“Well-behaved women seldom make history.” – Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

This article, entitled, “Mama Ain’t Happy”, by Martha Beck Master-Certified Life Coach Michele Woodward talks about the disillusionment syndrome of middle-aged (47-year-old) women in America. According to research by Marcus Buckingham, women’s happiness declines steadily after the age of 47. Why?

Buckingham offers a list of “Don’t”s as a hypothesis for how women might age more happily. The happiest women, he says, don’t agonize over who they aren’t. They don’t juggle. They don’t strive for balance, they strive for fullness. And they “always sweat the small stuff” (don’t don’t sweat the small stuff), paying attention to the details of what invigorates them, and acting on those small things while letting go of others.

The list is interesting, since its wording suggests that happiness, for aging women at least, hinges upon “breaking the rules”. Whose rules are these anyway? Where did they come from? The way I learned the rules for womanhood was by watching the actual women in my life. I wasn’t that strongly influenced by media until after leaving my parents’ home. So I learned most consciously from watching my mother, and my violin teacher. Both were strong, independent women who wrote their own rules to some extent. I was more familiar with the disenchantment of my mom, since I grew up hearing her occasionally vent her frustrations about being held back in her career, and blaming it on society, our family’s circumstances, my father, even us children. Now, at age 67, and after pursuing a second career almost 20 years ago, she has achieved a certain level of peace about that aspect of her life. She can look back and accept the trajectory of her life as having brought her many of the things she wanted, albeit in a different sequence than she might have first imagined.

As for my violin teacher, I am not sure. She never discusses with me the underbelly of things, at least not in a personal way. We talk plenty about the professional frustrations and emotions of working with families. But I have never asked her about the tradeoffs between her own work and her own family. She left her first husband and had to support two children on her own. She began teaching as a way of having a more stable income and less travel than a solo violinist. According to the stories she has told me, she was raised to be able to stand on her own two feet. Her grandmother decided to give her violin lessons, and give her sister sewing lessons, so they would each have a useful skill to support themselves.

Michele Woodward talks about her own rules that governed her generation of women in America:

“Be a good girl, don’t have strong opinions or talk too much, get along, be pretty enough to catch a husband, have kids and then everything will be easy for you.”

These ring true for me, too, even though I grew up very closely with two strong examples of women who did not live by those rules. These women were my closest mentors until the age of 17. Their impressions are still etched strongly in my mind, and serve as benchmarks at a subconscious level for every other example I encounter of what it means to be a woman.

I am also becoming my own model now. I have broken my own share of rules so far – and I’m only 33. I have left two “stable” careers, remained pretty enough to catch a husband but have chosen not to focus on that pursuit as a route to any real sense of security, and I honestly wonder some days whether I really need to have children.

This last one is the most difficult thought for me to choke out, because I was raised in a strong family environment. One of my aunts was unable to bear children, and it was always talked about as the Great Disappointment Of Her Life. I never asked her directly about this, and now I am curious how much of that disappointment was really hers, versus the rest of her family’s projections of their own. My father somehow passed on to me the belief that it is “unnatural” and even “selfish” for a woman, or a man for that matter, not to at least want to have children. He believes it is a human animal instinct that should not be ignored. I have always just heard that, groaned, and rolled my eyes, while continuing to pursue my career, since he also raised me to believe that I can and should be any, and preferably all, of the following: a beauty pageant queen, a concert musician, an astronaut, President of the United States, and Nobel-prize winning research scientist.

Unfortunately, none of my rule-breaking and career exploration has so far led me toward any of those things. He seems to be okay with it. But I sense that his own life rules may cloud his own ability to be happy for me someday. He has the strong belief that my life will be incomplete without his idea of a traditional family unit. As a result, I have been living half afraid to pursue the fullness of my career possibilities because I might neglect the biological necessity of finding a mate. I have been trying to juggle. I have been trying to balance. And the net result has been half-fulfillment in a number of areas, without the feeling of fullness in any.

In this New York Times article on accepting a spouse’s need to regain a sense of self within a marriage during midlife, the author describes her own decision to take responsibility for her own suffering. It’s not an easy thing to do. How do you discern what it is that’s causing your own suffering? That’s the point of life coaching. To get better at discerning areas of suffering, and how to take responsibility for them.

Today is a beautiful, cool sunny day in the Bay Area. Let me feel the gratitude for that at least. As for the rules, well, I’m off to write some more of my own.

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