The Problem that has no Name

March 26, 2011 § 2 Comments


In the 1950s Betty Friedan coined the phrase “the problem that has no name” to describe the vague dissatisfaction housewives of that era felt with their lives.  Her findings were published in the seminal feminist book The Feminine Mystique in 1963:

“The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning [that is, a longing] that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries … she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — ‘Is this all?”

Friedan’s book is credited with spearheading the second wave of feminism, which eventually rooted Western women’s place in the work force, and along with it, economic independence and a new found equality with our male partners. 

With great excitement, though mostly oblivious to the struggles that had paved our way, many women of my generation (the X/Y generation) grew up ready to embrace the possibilities that lay ahead for our lives.  

Coming of age in the late 1990s, marriage had never been high on our radar of priorities.  My friends and I were not the kind of girls who dreamed of a wedding day or had ever imagined ourselves in a flowing white dress.  Marriage felt  like a form of certainty and completion in a world that we desperately wanted to remain open.  Plus, we had our whole lives to live!

In grade 11, my best friend and I didn’t talk much about the guys we pined over, what excited us most was planning the trips around the world we wanted to take.   We each had a world map and used a pencil to outline the routes we would follow across the globe.  Those dreams ended up taking her to Paris, Santiago, Tokyo and Montreal before she was 19 years old.  My own dreams took me to  British Guyana,  California where I lived in a yoga ashram, then India, and finally I moved to live and study at McGill in Montreal when I was 22.   My young girlfriend and I didn’t think about why all of this was possible, we just knew it was.  This life and this kind of freedom had been partially available to our mothers too, but not to any of our grandmothers. 

I knew the lives of my two grandmothers, and their mothers before them, had been less than perfect.  As Friedan had documented, women of their generation were told that marriage, motherhood, and domesticity were inherently fulfilling to women and would leave them ultimately satisfied.   I understood from the stories of my grandmothers, however, that they had carved out their lives more through limitations than freedoms.  Perhaps for this reason I was always enthusiastic about, even indebted to, the possibility of living out not only my own dreams but the unfulfilled dreams of my female relatives.  I also felt compelled to explore and bringing to fruition my interests, inspirations, and talents, and I was supported and encouraged to do so.  I didn’t think I would ever look back. 

And then I turned 30. 

Women of my generation were born and bread believing that 30 marked some kind of mysterious finality to our options, where all of the major accomplishments we would make over the course of our existence would have to have already taken root. 

There is today a new problem that has no name. And many women of my generation are struggling with feelings of failure and shame as we scramble to get our ducks in a row – career, marriage, children and self-fulfillment – all by the time the clock strikes 30 years old!   

The hallmark characteristic of “the problem that has no name” is that, since it remains nameless, women internalize their feelings and believe there is something wrong with them when the “problem” remains unresolved.  “This never would have happened if only I’d been better, done more, worked harder, hadn’t been so flawed, inadequate, or made so many bad decisions.”  I COULD HAVE BEEN BETTER becomes a tragic mantra of women who have not measured up to the ideals and prescribed timelines of our society.  

And so it is that around three years ago I noticed that for the first time people began to make comments about my marital status and lack of baby-making activities.  I didn’t really notice this until when, sometimes I found myself lying awake at night wondering how I got here and where I was going.  Was I, the unmarried-financially-independent-career-girl, just like the 1950s housewives, wondering “Is this all?”

I had passed every career goal I ever set my mind to and believed my personal life would simply fall into place by the time I turned 30.   When I was 29 I felt like I had finally reached the pinnacle of what I had been striving for since I first started undergraduate studies about a decade earlier.   All those weekends locked in my apartment poring over essays and grant proposals, sacrificing personal pleasures for the successes of a meaningful professional life seemed to be paying off!  So you can imagine my dismay when in response to questions about my future plans of late, I have been forced to answer this:   The plan is I’m fumbling in a universe that has for the last the years been unpredictable and out of control.   I have no idea who I am anymore and I have no idea what I want.  Can I get back to you on that?

The truth for many women of my generation is that we have been juggling a buffet table of commitments, obligations and unfulfilled goals, both our own and others’; we have been trying to measure up in a competitive world, get some financial security (many of us are drowning in student loan debts), and have been overwhelmed by an encroaching deadline, not only the “biological clock” but the societal clock that often defines success or failure in a woman’s life.

In keeping with the same theme, a friend remarked once that women who don’t have children these days are quite  “selfish”.  Oh, REALLY?  Was it just selfishness all along? Have we been deluding ourselves  to believe that an education and career alone could bring us joy and empowerment, fulfillment, interests, dreams and inhibitions, and that these qualities might, in some small way, be forces of goodness on this beautiful earth that has given us life?  Were we foolish to think that using our creative impulses was not a form of selfish indulgence but an offering of gratitude?   Are we kidding ourselves to believe we have a right to exist and be happy if not only to give birth to another being, then to create and give in all the ways that our families, our society, and hard work have afforded us the abilities to? And what is with the antiquated impulse to categorize women into black-and-white stereotypes (the educated childless egoist vs. the noble mother giver of life); most disturbing of all why are women saying these things to each other?

And what about men?  At what point does a man’s imperative to procreate become a pressing concern?  Never.

“Around our 30th birthdays, we each started to realize that the opportunities and choices we had inherited and earned had come fully loaded with some unanticipated trap doors,” writes in Lia Macko and Kerry Rubin in a great book humorously titled “Midlife Crisis a 30”.  

Since we’re on the topic of trap doors let’s take a look at a few of them.  The lack of universal maternity leave in most provinces in this country and the absence of universal day care are two looming trap doors for women that scare women from taken the plunge into motherhood.  We have been brought up believing that our economic independence is our birthright, not to be sacrificed hastily.   We have been taught and raised believing, in the shadow of the second wave of the feminist movement, that our economic integrity is vital to our safety, happiness and EQUALITY.  And indeed it is. Wasn’t this why women fought to join the workforce in the first place?  We are often surprised to discover that when we have children, maternity leave amounts to only 55% of our salaries, and that we may not even be eligible for this at all if we are self-employed.  If we decide to stay home to raise our children, and depend on the incomes of our partners, we are left vulnerable if our relationship dissolves in later years, having devoted our time to an invaluable and precious job that of course yields no income and no old-age benefit package either.

Much of what we perceived as personal “failures” and “shortcomings” therefore are often rooted in systemic glitches that undervalue women.

Another trap door that is rarely discussed is that we are still in the throes of some fairly substantial social experiments.  For example, I am the first woman on my mother’s side to have ever graduated from university, and only the second woman on my dad’s side.  I am also only the second person in my entire family, including both men and women, who has ever grown up with divorced parents.   I’m sure many women reading this will find their family histories to be quite similar.  I say divorce is a social experiment, because there have only been a few generations now that have grown up in the shadow of this wide-spread phenomenon and we don’t really know how divorce has affected our views of partnerships and child-rearing.  Understandably, it may have left many people weary of jumping in (how are we going to emulate a marriage with kids when we’ve not seen it modelled for us?).  We have thrown many new variables and many new obstacles into the struggle to achieve a full life, and yet we expect ourselves to be invincible, because we were brought up believing we could have –and by implication, do — it all.

And finally, there is the question of men.  Those of us versed in feminist literature took it for granted that “women need a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” to quote Gloria Steinem’s bitter-sweet assertion.   Of course, she was referring to  the possibility of a world in which women could become financially independent, free, and equal, but the phrase today often lingers out of context.

The truth is, many of us in our 30s now are shocked to discover that actually we do need a man.  If we want children, we have had to face the hard reality that often we rely on the incomes of our partners not only for our own well-being but for the well being of our kids.   We also need men for companionship, love, affection, connection and sharing  — some minor details that were overlooked!  We often – though not always –need men to fulfill our destinies as mothers and partners. Spiritually, we may want to walk beside men towards a depth and fulfillment we’re not always able to reach alone.   We need men in the realisation of a whole and humane world, because at the end of the day, we love and care for each other. Why wasn’t this the discourse we were fed as kids or educated with in feminist literature?  Because relationships are an ever-evolving social experiment and we are still in a process of discovery.

So what is the solution to the new problem that has no name?

I argue the solution is first and foremost to trust ourselves and our choices. Another solution is to believe in a compassionate universe that wants the best for you, forgives you your confusion and is always on your side.  I plan to believe this same universe wants me to succeed and will do everything in its power to make sure this happens.  (“Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow .'” – The Talmud) I plan to believe that this is your birthright also, because there are no exceptions.

Concretely, we need firstly to understand our needs and stop blaming ourselves when things don’t work out as planned.  We need to make our concerns known and lobby for societal changes.

The great Jewish Hellenistic philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, wrote: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting their own great battle.”  This is the remedy to the problem that has no name.  We need to support one another.   Our choices, though they may appear different on the outside are actually one and the same, we are all trying to get this life right; we are doing the best that we can.



§ 2 Responses to The Problem that has no Name

  • Dianne Jefferson says:

    Ah Mary. So reflective of the time when we first start noticing life’s dimensions that we were too busy and inexperienced to see when we were younger.

    Your essay poses the ultimate but relatively new post-women’s-lib dilemma: what exactly does one DO with all that freedom, and wait a minute – maybe the ancient role of wife and mother (before the age of 40) didn’t endure just because women didn’t have control over their reproductive systems. Could there have been more to it?

    Better yet that you are experimenting with your literary styles, compulsively recording your thoughts and feelings, as all born writers do. It will be a lifelong drive that you”ll never kick, and the beauty of it is – its a gift, and you never should.

    Advice from a old gal who mostly screwed up her early years… Don’t sweat it. You still have time. A lot can happen in a year when you’re 30-something and single, with a driving need to discover your destiny.
    When I was your age I was given some advice that I generally followed. It got me into hot water at times and took me to places that I sometimes didn’t want to be. But it was never, never boring. Here it is:
    “Whenever you’re faced with a fork in the road of life, always take the most interesting path.”
    Life is just too frikkin’ short to sit around and worry about the what-if’s. Just DO it. It will all play out like it was meant to be. Good luck:-) dj

  • Denis R. Ranger says:


    Voilà un texte qui me ravie, je veux être a ce moment même ton ange qui te souffle a l’oreille, grandie continue de grandir car tu est beau. Comme tu voie je nais pas appliqué de genre a ce que tu est.
    Car le genre s’apparente a l’être vivant qui se bat qui évoluent dans un monde bipolaire de mâle et femelle. Affubler d’une tâche d’une part de mettre au monde et de l’autre de pourvoir et de protéger les petits. Comme tu peux voir cette façons de penser est quelque peut réductrice autant pour l’une ou l’autre des polarités. Ici je veux te donner mon approche face a ce que tu est.
    En ce qui me concerne tu est un être humain. Voilà qui réduit une part du problème, je ne le veux pas réductionniste pour au-temps, non bien au contraire.
    Arriver au constat du ”UN” nous voilà devant un fait que si je regarde vers l’avant je ne me sens pas sexuée mais plus tôt je me perçoit comme une entité, un fluide en fait peut importe la description que je peut en faire je me sens UN d’avec le tout. Si nous provenons de la lumière qui ne fait pas d’ombre, être un individus sexuée est comparable a passer le photons que je suis au travers d’un prisme.
    Bon me voilà dans cette vie si, femelle ou mâle selon les critère de ” ce ” monde.

    Passer au travers du prisme ces être réduit a une plus simple expression de la lumière source.
    Je perd la perspective de mon origine et devient un genre.
    La complexité ne s’arrête pas la, l’ajout d’une femme et d’un homme pour former un couple n’égale pas deux, mais trois. Encore le prisme en action voyons voir ou nous en sommes. Une femme + un homme + un couple = trois (Dans la société le couple Marie et Paul par exemple).
    Bon si ont rajoute a cela un petit bébé nous somme donc a quatre.
    Ha oui maintenant se groupuscule forme une famille donc cinq etc etc.
    Cela va se multipliant jusqu au pays en passant par le village et sa n’en finit plus de complexité.
    Voila que prenant simplement la direction du ”genre” ont s’embarque dans un dilemme que je ne peut résoudre due au fait de ma réduction a un genre quelconque.
    Non vraiment je préfère de beaucoup la phrase du Talmud ( GRANDI GRANDI ) car a mon bout de lorgnette je ne suis q’un brin d’herbe qui grandi moi aussi.

    Je tente d’être sans genre pour toi qui livre la grande bataille de la vie,
    Nos choix a l’origine de notre venus en ce monde nous appartienne de choix, justement.
    Passer le prisme, la perspective change vision femelle ou malle peut importe je sais q’un brin d’herbe sais comment trouver la lumière de ses origine et ces en cela qu’il grandi en revenant a la source.

    Amour et paix a toi mon ami.

    Ps: A voir le vidéo (AGORA) en gardant a l’esprit ce que je tente d’exprimer boiteusement j’en ai peur.

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