Because I grew up in a single parent family led by a strong and confident woman I am strong willed and independent. Had my husband, Mike, not been nurtured by a mother who was an equal to mine in her commanding presence he might have struggled with my personality after we married forty eight years ago today. I suppose that the real me may have been a bit of a surprise to him. I was a month shy from being twenty years old on that Friday when I walked down the aisle to exchange vows. We were still in that tingly romantic stage of our relationship. Both of us were on our best behavior. As so often happens our true selves ultimately revealed themselves in the day to day routines that evolved and Mike noticed that I was not exactly the person that he thought I was.
I’m a daunting competitor who likes to win. Since nobody ever mentioned to me that women are expected to fulfill certain roles and that we are supposed to struggle in a man’s world, as a young bride I simply threw myself full force into handling the household and preparing for a career. I was not held back by beliefs that there were glass ceilings above me or that I wouldn’t get as fair a shake as the men with whom I interacted. I carried on the way my mother did after my father died, unafraid to try almost anything. Of course Mike had unwittingly provided me with the last bit of courage that I needed to emulate the confidence that I had always seen in my mom. I had been socially shy and uncomfortable around men before I met him mostly because I had not been around males very much. Mike taught me that I could hold my own with a man and he admitted at every turn that he was my biggest fan. With him in my corner I felt able to tackle any problem that came my way, which was fortunate because I would have to muster great courage to become a lifelong advocate for my mom when she began to show signs of her bipolar disorder.
As I evolved in my marriage and my role as a woman I had perhaps the two best role models possible in my mother and my mother-in-law. I witnessed both of them walking without fear into the fray of what was at that time a truly male dominated world. They encouraged me to follow my dreams no matter where they might lead. My mother-in-law in particular gave me the priceless gift of her time, often rescuing me when one of my children was sick by coming to babysit while I went to work. When I had a job that kept me at work until late in the evening she faithfully came to my home each afternoon so that my youngsters would not have to be latchkey kids. She prepared dinner to give me a break when I arrived home exhausted. While these may sound like very traditional womanly duties they came accompanied with profound advice that kept me feeling that I was doing the right thing in pouring myself so totally into my work.
Then there was Mike who never complained when I became absorbed in the many time consuming aspects of being a successful educator. My days and nights and weekends were filled with planning, grading, attending seminars, and working toward an advanced degree. I often spent more time with my students and our daughters than I did with him but he understood my need to perfect my craft and to give my all to the work that I thought to be so important. He took pride in my accomplishments and supported me without question even as he sometimes sacrificed his own needs. To this very day when I become involved in new pursuits his only bit of caution is that I do what makes me happy, not what I think that other people may want.
I suppose that the key to the success that Mike and I have achieved in our marriage is that we are truly best friends in every sense of the word. Neither of us has ever felt that one is superior to the other. We equally value the contributions that each of us has made to the partnership. While I compete with the world at large, neither of us feel compelled to outrank the other. We are truly coequals, each with different skill sets that are important to the family. There are no jealousies or fears. We can be ourselves and feel completely safe. Nothing in forty eight years has given either of us reason to believe that we cannot trust the other without reservation. Ours is a union of mutual respect and admiration.
I suppose that my circumstances have been fortunate in that my brand of feminism is a bit different from most. I did not grow up around domineering men, instead I watched a widow woman earn a college degree, work as a teacher and researcher, purchase and pay for a home, raise three well adjusted children and lead a profoundly happy existence all without assistance from a man, while also battling the horrifically debilitating symptoms of mental illness. I married a man who gave me total freedom in determining how I wanted to use my own talents and then became my most devoted cheerleader. As if that wasn’t enough to encourage me to be formidable in my interaction with the world, my mother-in-law became a source of limitless wisdom as I drew upon her experiences as the manager of a family electrical business, the chief financial officer of a mega church, and a well read student of history and politics. Based on the complaints that I hear from women today I suppose that I was too blessed and too ignorant to realize that I was not supposed to feel as equal to men as I always have.
I grew up in what is defined as a classically dysfunctional family. We were poor and had no father. Because of my mom’s optimism and strength, somehow the situation never felt that terrible. I married a man when I was too young to have enough sense to make things work but our love and respect for one another carried us through both triumph and tragedy year after wonderful year. My incredible mother-in-law served as a sounding board and a sterling example of what a determined woman might accomplish even when all of the world is telling her that she may not have the right stuff. These are the people that I knew and the privileges that I had that made me the woman that I am. As daunting as the world may sometimes be I have always been able to tackle it. The real key to my success as a woman has not been in having some kind of special sources of influence, because I have never had any, but in being valued and loved.