11/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

What Depresses Women? The Choices They Have

I love Maureen Dowd because she is the only New York Times op-ed writer who understands class. Gender...not so much. Case in point is today's "Blue is the New Black", in which she tackles the issue of why American women have gotten gloomier since 1972, with a trend line that's truly depressed. Men are getting happier.

Who knew? We women are less happy because now we have choices, Dowd tells us. "Choice is inherently stressful," she quotes her source as saying, "And women are being driven to distraction."

Let me get this straight. Choices for the American consumer -- good. Drives the economy. Choices re. health care -- good. You can choose your doctor. Choices for American men -- good. Whoa....Men have choices, too. Why aren't they depressed? More to the point, why didn't either Dowd or Buckingham think about that?

Let's dig a little deeper. Here's Buckingham again: "Though women begin their lives more fulfilled than men, as they age, they gradually become less happy....Men, in contrast, get happier as they get older." "Buckingham and other experts dispute the idea that the variance in happiness is caused by women carrying a bigger burden at home, the 'second shift.'," Dowd tells us. "They say that while women still do more cooking, cleaning and child-rearing, the trend lines are moving toward more parity, which should make them less stressed out."

Ah-hem, Maureen (whiny tone here). Last time I looked, American women in two-job families still do twice the housework as men. (When husbands are the sole earners, wives do three times as much housework as their husbands.) In Pamela Stone's Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home, she reported one woman describing her husband: "He has always said to me, 'You can do whatever you want to do.' But he's not there to pick up any load." Only 16% of the women in Stone's study had always wanted to stay home with their kids. Over 80% felt pushed out by workplaces that required long hours -- hours much longer than the traditional 40-hours-a-week.

Men, to be players, insist on working those long hours -- 40% of college-educated men work 50 or more hours a week, twice the percentage as did so a few decades ago. Not surprising, given what happens to anyone with the naïveté to insist on a 40-hour week. Stone quotes one woman who tried to work "part time" (that's what they call the 40-hour week these days):

So I decided to quit, and this was a really, really big deal...because I never envisioned myself not working. I just felt like I would become a nobody if I quit. Well, I was sort of a nobody working, too. So it was sort of , "Which nobody do I want to be?"

Whining again. The penalty for working part-time in the U.S. (a 21% cut in hourly earnings) is much higher than in other countries, twice as high as in the U.K. and seven times higher than in Sweden.

Even mothers who had planned to proceed full speed ahead hit the maternal wall. Having a child is the worst economic decision a woman can make, in part, because workplace discrimination against mothers is the strongest and most open form of gender discrimination. When researchers gave subjects identical resumes with a three word difference -- one but not the other listed membership in the PTA -- they saw dramatic results. The mothers were 79% less likely to be hired, 100% less likely to be promoted, offered an average of $11,000 less in salary, and held to higher performance and punctuality standards.

So many women are pushed off the fast track, which makes them and their children economically vulnerable. As we all know, the standard of living of women and children falls upon divorce, while that of men rises sharply. Divorce laws take families where husbands' careers have been systematically privileged -- last time I looked fathers earned 68% of the family income -- and allow the men to walk with their wallets, paying low levels of child support and alimony. That's why the children of divorced families are less likely to reach the education level or class status of their fathers. And that's not depressing enough?

Then consider those women lucky enough to have dodged that downer -- children. (Dowd says that "Across the happiness data, the one thing in life that will make you less happy is having children." I disagree. I would have been a narrow workaholic maniac without my two cool kids). As women get older, they hit the glass ceiling: they find that they have to work twice as hard to get half as much, due to negative competence assumptions about women in high-powered jobs. And they also find that, if they act as the men do, they are -- typically implicitly but sometimes explicitly, as in the famous 1989 case of Price, Waterhouse v. Hopkins -- told to "act more femininely." Although, of course, if they do -- begin to hedge their speech in deferential ways and generally stop threatening the men -- then they will not succeed in jobs where the objective requirements often require masculine behavior.

So, to sum it up, why do women start out happier and get bluer as they age? They start out believing in equality. And then they discover the scoop. In this society, the most dependable path to equality is to die childless at thirty. Before you hit the maternal wall, before those depressing children arrive, before you have to prove yourself 900 times to get what a man got after 90, before you are called a bitch when you do what they men do.

Maureen, you heard it here: What depresses women is not the fact that they have choices. It's the dismal choices they have.