August 2013 Features

Is Stress a Feminist Issue?

Dana Becker ’69, M.S.S. ’82, Ph.D. ’91, argues that when it comes to women and stress, the personal is political.

By Dana Becker

In the very early 1980s, when I was a single parent working full time and doing my doctorate part time, brushing dog hair off the couch at night, and worrying about whether I was going to be able to make a deal with the gas company to stretch out my payments over the next few months, I didn’t think of my life as stressful. This had nothing to do with any preternatural calm I could lay claim to. Far from it; I’ve always had my anxieties. Simply, I didn’t think about stress because the idea of stress hadn’t yet pervaded middle-class culture.

Dana Becker ’69, M.S.S. ’82, Ph.D. ’91

Dana Becker ’69, M.S.S. ’82, Ph.D. ’91

The stress concept had certainly been around for decades by this time, but it had yet to be attached to nearly every aspect of American life. In the 1980s, however, two phenomena increased the popularity of the stress concept in general and its application to the lives of working mothers in particular. The first was “healthism,” a term coined by political economist Robert Crawford to describe the growing preoccupation of the middle-class with its health and mental health, a trend that persists today as many of us shiver over the effects of nearly everything large (unemployment) and small (too much email in the inbox) on our immune systems. The second phenomenon, of course, was the deluge of middle-class mothers into the workplace, accompanied by a torrent of academic research on the effects of maternal employment on children. In the wake of a staggering lack of evidence of damage to the offspring of employed mothers, media fascination with the negative effects of the stress of “juggling” multiple roles and managing what is now called work/life conflict has skyrocketed. The advice middle-class mothers are given about managing the “stress” of full time work both in and outside the home—eat more kale, do more yoga, make more to-do lists—is legion.

From the Industrial Revolution to the present, we have been chided to take care of ourselves so that we can take care of others. To quote a “stellar” mom featured in Working Mother magazine, “If Mommy’s okay, everyone else is okay.” If we stay healthy and unfrazzled, we can continue to perform the lion’s share of family work in the face of family-unfriendly policies that can sometimes make dual-earner couples’ lives a real slog and can make the lives of low-income employed mothers a nightmarish shell game. Maybe, too, if we put all our energies into managing stress, we won’t notice that caregiving is actually a devalued activity in our society.

In her new book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, advises middle- and upper-class women to marry men who support their careers and share the family work fifty/fifty. But when, as Barbara Risman and others have pointed out, traditional ideas about what it means to be a “good man” (breadwinner) or a “good woman” (caring nurturer) haven’t changed all that much since the mid-nineteenth century, it should come as no surprise that most men fear being thought of as weak sisters even if they actually take the family leave to which they’re entitled, and many women fear resistance at best or a fight at worst when they “lean in” and demand 50/50 sharing in the domestic sphere.

When Arianna Huffington remarked recently that fatigue is the “next feminist issue,” my first reaction was that hers was just one more superficial response to the dilemma of working mothers—and it is, if she’s recommending a long nap and a soak in the tub. But if she means that women’s fatigue, or stress, or whatever we want to call it, is a problem that we as a society must tackle, then she’s got my attention. Stress could be the next feminist issue if it mobilizes all of us—women, their partners, their employers, and the public-policy makers—to do something beyond making another bedtime to-do list. Social change is hard, and political change is getting harder and harder. Changing ourselves is, relatively speaking, easier. But our cultural preoccupation with the effects of stress on us as individuals obscures many of the pressing problems that create this feeling we call stress in the first place, and it can distract us from engaging in the difficult work of social and political change. Unless “women’s work” is understood as everyone’s work, the changes needed to reduce the stresses of contemporary family life will continue to be a pipe dream.


Grad_BookA three-time alumna of Bryn Mawr College, Dana Becker received her master of social service degree from the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research (GSSWSR) and her doctorate from the Department of Human Development in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. She is research professor emerita in GSSWSR, and her most recent book, One Nation Under Stress: The Trouble with Stress as an Idea (Oxford University Press), was released this past spring to widespread media attention.


Comments on “Is Stress a Feminist Issue?”

  1. Hmmm. It’s an interesting question. Statistically speaking, my guess would be that women do still take on more of the house and kids and maybe even elder care work – even if they’re employed full-time. While I can’t speak to how well they’re designed, I believe I have heard news reports recently of studies that showed exactly that. I’d be interested to see if the percentages change with age, though. I suspect that the level of “women’s work” done only by the female in a couple is significantly higher for older couples than younger couples. Attitudes have already been changing for the last 50 years. Slowly, perhaps – but still changing.

    In addition, men are not immune to stress. They’re not even immune to the particular stresses of the dual-income family. For example, my husband and I both work full-time. He definitely does at least half of the house and childcare work. However, consider that if I were not working full-time, not only would that eliminate job and commuting stress for me – it would eliminate alot of his work around the house, as that would then be my job. (After all, I’m not going to sit around eating bon bons while he works a full-time job, right?)

    I wonder if our labeling and focus on stress is the actual problem. Maybe the real problem is that we expect NOT to be stressed – and we view stress as an unnatural condition – something to be fixed.

    Yes, I’m stressed. But you know what? I have it so much easier (employed mom that I am) than my grandmothers and great-grandmothers, who worked on farms or made it through the Great Depression. They had to worry about the very real possibility that their children wouldn’t make it past infancy. They had to be concerned with diseases like typhoid or scarlet fever or polio, which aren’t much of an issue in most of the western world today. They had a much larger possibility of dying in childbirth – or being widowed at a young age through accident or disease.

    I suspect that, as real as our stresses are, our ancestors had such pressing issues that when no one was deathly sick and there was food on the table, they were just glad to have made it through another week or month or year. We would have said they were under tremendous stress – they would probably have said, “That’s life! What did you expect?”

    Our stress is different than that of our ancestors. As women, our stress is in some ways different than that of our husbands or brothers or fathers. But I’m not sure that means that as modern women we have more stress or worse stress. Even as far as the stress of working full-time but having to do all the housework and childcare – I’m light years ahead of where my mom was in the 1970’s (yes, she also worked full-time).

    You’re absolutely right that alot of our stress comes from expectations set by others. I would guess that’s true of many men as well. However, I suspect that the more effective way to change those expectations is simply taking the time to change our own minds and those of our sons and daughters. You can’t simply pass legislation or make policies to make people have different expectations of gender roles or the value of different types of work. It will take time – maybe a couple more generations. Equal treatment under law and policy is a wonderful thing. But again – I think it’s the expectations in our own heads that are really stressing us out. They may have started outside us, but we’ve accepted them internally on whatever level.

    All I can say is that personally, I’m trying to adjust my expectations and to prioritize what should really stress me out and what shouldn’t. I appreciate that while my husband doesn’t cook or do the laundry – his vacuuming, doing dishes, packing lunch boxes, and picking up groceries are making an impression on my daughter. She will carry with her much less defined gender roles than my husband and I learned from our parents, or they from their parents.

    I also try not to forget that even when I feel tremendously stressed – I wouldn’t trade my modern concerns of work-life balance and who’s loading the dishwasher this time for a typhoid epidemic or a year of bad crops on the farm (i.e., nothing to eat and no welfare programs). I have it pretty good as a woman in 2014, all things considered.

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