I don't know if it's female instinct, or social conditioning, or both, but women want to please others. We want the people we love to be comfortable and happy, even if it means forgoing our own happiness in the effort to satisfy everyone around us. Not all women are this way, but it seems to be a general trend. When I was growing up, I watched my grandmother go out of her way to make sure her husband, children, and grandchildren were happy in every situation, no matter what sacrifices she had to make of herself. She would cook two dinners the same night if someone wanted something she hadn't already prepared. She woke up at six a.m to make breakfast, even though she hated breakfast and never ate it herself. When anyone in the family or in her community asked her to do something, she said yes. She always said yes to everyone, because she didn't want to upset anyone. And she's not the only woman in my family to live a life of placating others.
My mother told me that on the day of her wedding, she became violently ill hours before the ceremony. Everything in her body told her she didn't want to walk down the aisle. She knew she was making a mistake, but she married my father, anyway. The church was full of people who had traveled many miles to be there, and the dress, wedding and reception were all paid for. She told her mother she didn't want to go through with it, but was convinced to carry on as if everything was okay. She didn't want to upset anyone by calling it off, even though the groom wasn't too thrilled about the marriage either. Ten years later, they divorced. It sounds strange to marry someone out of worry over offending other people, yet that is but one example of women I know who are always putting everyone else first. I suppose that's why women are the ones to bear children, since Nature knew that we are the gender who can make the ultimate sacrifice. But I have come to learn that not putting yourself first sometimes can inflict long-term damage, and not only upon yourself. Since my own divorce, I have had to rediscover myself, and figure out what I want for my life, regardless of what other people think or expect of me. At thirty-five, I thought I would be grounded in who I am by now. But just last weekend, I found out I still have some growing up to do.
Knowing Who You Are and What You Want
Last Saturday, I went shopping with my mother. In a furniture store, she found a light green chair with a wooden back that she insisted would be perfect for my apartment. I didn't really want it at the time, but I hate shopping and just wanted to get out of the store. So at her insistence, I bought it. Of course, it was a decision I later regretted. In truth, it is a perfectly lovely chair. But it is also completely out of place in my apartment, and more importantly, it just isn't me. I realized after she left that it looked exactly like something that would be in her house, not mine. The incident made me think about how many times over the years I followed her lead and made choices based on what she thought I should like, or have, or how I should behave. I wore eyeliner for two years because she said my eyes would stand out if I did, even though it actually just made my eyes burn and I felt awkward wearing it. I did it to please her, just as I had bought an unwanted chair. When I was married, I fit myself into other molds in order to make people happy. I went to cocktail parties and art openings and I tried to make small talk with strangers, because that's what I was expected to do. But it wasn't what I wanted. Eventually, I had to learn to stand up for myself and to stand my ground. I took off the mascara, and stopped going to opening receptions. I looked like a bad wife, but I was slowly starting to fight for the life I wanted, where I could be myself and not feel like I was constantly faking my way through.
Permission To Put Yourself First
Sometimes it's not enough to say what you want, or even to do as you please. Sometimes you have to give yourself permission to put yourself first on a deeper level. It may seem selfish at first, but by doing so you're actually doing everyone around you a favor. In her final years, my grandmother once told me she regretted complimenting her late husband on his eggs Benedict. She thought it would strengthen their marriage at the time, but instead she got a lifetime of bad eggs Benedict. It's a lesson worth sharing.
I know it would have been easier if I had just kept smiling and nodding at my ex-husband's art openings. It would have been simpler to have just kept wearing make-up whenever my mother comes into town. I could have continued these small acts, because they really don't seem like large sacrifices in the scheme of things. But they accumulate, and one day you may find that if you don't stand up for what you want now, you won't recognize yourself later. I often wonder how different my mother's life would have been had she not married my father. Maybe she would have been happier had she said no that fateful day. There would have been a difficult scene, yes, but if she had stood her ground, she would have changed the course of her entire life. There is no such thing as a soft protest. I should have remembered that when I went shopping with my mother. I wish I didn't have a chair to return next weekend, but on the bright side, at least I don't have to eat a lifetime’s worth of bad eggs Benedict.
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*All images Courtesy of Lily Atherton Photography