Can it be a risk to have fixed expectations of the future? Can it be a risk to associate our social value with only one of many roles we may play (eg jobs, parenthood)?
What the Conservative leadership candidate Andrea Leadsom has said about motherhood in an interview with The Times has hit many nerves. Allow me to focus on one of many points I could make: the risk we all run by over-identifying with one of many roles we may play in life. What if not all goes according to plan?
Before I start, let me be clear: I am not saying that any of the following does or could apply to Andrea Leadsom. My thinking has been triggered by what she has said and is based on my personal and professional experience.
Most people will reach one or several points in their lives, when they realise they a) are not yet where they had expected to be or b) are unlikely to ever have the life they thought they would have. I have been there a few times, and it is not pretty. I like to call this a crisis of purpose.
More or less fixed thinking about the path our lives will take and the roles we will play is not uncommon. There is nothing right or wrong in that, and no single path is better or has more value than the next - at least in my view of the world, which is the only one I can speak about. But I realise that this view may not be shared by all.
It is not unusual for young people to think that one day they may find a partner and settle down, have children. And it is not unusual for parents to anticipate becoming grandparents.
Listening to Andrea Leadsom speak, I was struck by her (the way I heard it) firm belief, that her children "will start their lives in the next 10 years" ... that her children "are going to have children" and that being a mother will give her a "real stake in the future of this country". In my mind a lot is potentially at stake, because a lot of meaning, expectation and self value is placed on the role of being a mother and on children making certain choices for their lives.
I am not saying, let's all expect the worst. But it appears that in this fixed thinking there is little wriggle room even for a (sensible) 'may' (no pun unintended) - eg my children may choose to have children.
I can see the following potential risks with this fixed way of looking at the world:
1. Pressure of expectation and need to conform placed on others
What migth you feel like and what might happen if your mother, parent/s or anyone else placed expectations on you to 'deliver' a certain way of life, values and choices? Or this might have already happened to you. It might not have caused any problems. Then again, it might cause stress, conflict, feelings of guilt, feelings of obligation, split loyalties, not being good enough, disappointment, self doubt to mention just some.
2. Disappointment and personal crisis, if life gets in the way
What might happen if we start building our lives around this fixed thinking; if we make choices, even sacrifices, delay plans, prioritise around what we expect to happen? Often when life does not oblige, we are stuck. Stuck for meaning, stuck for a road map, stuck for value. Some examples to make the point (in a slightly cliched or extreme way):
eg I thought I would be married by now. It is too late, no one wants me, I will not become a parent, I don't know what to do with my life, can I do life? I am afraid. I am confused. What now?
eg I never thought I would get ill like this, too ill to have children, too ill to work, so ill I might die young.
eg I thought my child would be there for me when I am old. I thought I would have grandchildren to keep me busy when I retire.
Children may make other choices. Children may get ill. Children may die before us.
3. Loss of identity and self worth (socially and personally)
What if we do believe that playing a certain role guarantees us a stake and meaning in society, in relationships, in life? What if this role was to be taken away, disappears, collapses (eg parenthood, employment, marriage, physical appearance)? What if we have no other source of self-value to draw from? You might be a parent, but you are other things too. Parenthood can be one (important) aspect of our being. But it cannot be the only one.
4. Fixed thinking can lead to a fixed world view and fixed assumptions about issues of difference
What if you base your self value on a particular way of living and a role you want to fulfill, like parenthood? If this is fixed and rigid, then you might just find it difficult to see the same value in others who may not be parents (for whatever reason). This is where assumptions and judgments come in and issues of difference can become complicated and difficult. Issues of difference are currently very high up on our public debate and we struggle with each other. This is nothing new and I suspect it will not change soon. The consequences can be dealt with peacefully or violently, as this first August week has sadly shown.
So, where do we go from here? There is nothing wrong in having a preference for how we would like our life to be. But rigid single mindedness can lead to vulnerability, when life and those around us do not deliver. We may not have the necessary mental and emotional resilience and agility to bounce back and adjust accordingly. If we are less accepting of the value of others' difference, then we may find it hard, if others struggle with our own difference.
Karin Sieger is a psychotherapist and writer based in London. Her blog is Between Self and Doubt.