My great granny was awarded a degree by London University in 1905. The man she married (my great-grandfather) became Provost of University College London. Their daughter (my granny) won a scholarship to Girton College Cambridge and studied hard (though she couldn’t get a degree because Cambridge didn’t award them to women in 1932). Her husband, (my grandpa) also read for a degree at Cambridge. Their son, (my dad) won endless academic prizes and became a professor who lectured all over the world.
So there was no pressure on me, then!
I did do well, to start with. But then life kicked in. In particular motherhood kicked in, with all its conflicting pressures.
- ‘The best mothers stay at home with their kids full-time’.
- ‘The best mothers juggle work and kids successfully’
- The best mothers keep up with the housework, are available to their husbands and kids and maintain a successful career.’
I’d been used to aiming high. I continued to aim high. My husband and I added in:
- ‘The best mothers joyfully move to the other side of the world with their husband’s job and still maintain a career, a family and a household..and care for their sick parents’
I couldn’t do it, certainly not joyfully.
I failed. I became ill with the stress.
My mother-in-law, caring for me and my children when I was ill and my husband was working thousands of miles away, sensibly hired a nanny. The nanny she hired was so good that she has been with us ever since.. nineteen years now. She’s more of a housekeeper now, and her hours are fewer than they used to be, but she still helps significantly in running our household.
For years I felt guilty about that. I felt I was cheating at the challenge assigned to women. I considered I’d given myself an unfair advantage compared to other women at the same life-stage as me. As the descendant of lots of successful women, I was letting the side down.
Because it’s a competition, right?
No, it’s not!
Ten, twenty years on, I look back at my younger self and so want to let myself off the hook. I was so concerned to be the best – the best mother, the best home manager, the best juggler. I was so ashamed that I didn’t reach the high standard I had set myself and that I was a fraud as a career woman. I expended so much mental energy fretting.
But who else cared? My colleagues and patients needed me to do what part-time work I did well, but I didn’t have to be a world expert. In the motherhood and wifehood stakes, all my family cared about was whether I loved them. Part of loving them was setting up balance in my life so I had enough spare capacity to give them attention, to listen to them and to have fun together. I needed to do some work outside the home so that my mental health remained good – they needed a mum who wasn’t depressed. To be available to them when I was at home, I needed someone to be doing child- and home-care when I was at work. Aiming to achieve superwoman status was a very bad way of going about loving my family. Balance was what was needed, and a recognition of my limits – not trying to be Wonderwoman.
If only I’d started out looking at how I could love the best, rather than how I could achieve the best.
I went to a funeral recently, of a woman who had been a wise mentor to me in her later years. During the service we listened to a rich telling of her life story, much of which was new to me. I realised that she had done almost no paid work during her whole life. Yet the church was full of people who were profoundly grateful for the way she had loved them. I came away with a deep sense of a life so very well lived: a life I wanted to emulate.
They say the elderly apostle John, who had spent decades reflecting on the meaning of the life of Jesus, came to the point where the only thing he would say when he was wheeled out to address his students was: ‘My children – love one another’.
That’s all that counts in the end: how well we have loved.