Monday, March 13, 2006

What's Happiness Got to Do With It?

Last week I caught an episode of the Diane Rehm show where she was interviewing Leslie Morgan Steiner, who just put out an anthology entitled Mommy Wars: Stay-at-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families. The more I listened to the interview, the angrier I got. I wasn't angry at Steiner, who quickly became a hero for me. Instead, I was angry with the other guest, Catherine Clifford, who was defending her choice to stay-at-home. I wasn't angry with her because she made the choice to stay-at-home. I wasn't angry at her because she was happier staying at home. I was angry because that is exactly what these debates seem to inevitably make me these days; in fact, isn't that what they are designed to do? Pit me against other women? I didn't write about it immediately because I couldn't articulate what was so maddening about the interview, nor was I sure that it was a political objection. I thought it was a wholly personal problem I am having with the proliferation of stories and interviews with happy, ex-career women stay-at-home moms.

Today, a former student of mine, sent me a distressed email with a link to this article, "Desperate Feminist Wives," in Slate. Meghan O'Rourke discusses the findings of a study done by two UVA sociologists who find that women who stay-at-home, even if they have progressive politics, are happier than women who work. Echidne of the Snakes already wrote a post exposing the bias of the two researchers: W. Bradford Wilcox and Steven Nock.

I appears that I cannot help but vent about this issue, even though the last time I wrote about this stuff I had a slew of incensed comments from readers. Look, I will say once again that I have nothing against women who choose to stay home and raise their children. If you are going to have children, then what point is there in not spending any time with them, right? I get that. This is one of the most significant reasons why I don't have children. I don't know how to balance child-rearing with my career. Perhaps what is more important than my lack of creativity on the question of how to balance is that I simply don't have this burning desire to have children. I am not saying that I absolutely don't want them; I am just ambivalent.

But now, everywhere I turn, there are articles and interviews in my face telling me that I would be much happier quitting the rat race, having children, and staying home to raise them. I am not a libertarian, so I don't think that such information has no impact on me (you know the way that libertarians argue that advertising doesn't make a consumer buy something, it just gives them useful information to make an informed decisions--pahleeze). So, yes, I find this deluge of mommy war stuff to be draining and I am a full time feminist. I am not ambivalent about the importance of treating women as human beings who are as valuable to the world as men are. But, if I am getting angry about these articles, what is the impact they are having on my students?

It is a scare tactic. These articles are designed to scare women into giving up their quest to demand they be treated as human beings. The idea here is that if they continue on their silly feminist paths, they will wind up stressed out, pooped out, Prozaced up, and unhappy. So, give it up ladies. Just admit that its easier to stay-at-home and find a male provider.

Maybe the real problem here is the assumption that life is about achieving happiness. I am not sure what exactly Wilcox and Nock's definition of happiness is (I am too lazy to look up their study). But, I can't think of a concept as unclear happiness. Is it the absence of pain? Is it consistent joy? Is happiness an emotion? Is it a goal-oriented behavior? What on earth is happiness?

Am I happy? Shit, it depends on the day. Isn't that true for most people? Sometimes I have long stretches of inner calm and subsequent productivity. Then, I get sick or maybe I have a restless night and I find myself stressed out. If I don't have a lot of time to decompress, that state of stress might last for a long time. I just don't buy that we are on a life journey where if we make the right choice then we achieve happiness. I would imagine that stay-at-home mothers are as likely to worry profoundly about the well-being of their children, as much as working mothers. Perhaps even fathers actually worry about their children?

We are such a happiness obsessed culture. We find all sorts of ways to avoid the fact that life is not always sunshine and giggles. We are going to die. We might fall victim to horrifically painful illnesses, we might have our children be murdered (something that happened in the most violent fashion to one of my students three years ago). A lot of bad things happen to good people.

I now think the reason that mommy wars stories are so upsetting to me (and my student, for example) is that they play into this deep fear that we might live a life of suffering or regret. We idealize a sort of stress-free, sanguine existence over the far-more-common stress-laden life journey that most of us live. I can't help but think of the question that J.S. Mill asked himself before falling profoundly into a depression:

"Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?" And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, "No!" At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.

Mill then credits his melancholy with giving him the insight to wholly revise Jeremy Bentham's notion of happiness. Bentham believed happiness to be pleasure, regardless of the source, combined with the absence of pain, regardless of the source. All institutions should maximize this pleasure for the greatest number of people ("the principle of utility"), since happiness is the only worthwhile and measurable end of human life (this is the only moral "principle" worth pursuing). And, yet, this sort of pursuit of happiness turned out to be precisely what brought about Mill's mental collapse. What rescued Mill at first was art. He started to take delight in nature, music, poetry. He focused his attention on what was external to him. He then reconsidered whether happiness was, in fact, the most important goal of human life. He reaches the following conclusion:

Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way. The enjoyments of life (such was now my theory) are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken en passant, without being made a principal object. Once make them so, and they are immediately felt to be insufficient. They will not bear a scrutinizing examination. Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation, exhaust themselves on that; and if otherwise fortunately circumstanced you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it, without either forestalling it in imagination, ot putting it to flight by fatal questioning. This theory now became the basis of my philosophy of life. And I still hold to it as the best theory for all those who have but a moderate degree of sensibility and of capacity for enjoyment, that is, for the great majority of mankind.

I already feel much better after rereading that paragraph a few times. I don't care about pursuing my own damn happiness--if that means seeking to be as much as possible without pain, stress, grief, and melancholy. I care about fighting for what is just, what is fair, what is noble and what brings about a better world. I think these are goals that both stay-at-home and career mothers share. Why on earth are we pitting mothers against each other, or women against each other for that matter? What do we have in common? I don't just mean what do stay-at-home mothers and career mothers have in common, but what do feminist and non-feminist women have in common, if anything? Maybe at the most what we have in common is that we all believe in something and want to bring it into existence because it will benefit all humankind.

Isn't the fact that we believe in something bigger than our own damn happiness more important than our actual happiness? When I die, I want people to remember me as someone who passionately devoted herself to what she believed mattered, not that I was happy.

UPDATE: Rude Barbie and the Happy Feminist both have smart things to say about this issue. Go read!