The Unravelling of Womanhood - Be Careful What You Wish For

I think a great deal about the world my daughter will face, and then worry grips me that she will be set up to fail. Getting stuck in youth is just one of the pitfalls I have seen in patients. They grow up in a society that glorifies and emphasizes youth for the wrong reasons. Will she be shown the right incentives for her to get past the fear of growing up and become a woman?

This year, the winner of Best Actress at the Oscars was Michelle Yeoh. A 60-year-old childless actress, wearing something fit for a virginal 16-year-old, told little girls in her speech: “don’t ever let anyone tell you that you’re past your prime”. Since no one else took issue, I guess we are well past the point of discussing the consequences of messaging girls that they should strive to look like and stay in the life of a teenager till infinity.

As lives are lived with an obsessive focus on pleasure in the present (in the current economic crisis people cancel the dentist but take up loans to vacation), there is a communal panic about aging that is passed on and translates into #funandfree and #livinglifetothefullest, well past the age of 30. When I ask people if they want kids I so often hear “it’s something I guess I have to do one day but first I want to live a little”. I cannot help but take offense; what do they think lies beyond “fun free and single”- death?

Who in their right mind would voluntarily exchange youth with Motherhood?

The triple Goddess is an old, worshipped deity across ancient cultures, a symbol representing the three phases of womanhood: Maiden, Mother, Crone. Instead of demonstrating to kids how all phases of life have their own value and exclusivity and model them how to glide graciously from one to the next, we grew up with the midlife crises portrayed as an awkward, depressing inevitability.

The devaluation of the motherhood-phase is the one causing most collateral damage. No longer is there status alone in the ability to create and raise children and make them the main event. Transforming them into well-functioning adults is not something that happens automatically. Children need healthy, constant attachments not to become anxious and stressed, and for the attachment to develop properly and remain strong in small children, it needs quantity time, not quality time.

One mother complained to me once that her child was distraught because her child-care teacher had quit without coming by to say goodbye like she had promised. Even to the most dedicated personnel the child in a child-care is just a job, hence the attachment formed between the carer and the child is risky at best. Children can form many strong attachments, but it is the sudden changing of attachments that is perilous for their mental health. In Norway the rates of depression, anxiety and behavioral disorders in kids and teens have doubled since the mid-90s. Could we be underestimating the value of the job a mother can perform for her child?

The highest valued woman is the one who looks young and fresh while climbing the professional ladder. When she becomes a mother, she does not let on, because mothering should be “on the side and out of sight”. If I wanted to be as highly valued now as before motherhood, I would have to perform at 170%. In addition to my side-job as a mother, most of my time would be spent on out-performing professionally, while by some miracle appearing as virginal as three births ago. What is the price we pay for having women say: “look at everything I can do in spite of having kids!” Where is the cost-benefit analysis for detangling motherhood from womanhood in this way?

When I stopped working and took my daughter out of childcare, I became very aware that to the secular liberal world around me I had been downgraded. Apart from having this confirmed from others feeling the same way, this devaluation is clear in the lack of financial support necessary to afford living this way. Choosing a set up with only one income has become a privileged situation. I have seen the envy in the faces of many kindred spirits.

Much of motherhood has had to be detangled from womanhood because who wants to be defined by something that has lost its value? But what if we lift motherhood to the esteem of a second and most interesting act in a movie? We must encourage, appreciate and make motherhood as a profession cool again. It would not require going backwards but just admitting where small course corrections could make a big difference. Just imagine if motherhood was in and of itself an achievement and considered a mode of being. That would make the exchange of youth for it more tempting and ease the resentment many women feel towards their biology and the apprehension at changes it brings.  

An objection from women interested but scared to make motherhood (not the only but) the main job, is fear of the void when the kids don’t need them anymore, finding themselves without identity or position. This is where the triple goddess is of importance again. It also embodies the matriarch who imparts her wisdom and intuition onto the next generation. With Google in hand 24/7, no one needs you to hang around and play the oracle. This might be something that has to evolve further, but I do tell them this; my mother has 9 grandchildren and is a rock in every single one of their lives. It requires a herculean effort in her retirement; her style is not something one commonly sees anymore. Most grandparents have two, maybe three grandkids and time limits to their visits. Her friends worry constantly that it exhausts her. She tells them it’s the delicious kind of exhaustion, the one that puts her to sleep the moment her head hits the pillow. I wonder if other retirees have the same sleep quality.

Are you sure you know what you want?

Women have been sexually liberated, we rule the universities and out earn men our own age until our 30s. I relish womens’ hard earned success, which I think enriches our society. We have woven a beautiful piece of fabric called female empowerment, which has saved and prevented so many abusive situations, but on the inverse of that fabric hides some ugly threading.

In our waiting rooms sit the 1 in 5 couples over 30 who struggle to conceive, the women suffering through hard fertility treatments and the women fighting the visceral pain caused by the unfulfilled dreams of motherhood. Their pain is palpable, and their sadness haunts me. It is treatment resistant, impossible to escape and what hurts the most is its’ devastating preventability.

We tell each other that modern medicine gives us all the time in the world. Parents parrot that -  88% of them tell their teenagers to prioritize financial independence and getting a career they enjoy while just 20% will say the same of marriage and kids. The importance of education for all is indisputable, but even the longest university degree has you graduated in your mid-20s. I caution the single-minded focus on career in the 5-10 years after that. What we want is not created in a vacuum, it’s shaped by what we know, what our friends do, what our parents model us and our personalities. We need our parents to say “kid, don’t let your 25-year-old self, shoot 35-year-old you in the foot!”

The waiting rooms are also filling up with the 41% of women with burnout and 18.4% with depression. It’s coming from a place of compassion when I say women are unraveling, they’re exhausted and disappointed with life; it’s the gaslit paradoxical decline of female happiness. One could say they are burnt out from lack of childcare and an unfair distribution of domestic labor. But the evidence disagrees with that: No country is more egalitarian or offers more free childcare than Norway, where 22% of all women went to their family doctor in 2020 because of psychiatric symptoms.

The untold tale of the most egalitarian country in the world

As the mother of modern feminism Simone de Beauvoir fantasized her ideal world it would look much like Norway today. Her most famous quote: “No woman should be authorized to stay at home to raise her children. Society should be totally different. Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one. It is a way of forcing women in a certain direction.“

What women want does not seem to enter the equation. Enraged you might ask how I can claim most women want something different, in equal measure with men they want of course a dazzling career! In Norway it has been made easier than anywhere else for women to “do both” and have it all. They have every opportunity, encouragement, and their child-care is the envy of the world.

Low and behold, they’re struggling to keep women in top executive positions and as business owners. It’s called the Nordic gender equality paradox. Where the women’s choice reign supreme, women choose family time and professions dealing with people. They are, however, top ranked at having the most women in the workforce. Interestingly, there was just a new Norwegian report stating that sick leave due to psychiatric disorders keeps rising and was for women in 2022 at 25%.

In the spirit of Simone de Beauvoir, the same logic was the foundation for the mandatory paternity leave policy that was extended in steady increments from being 5 weeks in 2005, to 15 weeks in 2018. That meant in the end that the money for this leave was designated to the father at the expense of the mother. Equality research laments the lack of difference this has made on equality and use it to call for greater measures still. A huge difference we do see but only 5 years later, is that 48% of mothers take unpaid leave to be with their babies.

I fought with my husband about the length of my maternity leave disrupting my career prior to giving birth. A couple of months into my maternity leave, however, I was relieved about the decision to take the full 7 months and remember telling him I would probably have set him on fire should he threaten to take any part of that time from me. Noble Laureate Milton Friedman said, “one of our great mistakes is judging policy by their intentions rather than their results”.

Many countries point to the solutions in the “nordic welfare states”, one of which is the financial support for those taking care of kids at home. This is false advertisement, as it is only offered if a child-care option has not been appointed you; when choosing to forgo childcare you lose the right to receive anything. You are however obligated to pay for everyone else’s through the soul crushing tax burden of nearly 50 %. In Switzerland on the other hand, the complaint about unaffordable child-care is shouted from the rooftops and discussed now in parliament. Here taxes are lower, and child-care is not funded directly. There is however a policy of supporting childcare for the lowest earners and giving tax deduction for every person who pays for childcare.

Where are the tax deductions for those who choose to spend 100% of their time raising their own children? Where are the subsidies for those who cannot afford to live on one income to make this choice? That is how we would start valuing motherhood again - if we dared. But every decision for something is always a decision against something else. Policy is hence an important language with which society at large speaks to the individual. Financial support and tax deductions would tell me as a full-time mother loud and clear: What you are doing is an important job and one we value.

For half a century one equality measure has been piled onto the next without waiting for the side-effect report. No medicine is ever rolled out without proper testing, and even after its’ release there is a process of side-effect reporting. We try our best to couple the reported side effect with the appropriate drug culprit. Oftentimes when psychiatric patients are in treatment for years with different professionals and clinics involved, one patients’ list of medicines can evolve like a complex Lego mega-tower. Suddenly those involved lose track of which drug has caused which negative or positive effects. The best way to go forth then is to decrease dosages of one drug at a time very slowly while monitoring exceptionally carefully. It’s a last resort but does shine a light on cause and effect and gives a chance at course correction. Fair enough, people wanting political policy to change their immediate quality of life do not have that kind of time.

Women have always known that they set the course and men follow, we are not timid creatures inherently devoid of power, we are excellent in leadership positions when we want them, and usually get what we think we want. But we have lost sight of ourselves, deprecating our essence and in the process lost the esteem of our counterparts. The consequences of this are manifest now by the sea of commitment-averse men in which young women are trying to fish by feeding their bait without attaching it to a rod. To be continued.