There has never been more pressure on women to be everything. At work, at home, on social media, in the mirror. And always, always in our own heads where the pressure feels at times unbearable.
If you’re single, you’re constantly asked why. If you don’t have kids, people want to know what’s wrong with you; are you infertile or are you just a child-hating shrew? What about donor eggs, have you considered it? If you take time out of your career to have a baby, everyone wants to know when you’ll be back. If you return to work in less than six months, people wonder, ‘But how can you leave the baby?’.
If you stay away for longer, people ask, ‘But what about your career?’. And any time you win a promotion, grab an opportunity for more responsibility or take a new job, people express concern about how you’ll find work-life balance.
Then there’s the incessant pressure to be thin and beautiful and young even when you’re pregnant or a new mum or sick or depressed or hungover or old or have cancer or cystitis or are caring for your elderly father or you just woke up with the flu. Be hot 24/7 and document your hotness regularly via multiple social media platforms and associated hashtags or #fail. Don’t be thirsty. Remember to be blessed. How many followers you got? Don’t retweet praise but if you do, remember to have #gratitude.
As we silently internalise all this societal pressure to be and do everything, it constricts and tortures us in a way that’s uniquely female. Men do not do this. They don’t. They divert precious little mental energy to questioning whether they’re being a bloke in exactly the way society deems correct at this particular moment. Men are rarely judged by society or by each other and especially not by themselves.
Not like we are, not like we do. They just bloody get on with it. How good does that sound?
Because when, as women, we can’t fulfill society’s absurdly long list of impossible demands – and nobody can – we sadly yank on our hair shirt and flagellate ourselves with the big three: shame, guilt and the pervading anxiety that we’re failing. At life. At being women. Mothers. At our careers. And we pile these feelings on top of the already challenging circumstances that pushed us to this point.
Rinse, repeat, angst, infinity.
No wonder the boundless, manic pursuit of a ‘balanced’ state makes us feel inadequate and wretched. Work-life balance is like thigh gaps. It’s yet another rotten external pressure women are putting on ourselves. Another impossible standard against which we’re measuring ourselves and our lives. And for what?
Ambition ebbs and flows and so do your needs or the needs of those around you. I’ve had periods in my life, usually in the 12 months after giving birth, when my ambition goes AWOL and I’ve honestly wondered if it would ever return. At other times it’s roared deafeningly in my ear and I’ve gone without sleep or food just to get more work done. Writing this book has been one of those times.
There are times when I want to rule the world and many moments when all I want is to walk away from my career and have a different life, maybe go back to being a waitress like I was when I was 19. Something where I could just go home at the end of the day instead of lumbering around with the weight of work in my head.
Most days, though, most years, I live somewhere in the middle. I don’t think I’d necessarily describe this as balance though because that implies some kind of impossible perfection. It feels finite and finished. And life never is, until it is.
I’m not sure how much of my realisation that my feelings about work and family are constantly shifting is due to having kids and how much is just getting older, more reflective and more nuanced in my view of the world and of myself. I think you have less to prove as you age out of the career angst of your twenties and thirties and grow more comfortable with the idea that who you are isn’t what you do. Because it’s really not.
Mia talks all things 'Work Strife Balance' in an exclusive behind the scenes podcast. Post continues...
Not everyone has the luxury of stepping away from work even for a short time. Many, many new mothers must return to work earlier or for more days per week than they’d like. Many women can’t afford to take time out at all. They can’t risk losing their jobs. Many workplaces don’t offer flexibility and not all jobs are compatible with part-time hours. Do women really need to feel guilty about this?
It matters not a jot what’s logical or fair, any woman who cares about doing a good job at work and at home will feel guilty until society as a whole takes a good hard look at itself and puts some viable solutions in place to ease our burdens.
This is an edited extract from Work Strife Balance by Mia Freedman. Available now, Macmillan Australia, RRP $34.99. You can grab your copy here.