Another children’s party another interesting discussion. What does it mean to be a woman, and particularly a mum in the 21st century? And how do we make it all work so that we can live up to the expectation that we can have it all?
As the children passed the parcel on Saturday a group of mums sat passing a parcel of their own around each other, slowly delayering the dilemmas of priorities and conflicts that make up our everyday lives. Despite us coming from different cultural or geographical backgrounds we shared common ground – how do we achieve balance between meeting the needs of our family, maintain a career, have a social life and feel worthwhile as individual women? There were no clear answers, I hasten to add, but it drew my mind back to the background to a group programme I have been developing.
Traditionally, women operated their daily lives within a wider community of other women, eg. Supporting child rearing, sharing household chores, working together for the benefit of the wider community. From early childhood women are accustomed to resolving their emotional and practical issues by talking about them with others. Women tend to find comfort and safety in the ability to discuss their problems, thoughts and feelings with other likeminded people, and through this process, find resolution. However, in today’s demanding society women are increasingly finding themselves isolated from the traditional community networks. The requirement to work whilst supporting a family leaves little time, energy or space for women to develop and maintain the invaluable social network. Many women have moved away from family and friends in order to pursue career or family goals, thus leaving them adrift from natural supportive ties. There is also a need to recognise the impact on women of having suffered abusive relationships in childhood or adulthood, that have left them isolated either physically or emotionally from others.
Is this shift relevant to psychological/physical wellbeing? Is wellbeing impacted by the absence of a social network or impacting on the ability to develop and maintain a supportive social network? Both, I suspect. Either way, expectations of women in society are being stretched to breaking point, with personal wellbeing the first thing to be sacrificed in the pursuit of financial security, career success or the developmental success of offspring. The feminist agenda of the last 40 years of women being able to have it all, has left women with a set of unrealistic beliefs that they “should be able to do it all”, and are in some way “failing” if they can’t or don’t. There is an expectation that in all their roles – wife, mother, friend, daughter, manager, leader, employee, employer, community volunteer, etc – they will be 100% effective and successful. If not, they are in some way inadequate, faulty, unworthy, less of a woman, and no match for a man. In addition to this, there is also a growing agenda for women to find the time for “me”. It is true enough that without the space to stop fulfilling others’ needs and demands, reflect and be present for themselves, peoples’ emotional and physical wellbeing suffers. But how effective is it to find that space, only to feel guilty or resentful of it? It is widely recognised that there is tremendous pressure on women to conform to an idealised physical version of a woman, requiring further effort to be spent on achieving that image to the cost of their sense of self-worth.
The fine balance between fulfilling roles and having one’s own needs met is a difficult one to achieve, and yet women are expected to fulfil yet another agenda – balance. It is often only when the impact of this imbalance becomes too great for the individual, employer or family system to endure, that people see a need for help. This can be particularly the case for professional women who are seen by others as highly competent and capable, therefore seemingly living up to the stereotype of strong, independent women, whilst internally struggling with overwhelming feelings of fragility and vulnerability. No wonder women feel overwhelmed, exhausted and ineffective. This often manifests itself in ongoing physical health issues, from niggling coughs and colds to cancers and endocrinal issues. Emotionally this manifests through anxiety, depression, sleep disturbance, amongst many others. Quick and easy solutions are sought to simply get through the moment, reaching for a bottle of wine, stuffing snack food, rushing around the gym, ordering the weekly shop online whilst cooking dinner, checking the children’s homework and planning a bake sale for the local hospice. All of these activities could be life enhancing if conducted in a mindful and in-the-moment way, but they are all done to get through that moment to the next with as little difficulty as possible. So instead of striving to have it all in the 21st century, I suggest we shift our attention to noticing what it is like to be what we are in the 21st century.
Being mindful is often mistaken for being relaxed and at peace. It is something that has been in most cultures throughout the centuries but is more associated with the eastern philosophies such as Buddhism. Many associate mindfulness as an actual activity in itself eg mindfulness groups, mindfulness colouring etc, which sometimes it can be, but it is much more than that. Being mindful is not complicated but without practice it is difficult to initially achieve in our busy world. Being mindful is about simply being present in the moment, noticing with all of our senses what is being experienced in that moment without judgement or exploration. It is also not about “losing oneself in the moment” or becoming detached from what is happening, rather it is about becoming more aware of and attuned to the impact of that on ourselves. With relational mindfulness, this also involves drawing one’s attention to the impact of the moment being shared with others and the noticing the inter-reaction between ourselves and others.
At the risk of overgeneralising, most women benefit from activities that involve others, they benefit from being able to reflect and explore in the context of relationships rather than simply in isolation. That is not to say that women only benefit from group-based activities. However, as previously pointed out, with the push of a lifestyle of juggling work and home commitments, often the opportunity to function within a group of likeminded and supportive people is missed, and women proceed through life in isolation. Whilst making no life changes, we can choose to focus our attention on whatever it is we are doing and simply notice the experience for what it is. This involves stopping the habit of completing one task whilst thinking about future tasks, taking each event or action in turn without getting distracted by the flood of thoughts and feelings of other events.
The gift of our pass the parcel was the realisation of how much we valued time together, to talk, to share refreshments, to swap skills, but primarily to feel connected again. By tuning in to our internal experience of the impact of our conversation on ourselves we achieved a level of emotional intimacy amongst women that resonated with that of our ancestors. Simply being with each other for those few minutes, sharing an experience together, helped us to find a focus for the next moments of our lives.