What would you call it?

Recently I did a radio interview about working moms and talked about why I stopped working. My closest friends said I downplayed my nervous breakdown, making it sound like a really bad day (instead of a really bad year).

It’s true that I played it down. I was embarrassed. It’s one thing to write about it, it’s another to talk about it, live. On the radio. With a million people listening. But I’ve realized that if I’m going to talk about what happened to me at all, I should be more specific. I should define what “nervous breakdown” meant in my case.

I’ll start with what it did not mean. I did not feel suicidal or psychotic. I did not get strung out on heroin, walk around downtown Berkeley yelling at garbage cans, or act outwardly crazy in any way. I simply stopped, the way a watch stops when the battery dies.


I couldn’t get my body to obey what my mind kept saying it should do. One Monday, I was giving a presentation to a potential new client. On Tuesday, I was at home on my couch weeping, incapacitated. I never went back to work. I never even cleaned out my files.

I didn’t plan to stop going to the job I’d had for the last six years. But when I thought about going to work, I felt I would vomit.

I spent the next few months in a profound despair, plagued by panic attacks, insomnia, and dread. I couldn’t stand noise—including the sound of the car radio on low, or my children splashing contentedly in the bath. I would randomly burst into violent shaking. I lost my appetite, and with it, an alarming amount of weight. My aunt flew out from New Jersey to help take care of the kids during the worst of it. My husband, I would like to state for the record, was as solid as a rock. He somehow kept working, took care of the kids, and took care of me until I could start to think again.

It was like waking from a cult. I wasn’t angry with anyone. I didn’t blame anyone. I just couldn’t believe I’d gone along with the whole thing, the whole terrible annihilating belief that you should give it all away—to your kids, to your job, to anyone who seemed to have a legitimate claim on your energy and your time. The whole idea that this was normal, even expected, behavior. It was horrifying to realize I’d let that happen.

This all started almost a year ago. The last 11 months have been about backing away from that edge, and making sense of what happened to me.

I don’t know exactly when I decided to call it a nervous breakdown. My doctor doesn’t like the term, which has no specific medical meaning. This is what Wikipedia says:

Although “nervous breakdown” does not necessarily have a rigorous or static definition, surveys of laypersons suggest that the term refers to a specific acute time-limited reactive disorder, involving symptoms such as anxiety or depression, usually precipitated by external stressors.

That sounds about right to me. I literally pushed myself to a point where my nervous system stopped working the way it’s supposed to. What else would you call it?

In the 1800s, it was common for women with insomnia, loss of appetite, and nervousness to be diagnosed with “female hysteria.” Treatment included bed rest, bland food, avoiding mentally taxing activities (like reading) and—this one is interesting—orgasms.

This term faded out in the 1900s and was replaced with more specific terms like “depression,” “conversion disorder,” and “anxiety attacks.”

In The Feminine Mystique, (1963) Betty Freidan described the “problem that has no name,” the profound unhappiness, depression, fatigue, and lack of meaning many women suffered while they were supposedly living the American Dream. Most women, she noted, suffered alone.

How can any woman see the whole truth within the bounds of her own life? How can she believe that voice inside herself, when it denies the conventional, accepted truths by which she has been living? And yet the women I have talked to, who are finally listening to that inner voice, seem in some incredible way to be groping through to a truth that has defied the experts.

That sounds about right, too.

Over the last year, as I’ve gotten more comfortable telling my story, many working moms have confided in me their own stories. Some of them had their own experience of giving and giving until they crashed into a mental and physical wall and had to stop working. Some haven’t crashed, but harbor a deep fear that they will; they know they’re dangerously close to their edge.

And some can’t even have this conversation because it would mean looking at things about their lives that they’re trying very hard not to see. They are suffering alone. I think I know how they feel. Because a year ago, I was one of them.

What’s your story?

Cross-posted from my blog: workingmomsbreak.com

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The Problem with No Name, Explained Biologically

I was recently asked to sum up The Feminine Mystique, and to do it defensively after a good friend dissed the complaints of 1950′s stay-at-home housewives with,”they really had it pretty good and didn’t have anything substantial to complain about”.

In context, my friend is a, “having it all/doing it all” result of the feminist fight, running around doing everything perfectly (career and mothering), and WAY too busy for my taste most of the time. She’s enjoying school break so much (she’s a college professor), positively reveling in the SAHM lifestyle for a few short weeks, so she’s not looking forward to jumping back into her hectic schedule. She definitely deserves some venting wiggle room. However, I had to remind her why I disagreed with her brisk assessment. Further, I’m doing it in an unconventional, biological manner (I’m leaping to conclusions, all by myself), so I’d love to hear what any of you think of my musings.


Honestly, I haven’t read Feminine Mystique for a while, so the first thing that came to mind as summary was a different author. Robert Sapolsky is a neurologist who measured stress hormones in blood samples from baboons and wrote some funny books as a field biologist. In short, I summed up “the problem with no name” as really being about the lives of low-status social creatures, bottom of the ladder primates. To this day, I think that we housewives perceive ourselves, and are perceived, as low status (generally speaking). This leads to higher stress hormones (in general), which is actually bad for you, and just plains sucks. Sure, you’re safe and have all physical needs taken care of, but as a housewife, you are very low ranking in the pack: financially dependent, felt to be unambitious, felt to be contributing only minimally, felt to be “inferior”, even when we know it’s not true.

For over five years, I’ve been mulling “the problem with no name” so frequently that I’m done with it for a while, especially in light of the fact that there are bigger worries (i.e. global warming, war, and U.S. politics). Perhaps this is what Bill Maher was tactlessly getting at when he made fun of “lactivists” a little while ago. But he can’t get away with dissing women and our insight unless he shows some depth. People need to prove that they really understand, before they are qualified to try joking about it. Otherwise it’s not funny.

I’m a little more qualified than Maher as a stay-at-home-mom, and my friend is more qualified with her “having it all/doing it all” perspective. My friend and I could be bated against each other as opposites in mommy-war terms, except for the fact that we’re best friends, agree on so much, and mutually recognize that we just happen to be surviving the tiny kid years differently, according to our respective, available resources.

Please make more comments for clarification of “the problem with no name”. Other perspectives are very interesting, and you may totally disagree with my wacky synthesis of Sapolsky and Friedan together. Wow, you read the whole diary! Thanks!

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What about the men?

Judith Warner tackles Leslie Bennetts’s book, The Feminine Mistake this week on her blog.  Here is her summary of Bennetts’s book:

For Bennetts, stay-at-home motherhood is inherently perilous. She calls it a “trap,” says it’s “choosing economic dependency as a lifestyle” and agrees with Simone de Beauvoir’s depiction of women who live off of their men as “parasites” – which explains why legions of moms out in the blogosphere are campaigning to stop women from buying Bennetts’s book.

She starts with the premise that Bennetts is ‘off base’.  Here are some of her reasons:

I was thinking about the fact that for most people, work pretty much stinks….

I thought too: there is more than one way to provide for one’s family. Sometimes, for a host of reasons, ranging from a spouse’s excessive or erratic work schedule to a child’s special needs, the best way to provide for one’s family is by upping one’s own presence at home. Sometimes it just works out that one parent needs to be at home in order to keep the machinery of life from spinning apart.

It shouldn’t have to be this way. But then, there are lots of things that should or shouldn’t be. No person with children should really be working much more than 40 hours a week….Top-flight afterschool programs should exist everywhere…..

If women were able to do what most of them consistently say they would like to do – work part-time – then a lot of the polarity would go out of the debate. On- and off-ramping from careers would get easier….

Even Betty Friedan, who is credited for starting the Second Wave with her groundbreaking book, The Feminine Mystique, came around and wrote in 1997 that she realized that all of the great promises of feminism couldn’t come true without further movement on the work front.

I would like to see women and men mounting a new campaign for a shorter work week…now perhaps a 30 hours week, meeting the needs of women and men in the childrearing years who shouldn’t be working 80-hour weeks as some do now.  A six-hour day while the kids are at school….more jobs for everybody, and new definitions of success for women and men.


And until that happens, we are all just doing our best, cobbling together our lives in the best way we can (and most of us are doing a really good job at this considering what we are up against).  And none of us need to be scared to death by Bennetts or scolded by Hirshman in the meantime.

And I’d like to see powerful women like Bennetts and Hirshman now start to use some of their newfound media power to do something useful for women.  To campaign to change Social Security laws that unfairly penalize stay-at-home-moms and other family caregivers, for a proper paid maternity leave, for the right to work a shortened day while your children are young, for better daycare.  Policies that could benefit all women, rich and poor, instead of constantly harping on these statistics and telling educated SAHMs to get back in the office.

Warner ends with a conversation she had with her daughter after her daughter told her that maybe Warner should ‘work less’:

“You have career plans,” I said. “What are you going to do when you have children?”

“Well,” she said, thoughtfully. “I’ll be on the ocean a lot.” She paused again. She is planning to be a marine biologist. “I’ll just have to bring them with me,” she said.

That didn’t sound very realistic. But what is realistic?

I pictured Julia, her “good catch” husband back at home – a professor, perhaps, or a writer (god forbid), a man available to do pickup and dinner and bath and bedtime – while out on the waves she pined for her children.

Pine for them, I thought. It’s part of the “anxiety of liberty,” as, thanks to Bennetts, I now recall de Beauvoir once said.

It’s part of the good life. The truly good life, when you know the home fire’s kept burning, even if you have to go out to sea.

Here’s what I am starting to think.  I think that men have to start fighting with us.  I think that men have to start taking their Family Leave as lame and unpaid as it is, start asking for flexible and shortened work weeks right along with their working wives, and even start doing the simple things that working moms have been doing forever, like leaving the office on time and turning down projects and work when things are getting to be too much to balance along with their family life.  

I’m not sure how much more women can do without their parenting partners taking up the good fight.  

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