Misogyny of the Heart

It hit me like a ton of bricks. My daughter is becoming a girl. She’s always eschewed anything stereotypically feminine for that which is “cool” and rugged and associated with being a boy. She declared at four that she was a vegetarian and at seven that she was officially a tomboy. The transition to a developing body, to the social gymnastics of preteens and all the cultural expectations that come from being female have crept up on us.canstockphoto24377829I was surprised at the fear and anger and sadness that washed over me when thinking about the changes and lessons she will experience. While preteen advice is burgeoning with woman-positive messages, I sat glumly thinking about my miserable transitions into adolescence and adulthood. There are my truths and there are the things I want her to believe. The gap between the two feels like a canyon.

She’s acutely aware of the differences, starting her protests early on as a toddler. She refused dresses, canstockphoto14836302asking resentfully why the boys got to go swimming without their shirts and she couldn’t. Girls can’t play football is the taunt from fifth grade boys that recently sent her into a sputtering rage. We talk about it and I puncture her outrage.

“Do you want to play football?”


I’ve begun the concession talks. Pick your battles. Fight for what you care about. Start small. In my head I’m wondering if I’m asking her to be small. But I know there is a long road ahead. Many have walked it generations before us, fighting and winning some big battles. For me now, the battles are smaller and with a global awareness, small potatoes.

I have immense gratitude for the monumental changes in the last century and for now being able to have choices. But the feminism I’m living little resembles political theory or the echo chamber of social media or the cover of a glossy women’s magazines. The cacophony of voices telling me what I am and am not supposed to believe about women falls on deaf ears.

canstockphoto15586920I don’t have time for it. I have work to do. I’m raising a child, while trying to find my own way in the world. Roles have shifted so rapidly that I focus on learning and teaching how to be a decent human on this planet. Sometimes she will ask me a question and I flail, because she’s right. There is a lot of injustice out there. Each person must pick and choose whether or not to look past an inequality and continue on their journey or whether ground must be held, banners painted, protests enacted.

Raising a child is an unexpected education. It forces me to examine my beliefs, deeply held prejudices and patterns of behavior. It’s hard work to suss out what your personal truths are and how they impact the growing person who is watching you with keen eyes. How can I help her grow into a happy woman if I hold back, grimly watching and waiting for the other shoe to drop? Waiting for the “because you’re a girl” comment or scenario that makes her less than.

canstockphoto13127372I grew up in a home where I saw that being a woman was not a positive experience. Being a mother was endless drudgery and constant anxiety. Being a wife was the fear of getting hit or not getting enough money to buy groceries or being trapped with no way out. Poverty and domestic violence never stops with the adults.

In the male-dominated workplaces where I’ve worked, from the army to universities to factories, the conversation in relation to gender is always the same. Tiresome. A wink, a touch, a sly aside. I learned to sharpen my tongue and keep my distance and cultivated a twisted sense of humor. Just do your job, asshole and let me do mine. Then I did my job better than anyone else could, just to prove a point.

The gender divisiveness starts well before reaching adulthood, though. You get told early on that you are different from the other and in what ways you are different, squashing the individual inclinations in favor of easy categorization. The minute you tell a human who they are, something valuable is lost. There’s no measuring how much potential has been drained and how much misery this binary narrative has generated.

canstockphoto10311077Maybe that’s what I resent most of all – all this energy that I, having been born and identified as a female, spent trying to fit into that box. It took years of awkward clothes and shoes, disordered eating and self-loathing before it hit me, this isn’t working. It took me years to realize that I didn’t fit, that nobody fits in these little boxes.

Fear drives my anger and I can’t teach my child from this place of anger. I’m scared of what this world will tell my thoughtful, imaginative child about who she is. I have to take hold of my fears, lay them down, reach beyond this narrow space in which I find myself.

She is not me as I am not my mother. Our experiences are reflections of familial evolution and of advancing social awareness. My daughter has a different role model, home environment, and a different experience entirely of womanhood. She has many attributes that insulate her against casual expectations of her gender and has critical thinking skills that can neutralize attempts to devalue her.

Confronting my internal misogynist pessimism is a challenge. I’m a little stuck sometimes trying to see that being a woman is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. Some days, I’ll see something or read something and I burn with anger and righteous indignation. Some days, I am so damned lucky to see the world through my daughter’s eyes. Her truth is powerful. She knows who she is and everything else is just noise.


Dear Daughter,

Let’s face it, this Mother’s Day gig is more for businesses than for your mom. Your mom would rather hang out at home than bustle elbow-to-elbow with corsages, pastel dresses and Waldorf salads. I don’t need this day, because being your mother is a privilege and a joy.

I didn’t always think of parenting like this. I grew up believing it was drudgery, dirty hands, noisy squatters who were just bearable – little uncontrollable monsters who made life worse. Children were unending responsibility and to do lists. Maybe that’s why I waited so long to have you – I had to realize that there was another side to the story.canstockphoto13603068What no one told me about was the joy. The joy of watching you grow big and strong and confident. I watched you run across the soccer field this week and felt tears well up. My mind jumped back in time to when you first learned to crawl and then walk and then run, laughing as I would chase you about the house singing “We are the dinosaurs”.

No one told me how much I would learn – about myself, about others and about how to see the world around me. No one told me how much better I would want to be as a human being, in order to be a good example. No one told me I’d spend an afternoon pouring over bug books to figure out what we saw on a walk or sewing a Robin Hood costume because you wanted to be a character in a book.

canstockphoto12183648No one told me how much I’d laugh and giggle at your antics or how much pleasure I’d get having you snuggled up against me, talking about nothing at all. There’s no chapter in the books that would tell me how I’d watch you from the kitchen window, my heart overwhelmed by a song you belted out happily while going back and forth on your swing.

No one told me that when I read a story about the loss of a child, that I’d feel a weight on my chest and a fear creeping at the edge of my mind. No one told me that I’d stop what I was doing, find you and be so grateful for the moment. And that for many moments after, I’d feel my breath catch at the thought of losing you.

There have been many challenges along the way. Most of them had to do with sleep. But those baby days are growing distant in the rear view mirror and here you are, in braces, happily chatting away about this cool computer program you are writing. I am often stunned by how grown up you sound.

You amaze me each and every day with your kindness, your enthusiasm and your open heart.

I don’t need a day. I’ve had years. And I hope for many more.

Love, Your Very Lucky Mom

The Women in My Tribe

I had an experience today that I haven’t had in a long time. I met someone I want to induct into my tribe.

My tribe of women is not formal – most of the time the members have no idea that they belong. There’s a longtime playwright friend and mentor – generous, encouraging and talented. There’s a woman I’ve worked for over the last decade – thoughtful, grounded, physically fit and funny. There’s a “mom” friend, starting her own cottage industry, with common sense and a great sense of humor. There is my personal trainer and friend, who is smart and well-read and passionate about issues. There’s my mother-in-law, who has such a lovely temperament despite the fact that hearing loss means she misses out on most conversations (we could probably learn something from that). There’s a dear friend with whom I spend inordinate amounts of time Skyping, because she “gets” me.

Today I met another one of those women – interesting, passionate, intelligent, animated and willing to take responsibility for her worth in the world. I love those amazing moments when you meet someone and things click. Admittedly, I tend to be in awe of powerful women. I love women who know themselves so completely and express a full range of human emotion. They can be emotional and be powerful. They can have flaws, but not bend over backwards apologizing to anyone who crosses their paths. They can take a compliment and not be an arrogant jerk. They can be loud and brassy, and still be sensitive and kind. They can demand their value in the world and still be humble.

I grew up around women where passive-aggression was an art form. You could control people by pursing your lips or giving a backhanded compliment or sighing dramatically and making a “poor me” statement.  You couldn’t just come right out and say what you wanted or felt. That would be selfish. I was raised to be a consummate wallflower, to write bad melodramatic poetry and to stuff every emotion down until I was a seething ball of rage. Don’t bring attention to myself. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t be loud. Don’t ask for too much.

Having a daughter has changed me and not in the maternal, isn’t-she-adorable kind of way. I have written this before, but mothering a girl has forced me to think about and decide what I want to teach her. Leading by example is simply the best way to teach and influence. It is no longer okay for me to be indirect, subtle, and passive-aggressive. It is no longer okay for me to be falsely humble, to deflect compliments (oh, this old thing?) and to devalue my skill set so I don’t appear to be bragging. You can be self-deprecating without being self-defecating.

One of my favorite things about the women in my tribe is that they laugh. Some of them have wonderful, loud, barking laughs – the public kind that, in the past, would have had me sinking down in my chair and pretending that I didn’t know them. Now I know the secret to their joyfulness – they have carved their place in the world.  And most of the time, they’ve got a great tribe of their own. I hope they’ll let me in. No – I DEMAND that they let me in. Please? If you wouldn’t mind. I don’t want to be a bother. I guess I’m just a terrible friend and human being.

I might have to do a little more work, before meeting the membership requirements.

Being Just Right

I’ve been putting off writing about an issue that I’ve internalized over the course of a lifetime. I have no magic resolution, no pat answers. It can bring me to tears when I think of the misery and harm I’ve directed towards myself over the years. I didn’t deserve it. No one does. Much has been written about American women and body image. I am an average American woman. And eventually my daughter will be one, too.

There are wonderful books and websites out there about how to help daughters develop decent self-esteem. With misogynist politics as a backdrop, I must tell my daughter to feel good about who she is – against an army of people who want to tell her what is acceptable, attractive, moral and proper. My girl is magic right now – a tomboy who wants to invent things, wear rugged clothes (must have pockets) and dig muddy holes in our backyard. I dread the day someone tries to take that strong sense of self away from her. Attempts will be made and I must be there for her – a defender and a teacher. I have to deconstruct my own belief system, challenge the attitudes that I might pass on to her – look at myself with an unflinching critical eye, so that I am worthy of the task at hand.

Feminism was always about having equal rights under the law and the choice to be your best self until the term was politically hijacked and loaded with negative connotations. I am a feminist, but I’m a pretty shitty one, because I have been affected in my choices and belief system by advertisers, neanderthal ex-boyfriends, other affected women, negative family values and politicians. I’ve been equally affected by courageous women, respectful men and children who see the world as it should be. It’s a battleground in my head and I’ve not yet won the war. I want my daughter’s energies directed towards her potential, not the war of her “should be” self, with its petty daily battles worrying if she looks good enough, if enough people like her or if she is, god forbid, sexy enough.

My girl brims with self-confidence, so I was completely taken off guard when her 2nd grade self asked me “Am I thin, mom?” I had to immediately quash the massive freakout inside my head. I wanted to shake her, yell at the top of my lungs, hug her tightly and wail “NOooooooooooo, you can’t have this one!” Instead, I tried to look all-knowing, smiled and said quietly “You are just right.” Every fiber of my being hoped that every cell of hers would absorb this message. You are just right, my darling child, not perfect, not lacking….just right.

The message I got growing up was different. I didn’t physically take after my mother or grandmother who have, ever since I can remember, been rail thin. In my family, thin was a virtue. Round and short and muscled, I was just wrong. I’ve never been delicate, graceful or particularly feminine. I really, really tried – there was the makeup and the godawful miniskirt club years, and some fledgling attempts at spiky heels. Long hair, short hair, dyed hair. Glasses, contacts, entire days spent with the world in a blur. The reality is that I’m average looking with a decent brain and a twisted sense of humor. I’m the girl you want with you during a mugging, but not necessarily at the prom. And even now, with my knowledge, experience and maturity, I am still not okay with that.

Everyday I see other women who are not okay with that too. They’re the ones that say they’ve accepted themselves and feel so confident, yet they can barely keep their balance on their skyscraper stilettos (although I imagine those shoes would make awesome weapons). They’re the ones reading Cosmo in the checkout lanes. I’m sorry ladies, but unless you’re evolving at a different pace than the rest of us and have sprouted extra limbs and popped a couple new orifices, there’s no way Cosmo came up with 10 more ways to satisfy your man. Happiness doesn’t sell magazines, but sowing the seeds of dissatisfaction sure the hell does.

And that is really what it comes down to – dissatisfaction. We are groomed as consumers and as women to be perpetually dissatisfied with our bodies, our homes, our lives. Dissatisfaction sells padded bras, makeup with horse urine in it, and injections that paralyze facial muscles. And I don’t need to mention all the weird diets out there. I have a relative in her mid-80s and she is still trying to lose weight. Holy shit. You’ve got a couple decades, tops, of your life left and you want to still weigh yourself and drink some chalky shakes? I’d say bring on the booze, chocolate and some smokes. And Shape magazine can kiss my old lady ass.

Deprogramming is tough. It takes deliberate thought and effort to untangle and challenge the messages in my head. I’m chipping away at them and for the sake of my daughter, I won’t stop until I get it just right.