I spent the August bank holiday weekend with a bunch of intelligent, capable, successful, sporty women in their late 30s and early 40s.
We were doing what independent, childless women of our age do on a bank holiday – pleasing ourselves.
These are the pros of not having offspring. You can get up and go at a moment’s notice to a music festival in Dorset, with a pocketful of pounds (because you’ve established yourself in your career but haven’t had to pay for your children’s violin lessons) and just a few muesli bars to eat (because you can buy food as you go along and don’t have to worry about hungry children).
You can take your mountain bike, on the train or in the back of a car (because you don’t have to think about fitting in the kids’ bikes). And you only have to spend the shortest amount of time in the smelly, long-drop camping loos (because you don’t have to wait to wipe the little ones’ bottoms or help them wriggle out of their pants in the dark).
You can stay out late dancing and singing to KT Tunstall or crazy skiffle bands like Quinns Quinney (because you’ve only got yourself to worry about) and you can sleep in late the next morning (because you don’t have to cook eggs for the early risers).
Before I go any further, I should say there were plenty of families with children camping at the Purbeck Folk Festival – including a delightful four-month-old baby brought by the equally delightful only married member of our small group – and I’d hope to continue camping if I ever had children myself. But just for a moment, it’s worth remembering the freedom childlessness brings.
Unsurprisingly though, given the demographic of our mostly female bunch, the talk often returned to some of this blog’s favourite topics – themes that will also form part of the book I am writing: the timing of careers and family, our desire for motherhood, our fears we’ve left it too late and the difficulties of dating against the biological clock. As we strolled along the Dorset coast, we shared the trials and tribulations of Internet dating, our wish to be in a partnership and what we were looking for in a mate.
As usual, our chit-chat (although of course it wasn’t all about men and babies!) gave me plenty of food for thought but I was particularly struck by one idea that came to mind as I mingled with this high-achieving group of females.
I’ve always prided myself on my own capabilities in various areas of life. I consider myself of reasonable intelligence and pretty capable when it comes to practical things like camping or sporting endeavours like swimming or biking. I drive a Vespa around town and can reverse a car into a small space. With certain groups of friends, I’m the leader when it comes to reading the map, finding our way through forests, putting up the tent or jumping off rocks into the sea. So it was interesting to be with women who, for the most part, were more capable than me in the camping arena and fitter than me when it came to the bike.
Most of the time, this barely registered. I was quite happy to take a back seat and let others lead the way. But a sudden attack of self-consciousness and insecurity around my own capabilities – brought on by losing a key for my bike lock, struggling to get my tent into its bag as it started to rain and worrying about the prospect of being left behind on a long, hilly cycle – taught me a valuable lesson in how I relate to others, particularly to men I have been close to or who have tried to get close to me.
It pains me to say that I have sometimes judged men (in my head and perhaps out loud) for not being as capable as I would like them to be – this can be in sports, academia (especially spelling ability!), linguistic skills (speaking languages, that is, not French kissing), car mechanics or DIY. I understand why I’ve done this and have understood it for a while, but I gained new insight into it at the weekend.
I am or have been so unforgiving of myself – expecting myself to be accomplished and perfect in so many areas – and it seems I have expected exactly the same, if not more, from any boyfriend. But the standards I set are impossible for any man to meet – hence my singleness no doubt.
These high expectations seem to be driven by a fear of intimacy – if we erect barriers between ourselves and others and judge men for what they cannot do, it’s unlikely we’ll ever get close to them. And if we create extra-high hurdles for men to jump over, they’ll fall every time and we’ll never have to face our fears and take the plunge into a deeper relationship.
After all, can I really expect to find a man who is all singing and dancing? And I mean that literally because as well as being accomplished at sports, physically and emotionally strong, good at DIY, intelligent, a master of foreign languages and brilliant at spelling, I also expect him to be able to lead me around the dance floor to salsa tunes, jive like a pro or swing me around doing ceroc. On top of all that, he’s required to be gentle, caring and considerate, faithful and reliable, not at all arrogant despite his array of accomplishments and a willing and wonderful father to the children I hope to have.
Yes, I’m living in fairytale land.
I wonder whether strong, capable, independent women are our own worst enemies. We’ve worked hard to become accomplished in so many areas, we keep our homes tidy and our finances in order but we also climb trees and jump off rocks into the sea. We create these amazing, full lives for ourselves because that’s what we were taught and it’s what we deserve but then we often struggle to find a man who we deem to be our match or we neglect to make space for romance. We’ve got it so good that few men will be considered good enough. And we’ve designed ourselves not to depend on anyone. But men – so the dating books say – quite like to be depended upon.
It seems – and I know I’ve done this – we can be looking for carbon copies of ourselves, without realising that one of us is plenty and two – in a relationship – would only lead to fireworks (and not of the good kind). There must be some truth in the phrase ‘opposites attract’ but it doesn’t have to be about polar opposites. Perhaps we can just make space for someone who’s a little different to us and appreciate that their strengths may complement our weaknesses and vice versa.
After all, we all have weaknesses, some of us are just better than others at disguising them with our incredible strengths.
So the weekend, aside from being refreshing and fun, has also been enlightening. I understood, more clearly than ever before, how I may have given off the vibe to men in my life that they’re not enough (and I apologise if you’re one of them and are reading this) and I learned, once again, that accepting myself as I am is the first step to accepting others and opening a door to ‘love that heals my heart and makes my spirit sing’ (to quote a beautiful affirmation I heard a while back and have adopted as my own).