Monday, May 08, 2006

BOOKS: Learning to Like Women

Despite the fact that I've been a feminist pretty much since I learned what the word means, it's only in the past couple of years that I've really liked women.

Did I just say that? Dear lord, what a can of worms to open on a Monday morning.

Let me be more specific. I've always had female friends, and I've always liked them immensely, but my feelings about the entire double-X-chromosomed half of the human population -- roughly, what, three billion people? -- have been conflicted. And let me be the first to say that I'm well aware that the problem was all me. I didn't like women because I didn't like being a woman.

I grew up on a farm in rural Ontario. My understanding of my environment -- my family, my school, my community -- was that women were, for all intents and purposes, second-class citizens. As I bumbled along, wanting better for myself but unable to articulate to myself what or why or how, one thing I internalized was that if I didn't want to end up like the women I saw, I needed to dissociate myself from womankind. For the next twenty-something years, I modelled my words and behaviour on those of the men I saw who seemed to have power. This technique seemed effective. I found success in school and work, and I attributed this in some part to the fact that I played these games like a guy.

The other reason, I think, why I distanced myself from women is because I was a bit of a late bloomer socially. I was daunted by groups and mystified by group dynamics. Given that my lot was usually thrown in with that of other girls, I ended up confused and intimidated by groups of girls and women. I had female friends, yes, but only one-on-one or in small clutches.

Throughout my teens and twenties, I was happy with my state. As I've mentioned, I had a few excellent women friends, but for the most part my social wanderings were in largely male groups, where I felt most at ease.

Then I hit my thirties, and the status quo stopped feeling... right. I became aware that there was a disconnect between my theoretical feminist values and my real-world behaviour. But I had a why-change-a-winning-game superstition about altering how I travelled through my world. I felt conflicted and stuck.

And then I got pregnant. It was like someone had flipped a switch. I went from living in a male-paradigmed world to one that was dominated by female physiology and feelings. It was powerfully archetypal and it had a huge impact on me.

Now, I'm not trying to say anything as simplistic as the fact that, in one fell hormonal swoop, all my years of assumptions disappeared and I became one with womankind because deep down we little dears are all exactly alike, dontchaknow. But I will say that pregnancy and motherhood have been enormously humbling experiences for me, and one of the many things they've made me realize is that I'm pretty much your typical garden-variety female. I joke about it now, but it took me months to realize that, when it comes to any physical or emotional aspect of being a mom, I'm absurdly textbook. If hundreds or thousands or millions of other women have thought or felt something, I can pretty much expect that I've felt it, too, or that I'm about to.

I call this revelation "humbling," but I really don't feel humble at all. Or perhaps humility was the first step on the path to how I feel now: despite being pretty much totally average in the mom department, I'm realizing that that's pretty fucking awesome. Your average mom kicks twelve kinds of ass before breakfast, and I'm happy to be one.

I know that there are a billion different flavours of mom out there (er, "flavours of mom"... perhaps my wording needs work), and that's wonderful. Celebrate diversity! Boo-ya! But I also know that, if I meet another mom, we've got at least as many points of similarity as differences, and I find that comforting. No one ever told me that I'd feel relieved and grateful to learn that I'm not so unique, especially in our culture that celebrates rampant individualism so aggressively, but here I am... relieved and grateful.

Dropped Threads 3: Beyond the Small Circle
edited by Marjorie Anderson (#15)
Given my newfound revelation about my place among women, I was thrilled -- thrilled, I tell you -- when I found out that a new
Dropped Threads anthology was being published. I've devoured the first two (and wrote about my re-read of one of them here) and find the combination of anecdotal writing and diverse authors (including women who don't write for a living) compelling and addictive.

Originally conceived and edited by writers
Carol Shields and Marjorie Anderson in 2001, each anthology chooses a slightly different tack with which to think about how women experience the world. The "theme" of Dropped Threads 3 is "What advice would you give younger women?" This really resonated for me. At 36, I've finally realized that advice from my elders is a GOOD THING. My eardrums are funnels. My brain is a sponge.

Did I say "diverse"? This thick, rich, ripe collection starts with a funny piece by Margaret Atwood in which she states that no one actually listens to advice, but then goes on to give a grocery list of tips that would have made Polonius proud. Other contributors include activist Judy Rebick (on the difference between rebellion and resistance), Olympian Silken Laumann (on accepting the type of mother she is versus the type she used to think she should be), singer Chantal Kreviazuk (on following her instincts), and writers
Heather Mallick (on rescuing yourself from bad relationships) and Lorna Crozier (on what we can learn from cats).

There are dozens of female-themed metaphors I could've used to describe the experience of reading this book: it was like being at a veritable coffee klatch/playgroup/quilting bee/hen party. (And isn't it funny that these are the metaphors we use for gatherings of women? We need a chick version of the word "symposium." Or, hm, maybe not.) Whatever words you choose, I felt embraced and nourished by all these women's voices. Corny, I know, but true, as so many corny things are.

Dropped Threads 3 ends with an essay -- humbly titled "A Thought, or Maybe Two" -- by journalist June Callwood. The piece takes on the task of explaining how wisdom is acquired, but Callwood quickly dismisses this as impossible. She closes, however, with a passage that sang to me because I once had an almost identical experience and revelation:
It is, therefore, not particularly useful for me to pass along something that gives me calm, but I'll end with it anyway. I find peace in my sense of insignificance; if I ever thought otherwise, I would be immobilized. I learned this about myself when I was a teenager racked my confusion. One hot July night when I dragged my mattress out to an upstairs balcony to be cooler, I discovered stars. I was enchanted. Such glory, such constancy, such mystery. By day I studied astronomy and at night I picked out the galaxies. At some point I was awed to realize my irrelevance in the vastness of space. Perspective set in and I felt my adolescent angst evaporate.


landismom said...

Great post, DG. I traveled much the same path as you (I can be 'one of the guys,' I can, I can! oops! not so much).

Anonymous said...

This was such an excellent post. I took pretty much the same "path" as you and landismom. And then I got pregnant. And even though the pregnancy didn't carry to term, I still feel distinctly feminine in a way I never did before. About myself, about my body, about my approach to my goals; about the things I worry about now and the things I don't worry about anymore. I never had any fantasies about weddings, or babies,, nesting, or whatever; but now I feel like, okay, those are things I'm a little excited to do someday. And just because I secretly want to one day get married and have a really pretty garden, that doesn't mean I can't kick ass in my calculus class and kick more ass on the soccer field. And I think I like being able to be both without feeling like I've turned myself into a second-class citizen.

I haven't heard of this book before, but I'm definitely giving it a go now. Thanks!

Tammy said...

Alex, I'm so sorry for your loss. I had a miscarriage a few months before getting pregnant with Sam, and I admire how you were able to get something positive out of the experience. That takes courage.

And isn't this whole "girl joining the boys' club" thing weird in retrospect? I don't know how you and landismom reflect back on your paths, but I find it so strange that there was a time in my life where I believed (or convinced myself that I believed) that there was no difference between the genders.

At any rate, I'm glad I finally came around. And while I didn't get into it in my post, I think I've also learned to appreciate men (well, some men) more. I hadn't realized that trying to make the lines between the genders disappear was disrespectful of both men and women.

I'm still trying to figure out where this compulsion to homogenize people comes from. Perhaps it makes strangers less intimidating and scary if I overinvest in the idea that deep down we're all exactly alike. I don't know. I'm still working that out.

Sarah D. Bunting said...

I think it comes from a pretty natural frustration at feeling like the girls' club is the JV, or second best -- that the differences between the genders usually end up meaning "less than," societally.

And if you can fit in with men, you don't have to think that about yourself.

I think a lot of feminists think that way when we're younger, and then grow up and live a little and accomplish things, and realize we're not being asked to "pick a side" in that way. I agree that it's unfortunate, but I don't know how weird it is.

Then again, I went to girls' school for a very long time, and for years after that I just really did not want any part of anything girl, or girly. Maybe not everyone overcorrects like that before finding the center again.

Anonymous said...

I find myself getting "girlier" as I get older. Women offer a much different perspective on the world at large -- not better, just different -- and I come to find myself agreeing with them more and more. Sometimes this comes as a shock, sometimes as a warm, comfortable realization. I don't have to rely on myself, a man OR another woman. I am whole with all of them and incomplete with out any one of them.

I can still hang with "the boys," and one of the most cherished comments I ever received was in my 20s and came from my older Marine/State Trooper brother: "You talk like a guy and you drink like a guy... but you look like a girl and you smell like a girl." *Treasure!* Granted, 15 years, four teenage sons (and two male dogs!), and a career that makes me unbelievably happy to be the major breadwinner in my marriage may account for some of my return to my feminitiy. I guess time will tell.

Thank you for your excellent site.

Anonymous said...

To me the 'one of the guys' thing feels kind of like a necessary step. It's unfortunate but our society doesn't really provide a middle path for girls, especially in that hairy adolescence period. Maybe it's a shortcut but it helped me think beyond where society wanted me to go, and I'm glad it did.

I used to be in a tennis class that included a couple of older women as well as a couple of guys. Next session, turns out that the new classes are going to be gender separated because the women 'weren't comfortable' with the guys. The new time didn't work for me, so I ended up in the mens' class. I was so glad that I wasn't from a generation that isn't afraid to exercise or make a mistake in front of men. I may not have the same physical advantages (or the same flaws in my play; they tend to attack the ball stupidly), but I can certainly learn alongside them. And I feel the same way about being comfortable with my job in a heavily male-dominated field. I love what I do and I'm so glad that I get to do it, and maybe I would never have gotten here if I hadn't been trying to keep up with the boys.

The steps beyond that point are the rough and rewarding ones. I ended up getting married young, which was something I never pictured for myself. But it turned out I was still myself, strong and independent and weird. Same thing with some of the girly hobbies I picked up along the way.

The biggest challenge yet is dealing with the decision that yes, I want to be a mom, but no, that doesn't have to mean that everyone was right about girls not wanting to be anything other than that. At this point I feel reasonably confident about everything, and the comparison with my earlier self just reinforces how happy I am to have gone through those stages.