They say men think about what they want to do (e.g. go to the pub, get home in time for Match of the Day or have sex) whilst women worry about what they want to be (e.g. ‘be’ thin, ‘be’ attractive’ or ‘be’ the kind of woman who is confident, attractive, successful and manages to explain the offside rule succinctly whilst putting a child to bed in record time thereby demonstrating good mothering skills before pulling together an immaculate 3-course meal whilst engaging in light banter and ‘being’ appreciated by partner and guests. Meanwhile of course any man involved is just trying to have a beer and a sit-down, those happening to be the things he wants to do at that moment).
This obviously is not the case across the board or at all times but it is true too often for comfort.
The reason I wish it wasn’t even partially true is that trying to ‘be’ something is terribly tiring.
The other downside is that there really isn’t any point ‘being’ something amazing unless someone notices. And waiting about for someone to notice can be even more tiring than ‘being’ something in the first place.
Worse, many of us promptly spiral into vicious cycles of outdoing our own amazingness (e.g. all of the above just with a promotion and skinnier) and then having our new more wonderful selves not noticed and so on we go.
Until we get exhausted: Exhausted in the kind of way that you can only get by using up your fuel towards being something worthy of notice and then not being noticed. A more debilitating version of what a girlfriend and I used to refer to as 'squandered prettiness' when we got all dolled up and had no one to see and nowhere to go.
Now although I might have implied I’m some kind of lunatic in all this I’m not so sure I’m that unusual. Specifically, for those girlfriends of mine who have been talented, smart and pretty in their early lives, the sudden drop off in recognition can be traumatic. The worst-hit being those of us who have had almost constant validation and notice from parents, school teachers and then later, boys. Suddenly in our mid or late-thirties, married or partnered for life, perhaps a child or two, successful at our work or study, working hard to maintain our drive, our figures, our position in the tennis leagues and juggle the complex logistics of busy lives with ease and skill, we find that our male spouse (who in our heads has the job of letting us know we are doing well overall, in place of parents or teachers) just doesn’t give the kind of feedback and notice we are used to or feel we deserve. This makes us irritated, then angry, then frustrated, and finally desperate.
God forbid if anyone should come along who notices us and ‘sees’ us for all the wonderfulness we are. I accept no liability for the consequences.
If we don’t wish to go down those dangerous and potentially illicit paths then the only options we have available to us is immense compensatory recognition from people or institutions that are freer with their compliments and recognition: the two most obvious candidates being (1) our places of work (who are content to exchange their compliments and a small part of their cost base for our hard work and intelligence) or (2) our babies.
Both options are entirely valid and important, but ticking bombs in one way or another. Babies because they grow up into horrid adolescents who, horrid or not, will leave us one day, presumably at a time when more illicit options are much less available, and our places of work because in the end all they can give us is not entirely satisfying however much we love our job, power or money.
We can ignore the ticking time bombs or we can recognise them and feel generally unsettled.
Those who are making do with the easiest available options immerse themselves in career success or re-define everything they do to be amazing Super-mums to attain recognition from other mothers and their children.
It works for a bit.
But what are we going to do at 50? What if we aren’t really good enough to be CEOs or find the cure for cancer? What if, in spite of all the organic homemade bread, our children are indistinguishable from children who ate Sainsbury’s wholemeal bread with the 20 E-numbers in it? What then?
I want to energise and recognise myself. I don’t want to mind when my husband doesn’t know or care when I’m being amazing at work, mothering or the other million and one things I’ve taken upon myself. It shouldn’t matter that I notice him; he shouldn’t have to notice me nor should I have to replace him with another external alternative.
Does that make for a distant relationship? Can we really every detach ourselves from wanting recognition and notice when we’ve had it all our lives? Is there a line between independence and separateness that I can find? I don’t know but I have to try and find it.
Whatever we do, however loved we are, however beautiful, however clever or talented, we are going to be alone someday. Children grow up, we retire, our spouses divorce us or die.
Not the most cheerful stuff, I agree, but certainly something to focus the mind.
The happiest old-and-alone people I know are those who get their fuel from doing things (gardening, reading, working in Oxfam). The saddest and loneliest are those who are waiting for notice, for a call or for a careless child to visit.
I want to do something about it now while I have so many options open to me and build those personal reserves of self-love and recognition which seem to come so much easier for men. Alright, alright, the bar is lower for men, they seem to be able to love themselves for growing a beard or not falling over when they've had 8 pints. But what's so wrong with that anyway? How lovely to have such an easy recourse to immense recognition from your drunken self! How much more set-up-to-fail we are if not only do we set the bar for success higher but then have to win recognition from outside ourselves on top of it!
Perhaps a good place to start is doing what I want to do and stop worrying about what that makes me 'be'. If I want a piece of cake I’ll have it and if I want a conversation with my husband I will start it. Let me judge myself, reward myself. If I'm useless, so be it, if I'm Wonder-woman, points to me. Either way, it's clear that the outcome is not dependant on whether or not anyone else wants a beer and a sit-down, nor should it be. And this isn't a nasty 'I don't care what anyone thinks' thing. I just want to hear my own voice in the audience to which I'm playing.
A hard change to make. But I’m going to try knowing that the success of this piece of hard work will bring me a lifelong reward and recognition from the person who (should!) love me best: me.