Thursday 27 October 2016

What success really looks like for the fairer sex

Dearbhail McDonald ponders our definition of success as she faces going to her 20-year school reunion

Published 07/06/2015 | 02:30

SCHOOL CHUMS: Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino in ‘Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion
SCHOOL CHUMS: Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino in ‘Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion

For weeks now I've been casually Googling the words "school", "reunion" and "fears".

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The amount of sites and links offering advice on how to "survive" your school reunion is staggering: there are endless articles on how to manage the "emotional storm" and triggers - from euphoria to trauma - you may experience if one is looming.

Psycho-babbling peddlers aside, there is nothing like a school reunion (my 20-year reunion falls this weekend) to unleash, at best, an exercise of healthy self-appraisal and gratitude or, at worst, a kamikaze act of crippling self-flagellation.

Especially when you are 38, single and childless, albeit with a diverse, rewarding career and a life that many would give their proverbial right arm for.

I've dismissed the reunion in my mind as something trivial: just a night out with old friends, some of whom have travelled home from Australia and America to become the 'Class of 95' all over again.

In reality, I've been measuring myself up against every conceivable yardstick of success - real and imagined - and beating myself to a pulp with it.

I have joked with another childhood friend that we could, a la the movie Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion, invent fake lives we could say we have lived for the last 20 years.

These fictitious lives are, naturally, replete with size zero waists, debonair husbands who earn squillions in hedge funds and Mandarin-fluent, high-achieving children slumming it out in finishing schools in Switzerland.

This all happens as we 'modern women' effortlessly shape shift between simultaneous roles of domestic goddesses, bedroom sirens, tiger moms, serial entrepreneurs and CEOs of global charities whilst achieving world peace - as any self-respecting Miss World should.

Those Romy and Michelle conversations always end in tears of laughter.

But I seriously considered not going to my school reunion at all.

And that is because it has triggered below-surface anxieties and vulnerabilities I harbour about my own life trajectory and unmet milestones.

I imagine the harsh judgement of my peers at the reunion, judgements that exist only in my own mind. And yet, I have been berating myself with self-criticism and a barrage of meaning-of-life questions as the reunion beckoned.

Have I been successful in my career? Have I failed because I haven't yet married?

Have I failed womanhood or defeated humanity, to borrow from the Vatican's current cheery vernacular, because I have not had children?

After 20 years, am I - as Mark Twain warned - more disappointed in the things I did or did not do? And what does success look like for women anyway?

When I look back at the Class of 95, it appeared that those 18-year-olds were invincible, with no barriers at all compared to our mothers and grandmothers.

Outperforming boys at school, we roared into our 20s, free - in principle - to control our fertility and career choices.

But having emerged almost victorious on one set of battlefields (education, reproductive autonomy to a much-lesser degree) women today find themselves facing further battles against patriarchy, glass ceilings and conflicting fertility wars.

We are still vulnerable.

If we're not being screamed at for not having a family by the age of 30, we are being offered the opportunity to freeze our eggs in corporate fridges for the good of mankind.

And, to cap it all off, we are now shouldering the guilt of fears that men are becoming the weaker sex, emasculated by women who are now in a better position to expect equality in the home - as well as outside of it.

Women, 50pc of the population, have come a long way since the days of the marriage ban in the public service.

But we are still woefully under-represented in all parts of Irish society, including corporate life and politics, where the most important policy decisions affecting all families are made.

And all of us, men, women and children, are suffering as a result.

The economic case for gender balance is not just compelling: it is beyond dispute.

The World Bank has estimated that the closing of the employment gender gap could boost GDP by 13pc in the eurozone alone.

And a slew of studies have shown that companies with women on their boards outperform comparable companies with all male boards.

Could you imagine any CEO ignoring the prospect of a 13pc surge in profits?

And yet women are ignored, in many respects, from the conversations and decisions that matter.

Decisions about our reproductive autonomy, as an Amnesty International report on Ireland's abortion laws will attest to in frightening terms next week.

Decisions about flexibility in employment and decisions about childcare - a family, not a feminist issue.

It seems that women and men cannot fulfil their full potential until quality, affordable childcare is seen and believed to be part of Ireland's basic economic tool kit.

That goal cannot be achieved until we have more women in the Oireachtas. But already we're inundated with cries of unfairness (mostly by men) because quotas - a crude measure, admittedly - have been introduced for the first time.

I vent not just for the sake of it.

We owe it to our 18-year-old selves and to the current teenagers - boys and girls - that they won't be living on less than equal terms when they meet for their 20-year school reunion.

As for me? I've stared down the terror of the school reunion: there is nothing a woman can't achieve in a pair of killer heels.

Sunday Independent

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