Friday, September 9, 2011

To Thine Own Self Be True

This morning, I received a link to an article in the August 2 Huffington Post – “Women Show Deep Drop in Church Attendance.” The newsletter from which I gleaned the link spoke about the problem of declining church attendance in general and wondered if this was related to a decline of spirituality, or if attending church was truly reflective of belief, faith, and spiritual engagement.

Those issues aside, reading the article and the newsletter led me to do some deep thinking about women, our changing role in society, and what statistics such as the 11 percentage-point drop mentioned above might truly reflect. I also acknowledged my inner struggle as I work to find a way to be true to myself without compromising my beliefs, needs, or boundaries, and I can see a correlation between my current state and the state of women in general. The newsletter suggested that fewer women attend church because women have learned that they have the right to eschew the standards that the religious systems have imposed upon them for centuries. The statement is valid. As women become better educated, we resent always being relegated to the roles of care-taker (can you clean these classrooms, please?), nursery attendant (I know you’d like to lead the adult class, but we really need ladies to watch these two-year-olds), and cook (ladies, it’s time for our annual pot-luck). Within the church roles with decision-making power have traditionally gone to men while the roles with mind-numbing, repetitive tasks have gone to women, and until recently, both men and women have been complicit in keeping it that way. Many denominations have not yet begun to change, but others have, and those denominations are experiencing increased vitality because of it.

In my forty years, I’ve witnessed incredible changes in feminine roles and expectations. As a child, I was assured by my mother that women could aspire to a total of four functions in life – I could choose between being a teacher, a nurse, a secretary, or a housewife. It is a testament to the power of our parents over our lives when I admit that I have been or have been on-track to be each of these four things. As I grew up, I had the usual dreams about what career I might pursue; veterinarian, artist, designer, writer. My mother ridiculed these desires and told me that such ambitions were out of my reach. She did not do this out of cruelty. She sincerely hoped to cure me of daydreaming and cause me to choose a practical life path, one that would support me financially and help me to be less dependent on the man I would someday marry. I insisted that I could be whatever I wanted to be, but the reality was that even though I had better intentions, I ended up following the trail that my mother laid out for me in those early years.

These days, our daughters are told that they can be anything they want to be. I hear my own mother telling my girls that they can be doctors, attorneys, engineers, or meteorologists - anything, in fact, that they want to be. I am gratified by the fact that my mom has grown and changed so much, and that she has accepted and admitted that her ideas about my potential were too limiting and just plain wrong, and I am happy that she isn’t making the same mistake with my girls. I accept that she was speaking from what she knew and understood when I was a child, and that she truly believed that she was right. I forgive it, but I still struggle to find my footing and to accept that the limitations she placed on me are not real and that the weight of those chains only exists in my imagination.

The struggle I mentioned takes many forms, but right now it is mostly about relationship roles and expectations – what others want from and for me held in tension with what I want from and for myself. I have fought and am fighting to become a better person. Sometimes I feel like Sisyphus, rolling that boulder up the mountain only to chase it back down into the gulf again. I make progress and then I lose ground. I guess that can be said of most of us. Case in point – in 2007, I began working actively to be physically healthy and I lost 130 lbs. That was a wonderful change and I maintained that weight loss for more than a year before gaining 20 lbs back. That isn’t so bad and I shouldn’t kick myself for it, but the truth is that I am severely disappointed in myself. I hold myself to higher standards than that. And I know how fatally easy it is to gain weight and how frustratingly difficult to lose it. So now I’m halfway up the mountain, shoving that boulder and promising myself, “Never again.” I experience terrible pressure in my personal relationships and am at war with myself to find a way to balance my needs with my mate’s. This is incredibly exhausting and I question whether it is possible for me to stop being “his woman” and start being my own - when just eighteen months ago, I came out of a bad relationship and promised myself that "never again" would I abnegate myself in favor of a man. I will graduate college next year, but this is the third time I’ve attended and each time my intentions were good; I promised myself that I would finish my degree and keep my life and career on track. Life intruded, and those goals became secondary, but as I plow through Principles of Accounting, I can feel the weight of the boulder pressing down and I swear, “Never again.”

Never again will I allow someone else’s ideas about who I am or how I should be to inform my judgment. Never again will I allow someone else to tell me that I can only aspire to certain levels of success because I am female or for any other reason. Never again will I choose to continually meet my partner's needs and ignore my own boundaries in order to do so. Never again will I take as truth someone else’s opinions just because they are pushed on me, when my own opinions are just as intelligent and just as valid.  I will not allow anyone else to define my abilities or my life; I will define myself.