That single, child-free women are the happiest group of people out there is the sort of news that could only shock a man. Over the years, as I’ve seen my female friends pair up and pop out children, I’ve had moments of doubt about my commitment to the single life – would I have been happier if I’d have really focused on getting that ring on my finger? Now it seems my approach to life has been proved right all along.
While my married-with-children friends try to juggle relationships, kids, school-parent evenings, mummy stereotypes and any sort of a career, those of us without incumbents are spending our time and money working out what makes us happy and then doing as much of that as we possibly can. Of course we have moments where we wish for a relationship and babies, but when you hit the point in life where you realise that those things might never come you have a choice: do you sit around moping that you didn’t meet society’s expectations, or work out what is going to give your life meaning and purpose and then single-mindedly pursue it?
Society might tell us that marriage and children will bring joy, but single and child-free women know that expecting something outside of yourself to bring happiness is a sure-fire way to end up disappointed.
Being in a relationship, by its very definition, requires making time for another person’s needs ahead of your own. It’s the trade-off of blissful, selfish happiness for security and companionship. Except this trade-off seems to be hitting women harder, with married men reporting higher levels of happiness than their single counterparts.
It would be easy to say this is just due to children, but I believe there’s something else at play here too. This weekend a single male friend and I talked about an article we’d read in which various writers described their feelings about going into therapy. The only male writer in the piece commented that he’d stopped going to his therapist as soon as he met his now wife. My friend thought this sounded perfectly normal: why pay out that money to a professional when you have someone at home to talk to? I thought it sounded like yet another man using a woman an an unpaid counsellor.
Whether it’s remembering their husband’s doctor’s appointments or helping them navigate their workplace culture in the wake of #MeToo, women in straight relationships are already doing more emotional labour than their partners well before children enter the equation. And once children arrive, it’s game over.
Despite the creation of shared parental leave and Daniel Craig wearing a papoose, mothers are still responsible for the majority of domestic tasks. When it comes to organising schedules, dividing housework and ensuring that partnerships and families run smoothly, women are taking on the burden of responsibility and it’s smothering them.
For this generation of women the dream of having a partner and family has always run alongside the dream of professional success, of intellectual and creative fulfilment. More and more, however, the research shows that’s just not possible.
Nearly three-quarters of working mothers say they have experienced some form of discrimination at work and it’s no surprise that the gender pay gap appears at the exact point women start having children. When the price of marriage and babies is saying goodbye to the career you worked so hard in your twenties to forge, it’s not surprising that feelings of isolation and unhappiness follow shortly behind.
Add to this the pressure from social media to “do” motherhood in a certain way. From Instagram stars whose children have apparently never vomited all over the white rugs that dominate their homes, to the school administrators who persist in sending emails or directing emergency calls to the woman no matter how many times she points out that her husband is their child’s main caregiver, all around us society is trying to tie mothers into a certain standard of behaviour and asking them to sacrifice their own happiness in return.
One solution is that from now on all women should just stay single, child-free and happy. What bliss! I can certainly recommend it.
Or alternatively, to stop the human race dying out completely, we could ask women what would really help them find happiness irrespective of their matrimonial or maternal status. I suspect that affordable childcare, flexible working practices and partners who did their fair share of emotional labour without having to be asked (the asking is work in itself, chaps) would be a start. And then we could give it to them.
Until then, don’t raise your eyebrows when you hear that those of us who aren’t forced to ignore their own needs are the happiest women of all.
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