I open my eyes to sunlight streaming through the crack in the curtains and roll over sleepily to check the time on my phone. 10.38. I stare at the number for a second, then my heart drops.Within seconds I’ve leapt out of bed and am attempting to fix my bedhead with one hand while I brush my teeth with the other. My mind is going a mile a minute.
It’ll take me half an hour to walk into town, so by the time I get ready I’ll be at least twenty minutes late to the planning meeting. And the meeting will probably run over so then I’ll be an hour late to get back here to hand out leaflets like I said I would. And if I’m late to that I won’t be able to leave early like I was going to. I could skip the leaflets? No, I don’t want to!
My breaths are becoming shallow, there’s a lump in my throat.
So then it’ll be at least four by the time I can work on my essay. It’s not due until Wednesday? But I have uni all day tomorrow and I’m working a twelve-hour shift on Tuesday. Maybe I could get up at five-am on Wednesday?
I’m halfway out the door, backpack on, when I stop. If I do all that – when will I eat? The thought rattles around my brain a couple times before I turn around and head back into the house. It takes effort, but when I put down my bag and sit on my bed, the feeling of relief that washes over me makes tears spring to my eyes. It’s a long process, but I’m slowly teaching myself to say “No.”
My experience is just a small example, but it speaks to a much larger issue. As women, we’ve been taught our entire lives to always prioritise other people and things over ourselves. We are told, over and over again, that our opinions, desires and health should play second fiddle to the demands of others. We drive ourselves to the brink to be the most studious, social, helpful, hardworking, fun, and active people that we can be. We sacrifice our own well-being to be the best for everyone else, but when do we to consider whether we are truly doing the best thing for ourselves?
In Rebecca Traister’s book All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, she discusses this idea that single-women are considered selfish because, without a partner or children, they exist far more on their own terms. Traister reflects on watching Sex and the City and judging the women for spending so much money on meals and designer shoes, and wonders now whether she would judge a woman who spent the same amount on items for her family or home. There’s something telling in the way we require women’s purchases to be on items that benefit others, because how dare a woman spend money on something that makes her, and only her, happy?
As Traister puts it, “When people call single women selfish for the act of tending to themselves, it’s important to remember that the very acknowledgement that women have selves that exist independently of others, and especially independent of husbands and children, is revolutionary.”
Husbands and children, marriage and motherhood. These are where much of this idea of women’s self-sacrifice lies, because they are still held up as the defining roles of womanhood. Women are condemned if they choose not to pursue this path, and if they do follow it, they are expected to abandon every part of their life, including careers, friends, and hobbies, for a life of domesticity. They’re expected to give up their job to care for their children and told they’re selfish if they want to have a family and a career. This sentiment is not just echoed by men; it has wormed its way into women’s psyche. A study that asked mothers to give themselves a ‘parenting mark’ out of ten showed working mothers less likely to give themselves a high score, despite studies proving that having a working mother can often benefit the children in the long run.
And god forbid a single-mother date or have a sex life. Then she would be reinforcing the stereotype of the ‘trashy single-mom,’ who neglects her children in favour of sleeping around. When asked to describe single-mothers in two studies, people used phrases such as less responsible, less moral, less reputable, neglectful, and promiscuous. Conversely, single-fathers were seen as men in challenging situations who had to deal with challenges such as ‘ﬁnding child-care, and balancing their dating life with raising kids.’ Just in case the double standard wasn’t obvious enough.
Here in our Western patriarchal society, it seems the ideal woman is one who exists purely for the needs of others. She is the coffee-maker, note-taker, and odd-job-doer in the office, because she’ll never say no. She is the nurse, the cook and the cleaner in the home and, never forget, the animatronic sex doll (with Real Lifelike Breath Sounds!) She is the blank slate onto which you can project whichever role you require; she will sacrifice herself for you to succeed while she passively watches.
As Commander Spock infamously said: ‘the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,’ and while I agree that logic is fairly applicable aboard the USS Enterprise, that’s where it should stay. When it comes to women, if we don’t put ourselves first, no one will. We can be career women and mothers and wives and any role we choose. We can be support for our friends, colleagues, partners and children. But before any of that, we need to take care of Number One. I challenge Spock’s words and leave you with a sentiment I hold far more true to my heart – those of the great Audre Lorde.
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”