If I were the sort to think of my blog as my ‘baby’ (and it’s probably a good thing I don’t) then someone should really have called the digital social services a long time ago. The fact that I have neglected it for so long is, however, the perfect illustration for the subject of this, my come-back post: are modern women trying to do too much?
I got a bit of a wake-up called last winter. I arranged an appointment with the doctor after feeling ill for a while. The symptoms were a bit of a mish-mash: headaches, achey bones, lack of concentration, irritability and a constant, crushing fatigue which meant I was lucky if I made it to 5pm every day without having to take a nap. I couldn’t put my finger on any one thing, but I knew something wasn’t right. As my brother had recently been diagnosed with glandular fever I felt sure that that must be it; after all, it is highly contagious. Although it is quite an unusual illness, it didn’t seem like that big a leap to suspect that that might be the root of my problems.
At my appointment, to my surprise, the doctor seemed sceptical. It was when asking me to describe a typical day prompted me to burst into tears he came to the conclusion that rather than contracting glandular fever, I was most likely suffering from anxiety. That in itself was a shock to me. I didn’t feel anxious. I felt ill; in physical pain. I expected that if I was suffering from anxiety, I’d know about it. I’d feel stressed, unable to cope, panicky. Sure I was busy, I had a lot on and was feeling increasingly resentful towards things which I usually enjoyed, but that surely was just how things are for someone who has a challenging job, a social life and a home of their own to run? A subsequent blood pressure check and blood test confirmed his suspicions; I did not have glandular fever and my BP was worryingly high for someone of my age with a reasonably healthy lifestyle. There it was. I was suffering from anxiety.
I’m ashamed to admit it now, but I was embarrassed when he said that. I thought that it was a sign of weakness; that I couldn’t cope with the pressures of my own choices. Even a few people responded with comments like, “that’s rubbish, that’s not you,” or “Doctors will do anything to try to get out of giving sick lines.” This made me feel even worse. I knew something was wrong, I could feel the physical symptoms, but this diagnosis made me feel like a fraud, a shirker. What I had hoped for was a prescription, even a sick line, but instead I was given the advice to try to slow down. This was not what I wanted to hear. My lifestyle was a choice I had made, which parts of it could I choose to cut out in order to let me ‘take it easy’? I had commitments: work, social, domestic. Who did I choose to let down? In the first couple of days I think that hearing this diagnosis actually raised my stress levels.
In the end it took a couple of concerned loved ones to sit me down and tell me to get a grip, that I would be no use to anyone if I burned myself out. I had had some bad news in work and was facing an upcoming promotion; this coupled with the busy lead-up to Christmas had just been the final straw. I was so run down that I felt like I couldn’t give my best to any of the things I was trying to do, and this was compounding the pressure. The thing about anxiety is that it is a self-fulfilling condition. By its very nature it reduces your ability to cope with the everyday pressures you come up against, and by not being able to deal with the things causing the pressure, it then grows and becomes less and less manageable. I had gotten to the point where I was finding it difficult to see the joy in anything, and looking on every task and commitment as a chore. Not a particularly nice place to be.
Seeing how concerned some of my loved ones actually were made me realise that I had to just become ruthless and ignore some of the things that were making demands on my time. The only way to start to tackle it is to break that cycle by admitting that some of these things are not worth the damage to your health. I had a holiday where I didn’t take work home and spent it entirely doing things that made me feel happy. I didn’t go to every party I was invited to, and didn’t feel guilty about it. I went to bed early every night and asked for more support from the people around me.
I also talked about it. A lot; and I learned that it was much more common than I realised. Most of my female friends admitted to feeling at some point like they just wanted to throw in the towel, and an alarming number admitted to the fact that they had cried either at work or because of work (I have and it was not one of my best moments). Now I am not for one minute suggesting that women can’t cope with the pressures of the workplace. In fact, completely the opposite. All of these women have challenging careers that they care about and are good at. They are all pretty much the boss at home too, and every single one of the people that I talked to probably work harder at these things than their male partners. These women are high-achievers and they know it. They all want to be the best they possibly can in their personal and work lives, and I think that sometimes results in us putting unrealistic expectations on ourselves.
As modern women, we are told from a young age that we can have anything we want, be anything we want and do anything we want. However, I think that this message is quite often distorted in our minds. ‘Can’ becomes twisted into ‘must’ and ‘anything’ becomes twisted into ‘everything’. We are expected now to have careers; families who we are devoted to; empowering relationships; to have an exciting and fulfilling social life; to take part in a range of hobbies ‘for ourselves’; to be in charge at home and to be caring and resourceful friends. Each and every one of these things is beautiful in its own right and help to enrich our lives. However, the fact of the matter is that some of us don’t want to have all of these things or to be great at all of them; we are quite happy with some of them, or even one of them. The important thing should be that our gender doesn’t hold us back from having the parts of the life we want, but equally, it shouldn’t mean that we are all suddenly expected to juggle all of these things, it would be physically impossible, and the expectation that we should try is what is making so many of us feel like a failure when we realise we can’t have absolutely everything that is available to us. We don’t expect every man we meet to do absolutely everything, so why do we expect it of women?
That is a fundamental difference between men and women. Because women have been told to expect it all, that no one can tell us that we can’t have it, collectively we feel like we have something to prove. Because we are so aware of the battles fought to allow us to be in a position where we can be considered as equals, we are at pains not to show anything that could be considered a failing. Particularly in the workplace.
Mums are kind of expected to want to return to work after having their children, so as not to be thought of as ‘just a mum’, after all, women have fought for so long for the right to be allowed to do both. Does that mean that someone who makes the choice to not return to work after having children to allow her to devote the time she wants to raising them is selling herself short? Is she succumbing to the stereotype? Of course not. Is the working woman who has a fulfilling relationship but doesn’t want to go out clubbing with her friends every weekend giving up her social life for a man? Of course not. Is the woman who works a job to fund the passions in her life rather than building a career not living up to her potential? Of course not. We all need to go a bit easier on ourselves and each other and understand that these things are choices we can make, and that whatever we choose to have or aim for, is perfectly acceptable, and won’t let the sisterhood down. Similarly, we need to recognise that we won’t necessarily excel in all of the things we choose to include in our lives, but we only have ourselves and our own expectations to answer to.
Our predecessors in the fight for women’s rights battled for us to be able to make choices about our careers; to be able to have children when and if we chose; to be able to have goals and aspirations that were only limited by our own imaginations; to be equal partners in the home and to be able to pursue our passions and interests independently, without having to rely on, or answer to anyone else. They wanted this to make our lives better; not to make us feel like we constantly have to be better.
Over the last year I have learned that I am really happy doing the job I am in, at the level I am at. I am too tired now to party like I used to and I prefer a night in to going out drinking and dancing. I have learned that my family means so much to me that I don’t want to be too far away from them, and that I love my partner and want him to be happy, so that means that I can’t always have it my way at home. So maybe this makes me unambitious and boring. People might assume that I’d be more fulfilled climbing the career ladder in exotic locations and living a wild and exciting social life, but I wouldn’t. I know it sounds glamorous on paper, but frankly, it would take too much effort and heartbreak for my liking. No, I’m happy snuggling on my giant couch on a Saturday night, drinking the drink and eating the food that my unpromoted salary affords me, and shooting the shit with the people I like best in the whole world. All this is safe in the knowledge that if I do decide to make changes to these choices, no-one can stand in my way.
Next time we feel like we have taken on too much we should ask ourselves, is this making my life better? Is it making me happier? If the answer is no, then you need to really reconsider whether you want to be doing it at all. Sometimes real strength is admitting that we have made the wrong choice; that we need help; that we need a break. One of my all-time favourite quotes from two of the great philosophers of our generation, Bill and Ted, is ‘be excellent to each other.’ I think this is a great motto to live by, but before we do that, we need to remember that it is just as important to be excellent to ourselves.