The day we, as women, first exchanged our aprons for tailored suits, few things could have shattered the bliss of our new-found independence. But at the time no-one could have guessed how severely the added stress would affect us.
A few decades down the line, we seem to have become expert jugglers, managing demanding careers and family life with apparent ease.
In fact, the Female Nation Survey 2007, conducted by Women24.com, found that 75% of urban South African women are employed full-time. Among women who are the main breadwinners in their households, 87% are also the primary caregivers.
But when one is faced with the reality that heart disease now accounts for a third of all deaths in women worldwide, it’s clear that we’ve lost part of the plot somewhere along the way.
Maybe it’s time to realise that these multiple roles, and the resultant stress, come at a cost?
Work/family balance a myth
Sam Wilson, working mom and editor of Women24.com, knows what it’s like to keep several balls in the air.
Speaking at a Go Red for Women Wellness Workshop in Cape Town, Sam noted that a paradigm shift regarding our thoughts on this balance should be made: we should realise that work/family balance is a myth, that other women aren’t necessarily any better at achieving this than we are and that we should be brave enough to ask the men in our lives to help.
Sam feels that the roles in a woman’s life can’t be segmented into a pie chart made up of equally-sized portions for work, family, friends, exercise etc. There’s just too much overlap – a fact that we should accept and incorporate into our lives.
“We seem to be thinking that we should be balancing our lives better: that we should be exercising more, be better groomed, be spending more time with our children, be progressing further up the corporate ladder, be earning more money, be having more sex and, my personal favourite, be less stressed,” she says.
Looking at the situation from this perspective, it’s small wonder that the pressure is taking its toll on our hearts. Trying to excel at all of these things, and segmenting them into separate chunks, is clearly impossible.
But what’s the solution?
According to Sam, there’s no such thing as dedicated work and family time – a concept that, incidentally, stems from a male perspective. Ask any working mother: she’ll tell you that while she’s trying to prepare for a budget meeting, she’s also organising a lift from the school for her kids and trying to break up a fight on the phone.
Thanks to our remarkable ability to multitask, most women can manage to do work and parenting at the same time. But trying to separate the two in an effort to be “professional” can just cause undue stress, Sam says.
For many women, working from home or working flexible hours can be a solution.
On the other hand, however, there’s little point in trying to always do everything perfectly. One should also avoid doing too many things at the same time. For this reason, it’s important to swallow your pride and ask for assistance. “We need the boys to come and help,” Sam says.
Ultimately, we should try to find a new paradigm: one in which parents are partners in providing a steady income and holding the family together and one in which the pressure is shared between the partners.
It’s also important to realise that there’s no such thing as a perfect mom. “You deserve to drop balls every now and again. You deserve to have other people in your life that will pick up these balls for you. And you deserve time to just be, without guilt,” Sam says.
Heart disease kills younger women
Heart disease, of which stress is one of the major risk factors, is the leading cause of death among women aged 35 and older. Research shows that women who have high levels of stress are more likely to suffer a stroke and more likely to die of a heart attack.
It's also worth noting that heart disease kills six times as many women as breast cancer.
– (Carine Visagie, Health24, updated January 2009)