When I was 14, I was constantly in pain. Not physically, but emotionally. I felt shitty about myself and I couldn’t explain why. That was the shittiest part, too. I had no reason (or so I thought) to feel shitty and yet here I was constantly feeling like a rotten pile of logs— useless and ugly. From my perspective, I put all this effort into trying to fit in and I still didn’t (of course, no one noticed I didn’t fit in because no one actually cared if I did or not). I often muffled my answers from the back of the room because I didn’t want people to realize I was smart. And when I did noticeably surpass others in academics, I tried to cover it up or act dumb all of a sudden.
That was dumb. See, I’m actually pretty damn smart. It’s one of the things I was most proud of up until I hit 6th grade and everyone told me I wouldn’t get a boyfriend if I kept being a know-it-all. And don’t even get me started on all the times people called me bossy. Group projects were the devil because not only did it mean that everyone got a bird’s eye view of how “obnoxiously” smart I was, but if I tried to suppress it, it came out in small bursts of “the map actually goes this way” or “I think (trying to be nice, I actually knew) that is actually a division sign.” Everyone hates being corrected. I slowly learned to silence myself and my opinions. In a matter of a year I went from being loud and opinionated to quiet and dismissive. Submissive, I should say. To “the way things are.”
Well that really drained me. By the time I hit sophomore year I began to contemplate when my life went so horribly wrong??? When did I start feeling shitty? When did I stop being myself? Where the fuck did my self go???
That’s when feminism saved my soul. Oh my fucking god. I’m not fucking crazy! I’m not feeling shitty for no reason! I feel shitty because I’m oppressed, and worse yet IM THE ONE WHO’S DOING IT. That’s right. I silenced myself. Sure people told me to, told me I was bossy, that I was too smart, that no one wanted to date a smart girl. TV shows taught me that pretty girls were only vapid and bubbly. I couldn’t be both beautiful AND brilliant. I had to pick one, and I chose beauty because that’s what the media told me to.
But here’s the thing, I chose it. One of the most compelling complaints about feminism is that it “teaches women to be victims, to blame others for their shortcomings.” And I’ve noticed a lot of strong, independent, non-feminist (but actual feminist) women shy away from feminism for this reason. It seems like a valid argument (“look at all the wrongs the world has done to me,” “the patriarchy is ruining my life and I can’t do anything about it help me I need help,” “men have it so much better, I’m going to complain about all the ways they’ve wronged me”). And in a one-dimensional setting it actually is.
But in all reality, feminism empowers women to overcome their own oppression. We aren’t imagining oppression, but we are creating it. There was a study that measured female vs. male contributions in a class. As young children, kindergarten through 2nd grade, the contribution is distributed fairly evenly between the genders. But as the years go on, the girls get quieter until eventually only one girl speaks in a class discussion. And I don’t think it’s because the other girls stopped thinking or having things to say. It’s because we told ourselves that our opinions weren’t worth as much. That we should stay quiet so we don’t appear bossy or bitchy or too smart (too smart? what the actual fuck. Why do we think women geniuses don’t exist? They do, we’ve just been told that we should only be a certain amount of smart and we end up covering up the rest). No one taped up our mouths and told us not to speak. We taped them up ourselves with the convincing whispers from the patriarchy, “it is better to be seen and not heard, you don’t want to be too smart.”
So no, I am not a victim. I can take responsibility for shutting my smart self up. That is no one’s fault but mine. What we want to do though, is get rid of the obstacles that cause woman to oppress themselves in the first place (sexist advertisements, rape culture, lack of multidimensional female characters in TV, the damsel in distress dichotomy, maybe the fact that all of our history books teach us to look up to male heroes in virtually every era of history— ok yeah, so historically, women were oppressed tenfold what we do to ourselves now, so there aren’t a ton of woman to look to in history, but that very fact alone just keeps things that way—- maybe the lack of women in politics, and the fact that when women ARE in politics, the primary questions seem to be about how they plan to balance kids and politics like woah men have never done that, men aren’t in charge of kids, that’s kinda fucked).
So yeah, we are pointing a lot of fingers here. But the reason it’s so the complete opposite of victimizing ourselves is because we’re actually realizing and taking responsibility for succumbing to the patriarchy and instead of saying oh god look what it’s done to me! I’m so helpless and damaged now! We say, why the actual fuck did I ever fall into that trap? This is bullshit and I want other people to see that. I literally ENSLAVED MYSELF. And that is my fault. Time to free myself with feminism, methinks.
So that’s what I discovered with feminism. That I didn’t feel shitty for no reason. Maybe it’s not something wrong with me. It’s something wrong with the way I’ve tried to bend myself to the patriarchy (yes, the mother fucking patriarchy, but I’m still saying I’m the one who bent to it). So when I figured all of that out it was like holy dear mother of god I can finally be myself again and I don’t give two shits what anyone thinks about it or if I’ll get a boyfriend because I’m actually smart and opinionated. No sirree, this is who the fuck I am and I am not going to cover that up any longer.
And a sidenote, the patriarchy applies to men, too. And I’ll bet you’ll find an equally enlightened “thou shall not succumb to thy patriarchy” human who likes you because you are a smart and opinionated feminist. So take that, “feminism is for man-haters.”
In contrast, I have a love who loves me lightly.
He lets me fly and loves me through it.
I never knew love could be so gentle,
I never understood that love could be both deep and light—
His love is deep and real, but it is not a weight on my back.
This whole time I thought love hurt,
love was responsibility and codependence.
Love meant giving up bits of yourself to be with someone else,
Love meant compromise and shrunken dreams.
But loving you means loving me
it means I can be, and you can be
and we can both be anything we want to be.
It means independence and freedom
But it also means I have someone who cares
about my day, and how I’m feeling. Someone who’s willing
to stay. And will never threaten otherwise.
It means I don’t have to change or give up anything,
instead I just get to add more. I get to add you
and your life, I get to experience you and your thoughts
I get to live two lives, but I get to keep mine.
I never knew that was possible. I hope you feel that, too.
That you know I love you no matter what you choose to do,
that your life is yours, and I am happy just to experience it.
You’re lovely. You’re everything, I hope you read this,
I love you, darling.
I’d like to think that I am more than how I was raised, that I am my own person who makes my own decisions and reacts to life in my own way. But this morning my mom pointed out to me that my sister and I often treat her like she is not enough— and to no fault of our own, it’s because she raised us under the pretense that she was not enough. There are difficulties in growing up with a mother who has intense anxiety and constantly threatens to kill herself. But up until today, I didn’t realize it could perpetuate my mother’s pain and make me act opposite from what I think.
She’s right, too. I wish she wasn’t. But when my mom buys clothes for herself or hasn’t applied for a job in a year (ok so this one may be a little bit justified), my sister and I scoff. We ask why she deserves so much when she does so little. And to be honest, that’s bullshit. She’s managed to move in and out of state just to keep her children together and under a roof. She’s paid the bills without ever making a big deal out of it. For some reason, I grew up thinking that only daddy paid the bills. But that’s because he made a big show of it. He’d spread them out on the table and sit for hours grumbling and whining about all the debt we’re in. Momma just does it. She doesn’t wait for an audience, she does it because it needs to be done and because it was her choice to have those things. And I forget that because she doesn’t let me know. She doesn’t complain. She just accepts her choices and gets on with it.
My mom is enough, everyone is. And she shouldn’t have to seek approval from the people she raised telling she didn’t deserve it. When I was little, she’d shy away from shopping and choosing, because she said she didn’t deserve it. She’d let my sister and I shine while she stood in the background and forbade photos of herself. For a few years, she wouldn’t even leave the house beyond dropping us off at school and going to the grocery store once a week. She lived in a constant state of anxiety and fear of not being enough for the people who loved her. And she made that fear a reality just by raising us to believe that.
It’s amazing now that she can see the bigger picture, that she understands how much of my reactions are nurture, not nature. She wants it to change, but she recognizes that it’s going to take time to break the way I was raised. I am appalled that it’s true but I can’t take it back. I can only change it and adjust my habits.
Granted, it’s not going to be easy. I realize living with my mother is what has caused my depression my whole life. I don’t want to blame her for it, but every time I live elsewhere, I feel peace. I feel light, I feel happy. And it’s so hard for me to acknowledge that fact because I love my mom, I really really love her. We have amazing morning talks over tea, and we often go to bed later than intended just because our conversations flow so easily. My mom understands me, and I think I understand her. But it is an enmeshed relationship. It’s not necessarily bad, but it is very heavy.
My mom loves me, deeply and entirely. Such a motherly love. But she also loves heavily. It weighs down on me, and when I am around it I feel like I am bearing everything on my shoulders. When she drinks, I feel responsible. When she hurts, I feel guilty. When she says she’s going to kill herself, I want to cry. It’s hard to love someone who loves hard. I do not have the ability to fly when I’m with her, I feel a responsibility to be there for her instead.
And that’s difficult for a daughter to bear. No wonder I can trace depression to when I was just 7 years old. No wonder I wrote myself a eulogy at the tender age of 12. No wonder I wondered why there was something wrong with me, why I wasn’t good enough? My mother wanted to kill herself, and I thought that was my fault. My mother wanted to hide and I wanted to be with her. I hid, too. I love her, but I have some obvious resentments, too. And I guess it comes out in my treating her like she isn’t enough. She gave me permission to do that from day one, because she thought it was true.
And that’s what’s sad. Just because she thought it was true, it seems that it always will be. Because she told us, as children, that she wasn’t enough, she told us to treat her that way. And so she made herself seem, in my young eyes, that she was not enough. Even when she was, is, the world to me.
It’s so hard to love like that.