You might assume that since I didn’t have babies until after having enjoyed a big career, I’d have been immune to the women’s malady of burnout. And yet, both times after I gave birth (at ages 39 and 41), I fell into a stupor of overwork.
The person who woke me up was my mother-in-law Lennie, who saw me one day, tired and haggard, and admonished me to make time for myself. She pushed me toward tennis. I now commit to playing several times a week.
This month, I joined an adult team in the USTA tennis league. I play in the lowest division, 3.0, but I take seriously someone’s advice that no matter my ability, I should dress to intimidate, since tennis is a mental game. Here’s a photo of me in my favorite black opponent-intimidating dress. Sleek and black, it makes me feel powerful, and I even feel like I should be going out to a cocktail party after the match!
Playing tennis makes me feel fit and strong, and I love that feeling.
Not your average mother-in-law
Lennie plays a special role in my life. I feel really lucky that, when Dave and I married, his parents embraced me not just as a daughter-in-law but as a woman. Lennie herself has gracefully combined multiple roles, as civic leader, teacher, intellectual, and mother. She’s a continuing role model for me on how to live. Now in her 70s, she exercises every day and she’s a kick-ass tennis player herself. Someday I’d like to get just one game on her, but I do not think that day will be coming soon!
As you can see, Lennie is not your average mother-in-law. After all, for many of us married women, the biggest pressure to abandon our dreams comes not from our mothers, but from our mothers-in-law. Mothers-in-law who demand that we abandon our own selves and devote our lives to serving their sons and grandchildren.
But when we build our lives around sacrificing our own needs to help others we inevitably create lives of exhaustion, frustration, and feelings of failure. It’s truly depressing when you think about how so many women live such broken lives, for the simple reason that all their lives they’ve simply tried to be what society trains us to be: a good woman.
Do you know any woman who doesn’t overgive?
I was struck by this quote from Gloria Steinem’s book Doing Sixty and Seventy:
I have yet to meet a woman who has completely kicked the habit of leading a derived life that depends more on her sense of others than her sense of herself. Even if we’ve refused to be hyper-responsible for the welfare of a family, we often feel too responsible for what goes on at work. Even if we’re no longer trying to surgically implant our ego into the body of a husband or children, we still may be overly dependent on being needed – by coworkers and bosses, lovers and friends, even by the very [political] movements that were intended to free us from all that.
When I first read this quote I thought, “Wow!” Even our feminist icons have struggled with giving too much.
Let’s treat ourselves as well as we treat others
As I look back, I see that every time I’ve felt lost or stuck is when I’ve momentarily set myself aside in service to someone else’s expectations – my parents, a boyfriend, a company I worked for.
We can each start to care for ourselves by simply committing to treat ourselves as well as we treat others.
Does that seem like too much to ask?
The great thing about being in my 40s is that finally I’ve given myself permission to ignore all the rules. I’ve stopped trying to please everyone and started focusing on just the ones whom I love.
I work hard for other people. Tennis is me-time. And me-time is something that we all need.