Three successful career women at very different stages in their lives and professions all have one thing in common – they’re trying to navigate stressful jobs while achieving that elusive work-life balance. With the help of psychotherapist Fiona Arrigo they each confront the emotional and physical demands that are unique to their time of life, but faced by women globally...
Anna Masterson, 51, is a marketing director for a private corporation. A single parent, she has worked full-time for the same company for more than 20 years.
I’m trying to figure out what to do with this next stage of my life: my daughter has left home, I’ve sold my family house and bought an apartment. I love my job but would like to work less hours and try something new. The ultimate goal is time: more time for me – but I have no idea what that means. A friend suggests a mind cleanse, so I book a spot.
Fiona arrives in the Maida Vale office in a whirlwind, as do I. She reassures that me that even after 30 years she is still practising the art of managing her time, and so ingrained is our worship of the great “Goddess of stress” it’s impossible to know instinctively how to relax.
So, why am I here and what do I expect? It’s fair to say that I’m seeking some wisdom and definitely some clarity on what to do next.
We quickly – because my mind is still racing – establish how tired I am. Exhausted, even. I live a hectic life, supporting my daughter, working full-time and living, and I’ve sustained plenty of wear and tear. I have endurance, strength and I excel at putting myself last, which is why I’ve been successful – but what about “me” now?
Where does a woman in her forties and fifties fit in? Beyond childbearing age and not yet a crone she is apparently at the height of her personal power. But this phase of transition also coincides with decreasing hormones, so it’s emotionally and physically more challenging than moving from our thirties to forties.
No one teaches life lessons; we are just thrown into this giant pot of chicken soup and we have to make the most of it – and I’m still not sure how to get out of the pot.
Maybe, suggests Fiona, it’s like an “archaeological dig’’. I just need to know where to start digging to release the energy, that will in turn create the wisdom that will allow me to live well through the next phase.
All my life I have applied the “head down and carry on” philosophy but the language of this next cycle seems to be about letting go of all those old and die-hard habits.
In their book the Women’s Wheel of Life, Elizabeth Davis and Carol Leonard offer a new archetype for this woman – the Matriarch. She is “the Queen of the Harvest, reaping the rewards of sustained hard work and effort, at the height of her sexual and professional power. Elegantly self-possessed, fuelled by an intensity and direction, she is poised to rekindle the passions, dreams and spiritual pursuits of youth.’’
This all sounds very promising, but I work 50-60 hours a week and can’t cut my hours to find the time I need to dig for this precious resource of energy.
I explain how resentful I feel at times about my job. Resentfulness is the opposite of drive, Fiona informs me. My drive has gone and resentment has moved in to take its place. But I can work with this. Talking to Fiona, I realise that nothing is quite as bleak as it seems.
There isn’t a rulebook for women and retirement. Men get a pat on the back, perhaps a gold watch, and then take off, towing a trolley full of golf clubs down the fairway. There isn’t a plan for us but there needs to be. With Fiona’s help I intend to write that plan and reap the rewards.
Angela Marks, 42, is an editor at an international publishing company based in London
I arrive for my mind cleanse appointment full of head cold and in the same frazzled mental state I carry with me to any rare outing from a frantic office.
But Fiona is friendly, knowledgeable and we get straight into it. Before I know it I’ve framed the session with what she urges me to use as the title of the elusive first novel I’ve never got around to writing, which sums up my daily conundrum: Feeling like I’m on top of everything and on top of nothing.
It’s a push-pull struggle that physically manifests itself most days as a dull, persistent stomach pain and continuous neck and shoulder ache.
“The body is fiercely wise and will tell you everything, but we ignore it because of this very strong mind that pushes us, enforces will and says you must carry on. So what are you giving your energy to?” asks Fiona.
It’s a good question and the answer, I’m afraid, is my job. I’ve spent 15 years working my way up to a senior position in an industry that never sleeps. I seem to work longer and harder as I continually try to prove myself to those higher up while trying to be the mentor I never had to a growing team.
Fiona listens knowingly and then steers the conversation to what being in my early forties means for my body. It’s confronting to hear that at 42, I’m already entering a perimenopausal state so my progesterone and oestrogen levels are beginning to fluctuate, building up to what she calls “the big kahuna” – the menopause.
And the biggest enemy on top of this change is stress.
It is so important for women to have time to process during this very transitional period. It can affect our relationships, libidos, sleep patterns and menstrual cycles, and all the while we carry on working, working, working.
Most of us can relate to turning on our smartphones first thing in the morning and last thing before bed. And to feeling so tired at the end of the working day that any form of intimacy or emotional conversation is completely beyond us as tomorrow’s alarm clock looms.
So what exactly are we living for – are we becoming human machines?
“For the past 100 years women have fought for their position in the West and have gained equality, up to a point, in a so-called man’s world. In this journey we have also learnt to multitask, juggling childcare, doing the shopping and the ironing, while proving ourselves in the workplace. All of this inherited through our own evolution,” says Fiona.
And today, in our desire to nurture longevity so we look good, we somehow fit in the gym, facials and yoga in our quest to stay in the hall of youth. Meanwhile, we’re ignoring the changes that the body is going through.
“We should now be entering a new epoch where we have to learn something different, which is about being very firm with ourselves to give ourselves boundaries and stop points,” adds Fiona.
The reading list Fiona recommends, from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron to Susan Jeffers’ Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway are insightful references to where I need to go next.
It’s the life reboot I’ve been avoiding for so long that has been holding me back from so much more. And the first thing I did when I got home that night, earlier than ever, was to turn my iPhone off.
Katrina Hughes, 31, is a single freelance journalist based in Brighton
“Do you want the red pill or the blue pill?” Fiona asks me. Metaphorically, of course. “Do you choose knowledge and wisdom or acceptance that you’re stuck where you are?”
I meet Fiona as I’m considering taking a demotion to go part-time at work so I can focus on building my own project. It’s a decision that goes against the career progression I’ve been working towards for the past seven years, and everything my peers are aiming for.
But, I became a journalist because I wanted to make a positive difference in the world and although in a good job with lots of great perks, I don’t feel I am making the contribution to society I want to. It’s time to redefine my idea of success.
This makes it the perfect time for a mind cleanse – a therapy session where you examine your past and present with the specific aim of reframing and resetting your story.
Fiona and I talk about my world vision and goals. “Daring to dream is important,” Fiona says. “Then you have to use this thing that we’re unused to in the West. It’s called discipline.”
She instructs me to write a list of things I think are important in life. These are called my “agreements”. I can change them, every day if I want – but I have to agree to live by them. These range from setting a 10am-6pm working day to foster a more positive work-life balance and to stop being so self-critical. Or rather, be more compassionate with myself.
We also talk a lot about feminism. Fiona is hugely knowledgeable about the repression of women through the ages and across the globe.
But the focus subtly shifts to how much progress has been made and how lucky we are to be part of the half of the population that are generally emotionally strong and supportive of one another.
She then tells me: “To survive as a humanity we have to act as a unity. We have to be thankful for all the female greats that came before us, whom we now stand on the shoulders of as we switch from revolution to evolution.”
It’s an amazing change in perspective and one that translates to my business goals. The reading list she gives me – Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues, and her awe-inspiring autobiography, plus Lynne Twist’s The Soul of Money – powerfully reinforces this.
We discuss my fears – that I’m starting too late, “put a graph on the wall to chart your hopes, dreams and allow yourself to see what you’ve achieved”; that there are people who are better and more experienced than me, “It’s respectful to acknowledge that, but you’re doing it your way and you are original”; and that there’s so much to do and not enough time to do it, “don’t make the mistake of trying to do it all yourself”.
But, perhaps, the most important thing I take away is a reminder that to be successful at work – and life – doesn’t necessarily mean you have to travel a long road filled with hardship and sacrifice.
“Understand life is the great teacher. Your heart has to be strong to the commitment of being alive – to the wonder and awe and privilege of being able to experience life. That’s the magic.”
That’s one agreement I’m never going to change.
Mind cleanse half-day session from £620. Skype mentoring from £135 p/h. More information: Arrigo Programme
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