Being female seemed to come with a host of problems that never seemed to be quite fair, when I thought that life could be. It never did make much sense to me, and growing up in the 1960s was filled with mixed messages a-plenty.
I don’t think that being a girl was particularly honored in my immediate family either. There seemed to be a cloud of suffering that seemed to hang low. Women being shut out, shutting down, and having to keep their mouths shut.
That didn’t work well for me with my personality either, so I tried (unsuccessfully) to please everyone. And as vocal as I was, I learned early on that speaking my truth was not something that most wanted to hear.
Joining the military in 1973, I learned rather quickly that my idealist view that the military system was fair and others would do right–after all, it was the American way–was just an illusion. I left one dysfunctional family for an even larger one.
Being in the military at that time was not always the best of times. We were nearly out of Vietnam and trying to recover as a nation.
And as far as being a female in the military…well, that will be for another story at another time. Let me say for now that many of the male leaders I came into contact with felt that we “girls” were there to be of “service to their country-men.”
I do not hold ill-feelings for the past; it simply was what it was in those times.
But I distinctly felt that being a girl meant being soft. Being vulnerable. Having to take whatever abuse someone else dished out, overtly or covertly.
I toughened up. Acted like I didn’t care. Learned to swear and curse in ways that men would take notice and, sometimes, take me seriously. I was seen as “one of the guys” by some of the men.
I learned that direct, in-your-face communication is what they understood. And some of them really liked that. I was seen as a threat by their wives. My friendships were limited to the workplace. I did not know how to be friends with women or talk with them.
Fast forward nearly three decades…
It took a long time for me to accept myself as a strong, capable, powerful woman. And I did not just wake up one day and have it happen. I had to take on that challenge over many years, shattering pattern after pattern of gender role belief systems.
I have been told by many young women today that I am “inspirational.” Though I don’t feel that I am, I have been learning to accept the role, and try to empower them in ways that I never felt supported, sharing the insight I’ve gained through my experiences when they ask for my guidance.
Sometimes, I am dumbfounded as to what they see in me that makes them trust me and feel comfortable enough to share their stories. But I listen and trust that I will not do wrong by them, and help them come to their own understanding of whatever they care to share.
Two and a half months ago…
…one young woman I met shortly after my surgery last summer asked to talk with me about some major problems going on in her life.
She was in a desperate place with her marriage and family–newly separated, abusive words spoken, and many more issues that compounded it all. The demands on her at work in the military were reminiscent of my own military days 35 years earlier. She shared other stories of her life that saddened me to think that we really haven’t changed much over the decades. Girls still seem to be the ones who suffer the most.
And then she disclosed she was also pregnant and was going to terminate the pregnancy due to the feelings of desperation, regardless of her beliefs.
I remember that we talked for several hours. I offered up options and suggestions of others with whom to talk. I am not exactly sure what all was said anymore, except that I would love and support her in whatever decision she made.
I learned a couple of weeks ago that she and her husband have since reconciled, are going through counseling, and that she continued with her pregnancy and the baby is due in September.
I am pleased that I have come to a place in life where I can connect with other women. That women can come to me to share their stories, their sorrows, their joys and their fears. That they feel safe with me and know that I will not stand in judgement, but will listen and help to make sense of the craziness that seems to be heaped on them.
It is in the building of these relationships that I am learning to be vulnerable, soft, and caring. I can shed tears with them, unafraid to show kindness and love for them (and myself) as women.
Yesterday, I learned that she is having a baby girl:
It’s a girl! Coral, I’m so grateful for being able to listen to you that day, I truly would have made a terrible mistake! I’m at peace with my decision!
It is my hope and prayer that this little girl, yet to be born, will not have to bear the same burdens as other girls before her. Perhaps, by the time she has grown into a woman, she (and other girls like her) will recognize that being a “girl” does not mean that they must suffer and bear their burdens silently.
May we all know our strengths as the feminine, and honor who we are as girls and as women.
In the history of humanity as written, the saddest part concerns the treatment of women; and had we before us its unwritten history we should find this part still sadder…brutal treatment of woman has been universal and constant…the amount of suffering which has been and is borne by women is utterly beyond imagination. (From The Suffering of Women by Herbert Spencer, English philosopher, 1820-1903)