I am a woman who has had lots of roles in my life. I am or have been a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother and a grandmother. These are the roles that have been given to me by virtue of my sex. I have spent much of my life surrounded by members of my family who are of the same sex. My mother, my sister, my daughters and my granddaughter have all either helped shape my definition of myself or have served as a reflection of that self.
As a girl growing up my mother was my primary female role model. Mom was a member of the generation that got caught between two diametrically opposed pictures of what a woman should be. She got married in 1951 and her life was saturated with the Eisenhower ideal of women who stayed at home and took care of the house and the kids while the big, strong man went out and pursued a career to support the family. Regardless of how smart or creative a woman was she was expected to fit into a very confining mold. She was expected to not only not complain, but be blissfully happy in what could frequently be the mind-numbing boredom of her life.
Then the 60’s and 70’s came along and the rules changed. Women were told to stand up for themselves and be strong. No longer were men the saviors of the fair damsel, they were dragons to slay for holding the damsel back for so damn long. As a child, it seemed like in the 70’s divorce blossomed and spread on the street where we lived much like the wind spreading the dandelions the men had worked so hard, yet unsuccessfully, to eradicate from the carefully groomed yards. During these years my mother spoke in a fierce language and she spent her time studying and learning about anything that sparked her interest.
Despite the changes in the feminist mind, there was still a lifetime of training to be dealt with. It was easy to intellectualize that a woman could do anything a man could do, but it was far harder to let go of the quiet voice in the back of the head telling her that the man must be kept happy and calm at all times. The superiority of the male by birth had been presented as such a self-evident fact that words were never needed to express that fact. Mom spent her entire second marriage trying to balance those two conflicting states of mind, but it was her moments of feminism that sparked my own desire to raise my daughters as feminists.
My sister was my secondary role model growing up. She was only five years older but in our childhood that was a huge divide. She was cool, hip and the woman who would talk to me openly about things that no full-grown adult would think to discuss. She taught me how to drink whiskey, put on make-up and how to swear with confidence. I’m sure there were other, more important lessons, but those are the ones I remember and have put to the best use.
As children, my sister and I were both raised with the same limited expectations. We were asked if we wanted to be a mother, a nurse, a teacher or a secretary when we grew up. I don’t ever remember being given any other options. Being of a more scientific mind than me, my sister always declared she wanted to be a nurse. She grew up to be a great nurse while I’m still deciding what if I even want to grow up.
Because of that small gap in our ages, my sister’s messages from society were even more mixed than mine were. We were both raised in an era when girls were not allowed to wear pants to school, but for her, at the age of 13 she was given her first girdle and was taught she had to cover her head in church. I escaped that particular form of 60’s torture. My sister is a nurturer and a rebel, all mixed together and she showed me I could be both.
“What makes a good adult does not make a good child, and what makes a good child does not make a good adult.” This is the phrase that was my mantra as I raised my three daughters in the 80’s and 90’s. We have defined a good child as a child who obeys, is quiet and doesn’t ask questions. A good adult stands up for what they believe in, speaks up for themselves and always questions the status quo.
I was determined my daughters would grow up to be independent women. It wasn’t always easy to keep this in mind when they would practice flexing their independence muscles with their mother. There were many times it would’ve been so much easier to just cave and say “yes,” to everything they asked for or to do the hard things for them instead of letting them learn how to do them on their own. There were times when not allowing them to disagree with me or voice their opinion would’ve made my life more peaceful. It would’ve taken less time and been a lot less stressful for all of us. But I would’ve been raising over-grown children, not independent adults.
Now in their 30’s my daughters are all independent thinkers and are not afraid of standing up for themselves. Quite frankly, I do not recommend pissing any of them off. I don’t like confrontation but have taught myself to not lean away from it when it is brought to me. My daughters are all happy to lean into it and bring confrontation if they think it’s the right thing to do. I admire their confidence and assertiveness while at the same time I am amazed by their willingness to stand up for themselves.
And then along came Lily. My granddaughter Lily is a petite little girl with big green eyes, white blonde hair and the sweetest dimples you’ve ever seen. She will be shy and quiet until she has an opinion. Then she will express her opinion as loudly as possible to make sure you understand. At age three she already appears to be convinced she is in charge of us all.
Lily is my only granddaughter, the only girl among a small tribe of boys. All four of my grandsons look like they will grow to be good-sized men, but I have a funny feeling that petite Lily will be doing her best to rule them all. Even funnier, I have a strong feeling that all those boys will probably let her. I have no idea yet what lessons I will learn from Lily, but I am sure that it will be an interesting learning curve.
All these women have shaped and influenced me as we tried to navigate the changing waters of what a woman’s role is in society. We all love and respect each other despite knowing each other’s darkest secrets and deepest wounds. I would like to thank them for being my mirrors, my teachers, my co-conspirators and my “laugh so hard my belly hurts” friends.