by See Change Ambassador, Lucie Kavanagh
“Maybe you’ll marry, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll have children, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll divorce at 40, maybe you’ll dance the funky chicken on your 75th wedding anniversary. Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either. Your choices are half chance. So are everybody else’s”. Mary Schmich
I don’t think my Grandmother’s life story would be unfamiliar to anyone who lives, lived or has relations in rural Ireland. She married at a young age to a local farmer and had 6 children. She had no help with childcare until the oldest children were at an age to help around the house. She and her generation worked from early morning to late at night. Farm life was harsh, a “man’s job” and these labels sometimes don’t take into account the work that the women did. They cooked from morning to night to keep the hungry workers fed. They had their own work around the farm-growing vegetables, care of animals and helping the men where needed. My grandmother had elderly relatives to care for. She also had her hens to look after and eggs to sell (not really seen as a job but this money kept the kitchen stocked during lean times of year). She had her children to feed, clothe and bring up. All of this was alongside the stigma of the time that certain aspects of womanhood brought-the idea of being “unclean” after having a baby, a reputation to uphold and the pressure of living in Ireland at a time when you didn’t stray outside the image of what a good Catholic woman was.
My Grandmother was also lucky in the sense that she was able to do and be what was expected of her and that this, albeit taking into account the lack of options, was what she wanted for herself. She married. She had sons and daughters and then grandchildren. The family was well regarded and while money wasn’t plentiful and the work was hard, they lived to a standard where they had what they needed.
I can’t say what aspects of her life might have been hardest. My memories of her from childhood always involve her constant activity. She was the first up in the morning and the last to go to bed at night. When I picture her young married life, I sometimes think that it might have been very easy for a young woman of the time to lose her identity. It used to make me feel sad when, as an old woman, she was never able to truly own her feelings. At the hardest times of her life, she would say things like
“You’d find the dark evenings long”
“You’d find these days long and lonely”.
Yet on the other side I think she would have said that the world she grew up in was a more supportive one. She was firmly a part of her community, supported and providing support in her turn to neighbours and friends. Her letters contained news from the town and details of recent visitors. She was known and liked and she took pleasure in the company of others.
She fitted in. But what if she didn’t? What might her life had been like if she wasn’t able to fit into that tight knit world of roles and expectations? When I picture myself in her life I know I would had to hide myself away to survive.
What is the world like if you are a woman who doesn’t “fit”–physically, practically or any number of ways? On the surface it seems that there is a place for everyone today regardless of details like marital status, sexuality, career, ethnicity, disability or religion but in reality expectations still exist. Our reputations might not depend quite as desperately on them but the vitriol is there, under the surface, in school playgrounds, in social media comments, in workplaces, communities and social networks when someone is “different”.
I have always been different. Some of my earliest memories involve standing in a school playground at a very young age and being utterly bewildered at everything going on around me. It has always felt as if there was and is a code or a secret that I just can’t grasp. Being different was hard as a child but manageable, with other worlds and books and stories to escape into. It was worse as a teenager and then easier in adulthood where difference is easier to live with and better still, can work as a strength. But still there are expectations, the constant feeling of watching the world through glass, and the dilemma of being so good at masking the reality of who we are that it becomes almost physically impossible to drop the act.
When we’re not quite matching the roles that are discreetly placed before us in society, it can be very hard to know how much of ourselves is acceptable to share and this has a huge impact on mental health.
At the moment I am undertaking a course about anxiety in dogs and I’m reading about studies of personality in animals. The course has taught me a lot about anxiety in ourselves as well as dogs…we’re all mammals. I was not surprised to read that the personalities that have a more passive response to threats such as hiding, freezing, watching and waiting, are more prone to illness and anxiety disorders. Masking who we are and how we feel is part of that same response. Hiding who we are and trying to fit into roles that aren’t suiting us can take a huge toll mentally and physically.
At some stage in our lives we come up against the expectations of us and we have to choose whether we can fit them, whether we want to and sometimes, whether we can afford to rebel against them. But think back to my grandmother’s time. While she and her peers nourished and sustained a generation, in their number were the people who stepped out of line, spoke up and broke away. Without them, the options for my parents’ generation would have been far fewer. In that number were the women who carried and shared the stories of the horrendous wrongs that were done to them, so that there was a chance of a long and dark history being brought to light.
For every individual who can’t or won’t fulfil the role set out for them in life, they make it that little bit easier for the next person who needs to take a different path.
“Scream. So that one day a hundred years from now, another sister will not have to dry her tears wondering where in history she lost her voice.” Jasmin Kaur
If you are having a tough time at the moment and need to reach out for support, please contact any of the following