The Hard Work of Being a Woman

(Part 1 of 2)

“I should be crying, but I just can’t let it show. I should be hoping, but I can’t stop thinking.”

-Women’s Work by Kate Bush

The intention of the various waves of the women’s movement was to ensure more opportunities, more options and more equality for women. This expansion coincided with the explosion of technology and a global economy, both of which raised the stakes and the speed with which we do business.

Without us really noticing, what was intended to be about freedom of choice, has transformed into overwhelm and pressure for women.

In America, it seems that women have achieved near parity. Women can have any job at any level. Women can stay at home with their children (big caveat: if they have enough money). Women aren’t expected to have children. Women can get married. Women don’t have to get married. Women can marry women. 

If the Future is Female, does that mean Women can stop doing ALL OF THE WORK?

I use the word “can” (not “do”) b/c yes, it’s possible. Not necessarily because it’s actually happening. And when it does happen, what was once a beautiful intention (freedom of choice) is now a different crueler reality.

“Women can have it all” translates to women having to DO IT ALL.

Women are drowning in expectations.

Go the gym at an ungodly hour of the morning (if you are lucky!), then getting the kids ready, getting dolled up for work, being clever and strategic all day long, only to come home to the more humble drudgeries (cleaning up constantly and other “invisible” work) and joys (their animation, their sweet curiosity) of children before falling into bed exhausted.

I’m certainly not the first to surface this story. Most women feel an incredible amount of pressure from societal expectations, family expectations, even their own expectations of what it means to be a woman and/or a mom in this day and age. 

We worry that we’re not doing enough in every sphere of our lives (partner relationship is usually a pitiful 3rd place after work and kids – where is SELF on the priority list, btw? … maybe even farther down the list for some of us?). When we’re actually probably doing TOO MUCH. The thoughts of “not enough” compound the already very real stress of modern life ‘til the anxiety hits a fever pitch.   

I don’t think we’ve made this world easier for women. It some ways, it’s better, but certainly not easier.

Women ruminate more than men. Science has proven this*. That means we worry longer and harder over things. Which can lead to both depression and anxiety.

Hint: it looks different on the inside.

For example, this is a peek inside my somewhat adjusted female brain over the course of one day.

Saturday morning first thing: “It’s winter, so this weekend, we need to create a magical experience for our child around snow!” (proceeds to research – through crowd sourcing and internet searches – best snow parks near Portland. Then worries about overscheduling my child and leaving no room for boredom and the inevitable development of imagination that results from said boredom). “Am I doing this parenting thing all wrong?”

“What if we get caught in a blizzard? I better bring extra food & water and plenty of clothes for warmth. (proceeds to pack enough food for a 3 day wagon ride on the Oregon Trail).

“What about snow chains?” (proceeds to watch 3 YouTube videos on how to put snow chains on tires).

I’m somewhere in here pretending to be at peace.

During morning yoga class: “why am I so angry? I want to scream. I hate people. Wouldn’t it be amazing to yell during this quiet class. Just freak out and then walk out.” (instead proceeds to silently do poses as instructed).

Nature reminds us of how small our problems actually are.

Later in yoga class: “Am I having a nervous breakdown? Is this what a nervous breakdown looks like? My heart is beating fast, my body hurts. and I feel like giving up. I’m depressed and anxious. I want to hide under the covers in my bed.” (proceeds to continue to silently do poses as instructed).

By the end of yoga, I am rung out, like a wet rag. Exhausted. It is hot yoga so this makes sense. What always astounds me is that I am also blissful, peaceful and at ease.

Later, the snow filled afternoon gratifies us all. I am simultaneously elated and at peace. There are no thoughts or worries. The powdery white snow and the tall pine trees surrounding us erases any thoughts. Instead, only joyful emotions and the exhausting physical play of snowball fights and sledding.

As we get into the car to drive home, we have a heated family discussion about screen time in the car while my child howls about wanting to watch a show. I worry the screens will ruin her. And when I give in to her cries, b/c it will make the ride home more pleasant for the adults, I worry I’m a lawn mower parent who isn’t giving her opportunities for resilience building (i.e. not getting your way all the damn time)… not to mention, am I depriving her of imagination that comes from a little boredom? Layers of worry.

That night my child asks for some apple slices before bed.  I bring her some, even though she’s already in bed and has just brushed her teeth. I say good night and then proceed to obsess about the apples. “Is she going to get cavities from them? Is she going to choke on one and I’ll be in the other room with no idea until morning that my child has died?” (proceeds to quietly open her door and check on her. She might end up with a cavity but she isn’t going to die. Phew. “Does this make me a bad mom?”, I wonder.

Before bed, I google “signs you are having a nervous breakdown.” No real confirmation.

does your 4am look like this?

Still later that night after my child is asleep: “What’s that noise? Is that Kaia calling for me?” I swear the noise machine we have on at night has secret built in sounds designed to drive moms crazy. When Kaia was a baby, I could swear I’d hear a baby crying but then I’d get up, and there’d be nothing. Silence from her room. Now, she’s at age 4, I hear “maaaaa-maaaa” even when she hasn’t called out.

4:30am. Feverishly rehearsing a speaking engagement I’m giving in two weeks, and I’m just sure my material sucks. I’m certain I’m a fraud with nothing of value to add for the audience. “Why do I continue to put myself in situations that make me anxious and uncomfortable? I don’t feel courageous, I feel scared. What is wrong with me? Maybe I should just get a regular job, with a regular paycheck?”

my inner critic is constantly reminding me I’m no expert, even if I have years of experience.

To borrow a powerful quote from The Confidence Code by Katty Kay, “Remember, the female brain works differently from the male brain; we really do have more going on, we are more keenly aware of everything happening around us, and that all becomes part of our cognitive stew. Ruminating drains the confidence from us. Those negative thoughts, and nightmare scenarios masquerading as problem solving, spin on an endless loop. We render ourselves unable to be in the moment or to trust our instincts because we are captive to those distracting, destructive thoughts, which gradually squeeze all the spontaneity out of life and work. We have got to stop ruminating.”

Here’s the thing.

The only solution to self-doubt and underestimation (by yourself or others) IS ACTION.

Less thinking, more steps. As we take action and accomplish things, the happy chemical Dopamine is released into our brain. Dopamine is often called the Motivation Molecule.  It feels like a confidence boost. A reward which motivates us and empowers us to take more steps. And more steps.

So when I wake up the next day, I begin writing my script for the speaking engagement. And I find a couple of memes to add in, for humor. I ask a colleague to review it constructively.

And I give myself a little more compassion along the way.

And get back to being the capable badass that I know myself to be.

Ahh, to be a woman.

In part 2 we’ll explore reframing negative beliefs and letting go of expectations that do not serve women.

the view is always worth the climb.

* 2011 study referenced in American Psychological Association article &  Katty Kay, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know

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