Before I plunge into today’s blog topic – What’s your role? – a quick plug for the Women of the World (WOW) festival that’s on at London’s Southbank Centre tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday. I was at WOW 2012 and loved every minute of it.
Last year, I spoke on a panel about body image and ageing and tomorrow, I’ll be on a panel entitled ‘Crash and Burn’ – discussing what happens when your life hits the wall, alongside Rosie Boycott, a recovering alcoholic, and the American comedian Ruby Wax (@RubyWax), who’s battled what she calls the tsunami of all depressions. It might not sound the most cheery of events but I hope we can bring some light to a topic that too often lurks in the shadows – and Ruby is guaranteed to bring us some laughs.
I haven’t thought about what to say yet but I’ll talk about my eating disorder, about what happens when we bottle up pain and difficult emotions and carry them from our childhoods into our adult lives – only to see them come out sideways in the form of compulsive behaviours. About finding myself on my knees in my bedroom late one night, some five years ago, asking ‘What’s the point?’. And about finding a way out from addictive behaviours and recovering a sense of peace and purpose, which of course isn’t always present – as regular readers will know – but that’s there in much greater measure than it ever was before.
Tomorrow’s WOW event also coincides with International Women’s Day and if you can’t get to WOW, there’s bound to be some sort of celebration of womanhood near you.
While there are so many inspirational women out there who’ve led phenomenal lives, I’ve decided this year to champion the unsung heroines in our lives: the mothers, the aunts, the sisters, the godmothers, the friends, the mentors, the teachers and the carers who don’t make the headlines, but who work behind the scenes to make sure we have the support we need. I’ve chosen my auntie as my unsung heroine today and, although she doesn’t care much for publicity, I’ve taken the risk of blogging about her in Canada, on JustCharlee.com (@_JustCharlee): International Women’s Day: Championing Our Unsung Heroines. Maybe there’s an unsung heroine in your life you’d like to take your hat off to tomorrow.
Ok, so back to the question, ‘What’s your role?’ It occurred to me recently that while so much has changed in my life since I was in my teens and particularly over the past ten years, some things have barely changed.
My role when I was growing up was to be the ‘good girl’ and the ‘achiever’. I’m not saying anyone particularly gave me this role, but I intuited – from my surroundings and from the things I heard – that it was my job to do well at school, get good grades, go to university and have a good career. It was also my role not to rock the boat and to stay out of trouble.
I did very well at the ‘good girl’ and ‘achiever’ roles – less well at staying out of trouble, although I guess the trouble I got into was more internal than external – self-harming behaviours like binge-eating and binge-drinking – and I also did a very good job at keeping my trouble to myself. Nobody saw past the good girl façade.
I also knew, or thought I knew, what my role wasn’t – it wasn’t to have boyfriends when I was growing up (although I did) or attach myself to a man. And it definitely wasn’t to depend on a guy for anything.
I remember introducing guys to my Dad when I was young, or perhaps I should say ‘guy’ because I think he only met one. I never brought boys home (or to his home, because that was different to mine) but I do recall a very awkward moment bumping into my Dad down by the River Mersey in Liverpool when I was with a guy I was semi-dating (I think I only did ‘semi’ back them – in fact, yikes, I think I only do ‘semi’ these days too!).
Dad wasn’t particularly interested to know who he was or what I thought of him – neither in the moment, nor later on, or at least that’s how I interpreted the scene. I don’t blame him for my single status or relationship difficulties – a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then – but I definitely took some pretty powerful messages on board around the value – or lack of it – of having a man in my life.
And it seems those messages don’t budge easily – they take some dislodging.
On the other hand, when it came to ‘A’ grades, places at Oxford Uni or sports’ trophies, Dad was very impressed. So I obliged by coming home with less boys and more ‘A’s. That was 25 years ago (oh my goodness, how old?) but even though I’m a grown woman and my Dad has been dead seven years, how much has actually changed?
I mention this because I’ve become acutely aware in recent weeks of the kind of news I’ve been communicating with family and friends – and it’s not too dissimilar to my teenage years. “Guess what?” I tell my brother, mum or auntie over the phone. “I’ve got a full-page article in The Sunday Times” or “I’ll be on ITV Daybreak in the morning or Newsnight later on.” Texts to my friends say similar things – “On my way to the BBC studios” or “Story in The Guardian today” (don’t worry, I also send them texts to say ‘Hi’, to meet up for laughs or to report my latest dating disaster).
But the point is I don’t remember ever making an excited call home saying, “Guess what? I’ve got a boyfriend” or “I’m moving in with him” or “You’ll soon be hearing the patter of tiny feet” (hopefully the news of the boyfriend would have been delivered first). If I’ve had relationship news to impart, I’ve done this in slightly embarrassed tones and as a bit of an afterthought, whereas I’m quite happy to shout my professional achievements from the tallest building.
A week away from my 42nd birthday, I reckon this is pretty sad. And I also reckon it’s time to change.
The ratio of messages I deliver about work and relationships also reflects the time I put into both – that is, work takes the lion’s share while you could count the hours I spend developing relationships with men or lining up dates on one hand (although that wouldn’t include the large amount of time I spend ‘working on myself’, which is arguably a vital stepping stone).
My subscription to the online dating site Guardian Soulmates has just lapsed and I’m embarrassed to say that over the course of some eight months, I went on two dates and chatted online to about four other possibles. And I never got round to getting a good picture up there – the first one was pretty old and then I swapped it for a picture of me in a pink woolly hat (a cute one all the same but honestly!) and then felt the need to assure any visitors to my page that I did actually have hair.
Of course, the cynic in me (or is it the realist?) puts my lack of online success down to my age. I’m not the first woman to note that describing yourself as 41, without children and maybe – repeat maybe – wanting them is a recipe for an empty inbox. And plenty of men I’ve interviewed for my book have told me, in the nicest possible terms, that of course they’d steer clear of the older model – and particularly women whose fertility might be challenged by their age – if there are younger ones on the market. The guys often don’t know if they want kids either, but you can’t blame them wanting to keep their options open and give a relationship time to blossom before having to raise the kiddy question.
So where do we go from here? Well, I guess I’d best get myself on an online site again if I’d like a date this year. And I’ve finally got a reasonable photo in the pipeline. Recent efforts to meet people out and about have proved rather unsuccessful (aside from the Mexican holiday romance, of course). A night out on the London Eye with a bunch of fellow singletons – dubbed by the organisers as the crème de la crème of the capital’s single scene – was a resolute disaster as the title of this Telegraph piece suggests: Dating on the London Eye: From life drawing to angry rabbits. I won’t tell you the whole sorry tale but suffice it to say that standing in a cold, dank, underground tunnel for 40 minutes with a bunch of men and women half my age who were swigging from cans of lager and vodka bottles – just to get our tickets to the next cold queue – is not my idea of romance. If that’s the crème, the cat can have it.
A night out at a Valentine’s barn dance – otherwise known as a ceilidh – with a bunch of girlfriends proved a lot more fun but was just as unsuccessful on the dating front as the ‘Wheel of Date’ – or as we renamed it the ‘Wheel of Death’. There were far more girls than boys. Still, we got to swing each other around on the dance floor and jig the night away.
If anyone has any great ideas as to what a successful, attractive single or SAS (as I believe we’ve become known) is to do to have fun and, at the same time, mingle with the opposite sex, I’d love to hear from you. Or come and join you.
In the meantime, I’ll be spending the next few days in an environment virtually guaranteed to be a man-free zone, bar a few brave types. Oh yes, and Gordon Brown. You might think this isn’t the best tactic given what I’ve just written but on this occasion, the laughs, the friendship and the female fellowship more than make up for it.
WOW 2013 will celebrate womanhood at its best and there are panels on pretty much everything, from female activism to pornography to life drawing to women in the media (love the title of this one: Sum of their body parts?). There’s also a panel on Saturday that’ll ask whether there’s a taboo around childless women, So you don’t have kids: Now what? and Jody Day of Gateway Women (@gatewaywomen) will give a talk on how to create a meaningful life without children on Sunday. All that plus comedy, music and guaranteed giggles.
So ladies – and gentlemen (yes, you’re more than welcome), come on down to WOW 2013.