When it was fashionable not to relax

It was Nick who pointed me in the direction of this article and I found myself invoking the rodents of disbelief as I read it, rather as he did.  Yes, journalists are censorious and Bronwen is a journalist, but surely no one feels the need to take the sort of expectation she describes seriously.  I think she’s taking as much as a stance as these fictional ‘perfect’ mothers and I found the article pretty trite and not especially well-written.  But I don’t have to churn out a weekly column for a living and I can quite see that a chance remark sparks off a train of thought and, perhaps, that one is drawn into a more vehement expression of opinion than the matter actually warrants.  So I shrugged and moved on.

Except, that it reminded me of the early 1980s, when there seemed to be great pressure to be busy all the time.  It was a common occurrence, that a woman would declare that she was constantly on the go and that she felt guilty if she ever took a break and sat down with a book or did anything for herself.  In saying how wrong she was to take this attitude – ‘my problem is, of course, that I’m a perfectionist.  I’m just too conscientious’ – the more vehement she was, the more she was actually boasting about it.  And others would agree with her and they’d all declare how stressed and busy they were all the time.

My answer was not an affectation because it was true, but I have to admit that it was deliberate – I intended to wrong-foot – when I reacted with great sympathy.  I needed loads of time to myself and would happily leave the washing up if I wanted to read a book, I declared.  “It all gets done in the end.  I don’t feel guilty because I’m not doing anything wrong.”

I wasn’t being entirely naughty, I did mean it.  There was a prevalent feeling that a woman had to do everything and many young women felt guilty at the prospect of employing someone to help in the house, even if they worked full time and had young children to look after too.  And some of them couldn’t afford not to be constantly on the go, and I don’t mean them, they just got on with the work and didn’t talk about it.  It was the ones who boasted about a level of stress and busyness that I knew either wasn’t true or wasn’t necessary that irritated me.  

10 comments on “When it was fashionable not to relax

  1. Irene

    Yes, it was that way in the 80’s and I remember feeling stressed all the time while I was a suburban middle class housewife and mother of two young children. I piled the commitments on my head and felt I had to deliver proof for the reason of my existence. I finally broke under the pressure and left that life behind me, much to my relief.

  2. Blue Witch

    It was Shirley Conran’s fault – the 1975 book Superwoman – aimed at ‘busy women’, which coined the phrase ‘Life is too short to stuff a mushroom’.

    These days, as a colleague of mine says, it’s the fault of Mumsnet.

  3. Z

    That was it, Irene, very easy to get sucked in to it. I’ve fortunately always been inclined to go against the trend and never took that attitude, however busy I became.

    It was, BW, though I suppose she capitalised on a growing trend. I never actually read the book myself, quite deliberately.

  4. Rosemarie Blackthorn

    In the 90s when I was growing Boy, it was pretty much the same.

    I’m from the West Indies, we like to take it at a slower pace, preferably with an afternoon nap when Boy did. I learnt to ignore the raised eyebrow and tut.

    It’s one of the joys of being an adult, you get to set your own pace.

  5. nick

    I think a lot of women feel guilty doing anything that doesn’t seem “normal” or that satisfies their personal needs rather than other people’s. The idea that you should be constantly on the go and never have a minute to yourself was/is quite ridiculous. But even though that idea has faded a bit, there are still plenty of women who’re constantly on the go because they just have too many commitments – children, husband, work, housework, elderly relatives, organising social events etc. Hard to see how that’s going to change.

  6. Z

    Well, I dearly love an afternoon nap when I have the chance.

    And I agree, Nick – I don’t seem to hear so many boasts of guilt at taking time for oneself any more (and it was that I meant, as I said, not the ones who really were struggling but those who used it as a weird status symbol). People are pushed more then ever now, it seems to me.

  7. Blue Witch

    Nick – it could be that all those women have all those pressures becuase of the attitude of men. Sorry, but, I do find your comment rather sexist.

  8. nick

    Blue Witch – Partly maybe. But I think it takes two to create an oppressive situation. It’s too easy to blame everything on men. A person who feels ground down should look for ways of opting out or lightening the load or getting others to do their fair share.

    But I’m not trying to excuse men. Men are responsible for many many appalling misogynist practices that any woman could go on listing all day and all night. Many men are simply barbaric. I could put it more forcefully, but Z’s blog is not the place….

  9. Z

    I think a lot of the pressure came from other women, in my experience at the time, BW. For some, it was a sort of status symbol and for others a feeling of obligation. That many men didn’t feel it in themselves might be sexist, but Nick’s accurate description isn’t, surely? And I have seen women take a domestic job away from a husband with the exclamation that he isn’t doing it right (ie her way)- so he won’t do it next time and that’s down to her sexism, not his.


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