As women, society teaches us to expect a great career, a fulfilling relationship, and a child whenever we were ready. We are supposed to ‘have it all’. But if we expect so much, then of course we will fall short, says author Anna Hope.
I can remember clearly the point in my acting career at which I knew I had had enough.
I was 32 years old and sitting in a stuffy basement in Soho in the middle of a commercial casting, being stared at by at least five men and told I needed to flirt a little more with a plate of chocolate cookies.
This was the brief – I was auditioning for the role of a mother at a PTA meeting and the teacher (male) was trying to explain to me that my son was struggling at school. But I couldn’t concentrate on what he was saying, because a plate of chocolate cookies was sitting seductively on the table before me, cookies that began to talk, to flirt with me in a Barry White rumble, and which eventually, utterly unable to resist, I was supposed to lean over and stuff into my mouth.
I’d like to say that I walked out and told the casting director and the bored-looking director where they could stuff their patriarchal pitch, then went home and wrote a ragingly brilliant one woman Fleabag-style show about it all, but I didn’t. I needed to pay my rent. I needed to eat. The RSC didn’t want me, the BBC weren’t knocking at my door. So instead, I smiled and flirted and tried my very, very best. And I still didn’t get the job.
This is a scene which has made it, almost word for word, into my novel Expectation, where Lissa, one of the three main characters, undergoes a similar humiliation. Expectation is a book about those points in your life where you stop, take stock, and realise… This isn’t the person I was supposed to become. Which begs the question – who exactly was the person I was supposed to become? What cultural, educational, generational assumptions created this fantasy figure? This successful, home-owning, child-rearing, Shakespeare-spouting, world-beating doppelganger, living her best life, having it all?
My generation, the daughters of second-wave feminism, were arguably the first to expect we could have it all: a career, a fulfilling relationship, a child whenever we were ready. I spent most of my twenties studying and turned 30 without any of those markers of adulthood in place, but it was when I passed my mid-30s, still working in call-centres, that I began to feel like a failure, a feeling that only became deeper and more corrosive as time went on.
Nowhere did I feel this more keenly than in the realm of my female friendships; I couldn’t help but compare my own achievements, or perceived lack of them, with theirs: their homes, their marriages, their pay packets. And nothing hit harder than when, after years of trying and failing to have an acting career, I began trying and failing to become a mother.
There should be a word, I think, for the very particular combination of pain, joy, envy and delight that you can feel for a female friend when she tells you she’s pregnant, when you yourself have been trying to have a child for years. Perhaps there is a German compound noun we could borrow for the job? Or make one up? Friendloveenvy.
I want to be clear – aside from my family, my female friendships are pretty much the greatest treasures of my life, but in those years of struggling to become a mother I became a different sort of friend. Conditional. Withdrawn.
As a mother to a young child, I know now how vital those friendships are as lifelines, how moments of connection are oxygen in a day that can feel arid and repetitive and sometimes desperate. Friendships can mean the difference between coping, and not. There’s a scene in Expectation where two lifelong friends meet in a London park. One is on a last chance round of IVF, while the other is at the end of a frayed rope of sleep deprivation and probable post-natal depression. The afternoon does not go well. Both leave feeling awful, and neither been able to give the other what she needs. I have been both women, and I knew how they felt.
Having moved beyond that cycle of hope and grief that characterised my years of trying to become a mother, I have gained a bit of perspective, and can now see how forged in privilege those assumptions about the woman I was supposed to become were. Our mothers’ generation had gone out there and changed the world for us – feminism, in the mid-90s, felt like a battle that had been won. All we had to do was get out there and reap the harvest, to have it all. But what the hell does ‘having it all’ even mean? All of what? And if you get to have all of it, then what’s left for everyone else? It’s a narrative of individualism, of competition, of capitalism, a narrative that pits us against each other.
If we expect so much, then of course we will fall short.
What if, as well as telling our daughters they can do and say and be anything, we say, life is hard. Life is full of suffering. Life will seem unbearable at times, and at other times it will astound you with its beauty and joy and magic. It may do all of these things at the same time. But please, let’s not expect to have it all.
Honesty helps. Honesty about our experiences, our bodies, our desires, our losses, our envy, our griefs, our joys. When I encountered Helen Cixous, the French feminist’s invocation to ‘write yourself, the body must be heard,’ at University in the 90s, it was interesting, but didn’t strike me with the force of necessity. I was too busy hanging out with boys, taking the pill, downing pints in the bar. But it feels, now, as though we are in the midst of a golden era of women owning their bodies. Women are writing and speaking more bravely and honestly than I can remember in my lifetime. This is important. It is a profound gift.
After that terrible casting, I didn’t go home and write a one-woman show, but I did, along with a small group of friends, start a feminist book club. A group of us got together and read some Woollstencraft and Woolf and de Beauvoir and shared food and talked. We read the books (or some of the books), but the books were only really a jumping off point, for conversations that continued long into the night. Those conversations surprised us with their force, their necessity, as though something within us which had been stoppered up had finally been given permission to flow.
Let’s keep talking and being honest, about our bodies, our griefs, our fears, our love, our impossible relationship to our impossible sets of expectations. Let’s let go of our doppelgangers, our internalised images of perfection. Let’s dare ourselves to be as brave as we can possibly be.