Marriage and Motherhood as Vulnerable Points for Women

"Marriage and Motherhood as Vulnerable Points for Women," a Chapter from The Complete Guide to Women's Mental Health, edited by Lauren Slater, Jessica Henderson Daniel, and Amy Elizabeth Banks, Beacon Press 2003


The four-year-old girls in my son's preschool class are preoccupied with marriage and motherhood. Several are "married" to a boy in the class; the rest talk about whom they might marry. One girl distributed her scribbled "pregnancy announcements"-three successive births took place in ten minutes. Each one more adorable the next, they are taken up with dressing in lacy shawls and silky shifts, their hair adorned with plastic tiaras and their mothers' bead necklaces dangling to their tiny waists. No matter that in another hour they will jump off the climber or proudly recite the ABCs--they are princesses, already subscribers to doctrine. As one girl said, her voice full of awe: "The most beautiful princess gets to marry the prince." Never mind the competition over appearance and for a husband implicit in her remark, a competition whose cruelty makes me shudder. I am struck at what an early age the imagination is fueled by storybook romance. At what an early age we begin to hope and plan our futures, and how closely those futures are linked to gender. These girls, who quarrel now over Barbie dolls and demand quiet when their baby dolls are napping, will all too soon be women, playing their parts for real.

What is the state of marriage and motherhood today? Much has been written about its benefits to women's mental health, among them the sense of community and continuity and stability living in a family allows. Most of us have or will marry and/or mother. But despite their centrality to our lives and identities, why does study after study show that marriage and motherhood can be serious stressors to a woman's mental health?

Part One: Marriage

Married American and European women in the 21st century at long last hold the right to choose one's own partner, to control reproduction, to own property, to work outside the home, to divorce. The law does not tolerate physical abuse and unwanted sexual acts. And yet, despite these victories, surely enviable in a place like Istanbul, where a woman is not allowed to leave the house unescorted, or Nigeria, where a woman can be stoned to death for committing adultery (New York Times Magazine article, Jan. 2002), marriage can be dangerous to a woman's mental health. Marriage is still better for a man's mental health than for a woman's. Married women have more stress and lower self-esteem than do single women. What IS it about the matrimonial union, whose beginnings we customarily celebrate with champagne and lace, that make it hazardous for women?

Dalma Heyn, author of the book Marriage Shock: The Transformation of Women into Wives (Villiard, 1997) takes as her central thesis that women submerge a central part of themselves when they marry. Is this the reason that newlywed women think often about death, as one study found? When a woman exchanges her own surname for her husband's, more often than not is the one who relocates for his job and cuts back on her career when the children arrive, it's not difficult to see why she has trouble holding on to her sense of self. A part of her has died.

Women submerge a central part of themselves not only in life decisions but also in the day-to-day compromises and adjustments that living closely with another person necessarily entails. She likes the house neat and orderly while he is oblivious to his surroundings; she listens to country western tunes while he demands news of the world; he leaves the toilet seat up, she requires it down. Women, who tend to be highly relational and therefore sensitized to the needs of others, are more likely than men to compromise and accommodate. In an intimate partnership, one that requires deep and delicate negotiation, she may be more comfortable submitting to someone's else's needs than standing up for her own, especially if that other person has a willful or dynamic personality. In other words, when it comes time to live with a man, she is more likely to pick up his clutter, she demurs that her radio show is not so important, she is the one who learns to contain and restrain, who time after time bends down to adjust the toilet seat. And after so many years of bending and bending, she no longer maintains her own true shape. She becomes pressed down-depressed.

David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, co-directors of the 1999 report from the Rutgers University National Marriage project, find that young women today, especially teens, are fairly disenchanted with marriage. They are marrying later-median age 25 as opposed to median age 20 in 1960. They are pessimistic, not so much about committing themselves to a lifelong partner, but pessimistic about finding a man suitable enough. Popenoe and Whitehead found that young women especially want a man who will have a high capacity for emotional intimacy in marriage as well as a vested involvement in childrearing and household work. And women's growing economic independence means they are not as willing as they once were to put up with an unsatisfactory husband out of sheer economic dependence. Popenoe and Whitehead's conclusions explain not only why young women today are increasingly reluctant to marry, but also why nearly fifty percent of contemporary marriages dissolve.

Most dangerous to a woman's health, of course, is domestic violence. Surveys of American couples show that 20 to 50 percent have suffered violence in their marriage. Between two and four million incidents of domestic violence are reported every year. One quarter of all murders take place within the family. Once wife beating occurs, it is likely to happen repeatedly, and family life is lived in a cycle of tension, explosion, and forgiveness, that a woman, especially if she is economically or emotionally dependent, will find it difficult to leave.

And yet, and yet, we continue to hear wedding bells. Even pessimistic marriage researchers predict that up to 85 percent of women will marry at least once by age 45. Early, late, once, twice, three times, in churches and synagogues and function halls and city halls, we continue to join our lives to a man's. We continue to vow ourselves to one other. We continue to hope.

How can a woman make marriage a healthier place for her mental health?

Bookstores and libraries support shelf after shelf of marital advice. Some examples. Bestselling author Judith S. Wallerstein, in The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts, (Houghton Mifflin, 1999) describes four kinds of marriages-Romantic, Rescue, Companionate and Traditional-and nine tasks that must be mastered in a good marriage. The tasks, it turns out, are tasks that a good, individual life must also master: Separating From the Family of Origin; Coping With Crisis; Exploring Sexual Love and Intimacy, and so on. John M. Gottman, Ph.D., billed as "the country's foremost relationship expert," [jacket cover] has devised seven principals to make marriages work harmoniously and be long lasting. Principle #1 is Enhancing Your Love Map, and if a couple can work their way through all seven steps (Principle #5 Turn Toward Each Other Instead of Away) they reach Principal #7: Creating Shared Meaning. And Cheryl Jarvis, in The Marriage Sabbatical: The Journey That Brings You Home [Perseus Publishing, 2001] proposes that a woman can maintain health in both her self and her marriage by spending time away from her husband. Go join the Peace Corps for a year or teach at a distant university for a semester or rent that beach house for a month of solitude, says Jarvis, and both you and your marriage will be rejuvenated. Richard Schwartz, M.D. and Jacqueline Olds, M.D., write in their book, Marriage and Motion: The Natural Ebb & Flow of Lasting Relationships (Perseus Publishing, 2000] that any two people in an intimate relationship will naturally navigate periods of closeness and distance. A good marriage is dependent upon accepting that ebb and flow, and moreover, learning to grow and deepen with the tides.

Good advice, all. Helpful, no doubt, to many. But maybe the problem with marriage cannot be broken down into steps and principles. Maybe the problem lies with our expectations. In today's fairy tale, doesn't living happily ever after mean having it all--appliances, orgasms, and a lifetime soul mate?

What we expect from marriage is socially and historically constructed. For example, diamonds have not always been a girl's best friend. In 1939, De Beers Consolidated, Ltd., the Southern African diamond company, was high on supply and short on demand. They mounted an aggressive advertising campaign to convince consumers that a diamond ring could express love. In fact, one could argue that romantic love has always been bought and sold. For much of human history, marriage was not necessarily about love but was instead a legal contract to maintain the social order, transfer property, and provide a stable environment for raising children. Romantic love between the sexes first sprang into being in the Middle Ages, when it began to be popularized by Troubadour love songs. For the Troubadours, romantic love was an idealized passion, one that existed outside both marriage and carnal knowledge. A knight might worship his master's lady. Dante immortalized his love for Beatrice despite having seen her only three times in his entire life. . By the 16th century, romantic lovers consummated their passions, but always outside marriage. Shakespeare, that great love poet, is primarily an adultery poet. By the 19th century, romantic love, still adulterous, was cautioned against. Passion brought suffering. Lovers could die for their transgressions. Psychoanalyst Ethel Spector Person ["Romantic Love: At The Intersection of the Psyche and the Cultural Unconscious"] parallels the rise of romantic love with the rise of the autonomous, free willed individual in society. Romantic love, which psychologists say we model on the mother-infant dyad, and which depends on a deep yearning for the idealized beloved, claims that you are unique and irreplaceable in the other's eyes even as it privileges the primacy of your emotions. To require the intensity of this love before and during marriage is a relatively new development in western society. To expect to maintain this love intensity through a lifetime fraught with challenge and change is difficult indeed. Perhaps it is the demand itself-our romanticization of the married relationship-that should be questioned. Perhaps we would experience greater marital happiness, by which I mean reduced feelings of disappointment and inadequacy, were we to set the bar lower. Men are complicated beings. Women are complicated beings. Children are complicated beings. To live together in harmony and intimacy is sometimes possible. Other times, marriage is a segment of the general human misery that Freud posited. Marriage, a profound laboratory for human emotion, brings us up against an other, and ourselves, and from this we learn. When we marry, we sign up for the whole human catastrophe. By which I mean birth, sickness, death, fortunes made and fortunes lost. And how it all turns out is often a matter of luck.

Part Two: Motherhood

One aspect of marriage that has not changed with history is its effectiveness for bringing up children. The only population with an even higher incidence of depression than married women is single mothers with young children. If you have a child, especially a preschooler, it is better for a woman's mental health to be married than not. Motherhood, however, runs an even higher risk of undermining a woman's mental health than does marriage. Motherhood can knock a woman off her feet as surely as it can transform her life.

For starters, a woman can suffer postpartum psychiatric illness. Postpartum blues-a few weeks of weeping, irritability, and moodiness-affects up to 80 percent of new mothers. A tiny percentage-1 in 1000-will contract postpartum psychosis, the new mother's brain turning hallucinatory, delusional, with thoughts of her own suicide and her baby's death becoming paramount. And each year, over 400,000 women in the United States alone, an estimated thirteen percent of new mothers, suffer from postpartum depression. PPD, as it's called, can take a woman over anywhere in her baby's first year. Susan Kushner Resnick, whose memoir Sleepless Days [St Martin's Press, 2000] chronicles her experience with PPD four months after the birth of her second child, describes the illness thus:

"It causes insomnia, mood swings, anxiety, fear of losing control, weird thoughts of hurting the baby that you never intend to carry out but that scare the hell out of you nonetheless, thoughts of suicide, and a general feeling of being overwhelmed, disconnected from everyone you love, and desperately wanting to be mothered. All those tender nurturing feelings you expected or felt before the depression began-are absent most of the time. You can't seem to locate your old self, although you're aware enough to know she's missing and remember who she was."

Postpartum depression can be difficult for a mother to admit, and difficult even for medical professionals to diagnose, so interwoven are its symptoms with most new mothers' experiences of jittery exhaustion. Although the disease itself is not new, its naming and treatment have only been around since 1994. Like many other similarly stricken women, Resnick became better with the help of antidepressants, sleeping medication, and a therapist experienced with PPD.

For those who do not experience a clinical mental illness in the first year of motherhood, there is always garden-variety sleep-deprivation, identity crisis, marital discord, stress, fatigue, and loneliness. Most women find that the first year of motherhood is monumental and transformative to their psyche. . Iris Krasnow, in Surrendering to Motherhood: Losing Your Mind, Finding Your Soul likens the daily work of mothering to the Zen challenge to Be Here Now, and testifies to the soul growth available to a woman who "surrenders" to motherhood.

During my son's first year, a year that included broken sleep, thousands of diapers, four baby colds, two cases of maternal mastitis, 9 months of breastfeeding, countless interrupted meals and 25 hours of paid relief from childcare per week, I found myself appreciating and reconnecting to my own mother for the first time in twenty years. Instead of the fault finding and blaming I'd engaged in as a daughter ever since adolescence-an exercise laden with self-pity for the person I'd become-I suddenly found myself grateful, on a visceral level, that my mother had heaped such unconditional love on my infant self, for surely this was the same love I could give to my own baby. In the context of my becoming a mother, I could again enjoy my own mother's company. I knew she was proud and happy to see me as a mother and I knew that she, too, loved my son. I felt gratified seeing my mother become a caring and involved grandmother.

An acquaintance, however, found her entry into motherhood quite painful. During her child's first year, realizing that her own mother was as profoundly unequipped to care for a grandchild as she had once been unable to mother a child, this self-supporting graphic designer broke irrevocably with her mother. Many women I know experienced equally profound changes in their identity as they seriously rethought their commitments to work and family. Some discovered they were not the stay-at-home cookie baking moms they'd imagined themselves to be, while others realized they were no longer the ambitious, briefcase carrying professionals they were before the baby arrived.

The problem with motherhood and mental health, says Susan Mushart, sociologist and mother of three, author of The Mask of Motherhood: How Becoming a Mother Changes Everything and Why We Pretend It Doesn't [The New Press, 1999] is that we millennial women-94 percent of us who will choose to become mothers-cling to an overly romanticized notion of motherhood. We expect to run the board meeting and be home in time to read Goodnight Moon to our children. We expect our husbands, those same men beside whom we studied in graduate school, whose bodies we once found on par with Adonis, and on whose mean spaghetti sauce we rely, to be an equal partner during the parenting years. The reality of motherhood, says Mushart, is very, very different from what we envision. A full fifty percent of mothers with preschool children experience symptoms of intense emotional distress on a regular basis. These mothers report shock, panic, chronic-fatigue, feeling unprepared, feeling overwhelmed, and in general, difficulty coping. What's worse, Mushart argues, is that instead of speaking the truth about the difficult challenges and very real price we pay for having children, we too often wear mask to pretend that everything about this daunting task is effortless and under our control. Unmasking motherhood, says Mushart and others, is the final task of feminism.

Any analysis of the stresses and surprises of motherhood and their effect on women's mental health would be remiss without mention of Arlie Hoschild's widely acclaimed and groundbreaking work in The Second Shift and The Time Bind. Hoschild's research points out that while women have been gaining parity in the workplace (almost two-thirds of United States women with preschoolers work for pay) they have done so in addition to their substantial unpaid labor in the domestic sphere. When they come home from their job, a full second shift waits-cooking, cleaning, getting children to bed, organizing, laundry-repetitive tasks psychologists relate to anxiety and depression. In households where couples try to divide the chores more equitably, the men often end up doing work like repairs or yard work-chores that, because they can be postponed, are low stress inducing. Mushart calls this "the juggled life" and a "chronic-fatigue lifestyle." Even so, a woman who works outside the home, either full or part-time, has a higher rate of self-esteem than a fulltime, stay-at-home mom who does not work for pay. The working mom appears to have greater emotional reserves for caring for her children and reports fewer symptoms of depression. Although the stay-at-homer seems to have a more leisurely lifestyle, the social isolation and lack of status can often make her increasingly irritable, depressed, and even emotionally unstable.

A major factor endangering a fulltime mother's mental health is the schizoid and perilous way we as a society construct motherhood. Mythologically speaking, we venerate motherhood. We sanctify the child's need to attach to an attentive, loving, constant and well-informed primary caregiver mother; we call for a return to family values; we bemoan too many hours of daycare; we pledge that breast is best. Rightly or wrongly, these belief systems are alive and well in parenting magazines, in the media, in pediatricians' offices, and, most importantly, in women's heart of hearts. The very great problem, says Ann Crittendon in her consequential book, The Price of Motherhood: Why The Most Important Job In The World Is Still the Least Valued [Metropolitan Books, 2001] is that public policy and public opinion undermine our ability to carry out these beliefs. Changing the status of mothers in the twenty-first century, says Crittendon, is "the great unfinished business of the women's movement."

Crittendon, a Pulitzer Prize nominee in journalism, who left her job as a reporter at The News York Times to raise her son, has assembled an impressive arsenal of facts to back her thesis. She estimates that over her lifetime, a college educated woman who has a child will pay a "mommy tax" of more than a million dollars in foregone income. Stay-at-home mothers who essentially provide childrearing, cooking, cleaning, shopping, chauffeuring, dispute mediation, financial planning, appointment making-perform services conservatively valued at $100,000 per year. But our society makes no adjustments to these economic realities. Zilch. Staying at home with the kids is routinely referred to as "doing nothing." Nannies earn Social Security credits; women at home do not. American mothers have smaller pensions than either men or single women. In short, women today are penalized for taking seriously the very job-motherhood-that we take such pains to worship. And the penalty for living within this contradiction is often psychological as well as financial.

What is needed, says Crittendon and other thinkers, is for caretaking-not only of children, but of the elderly and the disabled as well, whom women also care for disproportionately-to be conceptualized as work. Women who perform the necessary job of caretakers must demand that they be treated as productive citizens, with all the ensuing social and economic rights. Crittenden calls for major changes in social policy such as: giving every parent the right to a year's paid leave after the birth of a child; equalize social security for spouses; provide universal preschool for three and four year-olds; provide free health care coverage for all children and their primary caregivers. Changes like these would benefit not only mothers and children but also our wellbeing as a nation.

European nations are already well ahead of the United States in truly valuing motherhood. France offers preschooling to all three to five year-olds at little or no charge. In Britain, new mothers receive home visits from a nurse. Scandinavian countries offer generous paid parental leave opportunities for mothers and father, as well as affordable daycare.

What would motherhood look like were we to offer even some of these changes?

During my son's first year, I became friends with a Norwegian mother. Ingunn's son was born three weeks after mine, and we met often in the park as together our children learned to crawl, then walk. Married to an American, she spoke often of being homesick for Norway, and displayed with pride the long underwear and raingear her relatives sent so her son could be comfortable outdoors in any weather. A Ph.D. graduate, trained as an economist, my friend chose to care fulltime for her son that first year. I detected subtle differences, inflections, really, like the accented English she spoke so fluently, between Ingunn and the other new mothers I knew.

She viewed this year as a discrete and temporary period of time, one in which she would above all be present for her child. Although she was as interested as any American mother in discussing, for example, at what age to introduce solid foods, there was less of the competitive, compulsive behavior that other professional moms often exhibit in mastering motherhood as a new project. Although she, too, complained about lost sleep, there was less self-pity, and a sense that these were difficulties that went with the job. She took no pains to present as the perfect, pulled-together mother; more often than not, her clothes were wrinkled and her hair uncombed. But she took care of herself in ways more essential than grooming. She allowed herself to experience wholeheartedly and unambivalently the joys, fears, tedium, rewards and challenges of becoming a mother. Unlike American mothers I knew, she did not agonize over the emotional ramifications of not working at a paying job. She did not feel demoted by society. She did not fear losing her intelligence. Although she and her family lived closely that year on her husband's salary as a Resident, she simply assumed that it was important to sit in the park and watch her child pour sand into a pail. Had she been caring for him in Norway, she would be entitled to nine months maternity leave at her original salary. Her husband, too, would be entitled to four weeks off, also with pay. Just the awareness of these facts seemed to make Ingunn a less conflicted mother.

Soon the year would be over. She'd been accepted for a position at The Central Bank of Norway. Her son would be in daycare across the street from her office building, where she could visit on her lunch break. Reluctantly, we said goodbye. I had learned a lot just by being around Ingunn and her son. I was losing a friend unafraid to think and mother, no small juggling act. Two years later, I received a Christmas card from Ingunn. Unsurprisingly, she had remained in Norway. Her new baby smiled from the photo. She was spending another year at home.


Marriage and motherhood are brave, exciting, soul-deepening, challenging enterprises.
The human race literally depends on our willingness to give ourselves to their engagements.
The problem is when our imaginary constructs, both individual and collective, become
impossible goals, ones that hurt rather than help us in our lives; when women cannot script their own plots from what those they have been told by media and society. Too often, we hold ourselves to unrealistic standards from which romance is wrought. In the modern woman's fairy tale, she falls in love with, marries and lives happily ever after with Prince Charming: the emotionally strong yet vulnerable man who can be both wage earner and equal domestic partner. Children follow when she is ready. Motherhood is natural and loving, a role she incorporates effortlessly into her already rather full and successful career life.

Yet too often the story turns out so differently from what we imagined. The man turns cold and distant, a wage earning machine relegated to the margins of family life, available to neither the wife nor child he loves. The woman turns sad and resentful, overtaxed by loads of laundry and inflexible work hours, with little left to give the children and husband she loves, and even less to give herself. We need to recognize the fairytale perfection for the rarity it is. Our own endings are more real and glorious, filled with disappointment, compromise, struggle, yes, but also with invention, humor, and wisdom.

Public policies that truly support mothers and families of every socio-economic status, policies akin to what European nations negotiate, are desperately needed in the United States. For that kind of change to happen, women must do what they have done to gain the vote, equal pay for equal work, and all the other liberties we now expect. Women must talk openly about themselves and to one another, connect in larger networks, write articles, rants, books and speeches, make demands, draft legislation. Again and again we must ask the fathers to change diapers and make school lunches, and not criticize them for doing it differently than we do. Women are ferociously strong. How else could so many of us hold three jobs simultaneously: paid work, marriage, motherhood. Now we must learn better how to ask for help. Our mental health depends on it.