My Road to Feminism

Very few people set out to become feminists. It’s not a philosophy that they just happen to pick out one day as if it was a dish in a smorgasbord. Becoming a feminist is usually a process. Things happen that shake us up and make us question everything we thought we believed. In my case, I became a feminist after having an abortion. It’s not that I was looking for absolution. It was more that I was trying to make sense of this happening to me. What were the implications of being a woman who had aborted her child? How had other women handled it? Why didn’t anyone talk about it?

I felt so alone. I didn’t think I could ever tell anyone my “secret.” And then I enrolled in a women’s studies course. This was back when there were no women’s studies departments or degrees. The course wasn’t part of the regular curriculum; it was more or less an experiment. The teachers were sort of making it up as they went along. We read seminal works like The Feminine Mystique and Sexual Politics. But most importantly, we talked. About what it meant to be a woman in our society. And about what being women meant to us personally.

Before I took that women’s studies course, I had never questioned why women made less money than men, or why mothers were more likely to stay home with the kids and did most of the housework. I hadn’t thought about the fact that there were so few women doctors or lawyers or engineers. I know that sounds incredible, but this was 1971. The Women’s Liberation Movement (as it was called then) had just started to pick up steam.

This was also around the time when “The Pill” became widely available. Before The Pill, women had to rely on their partners to use condoms or on birth control methods that weren’t that effective. Suddenly women were able to take charge of their own contraception and to be reasonably sure that they wouldn’t become pregnant. It’s hard to imagine now, but that was a monumental break-through for women. For the first time a woman could take charge of her own life. She was no longer a slave to her biology.

I got pregnant when I was 18 largely because I hadn’t thought about contraception. After my abortion, I went on The Pill. It made it possible for me to control whether or not (or when) I would become a mother. It also made me rethink what it meant to be responsible. Before the abortion, I had more or less gone along with what society (and my boyfriends) said I should be. Having the abortion and going on The Pill taught me that there were decisions that only I could make and that I damn well better make them if I wanted to be my own person.

The women’s studies course gave me the courage to make my own decisions. To step up to the plate, so to speak. I learned that the way a woman lives her life had a profound effect on everything and everyone else in our society. I began to see myself as part of a larger world.

One of the things I like about feminism is that it makes me think. It’s important to question why we do what we do and how we might do things differently. But it’s also important to analyze the influences that come from outside of ourselves. It’s one thing to say, “I’m not a decisive person.” It’s another thing altogether to get to the point where you can say, “The reason I have trouble making decisions is because I was always taught that a woman should defer to the men in her life. She is not supposed to push her own agenda. She is there to accommodate herself to the needs of others.”

Feminism doesn’t advocate selfishness, but self-awareness. Being a feminist means that you are always seeking ways to be better and more effective, not only as a woman, but as a person. It means that you can’t lean on others for everything. You are allowed to have your own opinions. And you are capable of standing up for yourself.

I didn’t become a feminist overnight. My whole life has been one long process of learning to stand up for myself and take responsibility for my own actions. Sometimes I’ve been successful. Usually I struggle. But I can never return to the person I was before I discovered feminism.

 

 

Is Being a Crone a Bad Thing?

There are many books out that refer to the older woman as a “crone” and claim that the crone years (menopause and beyond) are the best part of a woman’s life. I’ll be sixty in February and I went through menopause several years ago. So I guess I qualify as a crone. But it’s hard for me to see that as a positive image.

Wikipedia describes the crone this way:

The crone is a stock character in folklore and fairy tale, an old woman who is usually disagreeable, malicious, or sinister in manner, often with magical or supernatural associations that can make her either helpful or obstructing. She is marginalized by her exclusion from the reproductive cycle, and her proximity to death places her in contact with occult wisdom. As a character type, the crone shares characteristics with the hag.

Here is a more positive view of “crone-hood” from a review of Jane Shinoda Bolen’s Crones Don’t Whine: Concentrated Wisdom for Juicy Women on Amazon.com:

Banish all thoughts of crones as withered and barren: crones are `juicy,’ having zest, passions, and soul.  Upon entering the crone years, women can now devote creativity, energy, and time to things that matter. Having developed instincts, having endured pain, having learned the importance of meditation, crones choose their path at the fork in the road with heart. This is woman power at its core. Girl power is a mere warm up.

Crone proponents believe that a woman’s experiences make her uniquely privy to the deeper meanings of life. By the time she reaches menopause, she has supposedly achieved true wisdom; that is, she has learned to embrace what’s really important in life and to reject those things that are mere distractions.

Wiccans and pagans describe their Triple Goddess as the personification of the three stages of a woman’s life: the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone. The problem is that in our society the Maiden is considered the preferred feminine archetype. The Mother is sentimentalized, sometimes revered, but definitely not considered sexy. (For example, Mary, the mother of Jesus, is presented as the holy Madonna.) And the Crone is either ignored or reviled. In this society, the older a woman becomes, the more she loses her value.

I understand that those who use the “crone” to describe the older woman are trying to reclaim the word by presenting it in a positive light. This is similar to when women proudly call themselves “bitch.” But personally, I think that strategy is self-defeating. I don’t understand when African-Americans call each other the “n-word.” What purpose does it serve to associate yourself with something that is usually considered to be a slur? I would much rather find a term that bolsters the idea that the individual should be treated with respect and dignity.

So how about replacing “crone” with “matriarch”? (It fits better with Maiden and Mother, for one thing.) A matriarch is any female leader of a family, clan or tribe or a woman who dominates any group or activity. She is respected and looked up to, even in some cases venerated. She often is, but doesn’t have to be, a mother.

When my parents died, one of the things I grappled with is that I became the head of the family. My parents were no longer around to host Thanksgiving and Christmas and carry on other family traditions. I was left to make decisions about their funerals, their estates and the welfare of the family. And I wasn’t at all prepared.

It would have been far better if I’d been groomed to be a matriarch. We socialize our daughters to be maidens and mothers, to be young and beautiful and maternal. But we don’t tell them that someday they will be the female heads of their families. We don’t train them to be leaders. We don’t give them a vision for their later years, when the children are raised and they are “out of a job.” And we don’t show them very many examples of older women who are treasured for their wisdom and experience.

Many young women mistakenly think that they have power because of their sexuality. Men want what they have to give, whether it’s for sex or reproduction. But that power dwindles as they age, because men think they no longer have anything to offer.

We need to teach men and women that the older woman can be just as powerful, but for different reasons. She is often more productive than the young woman or mother. She has the accumulated wisdom that comes from living through many stages of life. And she no longer cares what other people think, so she’s not afraid to speak her mind.

As I age, I struggle to replace the sense of worth I had in my younger years (from being seen as sexual and maternal) with one that comes from knowing that I’ve seen and done it all and survived to tell my story. I have more to offer now than I ever did as a young woman, wife and mother. I’ve lived through divorces and economic uncertainty, worked hard to raise and support a family, and most of all, learned from my mistakes. I am uniquely qualified to dispense wisdom and guidance to those who will inherit the world some day.

I am a Matriarch.

 

The Making of a Mother

In less than a month my youngest daughter is about to become a mother for the first time. Like most new mothers-to-be, she has a lot of concerns and questions. Many of them are about her baby: What are babies like? How do you care for them? What will her baby look like? What if she’s a difficult baby? Even more, at this point, are about labor and delivery. My daughter has done a lot of reading, but of course nothing really prepares you for the real thing.

But there’s one question that’s not addressed very often and that is: how will I know how to be a mother?

I try to reassure her that she’ll do fine, that she just needs to trust her instincts and get her cues from the baby, but the truth is, it takes a lifetime to learn how to be a mother. I’m 59 years old and I still don’t get it right. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about the process of becoming a mother it’s that it only just begins when the baby is born.

The new mother is only on the brink; she doesn’t really have a clue what she’s in for. And I’m not talking about all the sleepless nights and demanding days. I’m talking about the changes that she will go through as she learns how to adapt to her new identity.

Because that’s what it really happening: you don’t just produce a new person when you have a baby, you become a new person. It’s like you give birth to two people: your baby, and yourself.

There are tons of books out there about child development, but not so many about the mother’s development. Everyone takes it for granted that a woman’s maternal feelings will bloom as soon as she sees her new baby. And while it’s true that a woman will feel different, she may not know exactly what it is that she is feeling. It’s not a given that she’ll be overcome with joy. She might also be hit with a huge sense of responsibility which scares the hell out of her. Or/and she may not feel anything at all except relief that her ordeal is finally over.

I can’t predict how my daughter will feel when she meets her baby for the first time. She’s a very wanted baby, so I don’t think she’ll feel dismay. But my daughter is also a worrier, and she might be overwhelmed by this tectonic shift in her life. And as the days unfold, she’s sure to wonder if she’s cut out to be a mother. She might even feel panicky about the fact that there’s no going back to the person she was before.

It’ll take some time before she’ll begin to feel comfortable as a mother. But she needs to know that it’s a continuing process.  There are tests along the way, but no final test to prove that you finally “get” it. In fact, there’s no guarantee that you will feel successful as a mother. Women tend to judge their worth as mothers on what kind of persons their children turn out to be. But there’s no magic formula for turning out perfect children.

When I had my first child, I was bound and determined to do everything right by her. I certainly wasn’t going to make the mistakes my own mother had made. And maybe I did avoid my mother’s mistakes (for the most part). I just made my own mistakes.

Probably the most important lesson a woman needs to learn about being a mother is that she is not, and never will be, perfect. And her children won’t be perfect either. We’re all flawed human beings trying to help each other to grow into the best persons we can be.

What I mean by that is: mothers are not the only ones doing the teaching. The process also works in reverse: our children teach us what we need to know to become better human beings. We just need to be willing students.

Don’t expect to learn to be a mother overnight. And definitely don’t expect yourself to be perfect. Just be patient and willing to roll with the punches. Life will teach you what you need to know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being a Woman is a Leap of Faith

I’ve heard it said that if it weren’t for faith, none of us would dare to venture out our front doors. Every time we get in a car, eat in a restaurant, have a medical procedure, or any number of “ordinary” things, we’re exercising faith that disaster will not strike us. Just staying alive is a leap of faith; suicides have lost their faith.

Now I’m going to make a contentious remark: I think it takes more faith to be a woman than it does to be a man. The most dramatic example of this is when a woman gets pregnant, but it starts long before that. When little girls ask questions about sex characteristics or reproduction, they’re told that their “stuff” is inside, where you can’t see it. Boys know their “stuff” intimately: it’s out there and it does things that can be felt and observed.

Little girls have to accept that their equipment is fine even when they can’t see it, and in fact, no one really knows if a woman’s reproductive system is in working order until something goes wrong. Late onset of menses, irregular or lack of periods, and infertility are all symptoms of underlying problems that can’t been seen. That’s partially true for men, but not to the extent that it is for women.

A little girl is always told that someday she can be a mommy. There’s no other explanation for menstruation. If a girl isn’t told what menstruation means, she may think something is seriously wrong with her; even that she’s dying. Yet the explanation isn’t all that comforting. She is told that she will bleed monthly for the next forty years, but that it’s “normal.” She has to accept that by a leap of faith.

She also has to take on faith that a baby can actually grow inside her, and even more so, that it can get out. She has to have faith that she won’t die, that the baby will be normal, that the pregnancy and delivery will take their natural course. Modern science has made it possible for parents-to-be to find out a lot of details that used to be shrouded in mystery—the sex of the baby, the likelihood of (some) birth defects, problems with the placenta or amniotic sac, and so on—but ultimately the pregnant woman just has to trust that things will be okay, even though sometimes they’re not.

Even with the strides made by women in the last five decades, women still have to have faith that they won’t be raped, that they’ll be treated fairly in the workplace and that they will be protected or supported when they’re at their most vulnerable (during pregnancy, after delivery, and while they’re raising children). And even knowing that some women do get raped, or treated unfairly or left without resources when they had a right to expect them, women still go ahead and attempt to do the same things that men do.

It can be scary to be a woman, which makes it all the more courageous when a woman steps out in faith and gets out of a bad marriage, or files a complaint of sexual harassment, or demands the same wage that her male counterparts get. Men have to do scary things, too, but at least their track record for success is more encouraging. Men have to go to war and support their wives and families, and yet, in recent decades, women have exposed themselves to those risks as well. Women are expanding their horizons while men are merely staying the same.

Yes, it takes a leap of faith to become a father or a husband, but more often than not it is the woman who will be left holding the bag if something goes wrong with the family or the marriage. Woman have more to lose when they become mothers and wives. Even though they are often granted custody and child support, their standard of living almost invariably goes down in comparison to their exes’ whenever there is a divorce.

Even (or especially) when marriage is avoided and the man and woman merely cohabit, this takes a tremendous leap of faith for the woman. She has no rights whatsoever if the couple breaks up. At least women used to be protected by the concept of common-law marriage, but that legal status is becoming a thing of the past. The man is not obligated to support the woman in any way, even if she becomes pregnant.

The greatest leap of faith I’ve ever seen is when a woman decides to go it alone when she has children. She may have only a dim idea of how difficult her life is going to be without a partner, but she takes the chance that her life, and the lives of her children, will be better without him as a live-in dad. She may lose her gamble, but at least she had the courage to try.

I made the comment the other day in a group of women that “we women are strong!” There were a few beats of silence before one of the women said, “Yes, but we need men.” I didn’t say that we didn’t; I said that women are strong. What does the one have to do with the other?

Maybe she thought I meant that women are stronger than men. And, you know, maybe that is what I meant.

 

Work for the Miracle

As many of you know, I’ve been a bit obsessed with the subjects of weight loss and obesity for a few weeks now. (Can you be “a bit” obsessed??)

I’ve been reading books and blog posts by women who have won the battle (either to lose weight or to learn to love themselves the way they are). One thing they have all have in common is that there is no easy fix, no magic formula for becoming slim. (How I love—and hate—that word “slim.” Like “svelte,” it conjures up an image of a woman gracefully gliding through life, which is something I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do, no matter how “slim” I become.)

On the contrary, losing weight requires discipline and sacrifice, no matter how you do it. And even after losing the weight, like an alcoholic you have to be ever vigilant against falling into the bad habits that caused you to gain weight the first time (or second or third or fourth—you get the picture).

Today I’m happy to present Marilyn Polson, author of the daily weight loss blog, Wait for the Miracle. Marilyn inspires me to keep going and work harder to attain my goal. Marilyn has lost over 50 pounds since May of this year and she accomplished this mainly through diet and exercise. (She still has approximately 30-50 pounds to go.) It may seem like she’s discovered a quick fix, but believe me, she has worked hard to get this far.

Marilyn has given me permission to share her “fat” story. Maybe you’ll see some parallels to your own life. At the very least, I think it will help you to understand the mindset of a person who struggles with her weight. Although everyone is different, there are some things that all fat people can relate to.

Here, in her own words, is Marilyn’s story:

I grew up in the Twiggy era, where stick thin was in. I was not stick thin nor was I ever going to be. I wasn’t fat; I had curves and a rear end larger than it should have been, but I was still able to wear my bikini and hold my own. I wore a size 10 most of the time until my 20s. I was normal; I didn’t stick out in one way or the other.

Food however, was an issue for as long as I can remember. I felt like our dinner table was a battlefield. I was a very picky eater and my father had no tolerance for that. What Mom cooked we ate. There were no special meals prepared and you sat there until you finished your meal. Usually Mom cooked two vegetables and you had to eat one. As long as there were peas, carrots or corn I was fine. When those were not an option, I knew it was going to be a long meal. I made a vow that when I had my own home I would eat what I wanted and when.

When I married at 19 that is exactly what I did. My mom had never taught me and my sisters how to cook, but luckily my husband’s mother was a woman before her time and she taught all her kids how to cook. From day one my husband took on that chore. Even though he was a good cook, most of the time we ate junk. Mac and cheese was a constant because it was cheap. We ate a lot of casseroles because they were also cheap and easy. KFC was a steady pick; we both loved fried chicken and neither one of us ever learned to make it right. I loved my chips, Cheetos, ice cream and chocolate. One thing I could do was bake so there were always cookies, pies and cakes to enjoy. I was happy.

I always used to hide my M&M’s; even then I didn’t like to share. My nieces would come over and think it was a game to find where they were hidden. If they found the M&M’s they could have them but I didn’t help in the search, secretly hoping that my stash wouldn’t be found.

My husband joined the Army and off we went to Oklahoma. We didn’t have much then so food became an even greater issue. Some weeks mac and cheese was all we had because it was all we could afford.

I battled with problem pregnancies. Whenever I started to bleed heavily, I was not permitted to eat for 24 hours, sometimes longer, in case I had to have surgery. Mentally I would eat all I could when I could because I never knew when the fast would begin. That was the start of binging behavior. By the time I was 24, I had had four miscarriages and was told that I shouldn’t get pregnant again. I did manage to lose enough weight to be “normal” again; my average size was a 12. That wasn’t anything to be ashamed of, but I still felt fat.

My husband was a very jealous man and Army life made matters worse. He was never violent toward me but if a man was talking to me he would punch first and ask questions later. It was humiliating. I consciously decided to gain weight because I thought I would then become invisible. Men would no longer talk to me and that issue would resolve itself. Only it didn’t work. I have a personality that people find easy to approach and the problem persisted.

By the time I was 30, we were living in Texas. I was an apartment manager and we had a problem at the family pool with a drunk who had unacceptable behavior. I went out to ask him to leave the pool area and he said to me, “I bet you were a fox when you were young.” I was crushed. I was already not taking turning 30 well. Now I felt old and fat. So I ate more. It got so bad, the girls in my office started emptying my desk drawers and throwing away the food. I just went to the store and bought more.

My husband was now a full-fledged alcoholic and life was getting too big to handle. Food was now my best and only friend. He worked late, I ate. He came home, I ate. The cycle was non-stop. The more he drank the more I ate. Even then I was a size 16 and at 5’4” I was certainly overweight but felt that it was still still manageable.

In 1990, my husband left the military. Life was hard but at least I was home again. I joined a diet program and lost most of the weight. I was 140 pounds and back to a size 12. I even became a group leader part time. We needed the money and I enjoyed the meetings.

At 40 I was healthy and at a good weight but then I decided to quit smoking. I started to gain weight. The doctor told me to do something I couldn’t do if I smoked so I started running. I worked up to two miles a day but I didn’t stop eating. I ran right up until I got too fat to do it anymore! My metabolism was shattered.

I started every kind of diet you can imagine and nothing worked. I was injected with urine from pregnant women; I took diet pills, drank protein shakes, and ate odd combinations of food that were supposed to complement each other (as long as there were no vegetables involved!). Adkins worked for a short time but I couldn’t stick with it. I moved from diet to diet getting more and more frustrated.

I was divorced in 2001 and all my friends told me to lose weight or I would never attract another man. I told them all I didn’t need any man who didn’t want me as I was. I was self-sufficient and I was going to enjoy my life. After all, I went from my daddy’s home to my husband’s home; I had never lived on my own. It was about time I learned to please myself. This was actually a great excuse to binge even more. I hid my pain in food. Still not a cook, I had take-out on the nights my mom didn’t cook for me. Snacks were staples; that sweet and salt cycle. I ate until the pain went away.

I found myself hovering around 200 pounds and was mortified. I started another diet program in 2003 and lost 35 pounds and felt good again. I started going dancing for the exercise and socialization. I needed to learn to be around men; I hadn’t dated since 1974! Dancing was great; I could get used to being close and not have to deal with any other issues. And then I met John.

John liked me just the way I was. He was kind to me and affectionate. I didn’t know how much I craved that until I received it. He was constant motion and another alcoholic. (I never learn the first time!) We had a ball; we went dancing and bar hopping all the time. I rarely drank so I was the DD (designated driver). We both found what we needed. And then binging reared its ugly head again. We ate out almost every night: wings, pizza, steaks, junk, junk and more junk. We married in 2005 and the cycle continued. When I tried to diet it was useless. Our lifestyle did not support any kind of moderation.

In 2007, John had a spiritual awakening and stopped drinking cold turkey. What I prayed for became a reality. Our life slowly started to make sense and change; except I was not able to stop binging. I joined other programs and learned about eating addictions. I ate for the very reason alcoholics drank. I learned that binging was a behavior, not an emotion. That helped me to gain some control. I also learned that most diets had built-in binge food. Once I figured that out I was able to view dieting differently. I didn’t lose weight but my attitude started to change. I was not ready for the total surrender yet.

In May of 2011 my physician told me that if I did not lose weight I was headed for diabetes. That scared me silly. My dad had food-related diabetes and while it didn’t lead to his death, it certainly didn’t help. I did not want to become a diabetic. I was ready. I was also 241 pounds and miserable.

I decided to Google all the diets in Central Florida and one by one eliminated the programs that I knew I would not work. I read and I made phone calls. Once I found the program that I felt was right for me I made the appointment and got started. June 1st, 2011 was the beginning of a new life.

I follow this new program even when I think I cannot. I also added all the things that every diet I ever used told me to do. I use small plates and silverware, I corralled a support system, I exercise, I journal (blog), anything I can think of I do. Now it is working. I feel better than I have felt in years. There are no more excuses; I must lose the weight.

I don’t have a goal or target weight yet. My doctor and I will decide that when the time comes. Right now I am just going to focus on day to day and not worry about the long term. I set small goals for myself and give non-food rewards when they are met. I pray constantly to my God for support and strength. I believe this is important. I never allowed God to be a part of the process before. Now I can tell when I am leading the way and when I surrender. It is amazing. I don’t know how long this will take but I am willing to keep moving forward and live my life. I am doing this for me. I want a life worth living today.

Marilyn in June, 2011
8-31-2011
8-31-2011

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read my own “fat” story here: “My Big Fat Story.” It has a lot of similarities to Marilyn’s except that at the time I wrote it, I hadn’t started to lose weight. If you have a story of your own you’d like to share, just go to “Contact” and drop me a line.