Holding My Breath: What It Means to Be a Woman

I am a woman. But, what does that mean? What does it even mean to be a woman? I’ve attempted to come up with a nice, concise definition, and yet I have been unable to. This must certainly be because the meaning of my womanhood has constantly changed throughout my forty-two years. Like the beautiful colors reflected in a kaleidoscope, the meaning has changed in a succession of patterns. But for the past sixteen years, one consistent pattern that has remained behind all the other changing patterns is motherhood. Motherhood has been the only positive meaning I have been able to derive from being a woman.

Twist of the kaleidoscope. It was never my plan to become a mother. Not originally. And had I more confidence and less insecurity in my abilities, I might not have become a mother. I once had dreams and ambitions. I thought of becoming a journalist and becoming involved in political activism. Think Destiny’s Child’s, “Survivor.” That was the anthem. Burning down every Hooters and taking over the world. I was going to do things. At least that is what my Government Professor said as he handed back my graded term paper. He paused, looked me in the eyes and said, “You are going to do things.” Me! I was going to do things. I cradled those words close, so very close. But it seemed to me in every endeavor I attempted there was always a man who seemed to do it better than me. Whatever the endeavor was he could do it better. Inevitably the words that meant so much became too heavy to carry and so I laid them down. I laid them down and got married. And then I found the one thing I could be better at than any man. Motherhood. Ha! Not only could a man not do it better, he could not do it at all.

Twist of the kaleidoscope. I loved being pregnant. Feeling my body change and knowing men would not look at me in a sexual way was beyond liberating. I’ve never felt safer than when I was pregnant. I went from a thing to be sexualized to a thing of great importance. I was carrying life! I was carrying a part of the future of our world! I was significant! I was special! And I was doing something no man could ever do. Then I had the baby. Oh, how fast I fell.

Twist of the kaleidoscope. In a few short hours, I went from a glowing, life-carrying woman of importance to an obese, invisible, human buffet with stretched out skin. As I sat on the edge of the hospital bed, two pumps working on two engorged breasts, I imagined this was what it must feel like to be a cow. I was nothing more than a milk factory and I was all but forgotten by my husband and his family as they cooed over my son.

Twist of the kaleidoscope. As the weeks went by, I could feel my dreams slipping away. Not only were my dreams slipping away, but I could feel them morphing into my husband’s and my son’s, whatever they would end up being. I could feel myself being absorbed by the family, being submerged. Then one morning as I dressed my little son in his onesie, I was filled with such intense resentment. I resented my husband for continuing on with his life with an amazing addition but no personal subtraction. I also resented my son, a complete stranger, for demanding so much of me. In fact, all of me. I jerked his arm, feeling the resentment teeter on the verge of hatred, and then I stopped. I was not fully submerged at that point. My nose was still above the tip of the water as I kicked frantically. But I realized, in order to keep the resentment from turning into hatred, I had to allow myself to sink. So, I took a deep breath and allowed myself to sink…into the family.

I held that breath for ten years. I gave it my all to attain domestic perfection. That was the new dream. Much like the contestants in the Mrs. America Contest circa 1955, I cooked, cleaned, laundered clothes, played with the children, taught the children, cared for the children, made sure to exercise so as not to embarrass my husband, entertained his friends, and kept the light on for my husband when he stayed out all night. But like the contestants in the Mrs. America Contest, I found myself walking in a never-ending circle, around and around on display. Only it was the image that was on display which had very little to do with me, the real me, the me that was submerged at the bottom of the water. Yes, I held my breath for ten long years until I finally realized I was drowning. Then I divorced.

Twist of the kaleidoscope. I haven’t been a wife for nearly eight years, and for that I am grateful. I’m still filled with sadness. After all, I failed. I didn’t get the crown, the $15,000 prize, or the title of Mrs. America. The consolation is that I no longer have to walk in a never-ending circle of fake smiles and pleasantries. And though I am no longer a wife, I will always be a mother. I still struggle to find meaning in my own personal identity, in what exactly it means to be a woman. It is such a complex and complicated thing filled with contradictions that can leave one dizzy if they ponder it for too long. And so, as the array of patterns keep changing in this kaleidoscope, as I struggle to make my way out of the water and onto the shore, I will continue to keep my eye on that one pattern that has given my life as a woman a consistent meaning. Motherhood.

Categories: Lotus

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