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Sheila O’Flanagan on feminism, tough decisions and modern marriage

The first feminist I ever met was my dad. I didn’t realise he was a feminist. I didn’t even know what the word meant. I was, after all, one of three daughters and I simply assumed that everyone had the same attitude towards girls as he had towards us: that we could be whatever we wanted to be and that we should strive to be the best at whatever that was. My dad encouraged us in our passions and never indicated for a moment that my childhood dream of being an astronaut wasn’t at all likely because, back then, only men were astronauts. Instead, he took me to Dunsink Observatory so that we could look at the stars together.

My mother was – and still is – a feminist too. She was one of the only women in our housing estate to work outside the home in a time when very few women considered it an option. When my father died, heart-breakingly young, from cancer, it was her job that supported the family financially, and my aunts who offered practical support.

I have never known a time when the women in our family didn’t speak up for themselves, or make plans of their own, or support each other, or earn their own money. But there was no set model of how any of us should live our lives. I had aunts who were married with children, aunts who were married with no children and aunts who remained single. I had aunts who worked outside the home and aunts who didn’t. I loved all of them and I looked up to all of them. Nobody ever suggested that any one had made better choices than the other. And while there was a background assumption that the more likely choice for me and my sisters was getting married and maybe having a family, there was also an assumption that we would have a job and strive to do well in it. Whatever decisions we made about our lives, they were all equally valid.

Yet the word feminist was never used. All the women in my family were just living with their choices.

I know I was reared by feminists because I was reared by women who wanted to make their own decisions and live their best lives. Sometimes those decisions were poor ones. Sometimes things didn’t turn out exactly as they’d planned. But at least their mistakes, like mine, were theirs to make.

I write about women who make mistakes because I believe that the greatest power we have is to get something wrong, take ownership of it and learn from it. It’s an impossibility to get things right every time. We take decisions with the best of intentions, but sometimes we have to accept that it hasn’t worked out.

An exhausting number of people seem to think that they have a right to criticise women’s choices, good or bad, without ever having stepped into their lives or knowing what has influenced them. The criticism is in the little things – the clothes we wear, the colour of our lipstick, the style of our hair; and the bigger things – our relationships, our mothering skills, our career decisions. Women are criticised every single day for not getting things right and, sadly, social media has only served to increase the number of times someone can be told that their skirt is too short or their bum is too big or that it’s their own fault they were assaulted.

In my latest book, Her Husband’s Mistake, Roxy has to face a pivotal moment in her life and her marriage. Her husband acknowledges that he’s made one specific mistake. But Roxy, like all women, wonders if she herself is the catalyst for his behaviour; she questions the decisions she’s made in the past and worries about the ones she has to make in the future. As so many women do, she blames herself for the actions of others. It takes time before she realises that she is the one person in charge of her own life.

It’s very important to me that Roxy has the opportunity to get things wrong as well as get things right. And it’s equally important that she has to work out what wants in the future, and that none of it is clear, or easy. It’s also important that she knows which mistakes to own.

Understanding the mistakes of the past and facing up to our own decisions are an important part of living our best lives in the future. Women are afforded less opportunities to do this because we are held to account so often by people who don’t know us or the circumstances of our lives.

But, like Roxy, we just have to give ourselves permission to be wrong as well as right. And to realise that we can learn from both.

Her Husband's Mistake flat lay

Get your copy of Sheila’s new book, HER HUSBAND’S MISTAKE, here.