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.

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  1. This was such a good read! Thank you for sharing your experience and I feel the same about my husband as you do yours. Especially the part about questions not wanting to search for the answers any longer. Keep sharing, so many need to read your words.

    1. Thanks Laura! It is a lonely place to be when you are confused and the message that you are getting is that you shouldn’t be confused, and you should just accept what you find unacceptable. It is so nice to meet someone (your husband, my husband) that validates all of that in us. That we have every right to be questioning things. I believe that is where change starts. It starts in asking questions! I hope that many more women will read too this and start to feel validated! Love, Peta

  2. This was so good! Like you were behind a glass wall… Powerful! I so relate. I just feel so connected to you in so many ways!

    1. We are! I had the feeling so much in my younger years, like I was there but not fully present. I was always observing, looking for clues of how to act and behave in a way that was accepted. This came from years of watching my parents and siblings closely as to not be on the receiving end of their negative actions. Love, Peta

  3. A moving commentary! We have a lot of similarities in our stories. It also took me decades to find my voice that was never encouraged or allowed in my youth. I’m happy now to be in a variety of communities where women are empowering other women and calling BS on all the stuff that used to be okay and laughed about like you described. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
    xo, Lisa

    1. Thanks Lisa. I am the same, I feel that I have found my true voice just recently. I spoke up in the past, but it was usually in anger or defense. I rarely stated my truth calmly and didn’t let it bother me if others disagreed. I am glad that you found your tribe, it is so important to find women who bring out the best in you. Love, Peta

  4. This was a powerful story you shared Laura. I grew up with parents that did not foster my abilities but tried to mold me into what their life was like. I broke out of this mold and move the U.S.A. thirty years ago. Heike

    1. Oh wow, so glad you were able to break away and start a new life. That takes so much courage and resilience. So many women stay in situations that they should leave and end up living a broken life. I am sharing my story in hopes of encouraging others who want to do something differently! Love, Peta

  5. First of all, let me say I’m sorry that you had to experience no feeling valued by the people who should have been your biggest advocates and cheerleaders of your life. It looks like you broke that generational pattern with your own daughter- what an amazingly rare accomplishment. I hope you recognize that.

    Secondly- you have a great message to share with fellow wounded sisters and I am happy you have found your voice and platform to speak.

    Blessings for the best life ahead of you!

    1. Thank you so much Stephanie. I really appreciate your acknowledgement of my past hurt. It was hard to be devalued by the very people that were supposed to be there for you. My sister once said that a stranger on the street treated her better than our parents did. They had their own wounds and hurt, and I no longer blame them, but the scars are there for sure. I hope to get my message out to other women , who hopefully start to realize they don’t have to carry a burden their whole lives, that they can chose something different for themselves. That is my calling and my dream! Love, Peta

  6. It’s hard to know what the right thing to do is most of the time. I think we’ve all had those experiences and taken them for “normal”. I know I don’t put up with it any longer, but I’m not a young woman new to the workforce any more either. I think we need to empower our young women to know that things that make them feel uncomfortable can be changed, and should be changed.

    1. I agree Lesley. I think so many of us put up with things, that looking back we would do differently. But you are right in that when you are starting off it is scary, and you want to keep your job and make your way in the world. I do want to help young girls to see their value and to speak up if they feel uncomfortable. Love, Peta

    1. Hi Jessica, thank you for that. I stayed silent in so many situations that I should have spoken up because I felt like that is what was expected of me. That is what I was taught by my family, and when I went out into the world I didn’t feel encouraged to speak my mind. But I have learned that it is so important to voice your opinion as a woman, and protect your boundaries. Love, Peta

  7. What a great way of describing your love at first sight. I had the same with my husband, no fireworks, just an intuition that this guy was a special kind of guy who understood me and was so respectful to me. That’s a brave act on your daughter’s part. You have to be so proud of the daughter you’ve raised to have enough respect for herself to stand up for herself. I love my life, but I must say, escaping to another country for some good soul searching sounds so inviting. I would miss my family lots though.

    1. Hi Melanie, so cool that you felt the same way when you met your husband. I remember one of our first dates I was walking to meet him because we both worked in San Francisco, and I just thought “I feel like me”. We would just look at each other and think the same thoughts. Pretty amazing, I had never had that happen before. I am very proud of my daughter, so glad she stood up for herself, even though she was stressed about it and then she found out later that he had approached other girls but they didn’t say anything. So, good thing they got rid of him. Love, Peta