GAZE

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WHAT MAKES US HAPPY

By Irena Ioannou

When you’re watching TV commercials and they’re promoting a cereal brand with extra fiber, or that new more-silent-than-Buddha appliance, and you see a family seated happily by the table, the handsome husband with the starched white shirt, the girl, her hair meticulously plaited, the son in his colorful T-shirt, and the I-just-left-the-hairdresser’s brunette mother with her slim figure and her long-nailed fingers, and they’re all smiles and “Tell me about your day, dear”, do you also think, What Crap Is This? Well, I do. And not just now that I have four children; I thought so even before I got married.

Social narratives pose too many expectations on women; they always have, and they always will. In 2017, it isn’t enough just to be a mother to gain approval. You have to be an attractive mother. With a perfectly clean and organized home. And an awesome job. A mother who spends her free time in charity, and without doubt shares ecological concerns, and is politicized (as long as she’s not running for president herself) and balances everything and, of course, smiles, smiles, smiles all the time. A mother who feels happy with her role, doesn’t question it and doesn’t complain. Does it sound too much?

To me it sounds way too much. Because it’s not easy to keep up with unrealistic standards of beauty when you’re constantly either giving birth to children or breastfeeding them, nor is it that easy to hold on to a highly competitive job while a mother. Most employers face women with many children as a liability, and denying that would be a delusion.

As for my free time, well, I don’t have any. I don’t have time to go to the gym. My house is constantly a mess. Sometimes it takes me weeks to answer an email. And me having long fingernails? Don’t make me laugh.

When I say that I am a mother of four, I usually face raised brows, followed by the usual jokes about the invention of television and contraceptives. An acquaintance once asked me if I am a member of an exotic cult. A colleague, if my husband is a priest (the answer to both questions is no).

The most annoying part—like everything else in the life of a woman—is that I often find myself in the position of explaining myself:

“Was it your choice?” some ask me.

Yes.

“What were you thinking?” others want to know.

Many reactions are exaggerated of course, but others come from well-meaning friends who voice their concerns that society’s structure has changed and that it no longer endorses families with many children. Which makes raising children much more challenging than in the past.

I know. I live here too.

And it’s my choice. Mine. Since life is consuming from every aspect, I chose to let my children consume mine. Because when I had that irresistible body (ok, not exactly) and that high-profile job, I wasn’t really happy. Now, here, I am.

* * * *

Children, of course, are not the right answer for everyone. In fact, they are the wrong answer for many of my friends. And if a mother with many children makes people wonder, let’s consider women with no intention of becoming mothers whatsoever. How dare they?

To make this clearer, imagine one of your thirty-five-year-old cousins being asked at an extended family dinner about her future plans and she—a warrior of Rome facing the lions—replies, “I intend to lead a sinful life for as long as my body holds”.

Now imagine her grandmother’s face upon hearing this. Now imagine her father’s. And imagine her grandmother saying, “What about children? The years are passing by,” and your cousin replying, “Children? Why would I have children? I HATE children.” And I repeat, these words coming from a thirty-five-year-old and not a fifteen-year-old.

At that point one of your kind aunts will surely step in to ask about summer vacations, only to get your cousin’s assertion that she will spend all August on the beach, on a small Greek island with no electricity, and surely no children, her feet in the water and a book in her hands, reading, talking and finding God, but, “As a metaphor, of course. I don’t think God exists.” I am not sure how much the women’s movements have changed notions in other countries, but in Greece such declarations would either end in words children should not hear, or in a heart attack. Definitely, not with a “Whatever makes you happy, love”.

In other words, if you’re a woman you are more or less expected to please others. If the happiness of others coincides with your own, that’s good for you. If not, prepare to steel yourself against challenges, because they will be in your way, and there will be many of them.

The struggle is tough, but instead of trying harder and harder to conform to other people’s idea of happiness, it’s time we recognized our limits. Questioned our choices. And got insight into what makes us happy.

Make a start, and watch others follow.

Irena Ioannou writes from Crete, Greece and her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in the Mortar Magazine, The Wild Word, S/tick, Literary Mama, Eyedrum Periodically and Shipwrights.