The Little Woman that Could

Representation matters.

We hear that phrase tossed around, but how often do we actually think about what it means?

I’ve been wrestling with this concept this week a lot. As a fresh graduate opening my own practice, I’m having to think about my skills and abilities and the risks that I can afford to take in a way that I haven’t ever had to do before.

From an objective standpoint, I’m ready and more than capable. I manage the finances in my personal life and work part time as an assistant to a bookkeeper for a small business. I have that exposure. I’m organized to a fault. I think ahead. I have sought out advice, some freely given, some paid for. I have built a solid financial and practical foundation for myself.

I’m going into a field that is in high demand in my area. Counselors literally can’t keep up with the number of people seeking services. I have a guaranteed flow of clients sooner or later.

I have the necessary skills for my field. I excelled both in my “book learning” as well as the practical application portion of my training. As a student, I was involved in conferences and presentations that most don’t begin to pursue until well into their post-graduate careers, and my supervisors have all predicted that I will do well in my field (and I have to fight with myself to acknowledge that because it feels “arrogant” to write).

BUT

Representation matters.

Growing up, I heard my mom downplay her intellectual skills. I watched her choose to work out of the home from financial necessity but never pursuing a career.

I took in the lessons about how women were supposed to be the homemakers and men the breadwinners. I learned that a college education for a woman was more about having an income option to fall back on, but should be something that wouldn’t outshine the husband (the finding of one was also a primary reason for college).

My brother, who struggled in the school things at which I excelled, defensively taunted me about being “book smart” but not “street smart.”

I learned to think of myself as a naïve dreamer who wouldn’t survive out in the world on my own because that’s how he saw me.

I learned to think of myself as incompetent and horribly dependent because that’s how he saw me.

In college, before I left the cult, I was pressured to learn violin pedagogy because, like my mom before me, teaching music to young children out of the home was the best marketable skill I was told I had. Meanwhile, my desire to pursue writing was deemed impractical. When I initially expressed that I didn’t want to get married, people tut-tutted about how I would provide for myself.

Graduate school wasn’t something I saw the women around me pursuing. Careers were things for men.

So now, as I dive into my future, learning to see myself as a professional woman with a career—a self-employed woman, no less—I realize that the strongest image I have of myself when I think about this next step is that of the naïve, incompetent, book-smart not street-smart child who has no hope of making it in the world on her own.

I feel guilty for putting money into setting up a practice (it’s extravagant and impractical!), nervous that I’ll fail miserably (maybe careers really aren’t for people like me!).

I can talk myself into seeing my competencies, preparation, and skill…most of the time. But it takes effort. My default is the image I was taught to see of myself—of women’s potential—as a child.

Which is why I’m determined to push through these doubts and take the chance of trusting the foundation I have laid between my education and my “worldly” experience. I drown out the doubts the way Thomas the Train climbed the hill: “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.”

Eventually, maybe I’ll see myself in a different light without so much effort.

And I hope that one day another little girl will be able to look around and see a rainbow of examples of women doing the things that I was taught they don’t do. Maybe one day I might be one of the Jenga pieces that topples the limited tower in which girls are kept because I dared to remove myself from that tower.

Representation matters.

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The Importance of Partner

I’m married, but I insist on referring to my spouse as my partner. I hate the connotations that come with using “husband” or “wife.” My partner is not the “head of the home.” I’m not his trophy. We both work to pay the bills, so he’s not the “breadwinner.” And we both take care of the home, so I’m not the “homemaker.” He doesn’t control me; I don’t henpeck him. And the rings we exchanged have about as much power of keeping us faithfully together as crossing my fingers has to help me win the lottery.

I’ve also come to seriously hate the connotations of marriage. I don’t necessarily regret getting married, but I do regret getting married before I had the chance to explore what marriage means. I regret getting married at a time when I thought that I was supposed to be the submissive, homemaking, child-bearing wife. I regret getting married at a time when I thought marriage was the only legitimate way to be in a relationship with the person that I love. I miss having the opportunity of exploring what love means to us outside of the confines of the ownership that marriage entails, if not to us, at least to everyone else.

Inevitably when people find out we’re married, they seem to think that they know how to define our relationship, and if we don’t fit into their preconceived definition, they take it upon themselves to try to correct us. Our cell phone company refuses to speak to me about the account even though I’m listed on there and am the one who signs the checks. They assume my partner is the decision-maker. People speak to my partner about me using metaphors and analogies that liken me to a house pet that needs to be “loved” but “trained” or “controlled” nonetheless.

Strangers advise us on how to control or manipulate each other. Just the other day, I had a couple come in to where I work and give me an annoying (though slightly endearing) lecture about how my husband will care and provide for me now as I “bear the babies,” but that I would take over as the leader and protector of him when he got old. What’s wrong with just loving and caring for each other, without the dynamics of who owns or controls whom or what roles we play?

Then there are the exclamations—“but you’re so young!”—that come almost every time someone finds out I’m married, as if my age means I can’t possibly be in a meaningful romantic relationship.

And I’m pretty sure that unmarried couples don’t get asked when they’re going to have kids every time they meet a new acquaintance or have a reunion with old friends or family, even if they’ve been living together for thirty years. On the off-chance that a few people are rude enough to ask a question like that,  they probably don’t give dirty looks if the couple replies that they don’t plan on having kids. They don’t chide the couple for not passing on their “gorgeous genes.” They don’t chastise them for being selfish or promise that the baby clock will start ticking in a few years. From what I’ve seen, unmarried couples just simply aren’t harassed about the baby thing. I’m not saying that’s good (though I don’t think it’s bad). I’m not saying they’re free of harassment, because goodness knows they get asked often enough, “When are you getting married?” I’m just saying that, for me, that would be an exchange worth making.

I honestly don’t know if I would have gotten married given different circumstances. I don’t think my partner knows if he would have either. We stay married because we’re happy together, and admittedly, being married is easier as far as a number of legal things go. But I feel like more often than not, I try to hide the fact that I’m married (though not hide the fact that I’m in a relationship) because there is still so much left over from the days when marriage was an exchange of property between a father and a suitor. Marriage doesn’t describe our relationship well because we’re so far from that model.

Marriage rant aside, there’s another reason why I insist on using “partner.”

It makes me feel less invisible.

In our heterosexist society, gay people are pretty invisible. The very fact that they have to “come out” speaks to that. Non-heterosexuality is so invisible that a non-heterosexual individual has to make a big deal about declaring their non-heterosexuality in order to even be noticed. Even then, once they’re noticed, it’s not guaranteed they’ll be acknowledged.

But bisexuality is even less visible. I can never be “out” for good as bisexual. If I’m with a guy, people assume that I’m straight. If I’m with a girl, they assume that I’m lesbian. No one ever thinks to ask if I’m attracted to all gender expressions. If I tell someone I’m bi, when they don’t simply deny it, they assume that means I’m promiscuous. They certainly never consider that I might be faithful to one or *gasp* two partners. And allowing me the space to define my own relationships—forget it!

We’re so stuck in this dichotomous view of gender, relationships, and life that anyone or anything that doesn’t fall clearly on either side gets overlooked or explained away. Saying “partner” at least makes people second-guess whatever assumptions they’ve made about me. To some extent, it forces them to listen to what I say, thus giving me just a little bit more visibility as an “anomaly” (though I really doubt that bisexuality is as much of an anomaly as people think it is).