What can I do?
I want to connect with women to help them feel more empowered, and also empower myself along the way. I feel the need in our society for the healing of women, and I also feel the calling in myself to be a part of it. My story of growing up with narcissistic parents that devalued their children, especially their daughters, is not just my story. It is the story of so many women that grew up being told that their thoughts, their questions, their ambitions weren’t valid or valuable. So many young girls that are mature women now, were ‘programmed’ to believe that their worth was based largely on whether or not men found them attractive.
Having grown up with this message, I wasn’t shocked when the men at my first finance job were in the habit of patting the girls on the butt in the office. And I wasn’t shocked when one of my girlfriends at work gave a male co-worker a ride back from a client event and he tried to kiss her. She was devastated, but we blamed her. Why did she give him a ride? Everyone knew that this particular guy would try and kiss anyone in front of him when he had a few drinks. There was a girl code, we knew who to stay away from. Why didn’t she?
When my female co-workers and I caught the men in the office passing around a Playboy magazine in an interoffice envelope, we laughed. We wrote a note that we had caught them and put it inside the envelope. It was a joke. I never even thought of reporting them. It was just the way it was. I grew up in much worse conditions, so this was nothing. This was just life, which I had learned from a young age how to navigate in order to protect myself.
I eventually left that company for a much more politically correct company that was ahead of its time. I had a fulfilling career there, until I resigned and took 2 years off to ‘find myself’ and travel. I was 27. I had taken a career opportunity in Denver Colorado, so when I resigned that is where I was living. I knew that something didn’t quite feel right inside of me, but I didn’t know what it was. I couldn’t put my finger on my confusion and my feeling of not belonging anywhere. I couldn’t relate to my family, and I had had a falling out with my mom right before I moved so we were barely talking. My brothers and sisters visited me in Colorado but I felt like I was viewing them from behind glass. I was there, but not really there. I had so many questions about our past, our childhood, that I didn’t even know where to start. Driving them to Aspen, and showing them around seemed pointless compared to all the questions that needed to be answered, and all the struggles in my head.
I decided to volunteer at a Domestic Violence Awareness group to see if I could get some answers. They sat me in front of a video that explained what domestic violence was. Yeah, I already knew this. The video just kind of traumatized me, but I didn’t have the words to tell the other women that I had lived it. Maybe they guessed, I don’t know. But I was silent, and just did what they asked me to do to help out. This volunteer work provided me with no answers because I didn’t know how to ask the questions. I was so programmed from a young age not to talk about these things. I literally would open my mouth and no words would come out. I didn’t have the skills to express myself or talk about my experiences. I stopped volunteering, and instead I booked a trip to Florence, Italy.
I decided that seeing something new might help me to get away from all my confusion. Maybe the Italians had the answer about how to live life in a more fulfilling way. I went by myself. I rented an apartment right in the center of Florence and spent 2 months there taking language classes, having espressos in cafes, and observing people. I wrote in my journal, I went to museums, I met Americans traveling through the city, and I accepted a few invitations to dinner from bold Italian men. I wanted to blend in, I wanted to forget myself, I wanted to become a part of their culture and way of life, I wanted to belong. But everyone who met me asked, American? Just by looking at me they knew I was American. One of the bold Italian men said that I was too muscular and walked differently than the Italian women. He told me that I would never really fit in.
I flew back home in time for Christmas with more questions than answers. I stayed with my sister in California through the holidays and lent her money. She had recently gotten divorced. She walked away from her husband of 16 years when he was at work one day. She asked him for nothing, she just wanted to be free. She was renting an apartment, and working hard to live on her own. But she had a new live-in boyfriend who would ramble on and on to me about inventions he was creating. I guess the inventions were eventually going to help pay the rent, because my sister was supporting him. I once again stayed silent and nodded because I was just glad to have a place to stay while I looked for my own apartment and a job.
I made an appointment with a career counselor in Santa Barbara, where I had gone to college. She told me that unless I already had connections there, it was going to be tough for me to have a career in Santa Barbara. So, I decided to move back to San Francisco, where I had lived and worked before I moved to Denver. I got a job as a credit counselor, and started counseling people on how to get out of debt and take control of their finances. I answered an ad for a roommate needed in a townhouse with 2 male roommates. They seemed more interested in making money than me, so I felt ok about it. I was living in the Marina District which was walking distance to all the bars and restaurants. And on one of the many nights that I ventured out for a cocktail with girlfriends, I met my husband.
When people talk about love at first sight, you might envision a dramatic scene of a couple staring into each others eyes with fireworks going off in the background, and a symphony of music. For me, it was just the opposite. A calmness I had never known before descended over me when I met my husband. The questions I had carried around my whole life didn’t seem to haunt me as much. And it wasn’t because he knew the answers to my questions, it was because he understood why I was asking them.
I could be myself, I didn’t have to change, and the fact that he understood my questions made me not want to search as hard for the answers. Maybe I would never find the answers, but at least I felt confirmation that I was asking valid questions.
We moved to Portland Oregon where we didn’t know one single person and started a new life with our new baby. We struggled in a new city with no jobs at first, and a newborn. But I had struggled before, so it was ok. I had my husband and my baby, and I felt like we were away from everyone who could hurt us.
I felt good, I felt happy, I felt calm. I had a new focus, and all my questions about life went on the back-burner for a long time. They would come up every once in a while but it was easy to get lost in the distractions of my new family.
My daughter got her first job when she was a senior in high school. When she was in the break room one of her older male coworkers passed her an inappropriate note. The difference between her and I was that she reported it, and the man was fired. But this incident made me realize that my struggles weren’t just mine alone, and that society had not changed a lot since I was a young woman. I felt a calling to take action. I wanted to do something about it, but I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t solve such a big problem, how could I make a difference?
Eventually, I decided that the way I could help was to write about my experiences. Using myself as an example, my hope is that I can encourage other women to find the skills and the courage to talk about interactions that make them feel scared, threatened or ‘less than’. And while I don’t have the all the answers, I want other women to know that their questions are valid.