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Anxiety and the Working Woman's Paradox

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A couple of weeks ago, a friend emailed me about Sheryl Sandberg's buzz-worthy book, Lean In. "Anyone planning on reading this?" she asked my group of girlfriends, all young professionals between the ages of 28 and 30. We'd heard the criticism that Sandberg's advice to women comes from a place of wealth and privilege. And yet, we were curious. "I think I want to hate-read it," one of us said. "Book club?"

Our book club (or "circle," as Sandberg would call it) has yet to meet. But from my perspective, Lean In was not a wasted Amazon purchase. I do not believe that Sandberg's tips -- based on her experience working at the U.S. Treasury, Google, and Facebook -- apply to every industry or every woman. However, I do recognize myself in many of the anxieties and insecurities she illuminated: The struggle to balance work with personal life, the desire to be liked and the discomfort with owning one's success.

Sandberg's thesis is that these fears lead women to hold themselves back in their careers. But our inner turmoil may have more dire consequences than missing out on a promotion. In a provocative article for The Fix, Kelly Bourdet points out that as women's opportunities have grown, so too has their rate of addiction. This is particularly problematic when it comes to tranquilizers, the one class of drugs women abuse at a higher rate than men. Bourdet writes that these pills are especially attractive to women in the developed world, where rates of anxiety and depression are highest. "As the gender gap closes, we might wish that equality did not extend to access to self-medication and its opportunity for addiction," she says, "But there's no turning back the clock."

The prevalence of sedative abuse among women points to the underlying anxiety many of us experience. We want to "have it all," but as Anne-Marie Slaughter suggests, our workplaces and social institutions haven't evolved to make this possible. Thus, many women -- particularly working moms -- must burn the candle at both ends. Sandberg quotes studies indicating that women are more fulfilled when they take on multiple roles. Other research shows a different picture. Economist Betsey Stevenson recently discussed "the paradox of declining female happiness": Women across the industrialized world report less personal satisfaction than they did 35 years ago, even as objectives measures of their lives have improved. While we can't conclude that the women's movement has failed, Stevenson suggests that greater opportunity may also mean "an increased likelihood of believing that one's life is not measuring up. Or women may simply find the complexity and increased pressure in their modern lives to have come at the cost of happiness."

These are the very feelings that can lead to self-medication. Of course, not everyone who takes drugs like Xanax or Ambien becomes addicted, but studies have shown that these pills are more often habit-forming for women. To reduce our risk of dependence, I believe we must untangle our own expectations of ourselves from the expectations of others -- our bosses, our partners, our friends or even Sheryl Sandberg. Sandberg writes that feminism was "supposed to make us free -- to give us not only choices, but the ability to make these choices without somehow feeling that we'd gotten it wrong." At the same time, she clearly believes that the world needs more women in power. I don't disagree -- and I do feel a responsibility to make the most of the opportunities that my mother, my grandmothers and my friends with less fortunate circumstances did not have. However, it's critical to keep this in mind: If we rely on someone else's roadmap to happiness, we will do so at the expense of our mental health.

For some women, fulfillment may mean having the courage to suggest that their partners share more of the childcare and housekeeping duties. For others, it may mean asking the boss for a raise. For still others, it may mean passing up a demanding job -- or leaving work altogether -- in order to spend more time with the kids. Women who let their careers take a backseat to motherhood shouldn't be judged, any more than Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer should be criticized for working throughout her two-week maternity leave. The work-life balance looks different for everyone.

I don't pretend to have figured out how much "leaning in" is right for me. But for the time being, I think one of my friends has the right idea: "I'm going to lean out and go sit down somewhere until September."