When Your Life Doesn’t Turn Out The Way You Imagined
It’s International Women’s Day 2019.
At some point, I seemed to have unknowingly graduated from ‘girl’ to ‘woman’. Now that’s a bit of a shock in itself when you realise that small children have started referring to you as ‘that woman’ and you’ve stopped being asked for ID.
You begin to start sounding like your nan, lamenting your youth and remembering (but only with the wisdom of hindsight) the pleasure and simplicity of your childhood.
Who knew you’d grow up to be who you are today?
For some, there’s pride and fulfilment and for others, there’s surprise, maybe even disappointment that things didn’t quite work out the way you imagined.
I mean, my 16-year-old self had absolutely no doubt that I would be a Broadway megastar by 26.
Yeah, that didn’t happen.
As I routinely scroll through Facebook and Instagram today, liking and double-tapping the inspirational achievements of women from around the world, I’m feeling reflective.
This year’s celebration theme is, ‘Balance For Better’. This probably refers primarily to a balance between the genders but maybe there’s also a more personal message to be had here…
We live in a time when women are relatively empowered and we have come to expect that we can do anything and everything. It’s quite a miraculous journey we’ve had throughout history and our gratitude for those who have made and are making this possible for us should always be celebrated.
However, in striving to ‘have it all’, hands up if you frequently feel frustrated, stressed and guilty?
For most of us, the idea of having everything is this shiny but somewhat elusive goal. A kind of mirage.
The ‘perfect’ life looks so attainable as every day we are exposed to the Instagram ideal…
…a wealthy lifestyle as a beautifully styled, high-flying, self-starting business-owning mum with 3 talented and equally high-achieving children dressed in matching outfits, living in a permanently tidy dream house, a healthy home-cooked menu every day and a charming, supportive other half with whom you never argue and jet off on glorious beach holidays…
This has become the ultimate aspiration, the medal of success and the perfectly balanced life.
There have been times when I’ve wanted to be a stay-at-home mum. Frowned upon. Like your voluntarily childless career-only friends. Frowned upon. There’s now a sense that if you don’t ‘have it all’ or indeed even ‘want it all’, then you’re missing out.
If you’re reading this but shaking your head in disagreement, then maybe you’re one of the ones who has it all sussed out. Thinking this ‘ideal’ turns you off or you smell a rat? I applaud you! If your life doesn’t look like this and you don’t feel it makes you a failure or any less as a woman, then congrats, I think you’ve won the game.
You are your only judge, actually. The key is defining your own success. Once you can do this, you’ll be happier. What does ‘Balance For Better’ look like for you?
For me, I’m still stuck in the ‘I want it all’ camp. I am pregnant with my second daughter, share the responsibility of home-ownership and child-rearing with my loving, Radio DJ partner, and run two businesses which I started from home. Since I can also use a camera pretty well, I can artistically photograph our lives with some degree of Instagramableness. On paper, or rather online, this fits the mould, right?
But, the truth is, I just don’t. There are days where my eyeballs feel like they’ll burst with tension, my head feels full with worry, my soul feels beaten with self-criticism and my heart aches with guilt.
Balance? Pah! I’m just juggling to keep the balls in the air in this circus!
Still, I am proud to be a woman and to have pieced together a patchwork of the things which make me happy. I’m the sort of person that wouldn’t be fulfilled when all my eggs lie in one basket. It means I’m a ‘Jack Of All Trades’, that I’m made up of many things, I’m part business owner, part mum, part housekeeper…
As hard as that can be at times, it is indeed a balance most of us are striving for in some way. Beyond the daily struggle to ensure equal attention to our home and work, we’re talking about a balanced view of success, a balanced enjoyment of our skills and interests, and at least a bit of a balance at the bank, right?
We tell ourselves it’s time that keeps us from fulfilling all our roles in life. I’ve always maintained that it’s not time at all, it’s priorities. If you haven’t started that business yet, it’s probably because you’ve felt you had to prioritise something else.
The problem is that we’re bombarded with messages about how limited our time is and how life is so short. This creates urgency, an enormous pressure to do or die. By the time you’ve started to figure out what you really want to do in your life, there’s even less time to get it done!
I definitely took the scenic route. I was already in my thirties before I started a family, met my partner and forged a full-time career as a photographer.
Before finding photography, I went to drama school in London, got a 1st for my degree in Primary Education, did a philosophy qualification, trained as a Learning & Behaviour Mentor for children and set up my first business (a publishing company which is now in its 11th year).
I’ve had a variety of jobs along the way, including being a singer/actress/film extra, selling mobile phones, invigilating exams, mentoring children, face-painting, selling for a beauty MLM, bra-fitting, dispensing prescriptions and stacking shelves. If I ever again need to write my CV…
Somehow, as conscientious as I was, I never felt ‘right’ or as though I fitted in anywhere. I couldn’t understand how everyone else seemed able to relentlessly stick to a routine. I envied everyone that surpassed me on the career ladder, which was pretty much everyone. Employment was miserable, doubting that I was ever going to achieve my potential (if I could only find out what it was!) but desperately clinging onto the hope that one day, I might at least find a job that I didn’t dread. Sunday night blues anyone?
I just couldn’t shake the disappointment and self-criticism as I resigned from yet another job, painfully remembering the starry horizons I once imagined for myself when leaving those grammar school gates for the last time…
Whatever I did, I just didn’t fit the mould and those first few years in the world of work were the most unhappy of my life.
Constantly at odds with myself, I never knew which aspect of my skill set and personality to pursue which resulted in yo-yo-ing jobbing. For me, it was always an internal war - creative vs academic.
A belief that I was nothing more than a ‘Jack Of All Trades’ held me back for so long.
However, as it turned out, it was this very quality that has since been the foundation for my life in starting and running my own business. I now see the value in the years I’d previously believed were wasted.
Self-employment and running a business, especially in the early stages, relies entirely on you, your skills, your motivation, your beliefs… literally, everything comes from you. So, the more you can do, the better. You have to wear all the hats - from branding to accounting, from sales to customer service.
I started at the bottom. Rock bottom actually.
When I could no longer stand being miserable, I started my first business at 25, as a side-hustle. It was something useful and enjoyable to do with my skills. I actually wanted to be doing it and I if I fancied doing it at 2am, then I could do just that.
Riding high on new feelings of empowerment and satisfaction, I felt I’d cracked it! I’d finally found my thing! It was a revelation to me that there was this whole other way to be happy and achieve at work. It was an epiphany when I realised that the answer to my happiness at work lay in having multiple skills I could explore, that I didn’t have to choose just one and a ‘job for life.’
But not everyone could see it.
“Oh Kate!” they’d chuckle… Nobody loves having to work… Everyone’s just counting down the days til they can take their holiday… Everyone gets fed up at work… The commute is just part of life… Sound familiar? I knew they saw it as an attempt to avoid having to hold down a ‘real job’ like everyone else.
After the initial startup slog of my first business and oiling the machine, my biological clock started ticking. Loudly. After a difficult three-year journey, I finally gave birth to my daughter.
By the time my baby was a toddler, I craved a little more definition to my identity. It was miraculous and yet, like so many other mums, I still felt a pull towards my career. My business was ticking over but I hadn’t yet achieved the heights I’d previously been striving for.
Can you have both motherhood and a career, do everything, be a superwoman?
I was still deeply ambitious and childcare looked expensive. Still, I made the nerve-wracking decision to have two afternoons of childcare a week with the hope of attaining a little more balance in my life. I wanted an outlet for my skills and passions. I wanted to be a positive role model and I wanted to earn more money for our family to enjoy.
However, I remember a (male) acquaintance publicly commenting that I was doing the wrong thing. He claimed that my daughter was far too young for childcare and no wonder she cried when I left for the first time. Well, you can imagine how that felt. It reinforced my own guilt. It made me feel selfish to ‘want it all’. I was spreading myself too thinly, not committing to being really good at any one thing. Was there any point? Was I back here again? Forever destined to be just a ’Jack Of All Trades’? Was I in constant sacrifice mode? Was work/life balance just a myth? Then again... Do you even have to be a master of everything to be a success? Is it as black and white as success and failure?
Nevertheless, the media continued to tell me it was possible to have everything, so with commitment, action and passion, I replicated what I’d done before in business by turning my photography hobby into a second income stream.
I’m often challenged by what to say when asked, “So what do you do?” and I’ve often felt the need to justify my choice have multiple jobs, to apologise for juggling parenthood with a career and not to complain too much when it gets tough because, after all, I chose this multi-path lifestyle.
Contrary to feeling successful because I appeared to ‘have it all’, I just felt miserable and embarrassed about just being a bit of this and a bit of that, with no single defining identity. I’ve continued to feel like a failure in one way or another for my entire life.
Until about this time last month…
…when I discovered an incredibly powerful book I wished I could have read all those years ago when I was fretting I was never going to find my path.
‘The Multi-Hypen Method’ by Emma Gannon, is truly inspirational. Listening to Emma was like listening to myself if only I’d known I wasn’t alone in my daily, ‘Who actually am I?’ moments within my “patchwork” career.
If this post is resonating with you, then I’m guessing you may be sitting at your desk in your day job feeling unsatisfied, unfulfilled and watching the clock. That unshakable feeling of, ‘Is this it for me?’ chills your bones and you’re desperately imagining some other life, like the ones we’ve been imagining in the previous paragraphs?
As Emma explains, the traditional working culture is no longer congruent with modern life. For a start, more parents want to work and need greater flexibility. Technology has even made it easier to avoid physically attending the office altogether. But do you still feel the pressure when you walk in a minute after 9am? I bet! That’s because your organisation hasn’t yet seen that ‘presenteeism’, as Emma describes it, does not equate to productivity.
The restrictions that a 9-5 can have are a great source of unhappiness for many of us. Day in, day out on the same old thing can feel unfulfilling and constraining. That’s why so many people start a side-hustle.
The rise of social media influence has also boosted our self-belief, “If she can do it, so can I!”
With technology at our fingertips, starting up in business has become so much more achievable. You can build a website in a day, promote yourself on social media to thousands of potential customers and set up shop on Etsy or Amazon in a few clicks. Is it any wonder that people are turning their backs on traditional employment when these tools are so readily accessible? Is this our best option for truly being able to ‘have it all’.
The book highlights how much more important ‘flexibility’ has become as a measure of success to the average worker.
Achieving a good work/life balance is the ultimate aspiration.
That’s certainly high up on my own criteria for success. Many people are now choosing to freelance or have multiple, often unrelated ‘hustles’ from which they piece together what amounts to a full-time income.
So, today, it’s totally possible to be a Yoga Teacher / Accountant / Pet Groomer / Etsy Knitter. Or in my case, a Mum / Photographer / Blogger / Publisher! Not only can you earn your living this way but actually feel fulfilled. You'll be making the most of your favourite skills and enjoy greater control over how you manage your life.
But we’re taught to specialise, to have a niche, aren’t we? Isn’t being a ‘Multi-Hyphenate’ an admission that you’re actually not that great at one particular thing, enough so to make it your main career? That you’re, well, a failure? That’s what you’re sitting there quietly thinking, just as I was, right?
Hell, no. It’s simply a choice. A proactive lifestyle decision which “…means drawing on the things you find interesting and/or are good at and creating your own career puzzle.” (Emma Gannon) It’s about designing how you want to spend your life. Whilst the book refers primarily to being a ‘Multi-Hyphenate’ in a career context, it translates to all areas of our life. This is why I feel that ‘Balance For Better’ makes a great deal of sense, particularly to mums who also work.
I do think it’s possible to do anything but maybe just not everything all at once. That’s where balance becomes an issue, antagonising your plight. ‘Balance For Better’ is a great message. It can help you free yourself from the overwhelming pressure to ‘have it all’. Yes, life may be short but our ancestors and peers today have made it possible for you to have greater choice in how you piece together the jigsaw puzzle of your life.
“Forget the outdated stigma of being a ‘Jack Of All Trades’, because having many strings to your bow is essential to get ahead…”, says Emma.
I like Emma.
And now, I like me more too.
“Hi, I’m Kate, a family photographer in Kent. In my unique studio near Sittingbourne, styled like the modern Instagram home you dream of, you’ll love the natural, fresh, light photos in your family gallery, captured whilst you relax and enjoy just being together. Fancy an outdoor family photoshoot on the beach or in the woods? Let’s create that timeless collection of images for your family before anyone grows any older! I’d love to meet you and capture the memories you’re making along the way…”
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