Shortly after I gave birth to my daughter and put my career on hold, I ran into an old friend.
She and I had been close as children and later, as roommates. I was the more studious and informed of the two of us and often kept her apprised of current events and important women’s issues. While she spent a lot of time ensuring a high gloss on her hair and perfecting the art of the eyebrow arch, I spent hours and hours reading in my room.
When I went to college, she drifted from job to dead-end job. While I advanced in my career, she languished in retail. And when I became engaged to be married, she began dancing… and I don’t mean Broadway. By the time I was pregnant, I heard that she owned a tanning salon and was dancing full time with “a little help from the plastic surgeon“.
So, it was as much a surprise to me as it was to her when she passed judgment on my life decisions. And I actually accepted it.
I was having lunch at the mall with my baby daughter when I saw her breeze by in all her spandexed splendor.
“Lena!” she exclaimed stopping short, “Oh my God! You had a baby?!”
“I did!” I responded as she eyed the chubby squawky bird in my lap.
“You’re still working at the bank though, aren’t you?” she asked, eyebrows raised.
“No. I’m, um, I’m actually staying home with the baby.”
“Really? I would never have expected that from YOU!”
“Well, you were just such… such a feminist!”
At that moment I wondered for the first time if I still was. I mean, how could I be a feminist in the way I had always defined it: a strong independent career woman? I was anything but independent when I had a child literally attached to my chest at all times. I was hardly strong when I spent most evenings crying in my closet (did I mention the postpartum depression?). And I had zero career to speak of at that moment, unless you counted my toe-hold in the Cheerios counting business.
The irony is it would not be until years later that I would realize that I have never felt like more of a feminist than I have since becoming a mother.
There are two main aspects of feminism as I see it: the philosophy and the movement. Feministic ideals are certainly rights all human beings deserve. Do I automatically agree with every idea that has come out of the feminist movement? No. Do I think that the feminist movement has left some affected children in its wake? Absolutely. Do I think that women must avail themselves of these opportunities at the expense of their children? Absolutely not.
But, do I think that women insisting that they have the same social, political, and economic opportunities men have is something worth fighting for? Absolutely.
What I embrace about feminism, and what I am trying to instill in my daughter every day, is the creation of a cohesive society where sex does not predetermine success, where biology does not predetermine opportunity.
I cringe at the thought that people perceive feminism as “man hating” because I love men. I don’t mind that men are often stronger; physically more capable. I love that my husband is bigger and stronger than I am. I love his large presence; his ability to get things done that I cannot; his tireless physical pursuits. I love how we complement one another.
Every day women dispel the myth that we are “the weaker sex.” Every day women step into and navigate situations men cannot touch. How do you quantify the strength it takes to keep a marriage together, to care for a dying parent, to heal a friendship, to draw out a depressed child?
How do you quantify the strength required to fulfill the emotional responsibilities that often fall on the woman’s shoulders?
When you become a mother, you tap into a feminine strength that you never knew existed before – the strength necessary to become your child’s first teacher.
Becoming a mother did not diminish my passion or my energy as a forward-thinking woman. It intensified it. Suddenly, I saw every world issue through the filter of my child’s eyes, through the filter of my child’s future. I was not relegated to the kitchen in an apron upon producing a child – I was pushed to the forefront, advocating for her rights, as well as my own. Mother became a verb, not just a noun.
My decisions were no longer personal – every decision was being watched, memorized, interpreted by this little person. I no longer made choices based upon what was best for me, but upon what message was being sent to this inquisitive little student of mine.
Mothers of sons have the daunting task of raising a man of courage – a man brave enough to go out into the world and regard women in a way that flies in the face of the behavioral norm. Perhaps not a feminist, but ultimately a humanist.
A mother to a daughter is a different story; a different set of challenges. I am a mother to a girl. A girl who will grow into a woman. A woman who will have to combat societal expectations. A woman who will have to fight the urge to be a little blonder. A little thinner. A little perkier. A woman with a well-honed internal compass that guides her pursuits in life.
I believe the heart of feminism is the availability of choices for women. But, I do not feel obligated to take advantage of every opportunity afforded me in order to show my support and appreciation for the feministic movement that opened the way for me.
I honor feminism every day with my choices: in the balance I seek to achieve with my career, in the way I allow myself to be treated by men, in what I say about my reflection in the mirror, in the example I set for that little pair of eyes and ears that follow my every move.
I honor feminism by raising another woman in the world who looks for her cues from strong female role models, not Lindsey Lohan. Who prides herself on her brain, not her MySpace profile photos. Who doesn’t think cleavage equals happiness. Who doesn’t sit by a phone waiting for a boy to tell her how she feels about herself.
It took me four years to answer the question of feminism for myself. Four years of learning what being a mother entails. What raising a child means. What truly championing women’s rights means for me.
See, it wasn’t my old friend’s words that belittled me. It was my own self-image and skewed definition of feminism. Once I realized that I can be both a stay-at-home mother and a feminist, and most importantly, what feminism means to me, I can be the best of both.
Because feminism lives in my heart, not on my resume.