My eldest daughter has just turned 18.
As we discuss plans for her impending departure from home at the end of the summer, I confront deeply complicated, conflicting emotions.
While I make arrangements for the changes to come, my thoughts keep going back to when I was 18.
I also left home to continue my studies. I also needed a larger world to fit my dreams into. My future also seemed full of possibilities.
Just like I did at her age, my daughter has her whole life ahead of her. She has choices. She is free, confident, independent—a modern woman, raised with the knowledge that anything is possible.
And yet, are we as women ever really as free as we tell our daughters or chant at protest marches?
As a woman who made a seemingly conscious choice to have children and stay home to raise them, I feel conflicted today.
I adore my children. I also cannot shake off the feeling that the choices were never really mine, to the extent that I never truly questioned myself about my own needs and wants as a modern woman. I did what was expected, what was always assumed I would do, having been born a woman.
I did it out of love, out of responsibility, and out of duty. But my own needs rarely figured in my considerations. Like so many other women, I became a master shape-shifter—adjusting my own needs to those of everyone else in the family.
I feel that raising children comes at a great personal sacrifice for a woman. It is still disproportionately a mother’s responsibility, with many fathers only getting involved with the daily care of their children once they share custody post-divorce.
Today, there is a realisation that my options were never really as vast as they felt at 18
My first job could have served as a platform for a brilliant career, for which I was groomed. By my mid-20s, I was financially independent.
So, what happened to my career? I fell in love.
I wasn’t immune to the power of romantic stories and dreams of happily-ever-after. For some reason, whatever else was happening in my life was eclipsed when I met “The One.”
Most women are still under the impression that we are inadequate on our own—incomplete outside of a family unit. An unmarried woman is perceived as suspect and somehow secretly flawed. No matter the professional heights a woman may reach, few “accomplishments” are celebrated as much as our engagement to be married.
As women, to be truly free to choose, we must be ready to withstand endless obstacles and outside pressure. If it is not education and conditioning, then it’s quite simply our female physiology.
Whether it was the nesting hormones that kicked in or I simply fell into romantic coma, or both, I got married much earlier than I’d expected. The ticking of the biological clock took care of the rest.
Decades later, as I wake up, frazzled and depleted, from the hormonal haze of motherhood, I feel bewildered. What happened to me? What happened to that free-spirited young woman with grand plans and the discipline, focus, and work ethic to make them come true?
She got married and had three children.
Today, as my body’s levels of reproductive and nurturing hormones begin to wane, I can think clearly for the first time in about 25 years.
There is a huge need to reclaim my own self, my own life. To understand how I have allowed myself to be reduced to essentially a life of servitude. And the puzzling realization that I have shape-shifted into this role voluntarily.
I’ve become increasingly aware that the inequities that bother me in my own marriage reflect the inequities that exist in most marriages. Even in partnerships like ours—which start on equal grounds, financially and educationally—once the children arrive, it’s invariably the wife who makes the sacrifices in leisure time, professional accomplishment, and personal fulfillment.
As I untangle the many factors that led me to self-oblivion, I also learn more about the ever-changing process that is female body.
Transitioning from the fertility hormones, we enter perimenopause—a gradual process of change over several years in advance of the menopause, as our bodies prepare for the next phase of our lives.
The work of Christiane Northrup, M.D. catches my attention as she questions the traditionally held view that the hormonal changes leading to menopause bring about changes to our “normal” behavior.
Women’s lifespan has doubled from about 40 years in 1900 to 80 in 2000. A woman is fertile for about 25 years, roughly from the age of 15 to 40.
When life expectancy was 40, most women never reached menopause, so for them fertility-induced state was their “normal” state. However, for a modern woman with an 80-year life span, fertility may be regarded as just a passage.
The fact is: it’s the hormonal changes during fertility that cause a hormonal “disturbance” in the life of a woman. The self-abnegation that we go through, the unquestioning readiness to serve, the OCD-like attention to detail, and the zeal to be perfect mothers at the expense of everything else—is really us functioning under the spell of the estrogen-rich hormonal cloud of fertility. With the remaining nearly half of our lifetime free of the fertility hormones, we can argue that fertility is not our normal state of being.
Placed chronologically in the context of the entire life of a woman, fertility and motherhood are just a fraction of our lives and should be freed from the disproportionate importance and pressure we still place on them.
All hormonal shifts, from puberty to menopause, produce changes in behavior as they affect the brain. According to Northrop, as “the vision-obscuring veil created by the hormones of reproduction begins to lift, a woman’s youthful fire and spirit are often rekindled, together with long-sublimated desires and creative drives.” This sort of awakening allows women to become aware of the inequity and injustice of their situations and gives them a voice to speak up about it.
I am relieved to know that my recent “out-of-character” bitchiness and leanings toward a more militant branch of feminism are not abnormal: it just means that I am waking up to the fact that I have needs and rights, not just chores and obligations.
Today, women between the ages of 44 and 65 are the largest demographic group. So, it’s no surprise that Northrup considers menopause a major cultural event that will change society for the better.
I hope so, because there is work to do.
According to a 2016 study, women are still expected to do the majority of household chores, even when they are the main or only breadwinners in a couple. Findings suggest that gender is by far the biggest determinant of Americans’ attitudes toward housework.
Unless things change, women will continue to spend hundreds of thousands more hours than men doing unpaid work simply because society assumes it’s their responsibility. It ends up robbing women of their potential. This is a societal issue that, in 2016, shouldn’t exist anymore. The issue is global, including even countries like Finland, which seems more progressive on gender issues.
As the largest demographic comes out of the hormonal haze of fertility-induced servitude and wakes up to our value, we still have enough years ahead to work toward correcting the ever-persisting inequalities at home and in our culture. We must start articulating our needs and making important changes in our own behavior.
Do I regret my choices? No. This is my life and I am grateful for it. I also feel lucky to still have the time to do something else with it now—something no less meaningful or important than the motherhood part.
I hope to contribute to creating a world where our daughters have real choices in life. And, when they make those choices, they will have enough self-respect to be immune to guilt and perfectionism, as they take time to pursue their interests. A world where partners in life share equally in chores and childcare, and women don’t give up their dreams because of expectations.
The extent to which women are taught to look after ourselves is the reflection of how society values us and how we value ourselves. It is time to reclaim our lives.
Author: Galina Singer
Image: “Mad Men”
Editor: Khara-Jade Warren