It wasn’t until this year, at the age of 26, that I started to seriously consider the idea of just…doing nothing. Since I was very young I’ve known I didn’t want kids, but in their place, I pursued an MA and a career. Those seemed like my only choices, but at a certain point, I started to just like my life as it was—doing enough work to earn enough money, and then hanging out with the people I love and occasionally going on vacations. I like my life, and for the first time, I don’t necessarily want to strive for any larger goal.
But, of course, I feel guilty—as if I’m disappointing not only the success-obsessed, driven teenager that paid her way through an MA program by bartending 60 hours a week, but an entire generation of #hustling #girlbosses with pseudo feminist mugs. Since time immemorial, women have been pushed into having children, sidelining their own passions and work in service of the family unit. Post-war, second wave feminism did away with some of that—women could work, they could have a baby, they could have it all. In recent years, we’ve started to believe we can just want the career—to hustle and travel and wear designer suits.
These developments have been important and positive for many women, but more radical, perhaps, is the idea that we can do neither. Currently, if we aren’t either working on a career or having a family, we can feel as if we’re failing. But we the pressure to succeed and achieve in at least one of these realms, and increasingly both at once, feels like we’ll never be left alone to be content with doing our job and coming home. Work can be the thing we do in order to enjoy our free time—it doesn’t have to be a lifelong career, and we don’t always need to be pushing to be the boss. Forget having it “all”—why aren’t women allowed to just have “some,” and be happy with it?
I’m not the only woman starting to feel uncomfortable about the conflation of feminism and capitalism. In an essay from her recent book Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino writes of this endless strive for optimization and perfection. The ideal woman is, she writes, “sincerely interested in whatever the market demands of her” and “equally interested in whatever the market offers her.” She discusses this optimization through the lens of exercise classes and the workplace, discussing the ways we’ve been led to believe we need to constantly be striving to make our lives “better.” Even self-care has been marketed back to us as something that we can be good or bad at. Perhaps we are finally waking up to the idea that we’ve been conned—that in falling into the optimized lifestyle trap, we’re missing out on the life we actually deserve.
“I feel the need to make my job a much bigger, more defining component of my life due to the fact that I’ve not started a family,” Siobhán, 30, said. “I feel like there’s a social expectation to be visibly productive. And if you’re not literally producing small humans then you’d better be doing something just as consuming.” She believes there’s a gender divide. “I think a single, childless man with a good career just gets a kind of socially acceptable bachelor status, whereas a single, childless woman with a career has ‘made sacrifices,’ or is inherently ‘lonely,’ or maybe just a ‘massive bitch.’”
Danielle, 28, feels similarly. “I'm not interested in a career instead, which makes me wonder if I don't have any ambition or if there's something wrong with me, or I'm just lazy,” she said. “It hasn't been until recently that I've settled into the fact that I am not a career-oriented person. I want to have a job that I can leave at work, and that pays enough for me to enjoy my life and time outside of work.”
There’s an expectation that modern women should fill any downtime with side hustles or organized “self-care” activities. “As a woman, I feel like even my free time needs to be some sort of self-development: meditation to calm my anxiety, journaling to help with my mental health, exercising,” Danielle said. Maddie, 24, agrees. “I think men have more flexibility when it comes to hobbies. My relaxation through my hobbies is more likely to be seen as time wasting, but a man’s is more productive. In my relaxation time I absolutely feel smothered with guilt. I’m constantly thinking of the money I could be making instead of enjoying my time.”
While it seems counterintuitive to ask for help on de-optimizing your life, I turned to women’s empowerment coach Hueina Su. “We have been conditioned and expected to be the caretakers for everyone,” she said. “Women nowadays are expected to perform and succeed at work like their male colleagues, while also continue to take care of their husbands, children, and aging parents at home. We bought into the belief that we can and should have it all, otherwise we feel like a failure.”
Su believes women are often driven for the wrong reasons. “If we drill down to why they are so driven to perform, perfect and excel at everything, the underlying, hidden motivation often comes from a need to prove their worth, because they don't feel good enough or worthy as who they are,” she said.
The biggest barrier women face seems to be the idea that we have inherent worth: that we deserve to be alive, deserve to be happy, even if we are doing “nothing.” Su echoed this idea – saying that If you want to de-optimize your life, it’s critical to believe that you are inherently worthy, and to identify what success and happiness means to you. “We must learn to redefine success for ourselves, instead of letting society and other people dictate how we live our lives,” she said
We are expected to be caregivers and often fall into believing that we are worthless if we aren’t fulfilling that role. If we aren’t caregivers, then we must contribute to society as high-achieving workers. That stops us from taking time for ourselves, from considering what we want rather than what we feel we need to do. There’s no clear-cut answer to feeling less guilty for just existing, but a good start is to take time for yourself that isn’t organized or easily optimizable. “Whether you want a career, a family, or not, it's your choice. You get to choose what makes you happy and fulfilled,” said Su.
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