Do you know the hardest part of growing up in a world of strong women?
The hardest part of growing up with six aunties bustling about town and an Irish Catholic matriarch at the helm? The hardest part of watching your cool older cousins packing up and traveling around the world, moving countries, growing up? The hardest part of being a collegiate athlete and living in the network of teammates and brilliant coaches and fierce competitors?
It’s not what you’re thinking.
It’s not the gossip and the catfights and the opinions and the hormones that women are so famous for. No, that’s not the hardest part.
The hardest part is perspective.
When you grow up surrounded by Ms. Fix-its, by women who watched their husband go to war while waiting for their first child, by women who ran marathons and climbed mountains before people ran marathons and climbed mountains, by women who crossed borders and cut ties and lived passionately. Well, when you grow up surrounded by that, it is hard to imagine anything less.
When you grow up with these women you learn to live your life as an equal, unaware that the rest of the world may not see you as such. You learn to work hard and strive greatly and live for yourself. You learn to demand every bit out of life that a man might demand and to do so with no hesitation.
Moving from aunts and cousins to teammates and coaches, I spent many years of crucial development unaware that I was a part of the “fairer sex.” I just didn’t know. I was so steeped in strength and support that I didn’t realize society expected me to run slower and speak softer and stand with less pride because I happened to be a woman.
I had heard about feminism, about bra burning and the pay gap and gender discrimination. I had heard about it. But I always sort of assumed that if you were independent and assertive and approached the world as if you were as strong as any man, you would be treated as such. It wasn’t until I left my bubble of strong women for “the real world” that I finally found perspective.
It is hard to see the disparity when you are surrounded by strength.
It’s out there though.
It’s out there in little ways and big ways and every way in between. When a woman is asked to decorate a conference room for a colleague’s birthday, it’s there. When a woman who happens to sit by a coffee machine or a copier is asked to make coffee or copies when those tasks don’t fall in her job description, it’s there. When a woman needs to qualify her statements with “I’m sorry” or “just,” it’s there. And when a woman takes home a smaller paycheck every two weeks, it’s there.
It wore me down, this perspective I gained.
Allow me to check my privilege here. I am lucky and blessed and fortunate in nearly every way a person can be lucky and blessed and fortunate. Except that I am a woman in what seems to be a man’s world. But we women are strong and we are changing that. And in honor of International Women’s day today, March 8th, 2016, let’s focus on that aspect.
This perspective that I gained the first time I was taught to use a coffee machine but my male colleague was not, it was eye opening. I didn’t realize that I was expected to be different until I went out in the real world and was treated that way. Over time these little things, they added up. The coffee and the qualifying statements became larger hurdles. I didn’t realize it was happening until I found myself wondering.
I’m sorry, but I was just wondering….well, is it true?
And that’s when I knew it was time to get out. The little things that stacked up and up and up until they became mountains. Or was I just shrinking? I was asking permission where men were demanding. I was apologizing where men were authorizing. I was photocopying where men were creating.
I realized then that I had been raised with an incredible and unique disregard for gender expectations. And I realized then that I wanted that back.
Traveling for me was therapy. I knew the best way to go out, find myself, and come back swinging was to do something that terrified me. To force myself to a situation that I could only work through with strength, independence, and purpose.
What I didn’t know when I set out was that I was not alone. What I didn’t know was that I would rediscover that strength through the women I met on the road. Through their stories of isolation. Their tales of adventure. Their moments of defeat. And their ability to stand tall through it all. To stand blind to what was expected of them and just exist.
Women don’t fillet fish. Women don’t do manual labor. Women don’t drink beer faster than men. Women don’t drive research vessels. Women don’t. They just don’t.
But we do.
We walked barefoot until our skin calloused like shoes. We hand-lined for fish and gutted them on the beach. We pitched tents in the forest. We drove motor bikes and bribed cops. We chugged beers and laughed out loud. We hauled jerry cans of gasoline over miles of sand. We worked with our hands and with our brains and with our hearts.
We found strength in each other and grew together.
Every woman I met in the whole world of women I have met gave me back a part of myself. They replaced the pieces I lost every time I apologized for my opinion, for my insight, for my brain. They replaced the chunk that was lost from making coffee I didn’t drink. They burned up that pile of copies and binders of collating. They made me whole again. They made me me again.
One woman did this without realizing just what she was doing. We met and parted ways, her to India and me to Thailand. I wrote this for her, and for every other woman who found strength in solitude.
Your Baggy Red Trousers
Your baggy red trousers were a symbol of hope.
Of happiness and laughter and a promise that life would be ok.
Something to hold onto when everything was new.
You bought them in India.
Alone in India.
Yes, alone in India.
You brave girl.
If I were you, alone in India, I would want a pair of baggy red trousers too.
I emailed you.
Alone in India.
I was alone too.
Alone in Thailand.
Not as scary.
But alone is alone.
Alone and lonely.
You told me about your baggy red trousers.
It made me smile.
Picturing you in India.
Alone in your baggy red trousers.
I didn’t feel so alone anymore.
I have a pair too.
Mine are tan and tie on with a rope.
I wear them when I’m alone.
And I think of you.
You and your baggy red trousers.
Everyone needs a pair of baggy red trousers.
To the women out there, on distant shores and nearby doorsteps: you CAN, you SHOULD, and you WILL.