I am five women. I hope that one day I will be six. If you’re female, you are at least two women – and some of you may be seven or more.
What are you blathering on about today, I hear you ask. Are you admitting to being some kind of Sméagol-Gollum, or what?
Of course not. But, since you ask, I do feel as if I’m several different people all at once. This happens particularly when I’m with my children and my parents. That’s when I have the greatest number of roles to play.
When I’m alone, I’m just me. Then along comes my partner: I’m a wife and me. Then along come the kids: I’m a mother, a wife and me (this is starting to sound like a memory game). Then off we go to a family gathering: I’m back to being a daughter and a sister plus the everyday mother, wife and… well, the ‘me’ has got pretty much lost by now.
Don’t get me wrong: I love being lucky enough to have a partner, children and a family. And there’s nothing exceptional about my situation. Some of you probably have many more roles to play, and manage to juggle them to silent applause. Or perhaps your personality is so strong that the only role you play is You.
Before I came to France (and in France too) I was a manager, which added another role to the panoply. Making decisions and playing politics aren’t my strong points, so I was pretty rubbish in this role. And since I’ve been in France I’m also ‘that English woman’ (there’s an optional adjective before the word ‘English’, the most common being mad / strange / poor – but it’s not usually said out loud).
The Englishwoman role is fun to play. As a foreigner, you’re allowed to be different to the natives. You don’t have the same pressure to behave in a certain way, and people don’t judge you by your accent. You’re just English (even if you’re actually Scottish, Irish or Welsh). In fact, you’re often expected to be different. The French will be disappointed if you don’t mix up your ‘le’s and ‘la’s, wear pastel suits like the Queen and eat jelly every day.
The wife role calls for compromise skills. No sooner have you got used to wifely sulks and martyrdom than you fall into the additional role of mother. In the 1950s, this didn’t seem to be a problem. I found an article from Housekeeping Monthly, 1955, called The Good Wife’s Guide, in which the Do’s and Don’t’s of your role are spelt out for you. It’s very helpful: you’ll soon see where you’ve been going wrong… Here’s a taster:
“Prepare yourself. Take 15 minutes to rest so you’ll be refreshed when he arrives. Touch up your make-up, put a ribbon in your hair and be fresh-looking. He has just been with a lot of work-weary people.”
So, you adapt to being the perfect wife and mother, like a 1950s icon, and simultaneously manage to impress your boss with your career-girl energy.
Your next challenge is Christmas with your parents and siblings. Should you leave your partner to Dad’s reminisces about the war while you check Mum hasn’t left her buttons lying around for your 2-year old to swallow? Can you nip out to the swings with your daughter or should you help your sisters do the washing up?
With time, the children need you less and it’s easier to find a balance. You can discuss the state of the world with Dad while your partner plays fatherly games with the children. Your sisters can play aunts (I wish they’d been my aunts too) while Mum has a grandmotherly snooze. You snatch some partner-time. With a bit of manipulation, there’s even a slot for a run so you can get your ‘me’ time too. There’s so much role-swapping going on that everyone is exhausted by the end of the holiday.
Being all these women at the same time means that your ‘me’ gets squashed under the weight of all the layers. The good news here is that this is temporary. Before long – some people would say ‘too quickly’ – your babies turn into teenagers. Your ‘me’ re-emerges like a butterfly from a chrysalis (though perhaps not quite so streamlined as the caterpillar you once were).
This is your moment: take a deep breath. Enjoy it. Soon it’ll be time to shed those roles that have become so familiar and reassuring. With a bit of luck, there may even be a new role or two around the corner.