A Whole New World (Or When You Realize Like Keanu in the Matrix that You’re Just Food and Fertilizer)

matrix

 

I have been coaching, mentoring and championing women on college campuses for almost twenty years. Inspired and awestruck by the way they see the world as full of possibility, as a place where they can and should lead, I have followed their lives and careers with great hope.

Their trajectory mirrored mine in a way. I was a good student growing up, moved through life with purpose and as much self-confidence as a young woman can have in her twenties. It was all going to work out perfectly I assumed, as did everyone else.

Then marriage, childbearing, caregiving and (what was that called again?) oh yes, my career, converged upon each other like so many tectonic plates, creating a whole new world.

This new world took over a decade for me to learn to navigate, and I am still learning. New mountains crop up as each child moves into a new stage of life. My relationship with my husband, sharp rocks at first, has eroded with the force of our love into a comfortable walking path. I am getting more used to the shifting and moving of the earth beneath me.

And just as I was finding my footing, the college women I’d sent off like so many birds into the sky began to fly back to me for reassurance and guidance because they, too, were in the midst of their own creative conflict, the re-creation of their own worlds. Some chose to stay home with their children, some chose not to have children at all. Many have tried to find a space in between.

I realized through talking with my former students, and with my female colleagues and friends, that this wasn’t a singular, unique experience. This wasn’t just my experience. This was a woman’s experience. And no one was talking about it.

So I read books like Lean In, read critiques of these books, authored a somewhat rageful mommy blog, and finally, as if experiencing my own version of the Matrix where Keanu realizes he’s just food and fertilizer, found myself curled up in anger and despair.

The system wasn’t set up for me to succeed. I had known this intellectually but not believed it. My education in college had said as much, but that was the past. Women’s Lib happened before I was even born, so certainly we’d figured it out by now?

Apparently we hadn’t. It took me about a year to mourn the myth of my childhood and young adulthood, to turn the anger and despair into something more. To find inspiration in the disappointment, to see that under my anger was love for something greater, and to decide with the greatest conviction of my life that it was time to do more, to talk more, to be more.

I cannot in my lifetime change a millennia of human conditioning, but I can change how I respond to it. I cannot dismantle societal beliefs that women are not good enough, smart enough, or talented enough, but I can dismantle those beliefs in myself. I cannot liberate the hearts and minds of all women in the world, but I can at least get started.

As I open into this new world, a place where I am the tectonic plate, where it is my passion and voice that is the force of creation and re-creation, I feel nervous, hopeful, vulnerable. And brave.

I invite you to join me here.

Ready?

Let’s go.

xoxoako

A Room of One’s Own (Even a Broom Closet Will Do)

When I was in high school, I got a burr in my saddle to read the classics. Don’t be too impressed – this was before Facebook and texting, and I was stuck on an Army base with no friends, so it really wasn’t a stretch to wander over to the library and check out a half dozen books.

And they were boring. Like so boring I actually felt judgy towards the people who had deemed them “classics” and the authors who wrote them. Clearly, they were not that smart.

But then I came across A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. Her premise simple, she asked what would happen if women were granted the same power as men.

Back that up, Virginia.

Women don’t have the same power as men?

Intrigued, I read on, trying to wrap my teenage brain around the concept that men and women were not equal, because up until that point, I’d been fed a daily diet that everyone in our country was equal (didn’t the Constitution like, explicitly state that?), I could do whatever I wanted as long as I set my mind to it, etc., etc.

Her examples were based on women’s experiences in the late 1800s where they were busy cooking, cleaning, raising children and basically doing every wifely and motherly thing that women were still expected to do some one hundred years later.

What were their menfolk doing? Owning businesses, building societies, making money…basically every manly thing that they were still doing, some one hundred years later.

I walked around grocery stores and saw the moms with their screaming toddlers and thought even though the frozen pizza they just tossed into their cart is easier to make than, say, porridge (whatever that is?), they still are responsible for cooking it.

I saw my own mother, who had dropped out of college to get married, wait up every night for my dad to get home from work so she could pour him a drink and sit up with him while he ate that frozen pizza.

I witnessed girls my age acting like they didn’t know the answer to questions when the teacher called on them because being smart might make the boys not like you.

I saw myself doing the same.

To say my little brain broke is an understatement. It. Blew. Up. My feminist teenage years were messy, and I blame it all on Virginia.

I took a calculator on every date and made sure I paid 50% of the check. (Little did I know I should have been paying less because women make $.77 for every man’s $1.)

When a boy said his friend wanted to ask me out, likening it to a “little test drive,” I told him, “No thanks. I’m not a car.”

It’s not surprising that someone wrote “bitch” on my locker. It’s also not surprising that I hung a sign inside my locker that explained the word was an acronym for:

Being

In

Total

Control of

Herself

Like I said, teenage feminism is messy.

Now I’m a lot calmer. It’s mostly age but it’s also the roles I’ve eased into that have helped me make sense of a world that infuriated me so much as a young woman.

I’m married, so I know it’s tough to negotiate gender roles when all you’re trying to do is love each other and put dinner on the table. I have two children and I want them to be happy – super-duper happy – so I am willing to contort myself into whatever shape is needed to achieve that. If it means feeling like I live out of my car because I’m driving them to soccer/gymnastic/football/princess-fairy camp, then I’ll do that. If I have to wake up at 5 a.m. to slice and wrap individual pieces of mango for the “Fruit Party” at school, I’ll do that, too.

But I do it as a choice, and with awareness. And in the spaces between the responsibilities and demands, I think about Virginia.

One thing I ponder most is the lack of room we create for ourselves as women. Even an hour of doing what we want, by ourselves, feels like an indulgent, self-centered luxury, if not an outright act against God.

So what if, to use Virginia Woolf’s metaphor from the title of her book, we had a “room of our own” where we were unbound from ours and others’ expectations, where we were free to reflect, create or even just rest?

(I know, my brain just broke again, too. But let’s keep going.)

What if we had a place where we could ask questions of ourselves and hear our own voices instead of the voices of our spouses, children, coworkers, parents and friends? Or the voice of perfectionism that serves as a slavedriver to so many women.

For a moment, imagine you could go there any time you wanted without guilt, without the world falling apart in your absence.

Because that’s what the world seems to do when we walk away into ourselves.

And if that’s too hard, imagine you have a broom closet. It’s tiny, unassuming, filled with brooms. More of a hiding place than a retreat, but that will do, too.

Ultimately, my hope is that we can build these rooms for ourselves individually, and then, collectively, start joining these rooms. (If you’re in a broom closet, I’ll invite you into my room to visit.)

Maybe we build a house together. And then a community, a city and then a country. And finally, a whole new world. A world where I value loving myself as much as I love my children and husband. Where society values women’s work as much as it does men’s, and by that I mean professions like teaching and home-making. A world where equality is more than just a noble concept but is practiced in every home and workplace and space in between.

Ready?

Let’s go.

xoxoako

Shakespeare’s Sister (A Challenge for You and Me)

What if Shakespeare had a sister?

Virginia Woolf, one of my favorite authors, never married or had children, and from this vantage point, she observed (and critiqued) society’s expectations of women in a provocative way that still holds true today, almost 100 years later.

In A Room of One’s Own, she asks us to consider what would have happened if Shakespeare had a sister. Would she have been a writer, too? Virginia thinks not, but rather than lamenting this, she challenges us to bring her to life.

“Shakespeare had a sister; but do not look for her. She died young—alas, she never wrote a word.

Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the crossroads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed.

But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh. This opportunity, as I think, it is now coming within your power to give her.

Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, she will be born. I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worthwhile.”

– Adapted from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own

How does this translate today, for you and for me?

Like Virginia, I have hope. Rather than seeing the absence, I see possibility.

For every woman who is not leading today, I see a tomorrow where she is.

For every mother who is conflicted by the pressure to work inside and outside of the home, I see a tomorrow where these expectations support and enhance, rather than detract, from her wellbeing.

For every college woman who struggles with body image, I see a tomorrow where she is valued for her contributions, not the size of her jeans.

For every little girl who says she wants to be president someday, I see a tomorrow where she is.

As Virginia encourages us to do, we must work, perhaps in poverty and obscurity, for this vision of women’s leadership to be born. I invite you to work alongside me, to give yourself and other women this opportunity.

To bring Shakespeare’s sister to life.

Ready?

Let’s go.

xoxoako