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The Myth of the Balanced Life: Why Women Put Themselves Last

by Dr. Aesha on April 5, 2011


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How could I get them to understand, I wondered? The fresh-faced group of students staring back at me with that "deer in headlights" stare was actually frustrating me today. I was teaching an contemporary literature course on Fashion and Fiction and we'd already read several stories featuring mothers who were struggling with taking care of themselves or taking care of their children. The first time we discussed the topic, these naive 19-year olds accused the character of being a "bad mother" because she left her daughter while she went out on a date. How can I get them to understand, I wondered, when they haven't even experienced the world yet? These young college students believed that they were living in world much different from their own mothers'–now, they tried to convince me, women can do it all. They can be wives and mothers and have a successful career. As a matter of fact, they proudly told me, if I were that character, I wouldn't put anything in front of my kids!

As a working mother—teaching college with an infant while my husband was deployed overseas—their audacity touched a nerve in me. I was struggling with staying on top of my game at work and keeping it together at home, all the while getting more and more stressed out.  I hesitated to ask for help, and when I did, I felt like I wasn’t good enough to handle everything on my own. I had to get my students to understand.

We began a new unit featuring women characters from the Industrial Revolution. Now they'll get, I thought. We read about women leaving their homes in large numbers to enter the workforce as teachers, writers and many as sweatshop workers. They rejected definitions of women as the Domestic Angel of the Home and struggled to find their place in the workplace. We read how other women–poor women and women of color–dreamed of the day they could have the privilege of staying home instead of being forced to work as domestic. We saw women liberating themselves and walking away from their families to chase their dream while others gave up their dreams to take care of their families. And we saw women who tried to both but who struggled with intense feelings of resentment, guilt or depression, all the while trying to love their husbands and children. 

And yet, many of the students didn't understand. These women just need more balance, they said.

Perhaps these college students who had yet to make their mark on the world had already been programmed into believing what women from the Industrial Revolution onward have been programmed to believe: It's either the family or your personal dreams. You can't have both.

Men been programmed to believe that men should put off relationships for the pursuit of their careers. And women have been programmed to believe that they should put off self-care in exchange for a career AND family.  The mindset is you can't do both.

But the reality is we all were designed by God to do both.  A quick look at what has become known as the Proverbs 31 woman will show you that. She was both a successful businesswoman AND a devoted wife and mother–AND she was happy and healthy.

Those with a religious sprit have pointed to the Proverbs 31 woman to argue that a woman working outside the home is disobedient and if she does choose to follow her so-called "God-given role" by staying at home then she must do everything domestic. Since the 19th century all things domestic—cooking, cleaning, taking care of baby–has been defined as a feminine virtue. Yet, when the religious point to her as an example of a domestic goddess that no one on earth could ever live up to, they overlook one key secret to her success. Ancient Hebrew women had handmaidens, assistants who helped them with their daily duties. 

Now having help is considered something only for the rich (and those rich are judged harshly for it) or for the weak. How many times have we judged women who hire a nanny or a mother’s helper as bad mothers who neglect their kids or who just don’t have mother-wit or intuition to do it all by themselves. 

So to avoid being judged as weak or careless, we do it all, trying to prove that we aren’t selfish.  I have to make sure all the dishes are washed and put away before I can sit down, we tell ourselves. I can’t take a nap because I have to fold the laundry If I spend too much time working on my projects and don’t have a three-course meal set on linen, a perfectly clean house, what would my mother think!  But doing it all causes us to put ourselves last and we don’t take care of ourselves. It’s no wonder that by the end of the day, when your husband whispers in your ear to put the children to bed early so you can spend time making passionate love, it feels like one more chore to cross off on your to do list!

The roots of lack of self-love are self-rejection, self-punishment and surprisingly, self-righteousness. On the one hand, we feel good about all of the sacrifices we’re making in the name of serving everyone else and our guilt about having our own needs and desires is made less intense for a moment. On the other hand, we don’t think we deserve to be taken care of—“I’ll just take care of everyone else”—and we put ourselves last.

But women who put themselves last have nothing left to offer. To say they are burnt out is an understatement. This is not love for your family, my sisters. This is a lack of self-love, my sisters. And if you don’t love yourself, you won’t be able to love anyone else. 

Before you take out your organizer or make another to do list, realize that you don’t need more “balance” to be happy. You need a breakthrough. You don’t need another revolution—feminist, televised, or otherwise. You need a revelation.  What I’m talking about is a shift in thinking, a change in mindset that says it’s ok to love yourself, it’s ok to ask for help, it’s ok to say no, it’s ok to not be perfect!

And it’s ok, sisters, to make yourself a priority in your life! This is the secret to happiness—whether at work or at home!

Please share with me your greatest challenge with putting yourself first. What would your life look like when that challenge is solved?

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