Last Friday, I found myself screaming and cursing at the television. Less than two episodes into Netflix’s Sex/Life, and I was raging mad. What’s wrong with this woman? I thought to myself.
The series is about Billie Connelly, a 40-year-old suburban mother of two who can’t stop fantasizing about her sexual escapades with her bad boy ex-boyfriend, Brad. After journaling her experiences on her laptop, she begins to question her life choices. Billie eventually runs into Brad, causing past feelings to resurface, further complicating her dwindling marriage to her husband, Cooper.
As a woman who has trouble finding a mate suitable enough to bring home to meet her pet parrot, I resented the fact that there was a woman willing to blow up her life for a non-committal, emotionally unavailable man who had given her nothing but heartache. Cooper, on the other hand, was a dedicated father and provider but lacked in the sex department.
I’m sure I’m not the only single woman rolling her eyes and shaking her head at this predicament. Even if the sex wasn’t good, was the pursuit of pleasure worth risking it all to have it all? Is having it all even possible for the modern woman? And what did having it all even mean?
The concept of “having it all” has become the equivalent of the bogeyman for modern women, scaring them into creating lives that appear picture-perfect from the outside but carry no real substance. The mere mention of those three words can conjure up all kinds of insecurities in women, whether single or married. The trouble is that it sets unrealistic expectations for womanhood, suggesting there is only one path to fulfillment. When we attain the highly coveted job, husband, and 2.5 kids, and life still fails to pony up the satisfaction it promised, we feel bad about ourselves. Consequently, we start to self-sabotage to resolve our inner turmoil.
In Sex/Life, Billie has everything she thought she ever wanted – a provider, a beautiful family, and financial security – yet something is still off. She thinks her cravings are just for hotter sex but discovers she also yearns to be who she was before meeting her husband: an ambitious woman who thrived on spontaneity and pleasure. Billie did what most women are socialized to do; she gave up the most vibrant pieces of herself to fit into the social construct of being a wife and mother rather than defining it for herself.
In my own life, I’ve suffered greatly from the dismembering of my true self to fulfill a societal ideal. I’d shrink my wants and desires in romantic relationships, stuff down my creativity at work, and downplay my ambitions when family members questioned my marital status. This behavior went on for decades until I hit my forties. Like Billie, I began to long for my younger days when I was free.
As I continued to watch episode after episode of Sex/Life, I concluded I had gotten it all wrong. Having it all wasn’t about acquiring things or crossing milestones off a life checklist; it was about having the ability to show up fully as your true self in all aspects of your life.
Writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde echoes this philosophy in her speech, “Learning from the 60s,” where she recounts her struggles with balancing the various roles women hold. In it, she says, “As a Black lesbian mother in an interracial marriage, there was usually some part of me guaranteed to offend everybody’s comfortable prejudices of who I should be. That is how I learned that if I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”
Watching Billie juggle her desire to reconnect with her younger self and expectations of what motherhood entails, my judgment waned because I knew firsthand how it felt to be trapped in a life you desperately want to escape. Seven years ago, I was living in New York, engaged to a man I thought was the love of my life. While we looked good on paper, our life goals were sorely misaligned. I had two choices: I could stay and get married and live a life of quiet desperation, or blow up my life and start over. Like Billie, I chose the latter.
Ending my engagement wasn’t the first time I’d set a bomb off in my life. In my younger days, it wasn’t uncommon for me to abruptly end relationships, quit jobs, and eliminate toxic friends. I was also less tolerant of other people’s opinions. Perhaps that is the true gift of our youth.
As we grow older, we experience more pressure to have life figured out, so we grab the first thing in sight – the nice guy and good enough job – to avoid being perceived as inadequate. Most days, all I can hear is the ticking of a time clock, suggesting I’m way behind schedule. Then I have to remind myself that if I’m not where I think I should be, it’s because God has a more scenic route for me to travel.
While I can never erase the years of entrapment I suffered by my own hands, trying to meet the approval of others, witnessing another woman wage war on the same mental trappings that had pinned me to my limitations liberated me to remove the shackles that kept me bound. In trying to “have it all” and “be it all,” I realize I’ve only become less of myself.
Contrary to the raunchy sex scenes, the greatest takeaway from Sex/Life isn’t to have better sex (though it certainly wouldn’t hurt). The real lesson is that you can have all the things that culture says you should have, but if you don’t honor all the parts of yourself, you’ll still feel empty. In order to do this, we as women must dismantle the faulty frameworks that tell us how to show up and who to be and become ourselves.