Mothers under scrutiny

On the way to work yesterday, I was listening to the radio and there was a commercial for a reality show called ‘The War of the Mothers’ (translated from Finnish). I’m sure this a Finnish version of some international hit reality show, but since I’m not a great fan of reality shows, I had never heard of it before. Now there are a lot of things that can be said about reality shows; the publicly private nature of them say a lot about the ideals and obsessions we have in contemporary society, but that is not what I’m going to write about today. I’m going to write about mothers. I find it really sad that someone has come up with the “brilliant” idea to dedicate a whole show to mothers criticizing each other.

Mothers are already so scrutinized as it is. It is mothers who are considered responsible for the kind of individuals their children grow up to become. If a child develops into a successful adult, we think the mother has done a good job. And if the child on the other hand has problems or should God forbid become a criminal, we look to the mother for blame. We have such high expectations of mothers, and a mother who doesn’t prioritize her children over everything else is not only considered a bad mother; she is also considered a bad woman. Men just aren’t judged as harshly for their priorities (although men do have other social expectations to deal with).

But mothers aren’t only scrutinized by society; they also get a lot of criticism from each other. I don’t think mothers mean to be unsupportive of each other. I think many just feel so overwhelmed by everything they are expected to do and be, that in order not to feel like a failure – in order to feel like they’re doing okay – they compare themselves to other mothers, looking for any sign that they at least are doing better than that. And that is actually as awful as it sounds. We have enough stress as it is, we don’t need to also be waiting for each other to slip up just so that we can feel better about ourselves (see What is it about mothers today? for more thoughts on what it is like to be a mother in contemporary society).

I think one reason mothers may be so critical of each other is that they feel alone in their situations. I remember a woman I interviewed once, who had opted out of her career. She was juggling small children, a very inflexible job, and caring for her husband who was ill. And she was of course the sole provider, as her husband couldn’t work due to his illness. This was a lot to handle to say the least and eventually she realized she just couldn’t do it anymore. Of course she felt relieved after she opted out, but she also felt like a failure. I remember her saying how so many other women seemed to be handling it just fine, what was it about her? Why couldn’t she handle it?

Well that’s the thing. Women are expected to have and do it all. And they are also expected to look their best, be feminine, well-groomed, and pleasant while they are busy doing that – having it all that is. We don’t talk very much about how we aren’t handling it, and we’re generally pretty good at keeping it together, at least on the outside, even though we may feel like we’re going crazy on the inside. Yesterday my colleagues and I talked about women executives who need to take a break for a few minutes in their work day to have a good cry in the bathroom, after which they quickly retouch their makeup to hide any evidence that they might possibly not be keeping it together, and then go back out to continue working.

And no, I’m not saying we should all cry openly at work. It’s just unfortunate that so many women experience similar feelings, but feel they have to go to great lengths to hide it from each other. And as a result we are alone, or even worse we are comforted by others’ difficulties and failures. To tell you the truth, just the thought of a reality show called ‘The War of the Mothers’ makes me feel sick.

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Living my dream

For the past two years I have been employed by a project, a project, which is ending in exactly one week. I have met and had the pleasure of working with some fantastic people during these two years, and for that I am grateful. I have had quite a bit of flexibility and have had a lot to say about how, when, and where I’ve worked – all things that I’ve found are very important to me – but still I have to admit, this wasn’t exactly what I had imagined when I opted out.

But that is the thing about opting out. When you opt out in order to opt in to the next thing, it isn’t forever. That is a misconception people have about opting out. If someone opts out to become a stay-at-home mom, or if they opt out to change careers or to adopt a completely different lifestyle, people generally think it’s forever. But nothing is forever, and opting out and in is only until one’s wants and needs change again.

The people I have talked to who have opted out all say this. While many of them say they finally feel like they are exactly where they should be, they also say that this is good for now and that they are fully aware that their situation not only might, but will change before long and that they will want to, or have to, figure something else out.

This is the thing about life. Nothing ever stays the same, and in a way that can be comforting. For those of us who are parents, children grow and become more independent. Or maybe we realize that we weren’t quite done with the lives we opted out of, maybe we want to opt back in again. And maybe opt out again further down the road.

I wrote a paper with two colleagues of mine a couple of years ago and we used landscapes as a metaphor to describe what careers really look like (instead of the dated linear career model that so many companies still idolize but that really doesn’t correlate with how people really live their lives). In a careerscape you can walk forwards, backwards, sideways, up mountains, and through valleys. Sometimes the sun shines, and sometimes natural disasters strike. And most things are hard to plan.

Just because a person takes another path than the one up the mountain for a while, or decides they need to wait out a storm, doesn’t mean they aren’t ambitious or they don’t want a career. It just means something else is going on in their lives right now, that needs their energy and attention.

What does this have to do with my project? Well, even though this wasn’t how I envisioned the new life I opted in to, this project came at a good time. Just the fact that I had a job set up when I finished my PhD and didn’t have to scramble to find one was pretty great. And also, the project made me realize that I wasn’t completely done with the career I had opted out of. Who knows, maybe before long I will opt back in to another job like the one I have been doing for the past two years. But either way, I’m quite excited that in one week I will be able to go back to living my dream. To living and working the way I originally wanted when I opted out and in. For how long I can and will want to do that remains to be seen. But it doesn’t matter; it’s where I want to be and what I want to be doing right now. Until something else comes along.

What is attractive?

Have you ever noticed how models on glossy pages of fashion magazines and clothing catalogs look at you with their mouths open? I’m not talking lips a tiny bit parted, I mean like really open. And it always makes me cringe a little bit because, to be honest, it really doesn’t make them look very intelligent.

I always think why do they do that? I supposed they, the photographer, the ad agency, whoever thinks that it makes them look attractive and sexy. It’s a bit wasted on me, however, because I think intelligence is much more attractive than gaping mouths.

Well of course this is no surprise. Women and girls are more often than not depicted sexually in the media. I read a very insightful book on the subject and it is actually a bit depressing reading. It also a very interesting read and definitely a book I recommend to anyone, but especially to those of you who have daughters: The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It by M. Gigi Durham.

In a nutshell, the book argues that media, television and film not only reflect existing social patterns but also shape culture which makes them very powerful, setting the standard for what women and girls should live up to. But not only does the media depict girls as sexual objects, the sexual ideal for girls is one lacking authority; that is girls are taught to be sexy, and to attract boys, but at the same time to resist boys’ advances rather than express their own desires. I quote, “These powerful narratives … are repeatedly circulated in various ways in our culture, to the point that they seem natural and not constructed by outside forces.”

But what’s scary is that the female and sexual ideal becomes younger and younger. Women are encouraged to wage a life-long battle against hair and strip their bodies of all hair, except what grows on their heads, making them look like prepubescent girls. Which really, if you think about it, is quite disturbing. (See my previous post ‘On ageing’ for more thoughts on the cultural contradictions of women, youth, and ageing.)

I remember reading a feature in a magazine once about a woman who followed her dream and became a professional gardener. She talked about how she was always awkward as a girl and didn’t really have any fashion sense. She was never popular and was uncomfortable at parties and in other social situations. However, after she found her passion – gardening, and apparently especially apples – she was surprised to realize that all of a sudden she was attracting so much male attention at parties when she would, cheeks blazing, launch into an animated conversation about apples. She realized that it didn’t matter that she wasn’t thin, she wasn’t wearing the most fashionable clothes, and that she didn’t have a swanky hairdo. She was attractive because she felt passionate and that made her interesting. It made people – both men and women – want to spend time with her.

Knowing this, it makes me a bit sad to know that so many girls and women worry about trying to live up to one-dimensional social ideals. And I have to say I agree with the gardener. Talking to people who are passionately interested in what they do is usually very engaging. Their energy is contagious and, unlike blank looks and gaping mouths in magazines, that is attractive.

On ageing

This week I’ve been thinking about ageing. For the past few days my Facebook newsfeed has been filled with pictures of a young person who died of cancer in the very first days of the New Year. I didn’t know her personally, but many of my friends did.

I also read something quite wonderful. A friend of mine posted on Facebook, that she feels lucky to have the opportunity to age, as not everyone does. That wrinkles, grey hairs, aches, and pains are actually quite a luxury.

It’s interesting – or no, not interesting, it’s actually quite horrifying – the attitude we have towards ageing in Western society, and the obsession we have with youth.

In organizations today we see a lot of ageism. I often see research on top executives’ desperate attempts to stay young and virile, and to what ends they will go to do this. Everything from running up the stairs to the office on the 9th floor in order to give the right impression to actually getting major work done – I’m talking about plastic surgery.

In his book The Corrosion of Character, Richard Sennett writes, “For older workers, the prejudices against age send a powerful message: as a person’s experiences accumulates, it loses value.” In the current corporate climate, it is more about potential. What you have done is no longer important; it is what you will do next that counts.

A couple of years ago I read an article about a Finnish IT company that claimed to value elders and their experience, and hired a corporate granny. Granny came in a few times a week, made coffee, and was available to talk to, lending a sympathetic ear to stressed IT workers. According to the article, having a maternal type around did wonders for the atmosphere. As it happens, this granny was a recently retired career woman, but from the article I didn’t get the impression that she was expected to dish out business advice, she was rather valued for her warmth and her life wisdom. Which is great of course, but I’m sure she also had a lot of know-how, although her employers perhaps didn’t recognize that.

For women, ageism is especially pertinent. But not only that, this whole question of age, and what the right age to be is, is rather ironic. A woman is never the right age. Either she is too young and inexperienced, or she is in the childbearing risk group, or she is simply too old. When women get older and their faces and bodies finally show signs of experience and wisdom, they are pressured to do whatever necessary to look young and inexperienced. I find that quite ironic.

Manufacturers and advertisers are dependent on and target especially women and girls as consumers. Through advertising they create myths, images, and body ideals that are impossible to achieve, but that also ensure that women and girls will keep trying to achieve them, and will therefore keep buying their products.

In contrast to our cultural ideals, when I looked in the mirror this morning I felt quite happy about the wrinkles I have started to accumulate. My wrinkles speak of life and health and of the experiences I have had – both good and bad – that make me who I am. And, of course, of the years of experience I have as a professional.

Control

I find opting out a fascinating topic, which I suppose is to be expected, as this is what I wrote my PhD about. But what is perhaps more interesting than the things about society, culture, and expectations that propel people to opt out, is what it is they choose to do instead – what they opt in to. The new solutions they create and the lifestyles they adopt potentially tell us a lot about how people want to live their lives and how they want to work, what they think is important, and what it is that makes them tick.

In a world of quick fixes and short-term wins, where the constant downsizing means no one is safe, and where it isn’t unusual that people change jobs every or every second year, I’d say knowing what makes people tick in order to figure out how to get them to commit to any goals, not to mention long-term goals, is pretty strategic.

Considering all the great technological breakthroughs and how cutting edge many corporations are in their fields, it’s actually quite surprising that they just haven’t kept up when it comes to career models and work solutions.

When people opt out they opt in to a number of different lifestyles and types of work. While they basically all opt out of the same thing – the corporate models and ways of working that leave them stressed, exhausted, and without the ability to create a coherent narrative of their lives and work – they opt in to a myriad of different ways of living. Some downshift and move to less hectic areas, some don’t. Some make a complete career change and retrain in another area, some don’t. Some leave the corporate world altogether, and some don’t. Some start doing research, like me, and some become entrepreneurs. The point is, just like we are all diverse with our own personal preferences, people opt in to a way of living and working that is right just for them. Maybe that is the point, through their opting out journeys they create ways of life that are tailored to their personal needs and don’t follow some corporate norm.

There is, however, one thing that is the same for everyone who opts out and in: control. In their new lifestyles, those who opt in, create a lifestyle where they have more control over their time and thus over their lives. This control gives them a sense of coherence and authenticity, and it allows them to do what they love, to lose themselves in their work, without the stress of not knowing how to make time for all their other responsibilities. It seems that control (corporate leaders, pay attention now!) is actually the key, the secret behind how to engage and commit people.

And knowing this, it’s frustrating to see organizations that, for example, have a policy for working off-site, but when asked about it admit that they don’t usually allow their employees to do so, because how can they then be sure that they actually work (yes this is true). We have all these policies like flexible time to make life more flexible and manageable, especially for employees with care responsibilities. But research has shown that flexible time actually makes us feel like we have less time. So all these policies strike me as window dressing without actually changing the way we work or making an impact on our lives. Instead of measuring how much we work – quantity – how about focusing on what we get done – quality? Who cares where we work and how we do it if we get the job done? The thing is, while it shouldn’t matter to our employers (results are results, right?), it matters a great deal to us. We want to have more control over how we work, when we work, and where we work. That really shouldn’t be too much to ask.