Does a woman need a man to keep her life on track? Edie Weinstein’s father gave conflicting advice.
“Come on, Doll Baby. You can do it! One more rep. Five more minutes.”Although he died in 2008, I can hear my gym rat father’s voice echoing from the other side, encouraging my workouts. He and his encouragement accompany me each time I enter the room with the equipment that has helped me rebound from my heart attack a little more than a year ago.
Fitness was a staple in our family; as vital as the roof over our heads. My father had been a Golden Gloves boxer in the Navy, and his routine continued throughout most of his 84 years, until Parkinson’s Disease stole his vigor. He was the one who jumped rope with my sister and me, more often than my mother. He took us skating, sledding, and bike riding. We would join him on his regular jogs on the junior high track across the street. Although he and my mother raised two girls, he made sure we were well rounded women. We dug in the dirt and planted gardens, cleaned the garage, and mowed the lawn. He taught me how to change a tire, fill the gas tank, change the oil, and drive a stick.
He was proud of my academic accomplishments, too … and yet …
I received the mixed message that I wasn’t to let boys think I was smarter than they were, or they would feel threatened and not want to spend time with me either as friends or potential dates. I didn’t like that one bit. Why should I hide my light under a bushel when I had worked so hard to achieve a certain status?
Compounding my frustration was my diagnosis with asthma at age four, as well as podiatry problems that relegated me to clunky, red corrective shoes for several years. Not exactly the height of fashion, nor were they made for the running and jumping I craved. To strengthen my lungs, I joined a swim team at 11 and was determined to be the best. Although the competitors in the meets were girls, I practiced with both genders and took special delight in beating the boys.
This all took place back in the 1960s, when gender norms and expectations were more rigid and constrained. Whenever I insisted on equality, my father would remind me, “There’s a different code of ethics for men and women.” I often wonder how I would have been treated had I been male, or in relation to my sister if she had been a brother. I suspect there would have been dramatic differences.
As I matured and began dating, I found myself facing a conundrum. The boys really did like feeling as if they knew more than I did. I would often sigh and nod, smiling at their insights, sometimes feigning agreement, even when I thought otherwise. It was a trade-off that brought approval. I was sought after and rarely at a loss for company if I wanted it. At the same time, I was no dummy and they knew it. I could hold my own in any conversation but sometimes found myself talking about their interests rather than mine. This contributed to my budding co-dependence. I began to sacrifice my needs for those of the men I was with, because I thought that was what was expected of me to keep the relationship. I hid my competence and confidence beneath a more traditionally female façade.
When I met the man who would become my husband, he told me he admired my accomplishments and intelligence, welcoming someone with both brains and beauty. But in pretty short order, the keep-the-peace-at-all-costs-go-along-to-get-along persona kicked in and I lost myself in a maze of confusion and incompetence. Although I was the emotional caregiver in the marriage; much as I had been in previous relationships, he took control of the business in what I would have preferred to be an equal partnership. He was ahead of me in age and experience—six years my elder. So the go-getter, high achieving young woman slipped away in the service of warding off chaos. But this dynamic only worked sporadically. Publishing a magazine together for 10 years, we had multiple layers of interaction that were often disharmonious. We butted heads over his authoritarian manner and my laissez faire attitude. ‘Go with the flow’ was not in his regular vocabulary, nor were structure and discipline in mine. I could feel my anger and resentment and simultaneous resignation about how things were—all doing a crazy dance in my head.
By the time he died in 1998, our roles had shifted and I reclaimed my power. Of necessity, I was running the show, still looking over my shoulder at times to see if the propriety police were watching to prevent me from getting too confident. Freed of my husband’s judgments of my abilities, I was called on to make choices without his input or intervention. I was often terrified I would make the wrong choices, because despite being raised to have confidence in myself, I had come to believe his crippling invectives.
Now, more than 16 years later, I find myself once again, walking that tightrope between desiring to play big in the world and not wanting to intimidate men. I have rarely allowed a man to take care of me; likely the result of my lack of trust that he could. This has held relationships at bay and kept me pondering if it was possible to have love and accomplishment—the best of both worlds. Recently I took a step in the right direction. I attended a workshop called “Fearless Relating” offered by Reid Mihalko and Monique Darling, who are both sex and relationship educators. Throughout the weekend, we were encouraged to take healthy risks in asking for what we wanted. I did a bit of emotional bungee jumping by asking the men there if they would hold me and rock me, as I surrendered to their nurturing. Tough stuff for the woman who is used to cradling rather than being cradled. I cried as I received in silence, rather than talking my way through the experience. As I wept, years of sorrow arose for what I hadn’t allowed myself to feel. And my tears washed away all he time I wasted as a chameleon, changing her stripes to fit in and be acceptable.
On occasion, I still experience blips on the radar screen that have me ducking for cover, so as not to be an exposed target. In the past year, I have needed to step aside from relationships; whether personal or professional, with those who expect me to shrink so they won’t feel diminished. Now I refuse to be anyone but my full self. Playing small may not intimidate, but it keeps me confined when I need to burst from the gate, when I need to sprint full speed around the track, instead of slowing my pace to throw the race for someone else’s needy ego. As I push across the finish line, I can hear my father cheering from the stands.