I expected studying abroad to be difficult. I anticipated the homesickness, the fear of awkward social interactions and stressful travel planning. After all, both Georgetown and St. Andrews hosted so many orientations and sent countless emails preparing me for my time abroad that I felt it would be the hardest thing I would ever set out to do.

Although my schools forced me to plan ahead for my time abroad, I didn’t plan for the process of coming home. I didn’t anticipate flight delays, long doctor visits, extreme fatigue and the overwhelming feeling that comes with reacquainting yourself with home. Perhaps I should have known coming home wouldn’t be easy; I have been gone for five months. Part of me just assumed home is home and that I’d be able to adjust easily.

This week surprised me, but not in a good way. I came home from work at Hoya Kids Learning Center each night unbelievably exhausted, and I didn’t even work full days. After going to the doctor, I learned my blood pressure is low. Finally, I realized the online history course I’m taking this summer might consume more time than I thought.

Following these events, doubt began to creep into my mind. I’ve already done the whole stressful, busy-as-can-be summer, and I wanted this summer to be different. I wanted to make money without being burdened, ace my class without cramming and see my friends without lacking energy. I wanted to have a “boss lady” summer: one in which I focused on my writing, started a blog, explored D.C. and, truthfully, lived my best life. I wanted to do it all while feeling good doing it, striving for the ideal that this new archetype instructs women to seek out. However, finding myself swamped after just five days back home, I began to ask myself, “Did I overwhelm myself again?”

Shortly before I left Scotland, I finished Maggie O’Farrell’s 2009 novel, “The Hand That First Held Mine.” The novel follows two women: Lexie, a rebellious young adult who follows her heart and establishes a career in London in the 1950s, and Elina, a present-day artist who finds it hard to return to reality after a near life-ending pregnancy.

Although separated by several decades, each woman’s experiences both reflect and contrast the other’s as the novel progresses. They never meet, but they both display extraordinary resilience amid societal expectations. Lexie is expected to settle down and maintain a steady job as a secretary despite her wild spirit, while Elina faces pressure to be the perfect, all-attentive mother despite her much-needed slow recovery. In the end, each woman triumphs: Lexie has an illustrious career as a journalist, and Elina provides unshaking strength and stability for her husband Ted as he learns unsettling truths about his family.

When I found myself overwhelmed this past week, my thoughts returned to Lexie and Elina. Neither woman “did it all” in the traditional sense. Lexie never married, and Elina didn’t have an impressive professional life, at least not by the time the novel ends. Yet together, the two embody the complex and varied definition of what it means to be a strong woman while revealing that it is okay to be weak, to not have it 100 percent together. They are tenacious, not perfect. They are resilient, not unrealistic.

Lexie and I share a fashion sense and an appreciation for Shakespearean sonnets, and when the novel opens, Lexie is my age, “twenty-one, soon to be twenty-two.” We are both on the brink of full-fledged adulthood. The world is at our fingertips, but, unlike me, Lexie doesn’t feel like she should hold it all in her hands. She knows what she wants, but she doesn’t want the whole package. I admire her because she seeks self-satisfaction, not society’s satisfaction.  

It’s great to have goals, and I don’t fault myself for trying to be a “boss lady” by pushing myself intellectually, socially and professionally. Reading “The Hand That First Held Mine,” however, led me to realize that while being a boss can mean many things, it ultimately means passionately pursuing your goals and exhibiting resilience when faced with obstacles.

Lexie and Elina inspire me to go after what I want, and show me I have strength, even when I think it’s gone. But they also tell me it’s okay to be tired, stressed and overwhelmed. And if by the end of the summer I fail to tick all the boxes on my summer to-do list, that will be okay, too.

Kathryn Baker is a rising senior in the College. Novel Ideas updates online every other week.

One Comment

  1. Fantastic piece, Kathryn.

    You are absolutely right, women are unfortunately held to such an extremely high standard by our society. This was true before women made up a significant share of the workforce (having been previously denied that opportunity, as was nearly the case with Lexie), and it’s even more true now that women make up a majority of students at U.S. college/universities and are increasingly moving up the career ladder at America’s finest institutions and corporations.

    In fact, the American Psychological Association consistently shows that women report much higher levels of stress than men do. As you noted, often this is because of a lack of self-care; because the emotional and physical demands placed on women preclude them from doing so.

    Not to worry though, Kathryn. Based on your essay, you’ve already accomplished a great deal in your college career, having risen to your senior year, and as of this summer, having been able to work a demanding job, study abroad, take a history course, and even finish a novel. That’s impressive to say the least.

    Now I know you wish it didn’t happen at the expense of your health. But now you can take this adversity and use it as a compass toward a senior year (and maybe graduate school) and professional career that’s fulfilling both professional and socially — but always making time for a little self-care. You deserve it.

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