The loneliness of the career woman
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London - The woman who wrote to me was in her 40s, single, and had given up hope of ever finding a husband and having children. She’d wanted both, but had devoted so much of her life to her high- flying career that she’d found neither.
On the day she was made partner in her firm, she drank two bottles of champagne to celebrate with her colleagues - and then a third on her own when she got home. That was her rock bottom, and I thought of that lonely, unhappy high-flyer as I read the report recently claiming middle-aged professional women drink to dangerous levels because they’re trying to keep up with their macho male colleagues.
They are supposedly driven to drink by a feeling that they have to match the boys chablis for chablis in the workplace, at client lunches and in the pub afterwards.
It’s no surprise to me that the spokesman behind the study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is a man. He described the pressure on women to network and drink as the ‘dark side of equality’.
But only a 57-year-old career woman like myself can truly understand why educated, successful women of a certain age drink so much. I know a lot of them. Just as I know many happy career moms who let their jobs take a back seat while nurturing their kids and supporting their husbands - and they rarely drink to excess.
If the OECD report had done a bit more research, it would actually have found there’s a direct link between middle-class alcoholism among women and being single or divorced. It’s not professional pressure that stiffens all these women’s wrists as they pull out that cork when they get home at night - it’s loneliness. That’s the real dark side of equality.
Let’s not forget the depressing statistic that 40 percent of marriages now end in divorce, with a third of decree absolutes arriving on the doorstep before the 20th wedding anniversary.
One in four women over 40 are now childless and they’re mostly career women. Some don’t want kids, some left it too late. Others simply cannot have children and many are just waiting for the perfect man who never turns up.
And no surprises that this places many of these women firmly in the red-alert category of the OECD report; professionals in the 45 to 64 age group who drink dangerously.
It was about this time last year I realised my own “social drinking” had got out of hand. A couple of glasses of wine with lunch, then a couple more with dinner, it was adding up to way more than was healthy.
I wasn’t drinking to dull any pain. I had a boyfriend, a great job, my life was happy - but a little too merry, if you know what I mean.
And it was taking its toll on my body. My weight had slowly crept up and I could no longer disguise my muffin top. Enough.
So I took drastic action and gave up drinking completely for nearly a month. When I restarted, gently, I drank far less, mainly G&Ts with slimline tonic to cut the calories. I could make one drink last all dinner.
Since last August when I did my detox, I’ve lost nearly a stone (about 6kg) without doing any more exercise or dieting. It just shows how much we drink without even thinking. I realised the damage I was doing to myself in time, but other career women have paid a heavy price for their success.
It’s not just my friends I observe. When I wrote an article for the Mail last September about the perils of mid-life female drinkers, I was inundated with emails and letters from women.
One came from that unhappy but courageously honest high flyer. Another that particularly struck me was from a 55-year-old lawyer who felt so poorly she was sure something was drastically wrong and asked her doctor for a blood test. They found a major problem with her liver.
A mother of two teenage children, she had divorced in her 40s, left her dependable but dull husband for someone who duly dumped her, and was now alone with her kids and her career - and a bottle of shiraz each night.
The only thing that marked her out from the majority of the women who contacted me was that she had children still with her. Almost all were mid-life, mid-career and living in lovely homes provided by their fab jobs - yet alone. The message was loud and clear. They didn’t drink because of the pressures of work, but because of the consequences of their careers.
Keeping up with the boys is not about downing bottles of wine at corporate dinners, but drowning the sadness of leaving the office at 10pm with nothing and no one to go home to. Many learned the painful lesson that you can’t take a career to bed, that a job is no comfort on sad days, nor capable of sharing the joy on happy ones. Your cat is no company for brunch on a sunny Sunday. And there was an abiding sense of betrayal from the women who contacted me that we, the post-feminist generation, the glass ceiling breakers, were duped.
With a copy of The Female Eunuch clenched tightly under our shoulder-padded, power-suited armpit, as young women we were told we could have it all - a husband, children, career and happiness ever after.
We believed that our personal satisfaction and achievement were what really mattered. But we didn’t look at the fine print.
What life has taught this generation of women drinkers is that if you put career before everything else when starting to scale that shaky ladder of success, you will pay a heavy price.
Women were sleepwalking into disaster, disappointment and depression - and they drink to blot it out.
Now, as we look back, perhaps we can see that those of our contemporaries without glittering careers, the ones we professional women sniffed at who preferred to be ‘home-makers’ and work part-time, were often happier with their lot. A bit like my mom.
She has been married for 67 years. A clever woman, she could have held her own in any of the corporate positions I’ve had.
Yet she was part of the generation where she accepted that raising her three children and supporting her husband was the most rewarding job she could do. Mom will be 87 next month, and is now cared for by my dad, who’s soon to be 89. They still live in their own home supported by carers but, more importantly, she has the love and support of her husband, children and adoring grandchildren. She will never be alone.
Mom has been teetotal all her life. She never needed the booze to get through life’s sorrows, including the loss of her firstborn.
Thankfully, there is no solitary life for her in her twilight years, full of regrets in the dark of night. She can sleep soundly and happily in the knowledge she is loved.
It’s only now when I look back at my short marriage that I realise that I’d bought the false feminist agenda hook line and sinker. I didn’t think it mattered that I worked six days a week and never got home before 10pm. To be successful, to achieve my full potential was my right. But I was wrong.
Is it any wonder my marriage ended after just four years, when he had an affair with a woman who “needed” him.
He said it was a cry for help, that he loved me but was tired of spending his days and nights alone and living in my shadow. Looking back, I realise I didn’t even cast a shadow in our marriage, as I was never there.
Now I know it’s not all about us, we career women, our jobs and our right to be up there with the big boys, calling and then downing the shots.
No relationship lasts without care for the other, however big your salary or impressive your title.
I learned that decades ago, as did many of the women who wrote to me last year. It’s about a balance between love of your job and love of family and friends.
Now if it’s a choice between my man and my boss, I choose the former, and celebrate both over a glass of wine, not a bottle.
And if any of us needed a lesson in what feminism brings you, look to Germaine Greer, author of The Female Eunuch and one of the most strident female voices of the 20th century - aged 76 and living alone.Daily Mail