The Sunday Times

May 2nd, 2010

The best tip for women wanting to have it all is: don’t bother

A wave of sympathy broke over the media sisterhood last week when the writer Allison Pearson confessed in her Daily Mail column that she was suffering from depression and was therefore no longer able to carry on; she said goodbye to her readers. The Guardian was quick to respond with dramatic headlines: “Women on the verge”, “Why do so many women have depression?” and “All too much”.

The drift of Pearson’s column and of the long Guardian piece by Kira Cochrane is that women these days are driving themselves into depression by expecting too much of themselves and taking on too much. The demands of being career woman, domestic goddess, yummy mummy and pillar of family and community are all too much.

According to Cochrane, a recent NHS study found that mental disorders such as depression and panic attacks rose by 20% among women between 1993 and 2007, whereas they did not increase at all among men. “Is it women who are mad, or is it the society we live in?” Pearson asked. “We always suspected there would be a price for Having It All, and we were happy to pay it; but we didn’t know the cost would be our mental health.”

The good news is that Pearson’s mental health does not seem to have broken down completely under the strain of her own perfectionism. She has accepted a demanding new job on another paper, where she will be both columnist and chief interviewer: clearly her depression is not severe enough to be disabling. All the same, she has a point.

Trying to excel on every front is impossible and is bound to drive almost any woman to distraction, if not to serious depression. Pearson’s bestselling novel of 2002, about this very subject, was entitled I Don’t Know How She Does It. My feeling is that I don’t know why she tries — it is bound to end in tears.

Unless a woman has a huge amount of money and help, and perhaps not even then, she cannot do it all. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to do a demanding job, pay attention to family and friends, preserve a competitively toned body, maintain an elaborate beauty programme, including trips to dermatologists, depilators and assorted beauty bandits, keep up with tweets, emails, telephoning and aggressive networking, dress stylishly, shop for food, cook elaborately, entertain regularly, attend school functions, keep up with reading, listen to music and remember jokes. It can’t be done, unless you have a Team Cupcake like Nigella Lawson.

Somehow two things have got confused in all this. The enormous pressure on working mothers is largely unavoidable. But the other is different. It is the competitive consumerism that makes women constantly discontented with themselves and, while it does cause painful pressure, it is largely self-inflicted.

Nor should consumerist distress be confused with mental illness, unless it triggers serious depression. No one asked us to be yummy mummies or Botoxed High Court judges. We try to be because we are competitive, not because we must, and it seems to make many of us miserable.

There is certainly something that can be done about this modern malaise. Women should just stop. I don’t mean they should stop working or having babies or trying to do things they really love. They should just stop being so unrealistic (unless they are very rich). They should do less. Drop their standards. Accentuate the negative.

Fortunately, doing a lot less is quite easy when you try — or, rather, stop trying. It can even be pleasurable, which is just as well because with the coming austerity we will all have to make a virtue of necessity and aspire to a great deal less of everything.

The secret is to look at everything as an opportunity cost. This horrible City phrase simply means you do any one thing at the expense of doing another. You cannot do it all. If you spend the hours between five and seven with a lover or a law report, you won’t be able to give your baby a bath. If you spend a lot of time on competitive cooking, you won’t have much time to phone Granny or touch up your toenail polish. What we need now is to think of giving something up as an opportunity gain. Whether that is to be the lover or the scallop ceviche or the Bank of England quarterly bulletin is a matter only for you.

I have a few suggestions. Never read fashion magazines if they make you feel fat or frumpy or if they make you long for things you can’t be or have. Avoid gossip columns about the beautiful people and ignore anything labelled “lifestyle”, unless it makes you feel good. Such things are intended to whip up insatiable competitive appetites for Prada handbags and Balinese hotel suites and a feeling of acquisitive failure. Don’t read decorating magazines and don’t restyle your home more than once in 20 years. Don’t read the health pages if they make you feel anxious, guilty or ill; they are always changing their bossy advice anyway.

Don’t cook unless you really must: think catering rather than cooking. Give up worrying about frozen or tinned or pre-prepared. Never cook cakes, puddings or cupcakes — they aren’t good for you anyway.

Avoid choice fatigue. Don’t go shopping unless you have to. Give up buying things and keeping things. Don’t have lots of clothes; have only a few that really suit you. Give up any exercise you dislike. Avoid amassing objects — shoes, bags, bracelets, kitchen gadgets and so on; things take up headroom and energy, and time spent wondering which to use, remembering where it is and putting it away later means less time for talking to your teenage son or writing a report.

Stop worrying about skincare and don’t buy more than three or four products. It’s all pretty much the same and I say this as someone who wrote an anonymous column about the beauty bandits for years. Don’t spend time with people who boast, either about their beautiful lives or their talented children. Don’t compare your children with other people’s offspring. Avoid all parents at exam results time. Give up answering the telephone just because it’s ringing.

I have the greatest sympathy for overburdened women. I have all possible fellow feeling for women (and men) who suffer from disabling depression. But I have less, I admit, for people who are suffering from the trials of affluence.

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