Feminist in Limbo: Chapter 3

I used to be terrified of thunderstorms. I was convinced the lighting would get me, and that I was especially vulnerable in my upstairs bedroom. I refused to go to my room when it was storming, and I rarely went to sleep until the storm had moved on. I would hold back tears as best I could, but then I would catch a glimpse of lighting or hear a crack of thunder over the television and start bawling. Even once the rain and clouds had moved on, it still took my parents at least a half hour to convince me it had stopped; I was safe now.

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Grandma Dar is currently 83 and is incredibly resourceful and wise and generous. She had a total of five kids in the ’60s and ’70s; she had 2 girls, then a boy, then 2 more girls. The middle child and her only son was my Grandpa Gary.

So Grandma Dar had five kids, four of which were girls. These women, my great-aunts, are as different as any four siblings can be. Some have been married for 25 years or more, and some have had as many as 7 husbands. Some were housewives, some have had very successful careers. But they all had children, Dar’s grandchildren. And a good number of Dar’s grandchildren had children. Grandma Dar currently has over 45 grand- and great-grandchildren, and her second great-great-grandchild will soon be born. Bringing us to a grand total of over 50 people that wouldn’t exist on this planet without Grandma Dar.

Most people grow up in patriarchal families headed by a sole male figure whose name everyone shares, whose name and bloodline is very important to carry on. Sons who can keep the family name going are sought after and even preferred. In defiance of this patriarchal structure, my mom’s family is very much a matriarchy run by women and headed by the sole matriarch: Grandma Dar. There are many different family names, and characteristics that might be from a father’s or a mother’s bloodline, but neither are preferred. It just is. You might have a Reinhardt nose, or a Keefer laugh, or Cady height. Babies were babies, and they were all wonderful blessings no matter how they came into existence or who they belonged to.

Grandma Dar built all that. Not only is she responsible for the mere existence of over 50 humans, but she also helped raise every single one of us. She visits parents with their newborn babies and she finds a way to come back into the child’s life when they’re old enough to remember her, too. Grandma Dar is everyone’s favorite and she remembers every single one of us.

The summer after my brother was born, Grandma Dar came to stay with us like she does when new babies are born. In the Midwest we have snow in the winter, and storms in the summer. So of course the night my parents decide to go out and leave the new baby and I with Grandma, it storms. We had this big picture window in our living room at the time, facing the river across the street. Our couch was backed up against the big window, so it was the perfect little perch to watch everything going on outside whether it was summer parades or waiting for Santa on Christmas Eve. But this particular night, Grandma was determined to break my fear of thunderstorms.

She didn’t tell me that storms were about God’s wrath, or some mythical battle being fought in the sky. Instead she told me that with so many clouds up there, sometimes they bump into each other. Sometimes it got pretty loud, but that was when two really big clouds bumped into each other. And that’s all storms were – the skies just got a little crowded. When you’re a kid, and you start personifying these clouds, it becomes kind of fun to watch the clouds move around like bumper cars. So from that big picture window, we watched the clouds bump into each other. I cried a little less and maybe even giggled my infectious girly giggle. Most importantly, I eventually fell asleep during that storm, dreaming bumpy-cloud dreams. Now it was just the dog my parents had to worry about during storms.

Grandma Dar’s commitment to family is unremarkable and often unheard of. She didn’t just build this family and then sit back from a distance, living her own life. No, her family is her life. Her one-of-a-kind legacy will continue to live on within over fifty different people, with over fifty different memories of her.

Some people build businesses or political empires. Grandma Dar built her own kind of empire.

Are you okay? What do you want? Why aren’t you happy?

After months of not knowing, maybe I’ve finally figured it out.

I just want one goddamn thing in my life to make sense. To be a constant. Something reliable, something I’m good at, something that makes me feel good.

I had that, I had a rock (a stone, maybe only a pebble), for four years. As much as I hate that rock for dragging me down during college and then letting go at the worst possible moment, I don’t know if I could have make it through the uncertainty of college without that rock. The longer I had my rock, my pebble, the more I relied upon him. And sometimes, honestly, that rock wasn’t very good at being solid, at being there for me. (Maybe he was really more of a squishy, flaky pebble) But at least the pebble was predictable and made sense. I knew what to expect. I knew where my life with this squishy pebble was going, even if I didn’t know where other parts of my life were going. I had this squishy pebble to hold on to, even if he wasn’t always holding on to me in the same way, or wasn’t capable of being in love with me the same way all the time. At least he was there. So since he left I still haven’t been able to get solid footing, despite being over him. It was the constant he provided that I’m still trying to figure out. Up until now I’ve been trying to figure out my dating life, find a replacement squishy pebble. What I need now, though, is more than that – I need a solid rock this time.

Maybe my rock this time doesn’t have to be a relationship. It probably won’t be my job, not for awhile, but it could be something else. There’s more to life than boys and careers, right? I suppose friends and family are constants – but not in the same way. There’s a sort of obligation for them to stick around; rocks by default aren’t the same as rocks by choice.

In that same vein, I don’t believe in doing things like taking a year to “work on myself”. I don’t believe I should avoid dating just because I need to find a constant that doesn’t involve a boy. I don’t believe in forgoing one thing because I need to focus on something else. Maybe it’s my “I can do it all” mentality or the fact that I wouldn’t know where to start with something like ‘focusing on my career’. But regardless, I don’t believe in exclusion.

The rock doesn’t always have to be a boy, but it could be. It doesn’t have to be a person, really. I just need a constant, a more solid rock this time. No more squishy pebbles.

Maybe this blog is a start. I think before the squishy pebble, writing was the thing for me that made sense. Maybe this time it’ll be my ever-growing love of wine and food, or the ever-more habitual exercise routine. I don’t know. I just know I need something, a rock to orbit my life around. Something, anything – that makes the rest of my uncertain life make sense.

Your pity doesn’t help anyone

When I was still going out on dates, I realized there were a lot of different types of people. Generally when I talk about dating, it’s insights I’ve gained about boys specifically but this particular thing struck me as something a lot of people do regardless of gender.

Family, in some capacity, usually comes up on a first date. I couldn’t say why, I guess it’s usually a safe question or topic, maybe. “Do you have any siblings?” seems to be a question I get a lot. I could answer this question a couple different ways. I  could simply say, “Yes, I have two brothers” or I could add to that and say, “Technically, I have four brothers, because I also have two stepbrothers” but between you and I, I don’t usually consider my stepbrothers to be my brothers. I didn’t grow up with them, and I rarely see or talk to them. When I was younger I used to say, “I have one and a half brothers,” but that just confused the shit out of people. So my usual response to the question ‘Do you have siblings’ is “Yes, two younger brothers, ‘E.’ is 20 and ‘B.’ is 8 years old”. That tends to confuse people, or shock them in some way so they say ‘Wow that’s a big age difference!’ I usually follow this up with, “Well, B. is technically my half brother.”

Now here is where you see the different types of people come out. Some people would have assumed B. is my half brother when I told them the ages of my brothers, because they have much younger half-siblings or they are the younger half-sibling to a much older child of their mother or father. (This being said, don’t ever assume. I know a lot of people with more than a decade between them and their closest sibling, and they aren’t half siblings. Their parents just decided to take a break before creating another human). So they understand this, but they ask about the age difference anyway to make sure they aren’t assuming. And then I tell them he’s my half brother, and they understand my parents are divorced. They don’t have to ask. They might say nothing, or they might nod and say “My parents are divorced too” and the rest of the date goes on.

The opposite end of the spectrum is people who may not know what I mean when I say ‘half-brother’ and so they need to ask “So your parents are divorced?” Or even worse I get the “So you guys have different dads?” which to me has always sounded so rude, and the fact that most people will automatically assume it’s different dads instead of different moms throws me off. I don’t know if that’s from a perception they have that kids tend to stay with the mother in a divorce, or some other assumption they have about ‘messy’ or ‘complicated’ families and divorcées. Why they even have to make the distinction at all, when I just met them, doesn’t make much sense. Most of this isn’t what bothers me. A lot of people will ask which parent my brothers and I share, especially if I show off pictures of them and a lot of people are trying to decide if we all look alike or not. Or they’ll notice my brothers look alike and I don’t necessarily look like them, even though I do share a full set of genetics with one of them.

No, what bothers me is when people ask “Your parents are divorced?” and when I say yes, they apologize. I’m sure they’re trying to be nice – but their entire face will change when they do it. It’s like I told them one of my parents died, or that they locked me in a closet under the stairs for the first ten years of my life. Most of the people who do this, are people who’s parents are still married. However, I’ve met plenty of people who’s parents are married and they can still handle this information with social grace and without that awful look of pity. But for the people who give that look when I tell them – just don’t. I don’t want it.

I still remember the first time someone apologized to me for my parents getting a divorce. It was maybe a year or two after my parents got divorced; I think I was ten. I was on the bus going home from school with the girl I rode the bus with every single day. I mentioned something about my mom’s house vs. my dad’s house, and she didn’t understand this at first. Why would my parents live in different houses? Then she got it. And she honestly reacted like someone had died, she felt so bad for me. “It must be awful, I don’t know what I would do if my parents split up,” she said. I didn’t really understand why she was so sad, why she had that look on her face. It was just a thing that happened. Life went on.

When my parents first got divorced, I wasn’t really old enough to get it, I think. Then I got a little older and it hit me pretty hard. Now that I’m an adult myself, I can’t imagine my life and my parents being any other way. Both of them have gone through phases where they were so unhappy, both pre- and post-divorce. Now both of them are happy, and successful, and flourishing in ways they might not have had they still been married. They got married in their 20s, even younger than I am now, and I don’t think either of them knew what they wanted from life. Now they’re in their 40s and they probably have more interesting lives than I do.

To be honest, when I think about my parents and who they are now, I have no idea why they got married or even started dating in the first place. They are entirely different people with different interests, hobbies, and ideal living situations. But that’s okay. They tried being married, and when it didn’t work, they decided not to be married. That’s all divorce is. Just a slightly more complicated and way more expensive break-up. I’m glad they decided to get divorced instead of resent each other my entire life and skew my perception of what a marriage should be.

So, please, don’t look at me like that. Just because my family is a little different than yours, doesn’t mean I’m broken. That kind of shit is character-building, right? So really, you could learn a lot from my and my built character.

Feminism in Limbo: Chapter 6

In college I took an Organizational Behavior class as part of the business school curriculum. The class was too easy; the grade based entirely on 3 multiple-choice exams that were based entirely on the textbook. I went to class anyway, because the professor was amazing, funny, and had wonderful stories to tell.

But one thing that stuck out from that class, was a chapter on gender and a very distinct difference between the genders I’d never really noticed before, but it made sense. (I’m paraphrasing a bit and it’s been awhile, so bear with me). Women, when they complain or have a problem, typically want sympathy or someone to listen to them. Men expect a solution. So when a woman is telling you about their awful day, and then this guy is trying to solve the problem, when all she wants is someone to empathize with her… or vis-versa, a man is telling a female about his awful day, and he wants the problem to go away, but this girl is just giving him all this sympathy he doesn’t want. You can see where this could lead to frustration.

The professor then went on to explain why this happens, why the difference exists (again, paraphrasing):

When a little kid falls down, parents (dads especially), will often treat a boy differently than a girl. If their little girl falls down, a dad will rush to the rescue, and make sure everything is ok. If a boy falls down, dad will tell him to get up and brush it off, maybe even say something like “dirt don’t hurt” and expect the boy to be on his way. This make girls accustomed to receiving sympathy when they fall, and boys are just told to get up, you’ll feel better, problem solved.

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My dad, seen in the picture holding me over a fence (which I’m pretty sure he wasn’t supposed to do) wasn’t that kind of dad. If my brother fell down, Dad told him to get up and brush it off. If I fell down, I was told the exact same thing. At times, I sort of hated him for this. If anything, my dad pushed me a lot harder than he pushed my brother – whether academics, or sports, or other hobbies – he was always telling me where I could be better. I got an A; he’d ask why I didn’t get an A+. My team won a soccer game; he told me I looked a little tired toward the end, and I should get myself in better shape.

This gets to be exhausting after awhile. I just wanted to be celebrated for my accomplishments, not told it wasn’t good enough. That’s what I heard, every time he would ask why it wasn’t an A+.

I didn’t hear “you’re smart enough to have the top grades in all your classes,” instead I heard “this isn’t good enough.”

Now I’m an adult and understand why he did those things. A lot of people I know now who are successful, had a parent who was rough on them and was kind of an asshole. By default, kids (especially smart ones) can be lazy. They know they can be. They don’t have to study for the test, or ask questions to understand the homework. It pisses people off, but it’s true. So without that constant effing nagging – they’d continue to be lazy for the rest of their lives.

I don’t think my dad knew the ripple effect of what he was doing. The bar wasn’t set at “you did well for a girl,” but it was “did you come in absolute first place, boys or girls?” He was going to set the bar as high as possible, and not bring it down just because of my gender. He knew I was a smart kid, and wanted to make sure I reached my full potential. I was the first child, and I’m sure that’s a lot of the reason the bar was so high. It didn’t matter to my dad that I was a girl. He wouldn’t have been disappointed if my brother had been a girl, either. Even though my dad was the last chance for carrying on the family name, and without my brother the name would have died, he didn’t care. There was a lot of pressure from the family for my dad to have a boy.

“I was too worried about having a healthy baby, I didn’t care what it was as long as it was healthy,” he used to tell us. But, to the satisfaction of my aunts, a boy was born. So now the pressure is on my brother, I guess.

Even more powerful, it wasn’t because I was a girl that my dad was a pain in my ass. It was because I was smart, because I had the potential to do something real. He understood I’d have to deal with a lot worse if I was going to be a smart, successful, powerful woman someday. But he did it because he wanted his children to succeed – boy or girl.