This column first appeared in Malta Today
Another women’s day has come and gone, and with it the usual summary of what has been achieved, what still needs to be done and ultimately, what does it really all mean?
Beyond the mimosa flowers, the compliments, the platitudes and the stale jokes (“men’s day is every day” ha ha ha)…we need to bear in mind that this day has its origins in the fight for equal rights. So while it is admirable to celebrate women as a gender, sometimes I feel the lines are getting blurred and the day has started to somehow merge, rather confusedly, with Mother’s Day.
We also have to be mindful about the messages we are sending to women out there. A friend pointed out to me that there seems to be a running theme which is picking up momentum; that of calling women super heroes or ‘super women’. Now, granted, there are women juggling everything who seem to have such stamina that hearing an account of their day makes me want to lie down and take a nap. You do wonder whether they do, indeed, have a cape hidden somewhere in a broom closet, which they dust off every day before they zoom off, perfectly coiffed and groomed, dressed impeccably and ready to accomplish 1001 things just before they get home to host a home-made, six course dinner party.
And yet, for every such woman like that, there are countless others who are forever comparing themselves to this impossible-to-emulate role model, and who feel that they are failing miserably.
Every woman (and person for that matter) has her own unique challenges: some are raising little ones, some have a demanding career, while some are doing both. You have the “sandwich generation” of women who are dealing with difficult, moody teenagers while also caring for aging parents. To make things even more stressful, this woman is usually going though the hormonal changes of menopause as well. There are women in their 60s who are now raising a whole new generation of youngsters, in order to make it possible for their daughter (or son) to keep working. Whether it is a single mother, a single woman, a divorced woman who has found herself alone at an older age, or simply a widow who is getting on in years – there are also many women who are out there, doing it for themselves.
It is tempting to attribute all sorts of adjectives to women who have a myriad of duties and obligations: formidable, resilient, strong, but let us not get too carried away because while these words are all well-meaning, we are risking the possibility of burdening women with such high expectations, that if they falter, they will not be able to handle the blow, seeing it as a weakness. If you think it is only society which imposes these expectations, it is nothing compared to the high bar which women often set for themselves. “If I don’t do it, it won’t get done.” “If I don’t cook, they won’t eat”, “If I don’t do the laundry, they won’t have clean shirts/school uniforms” – the self commands are on a loop and will not go away. But it is also a truism that the more one does, the less the other members of the family tend to do.
Many women also suffer from a trait which (broadly speaking) is alien to a lot of men: they carry the weight of guilt for what they do not do. So if they are not as available for their children, their husband or their parents, as they feel they should be, it weighs on them to the extent that they wear themselves out trying to please everyone. Allowing themselves permission to say “No, I cannot be there, I cannot do it, someone else has to take over”, is a huge mental hurdle which takes a lot of practice. I should know, it has taken me many years to come to that point.
Like most people, there are days when I surprise myself about how much I have done in one day – but at other times, I can happily snuggle under the duvet and binge watch my favourite TV show for hours on end. Over the years, I have learnt not to feel (so) guilty about taking time for myself, to do nothing, to simply recharge my batteries and indulge in my favourite past times.
Women also need to learn that it’s perfectly OK for the house and the children not to be perfect, and that if their job is very demanding then they need help to keep the household running. We cannot do it all, we should not feel we have to, and there will be times when something has to give. But that ‘something’ should not be the woman herself. I read too many accounts of women who sound they are at the end of their tether, anxious, depressed, overwhelmed by everything which life throws at them. It is essential to carve time out to just breathe and relax, and get off the hamster wheel of life which is dictating that we should be all systems go, go, go, all the time. Otherwise women are going to collapse in a heap, unable to function and that will do neither them, nor their families, any good.
The fact that women are more stressed than men has also been noted and researched in other countries. A study in the UK pointed out that:
“The ‘do it all’ generation of females is feeling the strain, with working women far more stressed than men. Women aged between 35-54 – who are likely to be juggling many roles including mother, carer for elderly parents, homemaker and sometimes breadwinner – experience significantly higher stress than men, according to latest Health and Safety Executive (HSE) statistics. Recent anxiety statistics also highlight that women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder compared to men, which could be a result of trying to manage it all. High achieving women also tended to have a number of traits in common – perfectionism, a strong inner critic, and a desire to be approved of by others. All of these traits make for excellent, diligent employees; self-motivated, reflective and naturally seeking high standards. But they often go hand in hand with being sensitive and a tendency to lack self-confidence, which can tip over. We are twice as likely to suffer from anxiety disorders and 2.5 times as likely to develop depression. The reasons for these gender differences are complex, but include elements of role strain and a tendency to internalise negative feelings. Overall, about 1 in 5 women will develop depression during their lives.”
On the other side of the coin, women who are stay at home mothers can have their own individual reasons for feeling stressed: these include feeling under appreciated by children or husband, feeling that she is not contributing financially and also the unfair stigma which society places on women who do not work outside the home. We often assign value to people only if they bring home a paycheque, but in reality, if one had to itemise the unpaid role of a stay-at-home parent, their contribution to society is priceless.
Finally, a word to employers, many of whom still feel that flexible hours are a carte blanche for their staff to abuse the system. If you value your female employees, and do not want to waste the many years of training you have invested in them, then do not be so rash at denying them the possibility of a work-life balance. A hybrid model of working at the office with a few days working from home has proved to be the ideal. Without this option, many women are being forced to resign and lose the opportunity to advance up the corporate ladder.
During the pandemic many got a glimpse of how life could be and realised that it is OK to call a time-out, to simplify our lives and even adjust our aspirations. I think we need to take it easy with all the super hero cape imagery….and be content with the fact that we are simply human.