Jemima Lewis: It is our own fault we are sad and stressed

Saturday 29 September 2007 00:00 BST

The other night I woke up sobbing. This doesn't often happen, and when it does it's usually because I have had a satisfyingly mawkish dream about mourners thronging to my funeral. On this occasion, however, something quite new and unwelcome disturbed my slumbers: my to-do list.

"I haven't even started getting the baby's room ready," I found myself blubbering at a bewildered, half-asleep husband. "The cat needs to be wormed, and I haven't paid my tax bill, and we need to find a childminder, and I'm never going to find time to take my driving test, and we still haven't put up that curtain rail, and ... and ... I'm just ... so ... TIRED."

I suppose it ought to be some consolation that this fit of night terror makes me, according to a spate of new surveys, an entirely normal modern woman. Despite everything we have gained by way of freedom and equality, the female sex appears to be more miserable, sleepless and stressed than ever. Researchers in America found that men's happiness levels have overtaken women's in the past half-century, largely because they have learnt to relax and do less.

Women's ambitions have expanded massively: they want the same things that their grandmothers did – the well-kept home, model children and happy marriage – but with a career on top. They do just as much domestic drudgery, but now they have to squeeze it in after work.

Men, meanwhile, have been stealthily cutting down the amount of time they spend on "unpleasant" chores, so that they now do 90 minutes less a week than women. None of which, by the way, is to suggest that men are to blame for our woes. Rather the reverse, in fact. If men have found a way to dodge some of the unnecessary pressures of the modern age, we should not resent them for it. Instead, we should learn from them.

Though we seldom admit it even to ourselves, a great deal of female drudgery is done not for the benefit of our menfolk, or even our children, but for the sake of our own vanity. For centuries, the domestic arena was the only one in which women could display to the world their creative and organisational gifts, and old habits die hard.

When a couple moves into a new house, it is almost always the woman who gives the "guided tour", bashfully soaking up her guests' applause at the splendour of her colour scheme, the size of her Smeg, the bohemian chic of her table linen. Personally, having grown up in a tiny house made of cardboard, I derive an almost indecent pleasure from ushering a guest into our spare room: a sanctuary of under-utilised space, where the sheets are always crisp and freshly ironed; the antique quilt is bound to prompt admiring remarks, and – so improbably grown-up! – the bedside table boasts a posy of flowers, freshly cut from the garden.

But this rapture of self-satisfaction comes at a price. Because it is born of a competitive instinct – and make no mistake, the gentler sex is by far the more rivalrous – female perfectionism is always shadowed by the dread of failure. From friendship to fashion to motherhood, there is nothing a woman can do that she doesn't fear another woman is doing better.

Even childbirth, as I am rapidly discovering, is a competitive sport. Home births versus hospital births, natural versus pain-free, Caesarean versus vaginal: every mother I meet rushes to extol, justify or apologise for her own experience of labour, as if it were a measure of her character rather than a matter of choice, circumstance and medical fate. "I did have an epidural in the end," one new mother confessed to me recently, like a schoolchild handing over a bad report, "but only after labouring for 18 hours." Tsk, tsk – must try harder.

Men are competitive too, of course – but in fewer arenas. Generally speaking, they do not lose much sleep over whether the bold monochrome wallpaper in the hall is already looking a little passé, or which of their friends has smaller thighs, or how to find time to buy thoughtful, personalised Christmas presents for the entire family – again.

Although they will cheerfully embrace the perks of living with a perfectionist woman – the clean underpants, the superior household odours, the handing over of duties such as thank-you letters and social arrangements – most would baulk at having to undertake such chores themselves. And quite right too. They recognise that there are more pressing matters to attend to, such as having a good time.

One of the most melancholy details of this week's survey was that men enjoy visiting their parents much more than women do. This is because, while men settle down on the sofa with their fathers to drink beer and discuss sport, women get straight to work, helping their mothers to cook, clean, pay bills and plan family gatherings.

There is a fine line between duty and martyrdom, and too many women wake up one morning to find themselves stuck on the wrong side of it. When you start getting the night terrors, it's time to make a choice: live like a woman, in frazzled perfection, or live like a man – happily.

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