Women: Own Your Life

Once a month or so, my husband and I feed the three little ones early, and indulge ourselves in a grown-up dinner. We converse about small matters, uninterrupted, and enjoy not having to say things like “toes off the table” or “chairs are for sitting” or “take the macaroni out of your nose please.” Afterward, with a pint of some decadent ice cream, we retire to the VCR to watch a really bad, black and white, science fiction movie.

We love what passes for high tech in these flicks; space ships have rotary dial phones, and big screens from the home planet for which astronauts have to get up and turn the channel dial. But the biggest laugh, for me, is watching the women. This being “the Future”, there are female astronauts; but their job, as far as I can tell, consists of attractively filling the shiny zippered space jumpsuit, and inspiring displays of testosterone among the men. Oh - and they sometimes bring coffee.

The men in these films are, without exception, steely eyed heroes. There is the handsome bespectacled scientist, in charge of explaining how a giant mantis frozen in glacial ice was freed by volcanic action. There is a host of uniformed military men, patriotic salt-of-the-earth types armed with missles and machine guns and canisters of poisonous gas (marked “poisonous gas” in big letters.) There are townspeople, gathered around radios or rabbit-eared tv sets, listening to bulletins about the alien spacecraft (prehistoric monster, or scorpion mutated by nuclear tests to the size of a bus.

There is always at least one woman, though, with hairstyles like old pictures of my mom and pointy, Doris-Day breasts. When trouble arrives, they do one thing, and they do it well: They scream.

If you’re familiar with the old King Kong, the one with Fay Wray, her script went something like this: (Act One:) “EEEEEEEEEEEK! EEEEEEEEEE! EEEEEEEEK!” (Act Two:) “EEEEE! EEEEEEEEEE!” You get the idea. The realm of dramatic possibility was endless; there was the hands-to-the-cheeks screaming, or the forearm-raised-over-the-eyes scream (which accentuated those shapely breasts.) There was to be no fighting back, not so much as swinging a purse at the alien. And no running. Maybe it was the high heels. Women in these movies never take a single step to save themselves. Of course, Our Hero will rush in at the last minute to carry her off in the nick of time, before she’s vaporized by the alien weapon or reduced to ash by the fire breathing dinosaur. She’s bundled off to safety by her knight in polyester, nary a hair out of place.

Of course, in the new millennium, women see the world a bit differently. We are the lead character in our own lives, not just a set decoration, a love interest, a pretty victim to be rescued from the cruel clutches of fate. Those attitudes went out with pointy bras. Right?

So why do I know so many women, these days, who seem to be victims? I’m not talking about the real victims, survivors of rape or abuse. I don’t mean the breast cancer survivors who grit their teeth and fight for their lives. I don’t mean women making ten cents on the man’s dollar and trying to support kids alone. These are women actively engaged in heroic roles, despite odds stacked against them.

I am thinking, instead, of women who, faced with diversity, refuse to fight or flee and instead start casting about for someone to rescue them, or something to blame. Women who, having voluntarily given up their own interests, educations, needs, and personal growth, then blame their husbands (and abandon their marriages) because they feel stifled and unfulfilled. Women who marry, of their free will, driven successful men, choosing swimming pool and Lexus over trailer park and station wagon, and then spend decades verbally abusing their husbands for not being home more, not knowing how to relax.

There are a million ways to hand off responsibility for our own happiness. Those “if onlys”(usually safely impossible) keep us firmly rooted in place, seemingly unable to make a move to save ourselves. If only I didn’t have six kids; if only I had more money, less fat, more time. We can blame husbands, flawed parents, an unfair system, even God. Any scapegoat will suffice, as long as it keeps us from having to admit that we got ourselves into this, that we need to do something to get ourselves out, or learn to find joy where we are and accept what can’t be changed.

I knew a woman in college who gleefully majored in psychology, leafing through textbooks looking for excuses. If she didn’t go to class, it was because her parents used too much praise on her when she was small, or pressured her to get good grades. If she wasn’t finding a job, it was because she was rushed into potty training, or not allowed to dress as a fireman at halloween and explore more dominant gender roles. She was a master of inertia, and had perfected that other favorite pose of the sexy, squealing sci fi victim: the pointing finger.

I have known women who devoted themselves to medical school or law school, brilliant in their fields. Some, in the midst of the most challenging, competitive, time consuming careers, decided to get pregnant, and then spent a decade wailing about having to put their kids in day care, not having the time to parent the way they imagined. Sure, companies should be more family friendly, and accommodate mothers and children; on site daycare would be nice, maternity leave, breast pumps. But at some point we need to be able to say, “I chose this myself.”

I respect my friend, a brilliant chemist with a daughter in day care, who is so sick of hearing women in the workplace spending all their energy on mommy guilt that she has started saying, “If you didn’t want to be here, you’d quit. You’re still here. So can we get some work done?”

I’m a home schooling, stay at home mom, devoted to attachment parenting, and my friend’s child rearing choices are different from mine, but we have one thing in common: we own up to our choices and waste no time whining or waffling about it.

When I taught college, I had students - young women- thought they’d combine careers in brain surgery with a cookie-baking, June Cleaver mothering role. I tried to point out that everything is a trade-off. The saying goes, “ you CAN have it all, just not all at once.” It’s not entirely accurate. If I choose to live on a space station, it’s nobody’s fault if I can’t spend my spare time gardening. If I marry a handsome, wild, adventurous man, I can’t spend the rest of my life nagging him for not being Ward Cleaver, home on time for dinner, lounging reliably in his chair with pipe and slippers. And vice versa.

I used to have two Mary Engelbreit greeting cards, scarred with thumbtack holes and tape marks, that followed me from place to place when I was single. One was a painting of a woman watering window box flowers; it said “BLOOM WHERE YOU’RE PLANTED.” I had it on a fridge in dingy dorm rooms, tiny city apartments, college towns here and there. I thought of it when women friends incessantly complained about living in this little backwater town, this impersonal big city, this stifling suburb, wherever. It didn’t matter where I went, people blamed location for whatever was lacking in their lives.

The card was in a notebook in my duffel bag while I explored Amsterdam, a fascinating ancient city with canals and bikes and art museums, a place where people make love under blanket in the park, bars sell hashish, streets are full of fruit and flower markets, street musicians and magic. The young people who lived there couldn’t WAIT to get out of that one-horse, no place town and see... the United States, or somewhere interesting.

The other card I have saved shows a woman headed down a path; behind her is a fork in the road. A sign names the roads – “The path you chose” – and “No longer an option”.

There is a zen involved in being present in the life you have, instead of sighing over what might (or might not) have been. I always find it ironic when women spend the years mothering little babies in a big hurry to get through “this difficult stage”, night nursing, potty learning, tantrums... and then spend the rest of their lives sighing back at the sweet baby days that will never come again. Or women who are miserable “because I’m single”... not noticing the women who are miserable “because I’m married”.

Everywhere there are women sitting in front of the banquet of their life, a million sustaining, delicious choices -- oblivious, because they are looking back over their shoulders at the good old days, the old boyfriend, the old body, life before kids, the old freedoms.

We spend our energy on every body else’s lives and leave none for ourselves. I quit watching TV and listening to talk radio advice gurus when I realized I was crowding my head with too many conversations, crises, stories that were not mine. I am the author of my own life, and it sometimes needs some revision; it requires time and attention.

Being the Star in your own life with top billing in the credits sounds great, but it takes courage. You have to accept your fate into your own hands, and unfalteringly shoulder the blame when you choose badly.

I’m not saying I don’t have moments when I feel like a tiny little character, carried off by King Kong with no say in the matter. Sometimes life just sweeps us up, and we don’t feel like we have much control. But here’s my goal: I want to be like the heroes in those corn ball old movies. I don’t want to be a victim, paralyzed with indecision, teetering on my high heels and hoping someone else will do something decisive and rescue me. I don’t want to give away my power and then be angry at the person - or society- that takes it.

I want to own my life. When “shit happens” in my life – and it will – I want to be the one in the strategy room, writing UFO spottings on the big glass wall map, mobilizing the troops. When my plan fails, I want to be the one in the front lines, taking responsibility for my miscalculations, blazing away at the giant ant with a machine gun, or waving my arms from the top of a jeep to distract the two headed monster’s attention from the innocent women and children. I want to be bait for fate. I want feet that move; I want to rescue whoever needs me and save my own hide in the process. I am, after all, the star of the movie. I deserve the hero’s gold medal, the love interest, the gratitude of the relieved citizens of planet earth.

And if my head gets eaten by a giant mantis... well, at least I died trying.

Kelly Averill Savino 9/22/00

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