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Why we need to stop telling women to manage their stress

MOTHER RESTING
Sarahwolfephotography | Getty Images
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Women in the sandwich generation — raising small kids and caring for aging parents — need more than just meditation tips.

I have a recurring nightmare. As nightmares go, it’s an interesting one: it’s a vision of me, doing the morning drop-off with my two small kids. But it’s not the “now” me, who’s still (sort of) young and fit. It’s me in old age, a crone stooped over our bright orange stroller as I feebly push my boys to school. In the dream, I’ve aged 40 years; I’m frail and need care myself — but I’m still buckling in my rambunctious children, rushing to be on time for their morning singalong and healthy snack.

I wake up and say to myself, “Hah! Just a dream.” But then comes the one-two punch: My regular, waking anxieties come rolling in … Are we saving enough for college? Are we in good shape for retirement? Are my kids actually getting a good education, one that will prepare them for whatever the economy will look like in 20 years? Do my parents, who are in frail health, need home health care now? How will we handle that? The night wears on, and sometimes I just abandon sleep entirely and get up and try to address my concerns by making yet another to-do list.

Women are the breadwinners, the caretakers, and the “designated worriers”

Clearly, I have a stress problem. But judging from all the articles that appear on my social-media feeds, so do a lot of women: Click through to any women’s magazine and you’ll find tons of advice on how to chill out: 10 Ways To Relieve Stress. The 7 Ways That Women Can Reduce Stress. And now, Chill out, ladies: Stress can erase the benefits of your healthful diet.

As a member of the “sandwich generation“ — women who are both raising small kids and caring for aging parents — I always frown a little at these stories. Don’t get me wrong — I’m all for fitting in a jog before breakfast or setting aside a few minutes for prayer or meditation every evening. But American women today are stressedLike historically stressed.

These articles exhorting us to make time for “me time” or “just ask for help!” ignore the major and inexorable forces that are weighing upon us. The economic reality is that more women need to work outside the home to make ends meet — which would be okay, if women weren’t also picking up more slack on domestic duties.

Demographic changes have meant that a lot of women my age aren’t just caring for small kids and trying to help their aging parents — they’re also working. When I was born, my grandparents were 52. This meant that not only were they a huge help to my parents in raising me, their age-related decline didn’t start until I was nearly 30. Today’s parents don’t necessarily have that critical grandparent-help in the early years of raising kids, and they need to find time and resources to make sure their aging parents’ needs are met — hence the current “grandparent deficit.”

Big shifts mean more stressors for everyone

These are huge, nation-wide problems. Women and families are all struggling under a few intractable pressures: child care is expensiveCollege costs have risenA lot of women don’t have adequate retirement funds. And I don’t know anyone facing a major health crisis, who hasn’t had as a first thought, “How are we going to pay for this?”

Men aren’t immune to these stressors, of course, but women, traditionally the caregivers and “designated worriers” and now breadwinners too, simply have more balls in the air. (I call this the “ballet tights” quiz: If your daughter has ballet on Wednesday, by when at the latest do the tights need to be washed and hung to dry? That’s right, Tuesday night. And it’s moms who are usually running this kind of to-do list Jenga through their heads at all times of day … and night.)

But this isn’t about men versus women — it’s about families and communities. Men don’t want their wives to be overwhelmed; they don’t want to be overwhelmed either. We need to think about stress relief across whole populations: How can we care for our elders — as a community? How can we raise and educate children — as a community? How can everyone get the health care they need? We need less fighting, judgment, and blame, and more compassion.

Here’s a great example of the conundrum facing women today: my good friend went through a spell of fainting. Not a fainting spell, but several incidents of fainting as she was trying to get her kids to camp, arrange for the sitter to pick them up after, and prepare for her workday. She went to the doctor, and he told her she was stressed and “prescribed” two sessions of stretching exercises a week.

We laughed and laughed. “He gave you more to do as a solution for having way too much to do?” I said.

She did eventually figure a few things out that helped. She has a flexible employer, so she managed to switch her hours to be a little more family-friendly. She also orders her groceries online now, which eases her supermarket chores. But there’s only so much individuals can do — the whole country is stressed. And something bigger is going to have to change than our grocery shopping habits, if we want to fix that.

It’s my hope that by the time my boys are grown, and I finally really am that stooped crone, that our cultural priorities will have shifted. I hope that my sons will be able to raise their own children peacefully, and that my “sandwich generation” will be the last generation to endure stress nightmares about dropping kids off at school with the right snacks.

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