Five months after surviving a misdiagnosed “widow maker” heart attack, I attended the WomenHeart Science & Leadership Symposium for Women With Heart Disease at Mayo Clinic. Cardiologist Dr. Sharonne Hayes (founder of the Mayo Women’s Heart Clinic) told us about a study on women’s life priorities called Hierarchy of Female Concerns that asked its female participants this one question:
“What is most important to you?”
Now, when I do presentations about women’s heart health, I like to ask my audiences to guess in advance the correct order of this study’s top six answers, just for fun.
These rankings are surprising, in an amusing-yet-oddly-pathetic way. The order of our reported priorities may also help to explain why, even when women are experiencing dangerous cardiac symptoms, they are significantly more likely than our male counterparts to delay seeking treatment if something ‘more important’ crops up.
‘More important?‘ What could possibly be more important when you’re having a heart attack? Check out the terrific 3-minute Elizabeth Banks film “Just a Little Heart Attack” for a brilliant example of this classic treatment-seeking delay behaviour.
And then see if this list of women’s reported priorities matches the answers that you might give, too:
#1 – Children: a mother will lift a 2-ton Buick to save her toddler trapped beneath. Our local news ran a story this week of a mother who threw herself between her 3-year old and the huge cougar who was mauling the child. Think back: how many times, as a new Mum (even if you were feeling desperately ill, at death’s door, puking and feverish) did you drag yourself out of your deathbed in order to feed the baby or drive the kids to hockey practice? Who else on earth would you do this for? I blame motherhood for a lot of my selflessness.
#2 – Home: StatsCan tells us that Canadians spend billions of dollars every year on our home improvements, decorating, and renovations. Women seem to care very much about our homes, big or small. For both owners and renters, feeling responsible for providing a clean, comfortable and safe home for our family is near the top of our priority list. And let’s face it, heart sisters, if your house is untidy because you just haven’t had the time or energy to clean, your visitors will never say: “Boy, is HE a messy housekeeper!”
#3 – Work: Whether we have children at home or not, women rate their careers right in the middle of our priority lists. According to Catherin Hakim in her European Sociological Review article called ‘Grateful Slaves and Self-Made Women‘, even women working in low-status, low-paying jobs appear to be ‘disproportionately satisfied’ with their jobs compared to their male counterparts. How we spend our hours in the workplace is important to us in ways that go beyond just a paycheque, from social relationships with co-workers to intellectual stimulation, skill mastery and increased self-esteem.
#4 – Pets: This fourth place priority listing always draws a knowing laugh from my audiences. We do love our pets! The Ontario Veterinary Medical Association reports that over 40% of women claim that their pets “understand their emotions and moods better than other family members”. Nearly half of women say they rely more on their pets for affection than on their family. That’s a bit frightening. And when asked if they were more likely to lose their temper with a family member or a pet, 67% of women point to those aggravating relatives.
#5 – Spouse: Yep, on this particular priority list, significant others are right up there. Just below the dog. While this may seem odd and even shocking at first (we love our pets more than our hubbies?), see #4 for possible explanations for our partners’ fifth place ranking. And for both married and single women, my audience members insist that their female friendships can equal spousal relationships in their importance to our emotional, mental and physical wellbeing.
#6 – Self: Here’s the pathetic part: perhaps the women who put themselves dead last after everybody else’s needs are met first might suffer from what has been described as Type E personalities: ‘Everything To Everybody’. Women from birth are socialized to be nurturers and caretakers of both friends and family, sometimes at the expense of our own health. In fact, when we do take time for ourselves, we can often feel like we’re being selfish, which, as we all suspect, is the worst possible way to be. And we resent others who DO take time for themselves. By comparison, we’re applauded for selfless sacrifice: “How does Mary do it? She does so much on so little sleep!”
It took a heart attack for me to finally admit that the earth will somehow continue to spin on its axis even if I’m not running everything myself.
© Carolyn Thomas www.myheartsisters.org
Watch this little 4-minute excerpt from my talk on women’s priorities
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote more about why women delay seeking help – even in mid-heart attack! – in Chapter 2 of my book, “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease” (Johns Hopkins University). You can ask for it at your favourite bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon – or order it directly from my publisher Johns Hopkins University Press (if you use their code HTWN , you can save 30% off the list price).