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I’ve railed against the patriarchy for years, while actively keeping it alive at home

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Maja Smith is Customer Service Division Director for the Ford Motor Company of South Africa.

The phenomenon that is the Barbie movie highlights uncomfortable, glaring truths about women in society and the workplace, and about the pressures we place on ourselves and each other in the mythical state of ‘having it all’.

It’s August. Women’s month. And women the world over are exhausted. The kind of tiredness that seeps into our bones, that we can’t shake no matter how many public holidays you throw at us.

We’re tired because there is too much weight to carry, too many balls to keep in the air, too many demands. In a comedy skit, the amazing Ali Wong jokes that feminism is the “worst thing that ever happened to women”. She’s not entirely wrong.

While we’ve moved forward when it comes to our careers and obtaining equal pay, we’ve not reduced the “household work” proportionately. This means that instead of one job — running the household — we now have two. Running the household, plus paid work.

Being everything to everyone/giving everything to everyone

I work for a company that has started very open and brave conversations with women over the past year. Recently, I was listening in on a meeting with a group of very diverse women spanning our organisation, and I was struck by the overriding tone of the conversation, which was about balance, multitasking, trying to “get to more things” to keep everyone happy: kids, partners, bosses, employees.

In summary, the conversation revolved around everyone and everything other than themselves. I asked a male friend at work what an informal meeting with a bunch of guys would be about, and he mentioned something about golf irons and handicaps and whiskey.

Putting ourselves first

Why is it so difficult for women to admit to wanting things only for themselves? And then to go out and get those things — selfishly and shamelessly — the way a man would?

The author and activist Glennon Doyle suggests that women struggle to admit what they want, or that they want anything for themselves: “Girls are trained to prioritise others’ comfort over their own safety. We are conditioned to honour politeness over our own instincts. We want to be accommodating even more than we want to be safe, or comfortable, or happy, or freaking alive.”

Elise Loehnen, in her book On Our Best Behaviour – The Price Women Pay to be Good explores the roots of the patriarchy via the seven deadly sins, recognising that they underpin much of our behaviour to this day, resulting in a culture of self-denial among women and girls the world over. She writes that it’s very unusual to see a woman who puts herself first, and that those who do so are usually “reflexively disliked” by other women.

I grew up with two full-time working parents — both professors of medicine. While my dad was out quite literally saving lives, my mom was cooking us dinner between seeing patients, writing academic papers, and ferrying us to our extra-curricular activities. I have distinct memories of her in the kitchen in her 1980s pencil skirts (wish she’d kept those!), doing five things at once, admiring her efficiency and beauty but being simultaneously irate that she wasn’t giving her full attention to my drama of the day.

Thirty-plus years later, and with my own kids, in a household with two full-time working parents, the situation is similar. I’m the one standing in the kitchen every night, cooking, making lunchboxes while finishing work calls and trying to pay attention to the kids’ litany of questions and stories.

Of course, I can put a stop to this any day. We can eat an hour later so that my husband — who gets home later — can cook. The kids can make their own lunchboxes. I’m privileged enough to be able to pay our nanny overtime to stay later. But I don’t do any of this. I choose to do it all myself, over and over again, without question. Because I can DO IT ALL.

And I’m not the only one: my female colleagues and friends twist themselves into pretzels every day trying to be everything to everyone. “For me to find time to exercise I’d have to do it at midnight,” one of my friends at work told me last week. “And by that time of night, all I want to do is crawl into bed and die.”

Having the courage to act ‘selfishly’

More recently, as we’ve hit our 40s, I’ve come to know women who’ve taken what they’ve wanted, personally and professionally, with a “damned if I care” approach.

Early on, I found myself judging them hard. How could they put their own (selfish) wants and needs ahead of other people in their lives? How could they expect so much of their husbands? And then, I saw them flourish. Some abandoned corporate life to pursue their own ventures, others went on work trips without a care in the world about what their husband was feeding the kids (Uber eats five nights in a row), and some filed for divorce.

Now I recognise that my judgement was rooted in envy. Envy that they had the courage to unshackle themselves from society’s expectations of what a good woman should be, of demanding and bringing into being more for themselves.

I joke with my husband that if we were on a sinking ship in the ocean, he’d go find an island and rescue himself first, and then he would pull us ashore one by one. I, on the other hand, would have the family climb on my back trying to save them all while drowning myself. I think it’s clear what the better strategy here is (hint: it’s not mine).

So why is it so hard for us to want things just for ourselves without guilt or fear of others’ judgement? To go after what we want at work, confidently and boldly without worrying about being liked? To insist on true equality at home — every day, not only on our birthday or Women’s Day or when we’re sick?

We’re repeating what we’ve been implicitly taught for generations: that women exist to take care of and nurture others. That our role is in the shadows. Quietly, we’ve been carrying the weight of generations on our shoulders. And it’s too much.

America Ferreira’s now-famous Barbie monologue captures this perfectly: “It is literally impossible to be a woman. You are so beautiful, and so smart, and it kills me that you don’t think you’re good enough. You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line. It’s too hard. I’m just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us.”

Embracing discomfort

As our generation starts to understand the importance of equity over equality and women’s voices from all over the world are making themselves heard — loudly and boldly — it’s important that even within our own microcosms we shake off our guilt and feelings of shame for putting ourselves first.

We can’t expect our husbands to step up to the plate at home if we don’t let them. We can’t expect our bosses to throw open the doors to the corner office without telling them — repeatedly — that we want it.

And we definitely can’t vilify other women for living “selfishly”. In fact, we should be applauding them. By adding more and more to our plates, doing it all and being it all for everyone around us, we are not heroes. Feminism really will become our greatest curse and we will, quite simply, burn out.

I’ve railed against the patriarchy for years, while actively keeping it alive at home. I have held the women I work with to a higher standard than the men because if I can do it all, so can they. I’ve judged friends who have chosen a different life path from my own while silently stewing in envy because I wish I had even an iota of the freedom they’ve created for themselves. I’ve played an active part in keeping a lot of what I fight against alive.

Imagine what we could achieve if we just stopped. Stopped trying to do it all and be it all. We would be so much more than we are now, and the world would be better for it. DM

Maja Smith is Customer Service Division Director for the Ford Motor Company of South Africa.

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  • Diane Sandler says:

    What is never properly taken into account(which you allude to) is that the difference between the sexes is that women have babies. And that is never taken into account at all levels of working life and understanding and attitudes
    in society.

    • Oliver Laubenheimer says:

      Indeed Diane, thank you. And at the risk of putting myself into hot water, because i respect and indeed champion equality, it is a difficult concept, especially if child bearing and natural cornerstones of motherhood are labelled as patriarchy. To me, patriarchy was a concept (which is still prevalent in some backward countries) that rests on an active suppression of equality. I find few articles of men complaining about having to go to work day in, day out, providing tirelessly for their families and lamenting the fact that they cannot indeed, contrary to the authors assertion, just go and put themselves first. Raising a family is a joint exercise. In ours, i afforded my wife the opportunity of not having to work (a choice WE made) so that she could raise our children as a full time parent. This involved a very singular dedication to my profession, often to the detriment of being able to spend time with family and which would have been impossible without the supporting role of my wife, who’s efforts must not be discounted or devalued. I made sure my children understand this when they opined that “mom does not have a job” . Of course there are always exceptions to the rules in that there will be lazy men, men who cant or wont hold a job etc etc., but there are also men who will wield a mop, make the bed, clean up, do laundry and even occasionally cook. I often talk about my wife around the watercooler, also with other guys, with pride.

  • Louise Wilkins says:

    Nice article, and so true.

  • Cheryl Siewierski says:

    Yup. Some excellent points there. We can certainly be our own worst enemies. The older I get, the less I care about people judging me, and I really wish to heck I’d had this attitude twenty or thirty years ago. I would have been wild and completely unapologetic about it.

  • Anthony Kearley says:

    I feel that selfishness lays behind almost every societal ill I can think of. There are indeed some selfish men and women out there, but I disagree with the author of this article, these are not the people to emulate or admire, not if you wish to drink deeply from the cup of life. Selfishness is not the solution, it leads to exclusion, to loneliness. In my opinion, as the adoring father of a daughter, packaging selfishness as empowering to women is a false promise… poison in a milk carton… no thank you.

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