I was reading a news article recently and was caught off guard by how angry it made me. I get worried, stressed, fearful, and frustrated but seldom truly angry. Now, before going on, I *don’t* want to get political here. That’s never been what WellnessWinz is for or about. So please discard that idea as you read on. It’s not my agenda.
The article that made me angry was about a triggering topic that just doesn’t seem to stop making headlines lately: Abortion rights. I’ve heard allllll the arguments from both sides and from activists that are secular and faith-based. Trust me when I say I know a lot more about this topic than the average woman due to a medically complicated pregnancy just over a year ago that left me torn as to what I ought to do to protect my unborn child from suffering. It opened my eyes to the torment that so many women endure when considering ending a wanted pregnancy and the underrecognized struggles of many women considering ending unplanned pregnancies, not to mention the plight of women at large.
(If you want to read more about my experiences feel free to check out one of several articles I’ve written about pregnancy loss, grief, healing and being pregnant again after trauma: Glimmers of Joy Amid Grief, My Emergency C-section Recovery, Mental Health Support for Mothers, Pregnancy After Loss Is…)
So, what made me angry in the article that I read?
Answer: The idea that abortion, chosen or not, legal or illegal, is about empowerment.
The arguments go something like this:
Pro-choice: Women’s bodily autonomy = empowerment to choose timing of children, career, education, etc. (this is a long-standing stance).
Pro-life: “Women can have it all these days” (the exact words from the article) = empowerment to both raise children and hold down a job.
In my honest opinion, politics aside, empowerment has nothing to do with the difficult decision to end a pregnancy, wanted or unwanted. Empowerment is the farthest thing from explaining why many women feel so disadvantaged and under supported that they don’t have the choice to keep their unborn child. Empowerment also doesn’t begin to scrape at the struggles that lie ahead for women who keep their babies against the odds. Empowerment? No.
Allow me to explain the weak points of both sides here:
Bodily autonomy is an important thing, even as people on both sides of the abortion debate have varying definitions of what that ought to mean; however, the idea that it’s empowering to be forced to choose between a child and career, single and/or young motherhood or higher education, putting food on the table for older children or adding a starving mouth to a hungry household is in no way, shape or form accurate, in my humble opinion. It’s incredibly damaging to women’s wellness. No matter the choice, a woman must make a sacrifice.
On the flip side, the notion that “women can have it all” is a long-standing myth that actually means “women must find a way to DO it all.” This is the way our society continues to place heavy burdens squarely on the shoulders of women while disadvantaging and under supporting them along the way. This harms our collective wellness as women too. Big time. It’s entirely out of touch with reality and how much women’s health suffers in nearly every way from an unequal society.
My mom has told me for years that she felt frustrated by pro-choice claims decades ago that abortion “allows women to have it all” (she recognized the oppressive nature of this myth long before I came to terms with it) and now, quite ironically, we’re beginning to hear the exact same argument used against abortion from pro-lifers. What gives?!?!
Let’s move on from abortion debate “highlights” and talk about the most pressing thing:
The reality that women are vastly underserved by our society and are paying a steep price for it, monetarily, personally, and with their health. As a women’s wellness advocate, I can’t turn away from this disheartening data even as I confess that I don’t have many answers for solutions. But perhaps continuing to shine a spotlight on these things is a start…
The Proof That Women Are Far From “Having It All”
A major gender pay gap exists in many developed nations, not to mention third world countries. In the U.S., women earn 83 cents to every man’s dollar, and this trend of earning less is true across nearly every occupation. In the U.K., women earn a whopping 40% less than men. Unequal pay most certainly means fewer options and opportunities for women despite their hard work.
Earning an advanced degree doesn’t help advance women very much in their earning potential, not to mention the student debt it accrues. On average, most women with advanced degrees (master’s, Ph.d., etc.) earn less than white men with only a bachelor’s degree do, and this pay gap is especially disproportionate for black and Latina women. Again, these disparities persist across nearly every occupation with some small exceptions. Check it out for yourself with this interactive tool that allows you to compare wages (and gives you fuel to ask for a raise).
Not only are women earning less money but they’re shouldering the caregiving load in both married and single parent households. In the U.S. alone, most single parent homes are overseen by moms (8.5 million) compared to dads (2.6 million). According to an article on Parents.com, single mothers feel firsthand all the weight they’re carrying for their careers, families and society’s expectations of them: “Single mothers confirm they’re facing these pressures and high expectations every day and are even shamed when their abilities don’t match up to the ideal.”
Indeed, women are expected to do SO much and with a smile on their worn out faces. Add these struggles to the high cost of childcare, inequitable healthcare coverage, and lack of paid maternity leave, and you have a society that is telling women they can have it all while denying them of all the support for fulfilling that dream.
One example of how women are intensely under supported is the steep decline in breastfeeding rates from infancy to one year of age (84% of women initiate breastfeeding their babies but only 57% still are at 6 months and 35% are at one year). Breastfeeding is arguably one of the most physically natural roles a mother has and yet in our society it’s nearly impossible for most women to stick with due to pressures to return to work, a lack of support for breastfeeding logistics, low help with childcare for older children, and only half of employers offering lactation support programs and on-site nursing/pumping rooms. Not only that, but depending on where you live geographically in the U.S. there are varying degrees of cultural support and importance placed on this healthy maternal-infant relationship: see here.
How else is our culture expecting too much and offering too little for women? Ohhh, let me count the ways…
I have seen within my own family the toll that caregiving can take. My mother was working full-time, raising three kids, helping support three aging relatives and her disabled younger brother, all while going through menopause. The weight of all these responsibilities is not unique to her. It’s a common, untold story of middle-aged women at large. Right when women’s self-care needs must be addressed to manage menopause in a healthy manner, life demands reach a crescendo and minimize a woman’s ability to focus on her own wellness.
Roughly 66% of caregivers for aging relatives are female, averaging 49 years old and working outside of the home while simultaneously providing 20 hours of unpaid elderly care per week. During this phase of life, the demands placed uniquely on women’s backs has the following repercussions:
- “33% of working women decreased work hours
29% passed up a job promotion, training or assignment
22% took a leave of absence
20% switched from full-time to part-time employment
16% quit their jobs
13% retired early
In total, the cost impact of caregiving on the individual female caregiver in terms of lost wages and Social Security benefits equals $324,044″…read more
This data only reflects the challenges of caregiving for elderly loved ones, let alone the percentage of women who quit work and/or struggle with demands to caretake for disabled or sick children. I think most of us can agree that these numbers do NOT match up to the mythical ideal of “women can have it all.” These struggles are seen generation after generation and unfortunately, the future for women looks somewhat bleak. According to the U.S. Department of Labor:
“The pandemic has set women’s labor force participation back more than 30 years.”
By early 2021, women’s participation in the work force fell to less than 56%, matching rates as far back as 1987. Women of color and those working in low-wage occupations have been the most impacted.
I know, I know…this isn’t a feel good article. But it’s important that we get to the core of why the myth “women can have it all” just isn’t adding up to reality.
The Ripple Effects of Gender Inequality on the Average Woman’s Wellness
A Statement from the 2020 Global Gender Gap Report:
“In no country in the world is the amount of time spent by men on unpaid work (mainly domestic and volunteer work) equal to that of women; and in many countries, women still spend multiple-folds as much time than men on these activities. Even in countries where this ratio is lowest (i.e. Norway or the United States) women spend almost twice as much time as men on unpaid domestic work.”
This global gender gap contributes to higher mental health challenges for women versus men. The World Health Organization shows that women outpace men on rates of mental disorders such as depression, anxiety and somatic complaints, to name a few. Within the U.S. alone, one study demonstrates disheartening findings stating that “by many objective measures the lives of women in the United States have improved over the past 35 years, yet we show that measures of subjective well-being indicate that women’s happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men.”
Women’s mental health suffers gravely because of how much we are tasked with. Mental health is further complicated by the following factors that contribute to social insecurity:
- gender-based violence
- socio-economic disadvantage
- income inequality
- low social status and rank
- responsibility for the care of others
As long as so many women suffer from mental health challenges, the collective wellness of society suffers too. Our bodies suffer. Our families suffer. Our workplaces suffer. Our healthcare systems suffer. And so on.
Is There a Path Forward that is Better for Women’s Wellness?
I don’t have the answers for pay equity, changes in government policies and benefits, and normalizing caregiving for men, but I can say without a shadow of a doubt that ALL of this information compels me to scream from the rooftops that we are hurting women’s wellness with the myth that “women can have it all.” We’re far from that reality becoming manifest. So for now, this myth continues to be synonymous with “women must do it all,” and I can’t think of anything more suffocating, oppressive, sexist, and damaging to women’s collective wellness than that.
I hate to end on such a negative statement. That’s seldom my style. But I find myself realizing that passive complacency or putting a positive spin on these complicated circumstances is no longer acceptable as it allows that myth to gain in momentum and harm.
Women deserve better.
Perhaps it’s time we should accept that having it all (ahem, doing it all) is an impossible standard for a person of any gender? Just a thought.
Yours in health and wellness,