Women Are Finally Speaking Up, But Is Anyone Listening?
By Jennifer Atkinson
It wasn’t all that long ago when women were collectively conditioned into understanding “their place” in the social construct of life: ensuring the house was clean, that the kids (which they were expected, if not obliged, to have) were taken care of, and that there was a delicious meal awaiting hubby when he came home from an extremely hard day at work. A woman’s place was basically to put others first, always, and to do it with a smile. Her homely role was a common theme in movies, it was depicted in paintings, and it was sung about in songs.
In the blink of an eye, but not nearly soon enough, we’ve gone from corsets, pantyhose, and submissive behavior, to freeing the nipple, #MeToo, managing Fortune 500 companies, and running for president. We’re at the start of 2019 and we’ve already seen six women declare their candidacy for the Democratic presidential primary. We’ve successfully proven that we are capable of accomplishing anything that a man can. From all backgrounds and walks of life, we’ve grown confident to break out of our shells, step out of our homes, and come out of the closet, to claim our identities, our independence, our corporate power, our entrepreneurial spirits, our sexuality, and our right to pursue anything and everything that we choose. And while the men around us have been thoroughly (and justifiably) scrutinized for the way in which they’ve received these changes, we women, have an equal role to play. For every Gillette commercial which sparks debate amongst men, there should be an equally powerful discourse amongst women. As we emancipate ourselves from the shackles of the past — and from all the stereotypes imposed on us — are we, as women, adequately supporting each other? Has this newly-found and long-overdue freedom to soar created a sky in which we are constantly colliding? Or will we learn to lift each other up, even if we’re flying in different directions? This year the teen movie “Mean Girls” turns 15. But a decade and a half later, it seems a large part of its girl-turned-woman audience has yet to abandon its bitchy tendencies.
Psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Dr. Gail Saltz, who is a clinical associate professor at Weill-Cornell Medical College, says a woman’s need for approval from other women dates back to hunter-gatherer times. “Women are biological caretakers. For survival, women needed to band together with other women and take care of the village and its children. Being accepted by the other women mattered. Being shunned meant not surviving,” she explains. “It was impossible for one woman to do all the jobs required for survival, and care for her progeny, so sharing responsibilities — women helping women — was necessary, while the men hunted together. Bonding is one of the prime human needs and women bonding with other women has always been an important drive. When the bond is not there, we see loneliness, which causes depression and anxiety.”
But very often women’s personal views on career, marriage, sexuality, children, or their choices to want to “do it differently” or “juggle it all”, are met with what is commonly referred to as “shaming”. Social media is plastered with post after post of tales of judgment and anger from know-it-all women who seem to have discovered the secret to living the so-called perfect life. In almost every case the warring parties are being judgmental toward each other merely in an attempt to justify their own choices. We find women using false narratives and generalized stereotypes to defend their own career decisions, family choices, and any perceived past mistakes. Stereotypes include the idea that if you are a stay-at-home mom you lack smarts and have little ambition, and if you’re a career-chasing mother you are selfish and don’t put the needs of your children first. In fact, you most likely resent your kids and want to avoid them at all costs. I once had a mother say to me, “I could never work. I love my kids too much.” And let’s not forget the stigma attached to women, who for a myriad reasons, never have any children. We witness everything from “mom-shaming” to “slut-shaming” to office water-cooler gossip fests — almost always fueled by ignorance. And a lot of it is from the mouths of other women. These stereotypes which we perpetuate, and sometimes play into, are damaging, to say the least — not only because they’re grossly inaccurate, but also because they lead to a sense of isolation and competition.
“Women in particular often suffer from questionable self-esteem,” says Dr. Saltz. “They fear that they are not enough or that they are an imposter and that others will detect this and shun them. Receiving approval from other women serves to at least temporarily battle those fears of being less-than or unworthy”. We see this increasingly among mothers who tend to compete with each other rather than accept each other’s different parenting styles. “When you harshly judge other mothers, often for the purpose of defending your own mothering, you also usually end up judging yourself harshly,” Dr. Saltz says.
Kristin is a 32-year-old mother of one. Before the birth of her son, who is almost at toddler age, she lived the quintessential Manhattanite life: frequenting the city’s restaurants and latest hot spots, surrounded by a large group of culturally-savvy friends, and jetting off to exotic destinations for vacation. She worked hard before becoming a mother and works even harder now. Her job at a high-end fashion house in the heart of New York City demands long hours and dogged dedication. She and her equally-successful husband now live in the suburbs of New Jersey which requires her to commute more than an hour each way, in and out of the city, five days a week. Kristin says that working in the fashion industry, surrounded by fellow career women, meant that she’s been lucky to never really face any blowback for pursuing a full-time career. “In fact, if anything I feel pressure to not be a stay-at-home mom,” she says. “I see so many other women successfully juggle both their careers and motherhood, which makes me feel that it can be done.”
Kristin’s experience is very different from that of Jennifer, a mother of four in suburban Pennsylvania. Her days revolve around caring for her brood at home. The job description demands angelic patience, impeccable organizational skills, and the multitasking of an octopus. While the children are at school, she manages to work part-time as an interior designer and custom furniture builder. She also does a lot of volunteer work and is a preschool aid. She says it’s easy to feel pressure in so many areas of life and that much of this is fueled by social media. “This is especially true with parenting. I’ve gone through a rollercoaster of emotions in this area over the years but have now come to realize that the things I feel pressure over really have no impact on how my children behave or what they experience. Children simply learn from what they see,” Jennifer says. “While it’s easy to be envious of the other side, there are pros and cons to being both a corporate mother and a stay-at-home mother. Instead of judging other’s choices, we could empower each other with encouragement, advice or even just lending an ear…. If we can teach our children to support instead of judge, this would be the start to actually changing the direction our world is heading,” she adds.
Jessica is a thirty-something single mother with an elementary-school-aged daughter. She is a published author and owns her own company, which means she can dictate her own hours. Her situation is in stark contrast to that of the other mothers whom she encounters at the school drop-off each morning. Most of them are married and are stay-at-home moms. Most have larger families and even a pet or two. For Jessica, it’s just the two of them. “Being a mother is hard enough, we don't need guilt instilled in us for the personal decisions we make for our career and families,” she says. “It’s often overlooked that for many working mothers, there is no choice. They have to work for financial reasons. The working moms, that are doing what they believe is best for their family and experience a constant struggle of work-life balance, should be applauded. The stay-at-home moms, that have made so many sacrifices to devote all of their time to raising their kids, should be equally applauded,” she adds.
But it’s about more than just stopping the mom-shaming. It’s about women realizing that we shouldn’t have to rely on others to validate us — women nor men. “There is no one ‘right’ way to be. It does require knowing yourself, accepting yourself, accepting some ambivalence, which is normal, and to stop judging others as well as yourself,” explains Dr. Saltz.
Executive coach and career strategist Elizabeth Koraca points out that a lot of the insecurities that women exhibit are fear-based. “We often feel pressure from society, often via social media, about what we should and shouldn’t be, how we should look and how we should be mothers. But what’s right for you and your family might not be right for someone else – and that’s okay. Constantly comparing ourselves to others can have us second guessing our decisions.” Koraca explains. “What seems perfect on the outside is often not what is happening behind closed doors. So focus on yourself and not on what others are doing,” she advises.
Single mom Jessica, whose decisions and choices will undoubtedly serve as an example to her young daughter, adds: “Women need to support each other on every level. Invest in women, mentor women, promote women, vote for women, and support women-owned businesses. Pay close attention to how a company treats women before you buy from them or work for them. Are there any women on their board or women in power? We need to be on a unified mission to close the gender gaps and get more money and power in women’s hands if we want to see a significant shift.”
It truly is about supporting women across all aspects of life — single mothers, married mothers, those who choose not to have children, women who marry women, women who are married to their jobs, those who are widowed, divorced, bachelorettes, or those who don’t fit into any vaguely descriptive category whatsoever. Women have much more to gain from bolstering each other than from belittling and criticizing. It’s high time we stop turning every decision made by a woman into an opportunity for judgment and take a minute to consider that each situation is different and that each women has her, his, or its unique challenges. If we, as women, truly want to have our voices heard in the world, we need to first start listening. Listening to each other, that is.
Jennifer Atkinson is a journalist with 20 years of international experience. She spent 14 years as a TV news producer for the Reuters news agency, based in London, Jerusalem, Singapore, and New York. She is also the founder of Jen Atkinson Yoga and the non-profit Making Mats Matter. She currently lives in New Jersey with her husband and two young boys.