Great Expectations: The American Dilemma - Women and Psychology Column

While I understand that anyone from all over the world can read this, I also admit readily that my world view is shaped by where I’ve grown up.I come from the land of the “pursuit of happiness,” but the prevailing sentiment of the vaunted “American Dream” is now that you end up with a nuclear family consisting of “Two fat incomes plus a two-car garage plus two master-bathroom sinks plus two-point-something kids equals one happy family (Sandler, 2011 qtd. pp. 73).”

While I understand this pressure referslargely to the American culture, though I assume other industrialized nations hold to this ridiculous idealization of life as well, is hard on men, I feel it is even more daunting for us women. Men once had to be the sole bread winners and I understand that must have been more stress than I can fathom back in the height of single income households until the first wave in the women’s movement. However, I feel that the socio-economic pressure on them has been lessened somewhat by the truth of life that to make existence work in the America of today----you need two incomes to survive.

Somehow, I feel that the pressure facing women is deeper or at least on a more intimate, biological level. There are those two looming questions that, now that I am in my late twenties, I fear people asking: “When are you getting married?” and “What about kids?”

For the record, I really do like children. My job is based around working with those with special needs. I used to work in a cognition lab for testing babies (they looked at dots, no needles or anything scary!) and I always was so excited to see them. Of course, that joy could have had to do with the fact that I could also give them back if they tantrummed. However, I feel that in today’s America, there is a predominating myth of the perfect fairytale life for women.

You find a man, even though we’re supposedly passed the MRS. Degree, find the dress and it must be a princess one, and you get married in a ceremony that can realistically now cost more than a car, much to your weeping father’s dismay.  Then you need to hurry up and have kids and I mean kids because people tend to feel that having only one is not fair to the only child. If you don’t hurry on up, those eggs will dry up and perhaps crumble to dust.

Or so you get the impression from family.

But the thing that really bugs me is the whole creation of the wedding and marriage myth. That you have to be married and it has to be huge in order for it to count. There are literally channels on television now---We TV and Style, I am looking your way---that have wedding show after show. Cakes! Dresses! Planners! Things no mere mortal could afford but goes for broke trying to recreate anyway so it is “as seen on TV,” they are all there.

TLC Promo for Say Yes to the Dress

But it doesn’t necessarily make you happier. Someone trapped in a stressful marriage is more miserable than either a single individual or two happily married people. Similarly, a study by Wake Forest University in 2005 found that adults with children can experience more dissatisfaction with life than their childless counterparts. A lot of the unhappiness there comes from the frenentic stress of running from one after school activity to the other and having a “child-centric” rearing philosophy in the States.

And yet, as a single, approaching 30 woman, one who has a career path toward advanced degrees in a field she likes, I don’t feel complete without the damn ring, dress, man, kid, and the partridge in the pear tree, minivans can stay away.

The expectations and the “this is how it is supposed to be” are draining for me and, worse, I suspect they’re even more draining sometimes for the people who have achieved the keys to the kingdom and entered into that promised land of suburbia with their entry ticket of 2.5 kids. They’re supposed to have reached fulfillment in life---the kids, the McMansion, the jobs and spouse. The American Dream tells you that’s all you need.

So if you get that by 25 or 30, the big question is what do you do for the next 60 years or so?

Maybe it’s time to readjust our pursuit of happiness, to throw expectations and old mythos from half a century ago out the window.

Hell, maybe it’s time just to kill your TV.

Say Yes to the Dress, TLC’s show about picking boutique wedding gowns in NYC, you’ll be the first wedding program to go.

Sandler, L. (2011). “The American Nightmare.” Psychology Today, April 2011, 70 – 77. 

Teaser image from Castle and Cook Homes.Com and "Say Yes to the Dress" promo image property of Half Yard Productions.