A few months after returning to work at a small historic preservation nonprofit in Philadelphia, new mom Amy Ricci came to a realization that many working moms encounter. “I knew it was going to be hard, but I didn’t realize it was going to be this hard.”
The 36-year-old Hopewell, N.J., native went back to the office when her daughter was just 12 weeks old, a postpartum ritual for many moms today, and adjusted to the routine of schlepping her child to daycare in the morning, commuting, working (and pumping) at the office, commuting home, picking up the baby, making dinner, and getting ready for the next day. Her once-leisurely weekends became consumed with running errands and catching up on housework for which there was no time during the week.
Ricci’s struggle isn’t unique. It plays out in households across the country every day, especially ones helmed by single parents and those where both parents work. And it’s taking a toll on our mental health—women in particular. “Women are less happy today in general,” says Sarah Rosenfield, Ph.D., an associate professor at Rutgers University who concentrates her research on mental health and gender. “Women used to be a little happier than men. Everyone’s happiness has gone down some, but women’s has gone down more.”
This is what she’s referring to: The University of Chicago’s General Social Survey has tracked Americans’ “happiness” since 1972. Its findings show that since the study’s inception, women’s happiness levels have dropped—interesting, or maybe even shocking, given the increase in rights, equality, and access to education and career women have experienced over these decades.
The explanation for women’s declining happiness is complicated, but Rosenfield identifies the modern “time crunch” many are experiencing as part of the problem. “Time pressure is one of the worst things for people’s well-being,” she says. “You don’t think of it that way. Time pressure just keeps increasing. And competition keeps going up. Women are totally overloaded.”
Although traditional gender roles are changing in the family—meaning men are taking on more of the responsibilities at home—women are still taking on the bulk of the “second shift.” According to the American Time Use survey, women average more time on housework and childcare than men, while men make more time for leisurely activity.
“Women are still in this bind of having to be in the labor force, working out a balance between jobs and taking care of families,” Rosenfield says. “The amount of pressure and overload that they experience has taken a giant toll.”
Rosenfield points to the American corporate climate and U.S. policies (or lack thereof) as being part of the “time crunch” problem. “There is still a lack of flexible work and part-time jobs,” she says. “The barriers are large for women if they leave and try to come back to the work market. [Most Americans] have short maternity leaves.”
A December 2014 New York Times article echoes her point, noting that more women with the option to leave the workforce are doing so, in part because of these pressures. The number of women ages 25 to 54 in the labor market climbed to 74 percent in 1999, but it has dropped to 69 percent today. In contrast, in countries that have more generous policies for working mothers—including Canada and in Europe—those numbers continue to rise.
While the 2008 economic downturn certainly hurt labor numbers across the board, a 2014 Times/CBS News/Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 61 percent of women said family responsibilities were a reason why they weren’t working, compared to 37 percent of men. And women who identified as homemakers said they would consider going back if a job offered flexible hours or allowed them to work from home.
Find Your Happy Place
While 1-year paid maternity leave, subsidized childcare, and flex scheduling may seem like a pipe dream, women who feel overwhelmed by their current situation aren’t destined for misery. “The same principles hold for both genders,” Rosenfeld says. “Greater power and reasonable levels of demands are beneficial for mental health.”
Working mothers with part-time hours tend to be in better shape, she says, as are full-time working moms with secure childcare arrangements or partners who share in household chores, time-pressured tasks in particular. “Time pressure is the recipe for being unhappy and stressed out,” she says.
When she returned back to work, Amy Ricci was able to negotiate a 4-day work schedule with 1 day at home, helping her achieve a better work-life balance. Modern technology has made it easier for women to work from home, and more companies are starting to embrace flexible work hours. “It can be scary, but you won’t know if it’s possible if you don’t ask,” Ricci says. “The worst they can say is no.”
But work isn’t the only reason women can be overloaded. Women who stay home to be the primary caretaker for the children can feel equally overwhelmed. Perhaps women across the board should follow the male example and carve out more time for themselves and their passions, Rosenfield says. Taking time for yourself and working on your happiness doesn’t have to feel selfish. “People who are happy are better people,” she says. “They are way more productive, successful, gregarious, and giving.”
C’Mon Get Happy
If you’re feeling depressed by the modern woman’s outlook, Rosenfield says to try out Shawn Achor’s 21-day happiness program. Rosenfield discovered the CEO of GoodThink’s program through his 2011 TED talk, “The Happy Secret to Better Work,” in which he proposes happiness leads to productivity. Rosenfield assigns this program to her students at Rutgers. “If you can just do one of his suggestions, it could help,” she says. “We tried it for my class. Although none of us were perfect at it, I think it made a difference.”
Achor’s research says to do all these things for 21 days in a row to increase your happiness:
Write down three new things you are grateful for every day.
Write about a positive thing you have experienced every 24 hours.
10 minutes a day. It teaches your brain that your behavior matters.
10 minutes a day. This will train your brain to focus on one thing.
Write one positive note thanking or praising someone in your support network every day.