By Marci Nault
Author of The Lake House
"I have nothing left," my girlfriend said with tears in her eyes. The moment before she'd been strong, almost angry in her determination as she explained what she was doing to fight for her daughter in a school system that was failing her. But when I asked her what she was doing to care for herself a look of fear crossed her face.
"Too much," she said. "I'm taking time to figure skate three hours per week, and I know it's selfish so I'm giving it up. My daughter is too important right now."
"You have to take time to give to yourself or there won't be anything left," I said and that's when her determination broke, the tears began, and she confessed that she was already there.
I'm uncertain if it's genetic encoding or a societal pressure passed down through generations that have taught women their needs aren't important. Throughout my childhood I watched my mother put aside personal dreams to care for everyone else. For most of my life, I believed that I was first responsible for others' happiness and then I was allowed my own.
Women's equality in the workforce and as world leaders has been a hot topic lately, especially surrounding Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In. She wants to change the conversation from "what women can't do to what women can do." As the creator of www.101dreamscometrue.com, a website that encourages people to go after their biggest dreams, I believe this is an important discussion.
Sheryl talks about how women want to be liked so they take a back seat in business, while at home they still do more of the work than men. But I believe there's something deeper going on than likeability. How can women demand more when we teach each other that our only worth is what we do for others? How can someone who's already overwhelmed by giving to everyone else achieve her dreams? And these dreams shouldn't just be about the workforce, but the enjoyment of life.
When I told my friend that she was worth self-care and spoiling she said, "Not according to my mother-in-law, who thinks I'm a horrible wife and mother. Not according to my husband, who thinks I have it easy because I stay home. My other friends are supermoms who can handle it all."
"What about what you think?" I asked.
"It doesn't matter what I think," she said. And herein lies the problem.
It took me well into my thirties to realize that I had the right to be happy, spoiled, and enjoy the decadence of life without having to wait to receive it from others. It took a major crisis to turn things around and find ways to care for myself. I made a list of 101 dreams come true that were important to me, and I pursued them with everything I had. During this time I realized a few things:
1) The body and mind naturally need rest. I have one body and my mental state and health is the top priority. It's not so I can give more to others, but so that I can enjoy the life I've been given.
2) If I wait around for others to give me what I need I'll never receive it.
3) Taking responsibility for my own happiness makes for better relationships. Internal demanding and waiting for others to fulfill me created impossible expectations on those I loved and resentment on my part. The idea that I gave all of X and didn't get Y in return wasn't a happy place.
4) Showing young women to care for themselves through example can stop the cycle that's gone on for too long.
5) I realized that I deserved decadence. Enjoyment is supposed to be a part of life and women tend to put pleasure last (just ask many husbands), mainly because they're focused on responsibilities and believe nothing will be done if they don't accomplish it.
I'm asking for women to support one another in changing our history. It's time to give to ourselves the way we're expected to give to others. At first it won't be easy; we've been taught to base our self-worth on martyrdom, but change starts with small steps.
Here's an exercise I gave to my friend:
1) Make it clear to your loved ones that a certain time each week is going to be for you. If you're a single mother with very young children, do this after they go to bed or trade with another parent each week.
2) Decide on something decadent that you would love to do. Do you enjoy shopping? (On this day it's only for pleasure, not errands.) Love bubble baths with chocolate, wine, and a good book? Like movies or long walks? Go for it!
3) For a minimum of three hours each week you have to put away your to-do lists, your anger towards those not giving you what you need in life, your running self-sabotaging thoughts that say you're not good enough, and become grateful for everything you have. For three hours minimum, celebrate you!
It's time for women to take happiness in their own hands and hearts. It's no one's responsibility but our own. Equality isn't going to come from being more like men. When we realize that we deserve the richest life we can have just because we're alive and not for what we give others-that's when the real revolution will begin.
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By Marci Nault