Monday, July 20, 2009

Baby steps to being a woman

I recently stumbled upon some old pictures of me as a little girl. I was telling a story to the family cat while sitting in a cooking pan on the kitchen floor; I was taking a nose-dive (and laughing hysterically) after trying to walk in my teenage brother’s oversize cowboy boots; I was tenderly caring for an injured bunny; and striking a dramatic pose on the beach at the age of four. I was curious, compassionate and content. I was also distinctly feminine - sensitive, exuberant, kind and concerned mainly with interpersonal relationships.

Somewhere between the middle of high school and the end of college, a combination of powerful factors convinced me that being feminine was weak. Ridiculous. Undesirable. Since then, I’ve spent a great deal of energy trying to keep my femininity “under control.” I’ve fought (desperately at times) to replace my innate, feminine attributes with independence, competence, intelligence and achievement; two sets of characteristics I regarded as mutually exclusive.

For years, I refused help, avoided vulnerability and focused on setting and accomplishing goals. I pursued men and career with the same assertive determination. I was overly critical of myself and overly sensitive to criticism and rejection. I assumed that striving for perfection was the only guaranteed way to enhance my desirability and self-worth. I believed that achievement would make me more worthy of love and more appealing to the opposite sex. Similarly, I thought men would find me more attractive if I opened my own door, paid for my own dinner, carried my own suitcase, laughed at vulgar jokes I didn’t find funny, was interested in sports, tolerated conversations in which women were objectified (and sometimes blatantly disrespected) and, essentially, tried to be “one of the boys.”

I didn’t need help or chivalry, I didn't want to be treated any differently than a man - I was a feminist.

Now, I have a demanding career and a number of interesting hobbies. I’ve done some traveling and lived in a few different places. I’ve checked a couple items off my life “to-do” list, had a lot of exciting experiences and met a number of fascinating and talented people. I’m a loyal, caring friend, daughter, sister and aunt.

I'm incredibly grateful for all of this. I'm also undeniably lonely.

I live for my family and my friends, but at this point, almost all of them are living for someone else - a boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife or child. While this doesn't diminish the joy I get from being part of their lives, it has introduced me to a new kind of loneliness. I used to think this meant I was ready to “settle down” and get married. It didn't.

The loneliness came from the realization that although I didn’t need any help or chivalry, I wanted it. It was an acknowledgement that feminine attributes are attractive to most men, just as masculine attributes are attractive to most women. It was an understanding that while men certainly admire and respect accomplished women, it’s in the same way they admire and respect accomplished men - it is rarely the reason they pursue a woman, or reach out to her with romantic affection. It was an admittance that, in a seemingly important, feminism-inspired attempt to "realize my full potential" and become self-actualized, I was cutting myself off from my most intimate desires and the most honest version of myself.

Basically, it took me 25 years to un-learn and re-learn something that the little girl who liked to sit in cooking pots and pose on the beach, would have never questioned - loving relationships are my most valued source of happiness, accomplishment and satisfaction.

Realizing all of this was overwhelming. But trying to determine where to go from here, has proven to be down-right terrifying. Living my life in fast-foreward has become a crutch - - how do I make peace with the fact that my Tasmanian Devil impression isn't leading anywhere? Is it possible that the whirlwind of pressure, exhaustion, rejection, and anxiety of the past ten years will prove to be my "what not to do" lesson? How do I accept that everything I thought I needed to do, has brought me back to the beginning? How do I learn to embrace vulnerability?

Baby steps.

For now, I'm trying to spend more time "being" rather than "doing." This has proven to be a tall order. Not only am I accustomed to living in one, never ending lightening round, but everyone else is used to me living that way too. So I'm working on not over-promising. I'm working on not feeling quite so responsible for everyone else. I'm working on feeling feminine. For me, that means dancing. Taking baths. Going on walks. Stretching. Reading. Spending time alone. Spending time with my girlfriends. Being quiet. Being silly. Laughing. And most importantly, it means learning to relate to men as a women, instead of a peer.

While some of you may find it outdated or un-liberated, I found the following quote to be honest, relevant and surprisingly timely:

"Funny business, a woman's career; the things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forget you need them until you get back to being a woman. That's one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not; Being a woman. Sooner or later we've got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we've had or wanted. And in the last analysis, nothing's any good unless you can look up just before dinner, or turn around in bed, and there he is. Without that, you're not a woman. You're something with a French provincial office or a book full of clippings. But you're not a woman."

-Bette Davis in All About Eve

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good on you for being so insightful and honest. Now its knowing what exactly to do with all of these awarenesses and epiphanies. That's my next step too:)