Do you remember the first time it happened? The first time you knew that you had to pretend to be happier, nicer, kinder, gentler, softer, more palpable, than you actually felt. Maybe you were four or five, when you first pretended to smile when you felt like scowling or laughing when you felt like crying.
It usually starts in kindergarten, right? We know we have to spend a little more time than our brothers, to get ready in the morning. We want to be smart, but we also want to make sure people still think we’re cute. We’re aging fast, I mean soon we’ll be eight or nine, and exiting out of our cute phase. And when we’re not cute anymore we need to be pretty. We know this, it’s instinct. It’s survival. Cause pretty girls will have an easier time making friends, getting a date, a job, a partner. And we need a partner. It’s in the rule book. So quickly we learn compromise, accommodation, selflessness, because our end goal is a relationship. We are groomed from the beginning for a life in the passenger’s seat. And we learn all these rules without anyone ever saying it directly, we learn from the silence.
One night my family was sitting at the dinner table and my grandmother, a heavy set Greek woman, was cleaning up from the warm meal she’d just served. My grandfather leaned back with his hands behind his head and smiled at me and my sister. I still had my plate in front of me, and bent my face over it to lick up the rest of the gravy. As my grandma squeezed between us to pick up my plate, my grandfather pointed his thumb in her direction and said, “Your grandma was ninety-eight pounds when I married her! Can you believe that?” He smiled and let out a laugh. This was his favorite story to tell.
I can still hear the silence echoing inside my mind. It is as seared into my brain as if she had started screaming and throwing the plates that night. I felt her embarrassment, her humiliation, her devastation like it was my own. I wanted to sink through the floor, to hide, to cry. She didn’t say anything, in fact she didn’t even flinch. She knew, like we all learn at some point, how valuable a man’s opinion can be. Just as valuable as their admiration, and validation, so much so that we are taught to seek it above all else. Above the silence.
The silence that spreads like a plague through the air, the moment we watch our mothers lower their expectations, settle for less, ignore the inequalities, however minor, silently shake their head in an attempt to pick their battles. We learn from their silence. And then one day we get it. Because if we had to gather the guster to defend ourselves every single time we were degraded, dehumanized, underappreciated, undervalued, underpaid, underrepresented, we’d be exhausted. We’d be fighting the world all day, everyday. So we too learn to pick our battles.
And every battle is a balancing act. How do I defend myself, my womanhood, my intelligence, my integrity, my humanness, my spirit without being written off as aggressive, hard, mean, a bitch? Without making everyone around me uncomfortable, because again that’s always our main concern, always. The comfort of those around us. That’s why we laugh off crude jokes, and inappropriate comments, because we accommodate, we compromise. We’ve been taught to laugh when we want to cry and smile when we want to scowl. So we smooth things over. We make the bed, spread the sheets, and stuff all the injustices underneath with the rest of the monsters.
And when we do meet a battle we just have to fight, maybe in the workplace, we’ve learned to start off gentle, right? For the world is only just getting to know us. We’ve learned to fight with a happier, nicer, kinder, gentler, softer, more palpable spirit. We ask for half of what we want, part of what we need. We don’t hold the tension, we ease off. Then one day we finally enter the long awaited relationships, the ones we’ve been groomed for, and they have problems. But we’ve been taught to accommodate, not negotiate, so each battle wages like an inner war.
And many of us become mothers, creators. We create life within us, we nurture, we love, we bond, we ferociously protect. We spend sleepless nights breastfeeding, changing diapers, soothing, loving, expanding. As our children grow, our job grows. Mothers are everything. We teach them to feed themselves, love themselves, understand themselves. Decipher the complexity of their thoughts and feelings. Follow their hearts, listen to their intuition. All while they bare witness to our triumphs and our failures, our lightest moments and our darkest, always at the mercy of our circumstances and endeavors. Everything we do, will shape their views, beliefs, and paths in life.
But before we’re mothers, we’re young women. Young women that are taught to be palpable in order to be moldable. So that when we speak our mind, speak our truth, we can be easily silenced. You’re crazy. Stop being so emotional. Are you about to start your period? You’re overreacting. This isn’t that big of a deal. You misunderstood me. And these remarks sting like needles, because we feared them before they were spoken. We’ve been trained to first ask these questions internally, to silence ourselves before anyone else can. To doubt ourselves, to second guess ourselves, to assume we misunderstood. Then we can be taken off guard, taken advantage of…taken. And there’s nothing more silencing then that.
But one day we all woke up together. We were given a glimpse of a different world. We envisioned a female president, a woman leading us. For the first time we could taste it, it was a possibility. The first woman ever to fill the position, in a patriarchy dating back more than 200 years. We saw a future where our daughters believed us when we said, you can be anything. We saw our sons raised with an unprecedented respect for women. This was our time.
But then we realized we lived in a country that would rather have a man, who’s admitted to grabbing nonconsenting women by their vaginas, as their president, than have a qualified woman. And that spoke volumes to us. From then on we could never fall back asleep. Our country had elected a predator to be its leader. But it was familiar to us, for we have all been preyed upon before. We have all had a reason to say #MeToo.
I was driving in the car to pick my boys up from school, contemplating the magnitude of the #MeToo movement. I felt my stomach churning. I’ve been vocal about my sexual abuse, spoke it, screamed it, healed it. Yet here I was nervous to invite the world back into my story, nervous to say me too. Because the world is already an intruder in our lives. Our sexual reproductive rights are negotiated as news coverage in the hands of a Congress that is only ⅕ women. More than half of all sexual assaults go unreported every year, because we don’t live in a world that values us, and we know it. So we don’t invite the world in, and we keep our stories silent. We know the questions we’ll get asked if we do. Why didn’t you tell anyone? Why didn’t you stop it? Why didn’t you run away?
I didn’t tell anyone, and I didn’t stop it and I didn’t run away because society taught me to be a passenger on somebody else’s ride. I was told to be happier, nicer, kinder, gentler, softer, more palpable. I was told to accommodate, compromise and make relationships work. No matter the cost. Because a woman has no value here.
We see it now, in all our relationships, and we can never unsee it. We see it in our marriages, our friendships, our workplace. We realized that if our country didn’t value us, and our president didn’t value us, we would have to stop looking to the patriarch to endorse our humanity. The only opinions that matter now are our own. We have no choice but to fight all the battles, for every single one wages an inner war. We have no choice but to take the driver’s seat, and get off somebody else’s ride.