Ask any woman what it means to be a woman in this day and age and she’ll probably tell you something like this: “It requires you to be physically, emotionally and spiritually perfect all the time.”
For most women, failing is never an option — not as a daughter, not as a wife and definitely not as a mother. Now imagine being saddled with this burden of ‘perfection’ from childhood to adulthood, imagine the constant stress and anxiety that comes along with always trying to do it right, and the heavy dose of judgement that comes when you fall short, and you’ll have an idea of what it feels like to walk in a woman’s oft painful shoes.
As a female psychologist, Atiya Khan knows exactly how unfair it is to be the fairer sex. Atiya says, “Each and every phase of a woman’s life is filled with its own particular battles. Take motherhood — any woman who has had babies can attest to the fact that it can drive the sanest of us nuts. Add to this work-related stress, financial pressure, spousal problems and our own tricky bodies that love playing games on us and you literally have a ticking bomb on your hands.”
Atiya also suggests that the most difficult stages of a woman’s life are adolescence, motherhood and mid-life. “Women will experience a different set of stressors at each stage and will need to balance responsibilities and pressures accordingly,” says Atiya.
Catapulting into adolescence
While adolescence can feel like a war for both genders — a war in which not only is one in a battle with one’s emotions but also suffering severe blows to one’s self-esteem — it’s a little worse for girls. As a girl, not only is your body changing beyond your understanding, you are also being bombarded with images of supposedly perfect bodies, mounting peer pressure and sudden male attention — at the exact age when you become most susceptible to depression, anxiety, stress and eating disorders.
Peer pressure can be the hardest thing to deal with during adolescence. On the threshold of womanhood, when one is fearful and insecure more often than not, the teasing really destroys one’s self-esteem. This is also the time when female rivalry starts brewing as girls start competing with each other for male interest and experience jealousy towards their own friends.
“Growing up, my childhood best friend had turned into a swan by age 16. At the time, I was still struggling with my looks so I started resenting her,” says 25-year old working woman Rana Akbar*. “I would gang up and bully her relentlessly during lunch hour. I still feel guilty for what happened between us.”
Early puberty or sexually maturing earlier poses yet another problem. More than a few researches have outlined that early puberty can put women at a higher risk for psychological problems, aggression and being abused.
In 21-year-old Hajra Mansoor’s* experience, the timing of puberty can be critical. A student, Hajra says,“I started menstruating years before any of my friends and for an entire year, I had to hide this fact so that my friends would not treat me differently.”
But whether early or late, once puberty sets in, another struggle begins — PMS. And this one comes fully loaded every month with a tray full of depression, cramps, anger, bloatedness and the insane desire to devour an entire chocolate fondue on your own.
Young adult madness
As soon as peer pressure subsides and women gain more control over monthly mood swings, the leeway that was given in our teens is abruptly yanked away. All of a sudden, you are expected to make decisions about your career direction, marriage and children — all at the same time! Making that transition from an unsure, insecure and often scared teenager to a sure, secure, and unafraid adult in our twenties is difficult, to say the least. And the sudden need to juggle several responsibilities only adds to the difficulties of this phase.
“I thought that by the age of 25, I’d have my life all figured out. I would be someone important. I’m 27 now — I still haven’t found the right job or a special person in my life. All my friends have either tied the knot, gone abroad for studies or have kids. I can’t log onto Facebook, as I see everyone else has progressed in their life except me,” says Insiya Noman*.
While Insiya may be the only one piling pressure on herself to be married, other girls in their twenties have their parents doing that job as well. “I hadn’t even completed my bachelors when my parents started looking for rishtas. I had to go through one trolley trauma after another,” says 29-year-old Bushra Ghani* who is now a housewife.
For others, uncertainty of what it is to come next in life is also stressful. Kiran Haq*, a student, says, “I’m still struggling with college and my parents’ expectations of me.”
However, even if you’ve taken the hard decisions and figured out your route in life by your twenties, something stressful is always just around the corner. Newly married Hira Raza* who had a corporate job before marriage says, “It’s only been a year since I got married but my in-laws are already hoping for a grandchild. My husband and I are still getting used to each other. I had plans of resuming work, but that may not happen if I choose to have a baby now.”
Transitioning into mid-life
Once you’ve crossed the threshold of 30, ridiculous self-expectations and body image issues seem to resolve and women develop a greater appreciation of themselves. In your 30s, you grow more confident and learn to cope with life’s changes, handle growing families and climb the corporate ladder. But even when women are being kinder to themselves, our bodies may be working against us. With reproductive potential diminishing, if you haven’t had a baby by 35, one of the scariest prospects is realising that you may not be able to have one at all.
Take, for instance, Najia Akram*, who has been desperately trying for a baby. “It’s been five years since we got married, but I still haven’t had a baby. I’ll be turning 30 this year and they tell me 90 per cent of my eggs will be gone. And even if I do have a baby, the chances of complications are greater,” says Najia.
For women who were lucky to have babies at the supposedly right age, juggling a full-time career with motherhood can become stressful. “I work 9-5 in the corporate world and then 5-10 as a mother at home, my responsibilities never seem to end. I often find myself thinking that I could’ve been more successful at work had a baby not slowed me down,” says 32-year old Rabail Raza*.
They may say life begins at 40, but for most women the 40s are usually spent dealing with the first signs of physical aging like wrinkles, changes in body weight and other health issues. More worrying is perimenopause, the period before the start of menopause marked by the loss of estrogen, fluctuating hormones and changed sex drive.
Like most women, Jabeen Saeed*, a woman in her forties, is petrified of aging. “Now that age has crept up on me, I’m really scared. Every mole, ache and bruise makes me wonder if this is how it will be ‘the end’ for me,” she says.
But even those who aren’t fearful of ageing have their bodies working against them. “I was pretty content until I started experiencing some of the perimenopause symptoms. Then, I knew the fun had just begun,” says 45-year-old Fehmeeda Hasan* wryly.
Aging and health issues aside, family pressures don’t seem to subside at this age either. “I‘m taking care of my husband’s parents, my own aging parents and my children. There is very little time I have for my own self,” says 48-year-old Tahira Akbar*.
Also, the realisation that one’s children have grown up, and are less dependent on one can be a stressor for many women. Letting go of old, familiar responsibilities can be equally difficult for others. “My son just left for college. I constantly worry about him. With him independent and so far away from me, my life has lost its meaning,” says 42-year-old Laiba Khan*.
If it isn’t obvious, being a woman is never easy. Each woman, no matter how perfect she looks or seems, is suffering in her own way. But none of this is to say that women should start pitying ourselves considering we are put through so much. Instead, we should pat ourselves on the back, celebrate our achievements and allow ourselves to not be so perfect every now and then.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy
Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, June 24th, 2012.
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