As I dressed this morning, I picked up the perfume I’d recently purchased and give myself two quick sprays. I love the sweet scent of the pink liquid housed in a gorgeous glass bottle with a gold-colored stopper. I found it while wandering the duty-free shop during a recent layover. A saleswoman saw me loitering and asked I’d like to try a sample. It was love at first smell. Such a simple freedom to have and enjoy.
Buying it wasn’t so simple. As I stood and stared at its price tag, I wished I had some romantic figure in my life who might purchase this as a gift. Buying it for myself felt out of the question. Too extravagant and self-indulgent.
The silliness of this thought hit me, so I picked up the smaller bottle and made my way to the cashier.
Today as I sprayed some on, I’m reminded of my earlier reluctance to treat myself in light of a conversation I just had. I had finished Face-time-ing an old friend. She and I had been commiserating how difficult it is to do nice things for ourselves. Despite both of us being mental health professionals, we have found taking such steps challenging, not second nature.
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Maybe it was the way we were raised,” she said. “What we learned from watching our mother and our sisters.”
Each of us single again, we spent the next several minutes swapping stories of our latest efforts to improve the quality of our lives.
She’s selling her home and moving into a smaller apartment not far from her grown daughter. “I had to tell myself it was okay for me to have nice things. That it was okay to settle on this lovely apartment; it even comes with a soaking tub,” she said. Then she gave a quick chuckle. “A soaking tub! I’m dating myself, but at least I’m learning to enjoy the moment. It’s all I’ve got,” she added with a rueful smile.
She’s not alone. I’ve been having the same problem with feeling having such freedoms.
Since I’ve started working from home, it’s become apparent my sofa and overstuffed chair — both bought used off of Facebook Marketplace — are not working. Within a few hours, I’m in pain if I sit too long in either one. I’ve found a better piece of furniture online. I’ve gone so far as to select it and put it into the checkout cart, but haven’t had the stomach to push “Purchase.”
The inconvenience isn’t that bad, I tell myself. Just walk around more or use different pieces of furniture.
Seriously? What’s wrong with me? Why is it so difficult to buy something that would clearly benefit me?
I’ve had this problem for as long as I can remember. And, isn’t unique to me. I’ve counseled many women in my private practice who have struggled with the same matter. For some reason, we believe taking care of ourselves is selfish. As if we are injuring our loved ones and family by meeting our needs.
And a result, we become a nonperson for the sake of others.
In the days when the United States was young, this division of labor made sense. Women handled the children and food preparation while men plowed the field, chopped wood, and dealt with the livestock. But that world has been replaced by men and women working the same or similar jobs.
With the apparent leveling of career options, why do women still lag behind men? A recent look at women’s career choices revealed that women tended to do what’s called “occupational sorting” by choosing lower-paying careers. They continue to demonstrate that they lack the necessary confidence and “lowballed their abilities,” resulting in them taking lesser-paying positions.
According to Clare Cain Miller in The New York Times, gender inequality also continues within the home. Women still perform more of the traditionally feminine chores than their male counterparts. Many working mothers continue to do a “second shift” of work in addition to a full day’s job at the office.
Women’s predisposition to self-neglect affects every aspect of our lives. A surprising number of my female counseling clients could not identify their favorite food and struggled to pursue a solitary hobby. Their entire lives were shaped and defined by the needs of the family — even when it came to such matters as personal interests.
Why do we agree to do this? To behave like the 1977 Enjoli’s perfume ad, in which we women are capable of having a job so that we “bring home the bacon and fry it up in the pan”?
I think the clue to this persistent problem lies in the next line of the commercial. The sultry actress shivers in a sexy way as she croons, “and never let you forget you’re the man.”
There it is. The naked admonishment that being a woman means we are never to let the males in our lives forget that they matter more. That their needs rule, thus we deny ourselves the same freedoms.
Back when I lived on a working farm, my grandmother used to hover over the table and serve farm laborers who came in from working the fields hungry and tired. She would keep their coffee cups filled, and their plates heaped with an extra helping. Once they left the house, full and satisfied, she would slump into one of the kitchen chairs and finally grab a bite of whatever was leftover.
The message she sent by her actions was clear: the men’s work mattered more. Their needs came first. Her hunger and fatigue could wait until later. It’s a serious problem when we value one gender more than another. And it should never be done at the expense of oneself.
So, I’m going to revisit the furniture store website and order that chair. I already know what the men in my life would do. That chair would have been bought yesterday.
They have the innate freedom to do what works for them. It’s not difficult to make this kind of decision. They are comfortable taking the necessary measures to make their life easier or more manageable. And they don’t ask themselves if they are worth it.
They find my ingrained reluctance odd. Unnecessary. Once in a while, I can’t stop myself from telling my sons of a decision I want to make as if to seek their permission. They cock their eyebrows in surprise and say, “Just do it, Mom!”
Putting myself last has got to stop. I need to free myself from these ridiculous ingrained habits and beliefs. It’s time for us women to take a play from the men’s rule book and to treat ourselves differently. No one gender or sex has more value. We are all equal and important. We need to give ourselves the same freedoms men enjoy and treat ourselves better.