Seeing is Believing

“If she can see it, she can become it.” – Geena Davis

It is vitally important for our young women to see great women in positions of power: Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel, Sheryl Sandberg, Meg Whitman, Melinda Gates, Ana Patricia Botin all appear on the list of the 10 most powerful women in the world this year. Closer to home you find women like Julie Bishop, Professor Gillian Triggs and Elizabeth Bryan on a list of powerful Australian women. According to a study done by MIT a few years ago, seeing women in charge helps persuade teens and parents that they can run things and increase their ambitions.

Unfortunately, too many young women today just want to be famous. They don’t know what they want to be famous for. Just to be famous, like Kim Kardashian and her crew. Wouldn’t it be a better world if they wanted to be famous because they were well respected scientists or lawyers or politicians or businesswomen (like all the women listed above) or even just famous in their own homes with kids who respected them and knew they were loved?

Girls need to have good role models at every level of society. Hopefully in a few weeks, girls around the world will see that a woman can be President of the United States. But just as importantly (or maybe even more importantly), girls need to have women in their everyday life who are good role models. We have a responsibility as mothers, grandmothers, friends to be those role models for them. We need to show them they don’t have to be perfect. They don’t have to be superwomen as defined by someone else’s idea. They can be whomever they want to be if they believe in themselves. They don’t have to change because of a boy and what he thinks or wants. They can stand on their own two feet.

Recently I had a phone call with a friend and we discussed why women give up so much of their power when they get married.

My friend’s answer was that our generation had a lack of role models when we were growing up.

It made me think. As I grew up, my mother told me verbally that girls could do anything. So I knew I could have any career I wanted. But as I watched the women in my extended family, I saw all of them subjugate themselves to their husbands in one way or another. None of the women in my family seemed particularly happy. In fact, they all seemed to struggle with one thing or another.  Marriage didn’t seem like fun or even a partnership. To me, marriage seemed like something where women had to give up an awful lot, including who they were as a person.

I also learned early on that there is always one person in every family who is the ‘squeaky wheel’ and that everyone else has to pander to them to keep them happy and everything appearing rosy. This person in my family was one of my aunts. The other women in the family, my grandmother, my mother, the other aunts all let her get away with bad behaviour time and time again. No one stood up to her. So I learned this was something else you do; excuse bad behaviour and not talk about it.

Despite this, my maternal grandmother was extraordinary and a huge role model in my life. She had been orphaned early in her life through a family tragedy, but she always saw the best in each person she met. She worked hard, as a wife, as a mother, as a grandmother, to keep her family close and together. Family was everything to her. She ran a petrol station for many years while my grandfather worked in one of the big engine factories in Flint, Michigan. She raised four children and had ten grandchildren. I am her youngest granddaughter.

Grams and I always had a good relationship but we became extremely close in the last few years of her life when I was in my early twenties. I tried to spend a bit of time with her each week, mowing her lawn or helping clean the house or having her teach me how to knit. Knitting was one of her favourite pastimes and I love that she not only taught me how to knit, but that I love it too. It relaxes me and always makes me think of her. Many of my memories of her include her flashing needles working with yarn as she was always making something for someone in the family, whilst talking and dispensing wisdom.

She taught me other things too. The value of hard work, the value of having strong, close women friends, the value of creating something with your hands that you are proud of, the value of being generous. She was never wealthy, but she always had time (and food and coffee) for anyone who wanted to talk with her.

She died in 1996 and I still can’t believe it’s been twenty years since I last saw her. Two days before she died, I rang her from England and told her I was getting married. I had just gotten engaged and my intuition told me it was important to ring her and let her know. The next day I flew from the UK to the US, and the day after that, she died. So the last conversation I had with her was to tell her I was getting married.

She was pleased. So many of our conversations over the previous few years had been about marriage, the ups, the downs and she very much wanted to see me, the youngest and only granddaughter not having been married at that point, married and have children. She kept telling me my eggs were getting old even though I was only 24!

My own mother of course was another role model for me. She has spent years of her life giving up her dreams to enable other people’s dreams come true. Most notably, she has supported my dad’s dream to own his own business. She has kept the financial books for the business, she worked two part-time jobs for years so that we had food on the table when the business was lean and eventually took a job which paid for their health insurance even though it barely provided any money for the family income. She taught me to work hard. That being a woman means supporting your man. And the value of giving of your time to others — generously and without always wanting something in return. She also taught me that great joy can come from being a mother. I wasn’t too sure about this one until I had my own children, but eventually I learned she was right.

Other role models in my life also impacted upon me. I saw and heard women all around me telling me that I could have it all – a fabulous job, a fabulous husband, fabulous kids. And maybe some women do have it all. But I exhausted myself trying to have it all. I’m not even sure what ‘all’ it is that I’m supposed to want.

I know what ‘all’ I have right now. Being on my own for the past two years has been hard, but I have the loveliest life. I split my time between Canberra and the beach, making sure to take time each and every day to be outside in nature. I have enough money to do the things I want. I enjoy time for myself, time with friends, time with my daughters. Which makes me think about what kind of role model I am for them and for others of their generation.

For most of my daughters’ lives, I’ve striven to be some sort of ideal mother whilst being an ideal employee and an ideal wife. It turns out I can’t do it. All the striving broke me. I gave up and started just being. And believing in who I am intrinsically, rather than what I think others want me to be.

I’ve also surrounded myself with a tribe of wonderful, strong women. Women who are superwomen to me. They might not be famous, but they are doing what they can in their own corner of the world to be good role models for others. I gather strength from talking with them, learning from them, just being with them.

So now I’m ok about being a role model for my girls. But I wonder what is in store for each of them as so much of who a person is, is made by the time they are seven years old. Much of their early childhoods I was stressed, unhappy, depressive, and angry at myself and others. I hope that is not the legacy I have left for them. I hope instead that they see what NOT believing in myself cost me. And hope that it will inspire them to live their biggest, boldest, brightest lives — to believe in themselves. Time will tell. And I will be there for them, encouraging them to follow their intuition.

Just please help me, never let me tell them that their eggs are getting old!

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