Women in the Netherlands work less, have lesser titles and a big gender pay gap, and they love it.
When I talk to women who spend half the week doing what they want—playing sports, planting gardens, doing art projects, hanging out with their children, volunteering, and meeting their family friends—I think, yes, that sounds wonderful. I can look around at the busy midweek, midday markets and town squares and picture myself leisurely buying produce or having coffee with friends. In a book released several years ago called Dutch Women Don't Get Depressed—a parody of French Women Don't Get Fat—Dutch psychologist Ellen de Bruin explains that key to a Dutch woman's happiness is her sense of personal freedom and a good work-life balance. But it's hard to transplant that image to the United States, where our self-esteem is so closely tied to our work. I wonder what the equivalent title would be: American Women Don't Get Satisfaction?
Women in the United States have become defined by the compromises we make. More than 75 percent of American women who are employed work full-time jobs. * As our responsibilities increase at work, they do not shrink at home. We give up time with our families for our careers, and after work we give up other interests for time spent with our children and spouses—because there are only so many hours in a day. Because of part-time work, Dutch women are able to develop themselves and their relationships in ways many of us simply don't have the time for.
How many times have you heard a woman brag about all that she juggles or seen her flush with self-importance when describing a hectic day? How many magazine sidebars have we all read telling us how to "simplify," "streamline," and "manage" our time, implying that this everywoman time-shortage problem is something we should embrace? We make fun of the '80s notion of the Superwoman, who was supposed to do it all. And yet she is still our ideal.
The problem for American women isn't just the amount of time we spend working; it is the notion that we need to be perfect at everything we do. TV shows, advertisements, and articles from women's magazines have formed this composite of a perfect woman who is successful at work, nurturing at home, always optimistic, and impeccably dressed. She dominates the boardroom and rushes in her pencil skirt to collect her well-groomed toddler. The ideal American woman doesn't just putter around in the kitchen or dabble in knitting. She opens a cake shop and knits scarves for fashion shows. She appears on Oprah. She follows her dreams.
Even though I'm almost positive that even if I am able to become this mythical woman I won't be happy, part of me still wants to be her. It's hard to shake the way I was raised. Yet the more time I spend in the Netherlands, the more I feel the pressure to be some sort of Superwoman recede. Which makes me think maybe we'd be better-off if we could relax and go Dutch.
Correction, Nov. 15, 2010: This article originally stated that 75 percent of all American women work full-time jobs; rather, 75 percent of American women who are employed work full-time. Return to the corrected sentence.
Jessica Olien is a writer and illustrator living in Portland, Ore. You can follow her on Twitter at @jessicaolien.