the 1960s and '70s. I found that fascinating.
We all feel like we’re not doing enough for our children, so in our guilt, we do, do, do, and overdo: more lessons, more teams, more sports, bigger birthday parties, more educational outings. And we all feed off each other—particularly as we look to the future, see a changing global economy and so much uncertainty about what “success” will look like. There’s so much fear and we’re so worried that our kids will somehow be left out, or left behind. That’s part of what fuels the craziness of the parenting merry go round.
And as for chores—man, all you have to do is open up any magazine and you’ll see that, for women, you can never be enough. Debora Spar, president of Barnard, called it the “triple whammy” in her recent book Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection. You have to keep house like Martha Stewart, parent like Donna Reed, work like Sheryl Sandberg, and look like Jennifer Anniston. That’s nuts. We all know it’s nuts, and yet it’s hard to break away from those cultural expectations.
I asked Peter Senge about that. How to try to live and work in a sane way when you’re in the middle of insanity: a voracious workplace that will eat you alive, friends and neighbors who raise eyebrows if you pull your kids out of some competitive activity. He gave some important advice: Create your own community, a network of like-minded people. Humans are wired to conform—that’s why these cultural pressures, however silly they may seem, wield such power over us. So find a group that fits your values that would make you happier to conform to.
To tack back for a moment to one thing you mentioned earlier ... on the griping ritual we all take part in: Do you think that sort of reciprocated venting can contribute to our stress, rather than have the, I suppose, "normal" effect of venting—that is, to let off steam?
YES! I can’t tell you how many years I bitched and moaned about how much I did at home and how unfair that felt. I always had so many people willing to chime in about how they felt the same. Then we all went back to our lives, bitching and moaning, and picking up the dirty socks and mumbling under our breaths and seething. It never changed. Maybe I felt a little better because I wasn’t alone, but all it did was reinforce this notion that men were getting away with murder and my life sucked and I was justified in being so pissed off all the time.