Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Thoughts About Women and Happiness

The Heritage of Motherhood by George Eastman House.

The Heritage of Motherhood, Gertrude Kasebier, 1904. 

Jane Ussher is a professor of women’s health psychology at the University of West Sydney, and author and editor of several studies on women’s health and psychology issues

Prof. Ussher believes that the social norms and expectations of being female can program women to become depressed.  To put it bluntly:  

“…female unhappiness is often an understandable response to the realities of women’s lives…” 

She describes a familiar scenario in which we expect ourselves to juggle a partner, children, job, homes, and extended family responsibilities—happily.  When we find ourselves in an unhappy funk, we seek help…only be told that we are experiencing a problem that’s probably caused by our bodies.  

While many causes of depression undoubtedly are physical, seldom are we encouraged to ask larger questions of the world in which we live, and the myths we’ve picked up about what it means to be a woman.   

When I was an Air Force wife in Alaska, I naively visited a military psychiatrist about my post-partum depression.  He told me it was my responsibility to support the mission of the Air Force.  To do this I needed to parent without putting pressure on my husband.  This was my role.  If I “failed” I would need to be medicated.  If that failed…well, he sort of raised his hands in a hopeless gesture while mentioning electric shock therapy. 

This was only twelve years ago. 

Another time, when I was a young and single, a woman therapist told me I should slip out the back door of her office at the end of an emotionally draining session.  You see, they had a young single man working at the reception desk.  She felt certain I wouldn’t want the handsome dude to see me weeping. 

Years later, a different woman therapist told me I needed to get a grip on my depression because my husband deserved a happy wife. 

Another time, a woman therapist told me I would feel better if I gave more to others…that I should do some volunteer work. 

What did all these experiences have in common?  People, undoubtedly well-meaning, communicated that I wasn’t being a proper woman.  Through my depression, I was failing men and failing other people.  Shame on me. 

I listened, and I did not get better.  

Fortunately, the statistical incidence of depression in women tends to fall off in middle age and later—say, after menopause or thereabouts.  Professor Ussher’s research suggests this is because these are generally the years that women can finally leave behind the myths about what it means to be feminine—if we want to; if they’re no longer working for us.  It’s the time when we can finally risk saying no if we desire; experiment with being who we are; and figure out what we need. 

Whether we come to this place out of desperation or liberation, I believe we need to get there. 

Now the question is, how do we do that? 


click here to see the article on Jane Ussher’s work that I used and quoted in this post. 


Deborah said...

Hello SallyMandy...The 'counseling' you received was informed by the ignorance of the times, and in the case of the military psychiatrist, the psychological environment. How appalling it seems now!
On first reading, I couldn't relate to your post, but then I reached back in memory to a time when I was in the thick of family life and it became familiar again. Then I realized that I still struggle with 'what about me?' The balance for every person is different, and for some women, a philosophy of giving to others is one of the most satisfying things they can do for themselves. For the rest of us, attending to our own needs and desires is an essential component of well-being, but still not always a natural path to take. I have such trouble drawing the line between self-care and flat-out selfishness.
You've made me think. Thank you. And thank you for visiting me, too.

Northmoon said...

Unlike the norms mentioned in those studies, I've become more depressed in middle age. Of course I self medicated with alcohol in my younger years, so who knew what I was feeling.

Lately I've been having trouble sleeping, getting to sleep late or waking up at 4am, or both. My doctor has offered antidepresssants, but I don't want an artificial solution. Feel like I need to make a change, but what is it?

Zuzana said...

I am completely appalled by these therapists you have been seeing over the years!!! My goodness! Are these true professionals? They seem to be completely inadequate and incompetent. Even I, who have no schooling would advice you better. I think they did more damage than help.

I agree with you, it is difficult to be a woman, but on the same note I think t is difficult to be a human. In today’s world, where everything is moving with light speed and we are pushed to our limits to be the most successful, most talented, most beautiful and to excel in every aspect of our lives; it is no wonder we suffer from depression like never before.

What helps me often is the return to the simpler kind of life. To enjoy the joys of nature and the wonders of doing what we truly love.


Bonnie Zieman, M.Ed. said...

Sallymandy: Well, you are showing us one way to get there - by speaking up, challenging the culture's expectations, sharing your personal experience.

I'm sorry you had such a rash of incompetent, even mysoginist therapists. What you describe is unprofessional, lacking compassion, and downright appalling.

BTW - few psychiatrists are accomplished therapists. They mostly use their skills at diagnosing patients problems or disorders and prescribing medications to fix them. There are some who are also good therapists, but I would sure ask around about their clinical, one-on-one, therapeutic skills.

The old, male perspective about women is so ubiquitous, pervasive and insidious. Even women absorb those views about their own sex and treat other women in consequence.

Perhaps we expect too much when we say, I want to be happy. Happiness is not a static condition. Humans experience a variety of states, moods, feelings in a day. Hopefully many of them are 'happy'. Better I think, to try to feel whole, complete, authentic - able to express freely and fully who we are in any given moment - including the happy moments.

Reasons said...

Yes the things our sisters faught for to liberate us are somehow not making us any happier because we have no balance and are trying to be everything to everyone.

Your experience sounds horrific though. I found you via Life, Work, Pleasure and will be sure to return.

Lianne said...

Over the years I've had some equally ridiculous conversations with "therapists". Thanks for this great post -- I'm noticing that as I get older I do speak my mind, say no, and not worry as much whether everyone likes me. We can't be everything to everyone -- men have never believed this. It's time we banished the "super mom" persona.

La Belette Rouge said...

The interpretations by the therapists you saw has me hopping mad. I sincerely hope that those therapists have done their homework and are no longer handing out such awful and shame inducing misinformations.

Bonnie Zieman, M.Ed. said...

Sallymandy: I hope you will permit me another observation. You're last two posts are about the distress of women trying to live up to this cultures' expectations, yet I couldn't help but notice that 3 posts ago you were talking about what French women do to remain slim. This is part of the mysoginist imperative for women "to not carry any weight in society", "to be small", "to not take up too much space", to keep their little minds busy trying to 'decrease' themselves so they will not claim any power on the world stage.

I know we are all infected with this bugaboo - but I found it especially graphic that with your sincere concern about why women are unhappy - you are unaware that by following along with this norm of society and posting about it, you could be contributing to some of our 'unhappiness'.

I hope you receive this in the spirit in which it is sent. It is not a criticism, just a 'heads up' and an instructive example of how we unknowingly carry out mysoginist agendas and do this to ourselves!

Darla said...

So much food for thought in these last posts. I'm definately past menopause, it definately did get easier for me as the years rolled on. I'll just add that "Happy" seems like a sporadic thing, a goal for moments at a time. I much prefer "content" as a measure of where I am. Content? Yes? Then all is well.


Rosaria Williams said...

You are asking very good questions. The expectations we put on ourselves, on our daughters, reveals society's expectations too. Yours is the first generation that might have had mothers working outside the home; the first ones who stepped out and helped earn a living and running the household. I'm guilty of wanting to accomplish all these things and feeling guilty for not doing a very good job, guilty and depressed for not getting much help. You know what got me off that threadmill? Getting sick. Yes. When the body gives up on you, you reassess, you are more realistic with what you can do.

Don't wait to get sick. Reassess and be realistic now.

sallymandy said...

Deborah: Thanks for your thoughts. Yes, I know that giving to others is so fulfilling for many women, and it is for me too. I fit into the nurturer role easily, and I'm glad for it. It's just taken a long time to learn that if my own bucket isn't filled up, I have nothing to give my loved ones. First things first--my own oxygen mask needs to go on first.

Northmoon: I'm sorry you're having these feelings at any time in life, and hope you get the help you need anywhere you can. It's a journey...and you're in good company!

Protege: I agree with you. It's just hard to be human. Doing what we truly love--so wise, simple, and effective.

Bonnie: I agree with everything you said here. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

Reasons to be Cheerful: Thanks for the visit. That's a reason to be cheerful.

Lianne: yes, whose idea was Supermom anyway? It would be an interesting study in sociology and history.

Belette: Well, I knew enough to be hopping mad at the dude at the military hospital--running out to the car and cursing him from here to Venus. What doesn't kill us will make us grow, right? It's been an education.

Bonnie: You're entirely right that there are gross inconsistencies in what I post. I was aware I was doing it with my last few posts but I didn't connect the dots in writing. I do battle with my internal conflicting voices regularly. I absorbed the value about thinness very early on and I haven't found peace with it. I liked the piece about French women because it actually seemed more like a healthy approach to eating than a radical "diet." However, I know I have many unhealthy, even misogynistic ideas that I could unwittingly be reinforcing. People say we are hardest on ourselves, and anti-woman thinking must be one of the worst examples of this. I'll think seriously about what you said. Thank you for your honesty.

Darla: thanks, it's encouraging to hear your experience. And I agree--"content" is fine by me. Happiness is indeed fleeting.

Lakeviewer: thank you so much for sharing this.

Bonnie Zieman, M.Ed. said...

Sallymandy: Oh, please, please do not be hard on yourself over this. We all do it. It is so pervasive, it's in the air we breathe. We can't help but repeat it. I'm sure you can go through my blog and find where I repeat the "party line". I just wanted to alert you and others that there are insidious messages underneath the message to "lost weight". And that even women who are very wise and with the best of intentions can unintentionally be furthering their 'cause'.

And you are right, that book is partially a way to adopt a healthy eating plan. What the book doesn't tell us and I know from living in French Quebec, is that French women are much smaller boned than those of us with British, German, Latin, American Indian, African or Eastern European roots. It is in their nature/genes to be small. So once again we are set up for failure. Following the diet may make us healthy - but we won't end up looking like most French women - and then we will feel bad about ourselves.

Another reason we are 'unhappy' is that we are raised in a shame-based culture. Whenever we are not 'perfect' we experience shame.
We cannot be perfect. We can simply be uniquely who we are - and part of that includes making mistakes, not having all the answers, and not looking like Scarlett Johanneson all the time for our partners! Let's declare women's emancipation from the need to be perfectly slim, or to be the perfect mother, or to be the perfect wife, -- to be perfect period. It is not possible.

Let's replace our feelings of incompetence and shame with a feeling of dignity, claiming our right to be here, as we are, with all our weaknesses and flaws!!

I love this blog and the valuable information you share with your readership. Keep up the great work.

sallymandy said...

Hi Bonnie dear, Thanks for so much thoughtfulness about this today...I appreciate the time you've taken.

I'm not really being hard on myself, so don't worry. I'm being realistic--I do have wildly divergent feelings and deep-seated thinking patterns that don't always serve me well. I'm not upset with myself because I have tools for becoming more aware and learning other truths. "Talking" with other women like you is valuable and healthy. I relish the opportunity.

I didn't know that about French women and bone structure. And actually, I didn't get the "French women don't" thing from the recent book (didn't even know about the book) but had gotten this funny list from a friend probably twenty years ago.

Thanks, Bonnie. Friends in blog-land, SM. ♥

Cynthia L. H. said...

Once again, some fascinating dialogue...
To answer your question, "How do we do that?"...
I redesigned my life. I took everything I knew well, dumped it upside down, and started all the way over.
I am now just beginning to truly live!
Was it painful? Excruciating.
Was it worth it? Beyond words.
Would I recommend it? Only if you know that you know that you know that you know...deep down, in order to live...you must.
I did.

xxx said...

I've enjoyed reading what you are pondering in this post.

best wishes
Ribbon :)

Lori ann said...

It made me sad to read about what you had to go through. I think the most important thing in the world besides being loved(and loving) is being heard(and understood). It sounds like all the professionals didn't hear you. :(
I've read that depression is an illness that needs proper care and even medication. People that don't understand that will say just be happy, stop thinking about it. That doesn't seem fair.
For myself, getting into nature has always taken me out of myself and renewed my soul. And not to think too much about things, instead do and enjoy. We are only as happy as we make up our minds to be. I hope you won't be upset with me saying this, I really wish for everyone to be free from suffering and love life. I really do!

Duchesse said...

So much of this 'advice" you report made me shake my head, feeling so sorry that happened to you, when you were low.

And- I do think helping others lifts me. giving service not out of obligation or a "nurturer" role, just for the sake of giving, connecting to humanity. It has always helped me. I see it as a spiritual practice, not therapy.

Unknown said...

"It's a man's world!". it has been that way for years. (hope that is changing) the world usually revolves around them. may be why we feel we have to try so hard to be.........TO JUST BE!!

I also agree with so many here that as you get older, you don't care so much what others think or feel. maybe more confidence in ourselves somewhat.

I have heard before also that I need to volunteer, get my mind off myself, etc. they don't really know how to help us, they are just there to listen I think.

Shelley said...

I love these posts on expectations placed on women. The first 39 years of my life were in conservative America and I grew up with the understanding that I was just a little less valued than men and needed to work hard to earn my place in the world. Then I came to Britain a found a man who didn't assume any such thing; it's been completely amazing how it's changed my life.

I don't think the post about how not to gain weight is completely at odds with this topic. Weight is a health issue after all and any of those ideas could be used to maintain a healthy weight, something I never struggled with until after menopause. It has been a time of dropping old 'musts' and picking up new 'wants' and I'm enjoying it, but it does seem that I get my mind sort and the body falls apart!

I really love the phrase, "Do what makes you strong." I went for a run this morning and though I struggled physically, it feels good now to have done it. I know it will make me stronger.

I'll be back to see more of your writing!

Gweb said...

Wow, these therapists sucked!