I’ve been reflecting on my past year, as we often do around New Year and thinking about why I particularly work with women and why is empowerment so important? This has turned into my most vulnerable post, but I know how scary it feels to dare to dream and I know that some of you will be wrestling with the same issues I’ve faced.
So why do I just work with women? I have nothing against men, I have a lovely son and I’m acutely aware of the challenges that men face with navigating the path of masculinity. But that is not my calling. I’ve been wrestling with the challenges of being a woman my whole life and this is what most interests me.
My ambition to be a doctor took me into a profession that is not just male dominated, it is permeated through every system, every belief and assumption with the perspectives of men of a previous era. The language of medicine is military – they battle and fight diseases. The solutions to illness are to cut, to suppress, and to force the body to respond. Much of medicine is very effective, but it comes at a cost. Side effects that are dismissed, long term effects that weren’t considered. It took me a while to realise that for many medics to save a life is enough. It wasn’t enough for me. I couldn’t help noticing the impacts and side effects and traumas that resulted from treatments. I couldn’t help wondering who was picking up the pieces after medicine had done its thing.
During my career as a doctor I’ve coped with inappropriate misogynistic behaviour, I’ve been assaulted at work by a colleague, and I have navigated the tedious background script from male colleagues who feel threatened by a woman being their equal or knowing more than them. I didn’t pay much attention to being in a society that treats women negatively, and yet now as I look back I realise it was always there. The 1970’s and 1980’s are not so long ago, and yet some appalling behaviour was the norm, and now my daughter is trying to navigate a world that hasn’t changed as much as we hoped. I’ve also realised that other women don’t always feel comfortable with success.
As I’ve changed my career and moved from the comfortable structure of employment, I’ve realised that my fascination with what it means to be a women runs very deep. In the past few months I’ve been writing my first book chapter, and wrestling (very slowly) with the content of my first solo book. I have noticed that there are invisible blocks that surface as I become more visible and push into unknown territory.
Being visible is scary. You risk judgement by speaking up. Marketing yourself, telling people that you have something important to say feels very exposing. It is easy to feel alone. By becoming successful I have felt like I am breaking a contract with the women before me. My Mum didn’t have the same opportunities as me, and hasn’t made the same commitments to self-development as I have, and I can feel us drifting apart. My grandmother before her suffered the war, and grew up in a time when women were more subservient. She may have been a sparky lady, but her husband always ate first, and she only worked when he gave her permission to. Many generations of women before me suffered hardship, domestic violence, possibly sexual trauma, and they definitely didn’t get the opportunity to have an independent income and speak up and be visible. If I play small I would stay with these women, be part of their experience. Stepping up, speaking out, and being a champion of women has meant I am rewriting the script and that has felt very weird at times.
I still love my Mum and she is supportive superficially, but if I tell her what I’m doing she is clearly challenged by it. So then comes the internal conversation – do I stop what I’m doing because I don’t want to hurt someone close to me? Or is that just fear coming up? If I continue, and I just don’t tell her, am I hurting anyone? I’ve never mentioned my family in my blogs before, because my work is about you, my clients, and yet I realise now that this is a challenge for many of us. Even writing this in a blog brings up fears of disloyalty, and yet to make truly courageous steps in our lives, we have to carve our own path. How do we outshine those around us? How do we dare to stand alone?
And there is the ultimate challenge. If we dare to stand alone, are we alone and lost in the world? How do we find connection, whilst at the same time daring to stand alone?
My solutions have come from connecting with other women who are taking the same path as me. When one of us starts to freak out, we can all give support. I’ve created an extended family around me, and I reach out to them often. I’ve also needed to have so many conversations with my husband because at times only my closest family feels like a safe space to retreat to.
I also need to keep returning to my deepest convictions – if my thoughts and actions are totally authentic then I don’t lose my way. In other words, I need to belong to myself, and if I’m not authentic I need to tackle that until I’m happy with myself.
At times this is easier said than done! I’m not a perfect human being (shock!) and at times I get irritable or frustrated and sometimes when I think I’m communicating clearly others around me don’t understand me. It’s easy to wobble in those moments and think “Oh I’m not perfect, so who am I to speak up, be successful, and be visible”. But I have learned, that if we wait to be perfect, we will spend our lives on the side-lines, wishing and waiting but never fulfilling our dreams.
So if you’re wondering whether you have the courage to take the path you dream of, ask yourself this: is some of your fear related to unspoken contracts with your family? Are you letting those invisible ties hold you back? Is it time to dare to stand alone, and if so what will you need to do to help you not retreat to the comfort of fitting in with society?
And when you need inspiration to spur you on, there are the words of Maya Angelou (in her poem “Our Grandmothers”)
Centered on the world's stage,
she sings to her loves and beloveds,
to her foes and detractors:
However I am perceived and deceived,
however my ignorance and conceits,
lay aside your fears that I will be undone,
for I shall not be moved.