So the other day, I was hiking up the mountain with my friend Lotta, who told me a story about her grandmother. I will probably get the details wrong, but the gist is this:
Her grandmother, one of several siblings, grew up in a small seaboard town in Sweden, where as a young girl she was known for her beauty and as an adult, as the wife of a prominent shipbuilder (this is where I am sketchy on the details). When she was in her forties, her husband died, and with it, her identity: No longer the young beauty, no longer the prominent wife. The story was a clear reminder that until fairly recent history, women derived their identity from their looks or their husband, or both.
Stay with me here: Flash forward a few generations and suddenly women could be the shipbuilders — or whatever. And so we began to derive our identity from what we did, our work. Slowly we are learning, though, that that’s not right either.
I was haunted by all this, as well as Shannon’s post on Midlife Crisis, when I started wondering if, just maybe, the issue is this: Somewhere between the era of being someone’s wife or daughter – or, more recently, someone’s doctor or someone’s lawyer — somewhere between those two poles, we women are still trying mightily to figure out how to define our authentic Self. And in the process of the search, many of us get trapped by the icon: We dream of who we want to be – the swashbuckling reporter, the fearless photog, the edgy writer, the rail-thin supermodel, the uber-wealthy CEO– and make life choices that fit the image, images that are often dictated by women’s media – magazines, movies, fiction — that tend to glorify the impossible.
And if those dreams don’t pan out, or we decide to stop the chase, if the iconic self becomes a nagging reminder of the road not taken, well, we look over our shoulders. Second guess all our choices. Feel we’ve failed. When of course, we have not.
Could fear of betraying the icon be one reason why making life choices is so fraught? Why we assign our decisions so much weight? Why, no matter what we choose, we taunt ourselves with the idea that Door Number two would surely have been a better choice?
When it comes to Gen X-ers and Millenials, I tend to blame us: mothers who, infatuated by the prospect of our daughter’s newfound opportunity, taught them they could do and be anything. There’s possibility out there, we exclaimed. All those open doors! Opportunity! Grab it! All you have to do is want it — and try hard!
We were right to tell our daughters to dream high, and never sell themselves short. But what we left out of the lesson was the fact that sometimes reality – or talent or resources or life itself – intervenes, now matter how hard you try or how hard you want. (Could this be why so many college women consider a “B+” to be a failure?) And you know what? When it does, it doesn’t always matter. Because what we do is not who we are. And sometimes the image — the iconic self — is just that. Men have had generations to figure this out. But for women, relatively new to this game of self-definition, we’re stuck. Call it growing pains.
Meanwhile, full disclosure: When I was a kid, my two dreams were to have a houseful of children and to write the great American novel. Marrying into a family of seven siblings quickly taught me the insanity of my first dream. (My mother-in-law once confided that over a ten year stretch, she had no memory of anything but laundry and carpools. True story.) And my second? At this point, I’d be happy with the adequate American novel.
As for my authentic self? Still not sure. Are you?