The year is 1941. My grandmother, a blonde and beautifully ambitious woman, gives birth to her first child at the tender age of 20, a baby boy who would eventually grow up to become my father. She goes on to have four more children, three daughters and another son, over the next 17 years. She dedicated her life to her family, her passions (which included owning and operating her own salon and being one of the best cooks on the face of the Earth), and her independence. For a woman born in the 20’s, this was a radical notion, but I’ve come to find that today that’s not really the case.
My grandmother, or Meme as we called her, was a phenomenal woman. She was an inspiration to everyone she met, she loved her family and friends fiercely, and she continued to make the most out of her life even after the loss of her husband of over 50 years. She passed away almost two years ago, but not a day goes by that I don’t challenge myself to continue to live up to the expectations she set for me- to become my own woman in my own way. She inspired me with stories of going to the bank and requesting the loan to build her salon after my grandfather refused to do it for her, and his dismay when he found out she was approved. No one told Meme she couldn’t do something. Like the rest of my family, and myself, she really enjoyed proving people wrong.
It was women like Meme who changed the playing field for the rest of us today.
I’m 24 years old, just a little over a month shy of embracing what will be my quarter-century birthday, and I’ve come to find that while my grandmother rose way above the expectation set for the women of her generation (to just stay home and raise babies and take care of your husband), the expectation today isn’t so clear. I followed my own passion as it lead me into two education degrees and a teaching career, and also into becoming the wife of my high school sweetheart. At 23 I had earned a Master’s Degree and felt pretty accomplished. But then I turned on the news and saw stories of women with way more experience in their fields than me or way more life experience in general, who have overcome challenges that I couldn’t even imagine. Or I logged online and pinned something on Pinterest that linked to the blog of someone my age who is traveling the world and significantly more cultured than I will probably ever be.
Things were black and white in 1941- my grandmother chose to pursue the gray area. But in today’s world, everything is technicolor, and I’ve found that sometimes being a 20-something woman is just confusing.
What does it mean to be a woman in 2013? It means that while we’ve made steps forward in women’s rights, we are constantly watching those rights be challenged by people too blinded by their own point of view to even consider walking in the shoes of another. Sometimes every step forward results in two steps back. It means that having babies at 20 may be praised in some families or looked down on in others. It means that college is no longer a privilege to attend, but an expectation if you want to be able to start a lucrative career in almost any field you could possibly want to, because the man with the degree is going to get the job over you if you don’t have your own credentials to back it up. It means that in some communities, you’ll be praised for giving up your career to stay home and raise your kids, but in others you may just become a pariah. You can be whatever you want, go wherever you want, do (almost) whatever you want, but hey, girl- you better figure out what it is that you want! And do it fast, because while it’s more common that women wait until they’re in their late 20’s and 30’s to settle down and start a family, those eggs aren’t getting any younger, and did I mention that your retirement account isn’t getting any bigger without a serious career?
With so many options, so many paths, and so many people judging you for every choice you make, what do you choose?
I’ve realized that the answer lies in two places. One of those places is in women like my Meme- she believed that you have choose what works best for you, and when you encounter challenges you need to bust your butt and overcome them.
But the biggest place where the answer lies is within each other. The biggest challenge we will ever encounter in our lives is the criticism of others- particularly the people that mean the most to us. While living up to our own expectations may be what’s right, it doesn’t mean that people are going to drop the expectations that they’ve set for us already.
Women like my Meme were successful because they had the support of other women in their lives. When my grandfather (or Pepe) told her he wasn’t going to help her start her business, or add on to it many years later, she found strength in herself, in her sisters, and in her friends and did it anyway. She took a risk to follow her own dream. So the next time you find yourself judging instead of guiding a friend or family member as they struggle on their own journey to female, ask yourself- who has their back? Because I promise you, it’s certainly not the 60-year old male senator who thinks he can pass legislation on our rights to what we do with our lady parts.
With every challenge comes rewards. When you figure out what it is you want in your life- whether it be personally, professionally, or even spiritually as I’ve found in my own experiences- you can enjoy it with less crap than my Meme or other women like her had to put up with. The bar is higher, but that means the challenges are often fewer. They paved the path for us, and we need to do the same for our future daughters, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters.
Be you and follow your heart, because that’s exactly how the women before me earned the right to publish their thoughts for the public to read, the right I am exercising right now as I contemplate what the next step in my own journey will be.