Posted Wednesday, March 9, 2011, at 3:08 PM
" Women feel more guilt when BlackBerry buzzes ." That’s the headline on a story on CNN.com (via Health.com) this morning.
You don’t say. As someone (a woman!) who struggles mightily with both compulsive e-mail habits and guilt, I rolled my eyes. To quote John Cleese’s character in one of my favorite Fawlty Towers episodes: "Next contestant, Mrs. Sybil Fawlty from Torquay. Specialist subject-the bleeding obvious."
This isn’t to undercut the conclusions of the University of Toronto researchers the article cites. Their research, which appears in the new issue of Journal of Health and Social Behavior , is no less fascinating for confirming what many of us already know. Using data from a survey of more than 1,000 American workers, they found that work-related contact outside of normal work hours is associated with feelings of guilt and distress among women.
But here’s the thing. My first reaction to the CNN.com/Health.com article reporting the findings was-yes-more guilt. I read lines like this one with a sinking feeling: "A new study suggests that women feel 40 percent more distress than men when family life is frequently interrupted by these electronic devices or other types of contact, despite being under the same amount of work pressure." Which I translated as: I were a man, maybe I wouldn’t buckle under pressure and let round-the-clock e-mail make me miserable; I’d proudly wield my smartphone like the helpful, modern convenience that it is!
Then I got hold of myself. First, the study has the usual limitations: It’s possible that the researchers-as they allow-haven’t untangled correlation and causation. In other words, if BlackBerrying from home and guilt are highly correlated among women, maybe it’s not that the women who BlackBerry wind up feeling guilty-maybe it’s that working mothers already feel disproportionately guilty, not just because we feel like we’re shortchanging our kids but because we also feel like we’re not doing our jobs as well as we’d like, and this day-late-dollar-short feeling in turn prompts us to guiltily check our e-mail all the time.
But second and more important is this: If the incessant seepage of work into home is making some of us feel bad, that’s healthy . The problem isn’t our guilt (which is probably displaced resentment); the problem is that more men don’t join us in heartily resenting the fact that work no longer has bounds of time or place.
Yes, I know: E-mail and smartphones and all the rest were supposed to be our friend, unshackling us from our offices and allowing us untold flexibility. And to some extent they do. But the balance too easily tips in the opposite direction. I regularly have vivid (and probably far-fetched) fantasies about what it would have been like to be a working mother circa 1990-meaning, before e-mail. As anyone who has miserably propped up a nursing baby with one hand while trying to catch up on e-mail with the other hand will say: If this is multitasking, make it stop.
Photograph by Adek Berry/AFP/Getty Images.