I recently attended a black-tie benefit, one of those swanky Manhattan affairs teeming with A-list socialites and minor royals. There was a red carpet outside, a star chef in the kitchen, and lots of champagne swirling around on silver trays. Dressed in black silk and peep-toe Louboutins, with my dapper husband at my side, I thought my flute of bubbly looked plenty full.
And then I met her. She had long, graceful limbs; silky blonde hair; and, arguably, a better dress than mine (certainly bigger jewels). She was a lawyer for a foreign policy think tank (the career I, with my Georgetown School of Foreign Service degree, was supposed to have) and a mother of two little boys enrolled in one of the city's top nursery schools, married to a husband who, I learned over a meringue-topped dessert course, regularly reads her to sleep at night. Meanwhile, my husband won't even put his plate in the dishwasher.
Suddenly, my glass didn't look so full.
To be clear, it wasn't envy I felt — it was inadequacy. Experts call it "yardsticking," the impulse to privately pit yourself against your peers in order to determine your own social standing and self-worth. And now more than ever, women are succumbing to it, especially in still-flush cities like New York and San Francisco, where the ruler is notched not simply with dollar signs, but also far subtler markers of success: invites to prestige events like Davos and TED, the minutes you can hold a crow pose, and the pairs of Rag & Bone skinnies in your wardrobe. Women are supposedly more empowered these days — we graduate from college in droves, rake in bigger paychecks, and have staked out more corner offices on higher floors than ever before. (We also have the socially sanctioned option to throw it all in and stay at home.) And yet, here we are, years out of high school, still enslaved by our own insecurities.
Three years ago, economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers published an explosive study in the American Economic Journal, which found that female happiness had declined sharply over the past 35 years. They concluded that the downturn correlated directly with the progress women were making in the workplace — although women were earning more money and enjoying better career opportunities and greater conveniences on the home front, it came at the expense of their senses of contentment and well-being. Stevenson and Wolfers offered myriad explanations for the trend, but it boiled down to the fact that maintaining a household and overcoming marital challenges are exponentially harder when both spouses work. But adding to our difficulties is the ubiquity of Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Tumblr, sites that invite relentless yardsticking in the form of "Look what I got!" status updates and 140-character-or-less "Aren't I clever?" posts. Who wouldn't be insecure (and invariably unhappy) surrounded by hundreds of smiling friends, all ostensibly kicking ass professionally and personally? When was the last time you saw anyone chronicle a marital spat on Facebook or a particularly stinging disappointment at work?
Another issue that makes us especially vulnerable to peer pressure: We are inundated with so many cues as to what defines a successful woman today that it's downright impossible to figure out which attributes are truly attainable. So we scramble to keep up with all of them: the killer post-baby body; the book deal based on a popular Tumblr; celebrity friends; personal assistants. Used to be you only had to compete with the other moms in your kid's preschool or the ladies in your church's social committee. But who lives that kind of siloed life anymore? Everyone, from the alpha girls to the stay-at-homers, is expected to be a constant, high-gloss superwoman. Even if you've got a career, you also need to juggle (with aplomb) Spin classes, school board meetings, and outings with friends, never mind the after-hours work commitments (which, have you noticed, keep going later and later?). Having it all has never been a more literal proposition, nor the attendant angst and yardsticking more severe.
"It's perfectly normal," explains Jennifer Tanner, a developmental psychologist at the Institute for Health at Rutgers University. Tanner says that registering and responding to social cues and expectations is a vital part of adulthood, especially in today's fractured society, when we marry later, live far from our families, and conduct so much of our socializing online. Keeping up with the Joneses helps us figure out how to comport ourselves and solve thorny problems — like balancing work and family, or reviving a flatlining marriage. To illustrate the point, she cites mousy copywriter Peggy and sexy office manager Joan on Mad Men. "They looked at each other to see what one another had," says Tanner, and ultimately, the exchange benefitted both. "Getting feedback from like-minded people within your own community is valuable. It's healthy to have that intrinsic feeling: I want what she's got. How do I get it?"
As Tanner tells it, yardsticking can be an act of self-improvement. It becomes problematic only when it overrides common sense and better judgment. In other words, it's OK to covet what your best friend has, or even to cave to importuning friends needling you to stay for one more drink. The key is being able to discern the difference between a harmless longing and reckless striving.
Case in point: At a holiday party last year, I watched a petite brunette, a friend of a friend, take an ill-advised puff on a joint in a lame attempt to fit in with her husband's hard-partying friends, real estate professionals and regulars on New York City's nightclub scene. Though she hadn't smoked in years, she got caught up in the raucous, boozy atmosphere and, I suspect, wanted to prove to her husband as much as to his crew that she was still spontaneous and cool enough to hang with the best of them. It was like a scene out of an after-school special: She took one hit and was hobbled by a coughing fit. And once the pot kicked in, she was reduced to a hazy mess, teetering on the edge of a couch, refusing to talk to anyone. Not long after, her shamefaced husband ushered her home in a cab. Not a good look for either of them.
Or take a friend of mine we'll call Lisa, a globe-trotting finance-wife and mother of one blessed with ample resources and a stimulating social network. This otherwise levelheaded woman admits to unraveling upon learning of an acquaintance's big-ticket expenditures — say, a new pair of diamond earrings — which invariably sparks a bitter scuffle with her own husband about his measly gifts and her out-of-control spending. Privately, Lisa has confessed to me that she feels "shortchanged and underappreciated" by her husband relative to how other wives in her set get treated.
It's easy to write off this kind of adult peer pressure as the next iteration of affluenza, just another gimme-a-break affliction of the 1 percent. But I've seen it play out among smart, professional women who are also vulnerable to the all-consuming urge to keep up and fit in. It has mangled relationships, ravaged credit ratings, and wreaked emotional havoc. And I've witnessed it all too often among women desperately pursuing today's ultimate female status symbol: motherhood. One friend nearly went bankrupt after shelling out for several rounds of IVF (at $15,000 a pop, courtesy of the same doc treating the other women in her neighborhood) and then a costly nanny for the twins she finally conceived. The financial strain was such that her family left Manhattan for a lower-priced rental in the suburbs, and the last time I saw her, she was a shadow of her former self #8212; gaunt, exhausted, doing piecemeal freelance work to pay the bills, and bemoaning her exile from the buzzy life she once led.
I hear horror stories like that and can't help but acknowledge that I've done pretty well for myself: two well-received novels; a devoted husband; three beautiful children; a spacious, sunny home in one of New York City's trophy neighborhoods. And yet, I'm constantly measuring myself against every woman I meet who's also managed to create a nice life for herself. Awful, right?
Mulling Tanner's observations, I surveyed my social landscape once more. What was it about all those other women whose lives I coveted? Mostly, I imagined that they weren't doing it alone, like I was — trying to foster a career while cooking every night and ferrying three kids around town. What I needed, I realized, was a once-a-week housekeeper or regular babysitter, someone to lighten my load and give me time for myself — to work, cook, whatever. Sounds small, I know, but the very idea brought me peace of mind. And I wouldn't have reached the conclusion (obvious though it was) were it not for my run-in with that blonde, leggy think tank lawyer. Turns out, I just wanted the freedom to do my own thing, a few more hours for myself. The next time I see her, I'll be sure to thank her.