Yes, the world needs to change. Public policy, many men and workplaces all could change to be more supportive of women. But we are not solely at their mercy, waiting for these external changes.
We, too, can make change to help ourselves. For starters, we can decide to let go of the striving to be an ideal woman and be us.
What do I mean? My co-authors and I interviewed 118 women (college-educated, predominantly middle class) about their life and careers. Most of these women talked about how they do it all – just like we heard about on Today. What we saw in their stories were women making daily decisions about their lives and jobs based on living up to an externally defined view of what ideal women do. The ideal woman? She does it all, she looks good, and she is very nice (adapted from research by Kathy Oneto).
So instead of being who we want to be, do what we want to do, instead of giving to ourselves (the proverbial oxygen mask), we sacrifice “us.” We give up “us” in pursuit of an ideal that simply does not exist.
So we stay up late to make sure the dishes are washed even though we’re exhausted. We take care of our aging parent all by ourselves because since we must do it all, we won’t ask for help. We enable our peers who don’t work as hard as us by taking on their work. The result is that we burn out and have no time or space to figure out what we need.
But there’s a way out of this. A way to free ourselves from these externally defined constraints. We can reframe these assumptions of ideal womanhood.
So instead of we must do it all, we can decide what really must be done and just do that. Instead of it must look good (read “perfect”), we can figure out what good enough looks like. Instead of be nice (or thinking everyone must like me), we can take the hard decisions and do what’s right.
One of our interviewees wanted to go back to school. She had 6 kids and she sat down with her children and husband and negotiated how she could do this. She reframed the ‘do it all’ as what needs to be done, what can each of us do. It became a family decision as to how. Note that she didn’t negotiate her goal. What she wanted was not negotiable – she was not negotiable, just the how.
That’s the power of the reframe. We don’t negotiate ourselves off the table. Just the opposite. We put ourselves at the table as equally important and then negotiate how everyone’s needs – including ours - can be met.
Our interviewees found all sorts of creative solutions once they got beyond the rule ‘I have to do it all’. Kids chipped in, tasks got dropped (like perfect dinners), family dinners became family car discussions, school projects were returned to children, questions were asked, and people figured it out. No perfection here; everyone’s answer was unique to them and their situation. The key ingredient was that the rules disappeared.
And what women are telling us in our workshops is that the competition for perfect womanhood is killing them. When they start to see the assumptions they are making and then learn the reframe, it is a palpable relief. Finally, they can matter. Finally they can give themselves permission to say I am important.
Now reframing is step one – becoming aware of these rules. Then we need some help.
We need to join with other women making this change and help each other out because the world wants us to keep doing it all. As long as we do it all, others do not have to. It’s a good gig. Plus as long as we do it all, we don’t have time to make changes in the world. We’re too busy. So we need some help so that we can make the changes when we get the inevitable and natural push back. We need to practice making ourselves equally important to others.
And guess what, the more we practice, the better we get, the less we do because we are doing the right things, not everything. The more we do the right things, we teach everyone, our children, our spouses, our workplaces, that in fact, we can do things differently. The more we can use that space we freed up to make the changes the world needs.
And once we are important. Once we give ourselves permission to use our voice. Wow, watch what happens then.