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then vs now: a new kind of balance

At times in life, I’ve felt like too much and not enough – something I suspected was a personal failing – until I learned how many other women feel the same way.

And while hot baths, exercise, and a good night's sleep are helpful, sometimes it feels like no amount of meditation, manifesting, gratitude lists, positive affirmations, runs, and deep stretching resolve the underlying issues that keep women awake at night.

In her raw, confrontational, and self-deprecating stand-up routines, Ali Wong describes the double standards between men and women, in what is culturally acceptable and financially attainable. “I don’t just want equal pay, I want equal pleasure.” While her examples are uncomfortable for some, her delivery is unapologetically honest and so relatable. It's fair to expect equitable treatment, and frankly shocking that we're still not there yet.

I’ve considered the causes of my own discomfort and deep exhaustion, as a working mom, doing the adulting thing. Having kids young and feeling divided in my attention between work and parenting often made it difficult to feel that I could focus well on either. Making less than my partners also suggested that I was contributing less, even when I was doing more.

But the truth is, I’ve been werking.

The virgo oldest child, in a "colorful" family, I felt at an early age that it was the woman’s responsibility, and mine, to hold things together, make the plans and do what had to be done. The women kept the family intact, ran the household, raised the children, and comforted each other amidst the crisis and upheaval, in the midst of their men’s appearances and absences. And I, like the women before me, have grown a certain tolerance for challenge by dumbing down my expectations, and doubling up my efforts.

I started work at 16 in a machine shop, assembled aeronautical flashlights, and soldered microchips. Over the years, I worked a child care provider, educator, grant-writer, community organizer, event planner, administrator & project manager – moonlighting as boat crew and water safety for night tours, in medical records & insurance authorizations and even as a “substitute nurse". I worked odd hours, full-time, and on weekends, writing contracts and budgets, managing projects and employees. I can drive a forklift, throw lucrative fundraisers, and communicate directly and tactfully, with a baby on the hip.

Despite these contortions, I struggled for a living wage, failing to match the incomes of my male partners even when they weren't making the same effort.

“It takes so little to be considered a great dad, and it also takes so little to be considered a shitty mom,” - Ali Wong

At 27, I was embroiled in a painful divorce. I was working full-time with a glossy “catch-all” title, broad in responsibility while lacking in pay, with work extending well into evenings and weekends. With the demands of a beyond full-time work schedule that didn't cover the bills, my aptitude as a mother and provider was called into question. Meanwhile the ex flexed the single-dad look. He was well polished, focused and convincing, while I was preoccupied with the task of survival.

Without means or experience to hire legal representation, our house became his house, the fun house - and I left with nothing, to a place my kids “visited,” feeling new and weird and boring and restrictive in its motion toward consistency, to rebuild life from scratch.

There are countless stories of other women with less resources and worse outcomes. Even where abuse occurs, women are often ashamed to admit it. The struggle we’re having isn’t because we’re crazy, lazy, stupid, selfish, or ungrateful. We’re not inventing what we’re feeling. It’s the self-denial and self-blame that is the quiet and corrosive lie.

We all want financial success and self-sufficiency, to be paid fairly for our time, and in an ideal world, to feel a sense of connection to what we do. We want to work in balance with rest and life beyond work - movement, meals with friends, laughter, nature, community, watching our children grow and the ability to stay home when one of us is sick.

The long-held standards for what is considered a “good mother,” a “good wife,” and ultimately a worthwhile human being are worth questioning, and prioritizing the needs of others before our own, at work and home, is highly unsustainable.

At 40, I approached an employer for a raise. After 3 years of working together and a year full-time as "lead designer," I proposed a new pay structure commensurate with the scope of work I was doing, well within my professional experience. This was good practice in negotiation and I was confident that my request was fair. He declined, and I eventually moved on. As a result of recognizing the value of my own work, I became ready to work for myself.

The antiquated and lopsided “ideal woman” image still nags at women's identities, shaping the opportunities and resources extended through our compensation, valuation, and health care. But basing self-worth on the ability to be “all the things,” while smiling and accepting less than we deserve, is a tall order.

References & Recommended

Dong Wong, by Ali Wong (2022)

Netflix Special

Book on Amazon

Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski Ph.D. and Amelia Nagoski, D.M.A

Book on Amazon


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