I am, for better of worse, a mixed product of expectations I have to myself, and those given to me by society and by my parents. Maybe particularly those I received from my mom growing up.
A couple of years ago, we were walking around the town where I had started a small advertising sales agency right out of college. “Mom, on the top floor of this building was my business office.” After telling her a few more details about what it was like to start a small business as a young woman, she replied with wonder: “Jeez, I never knew you did all that back then.” “But mom, I told you all about it— and I don’t remember that you ever encouraged me.” She got quiet in the way she gets when I hit her with a memory that hurts. We kept walking a bit.
Then it dawned on me.
Back then, the fact that I, her daughter, was an entrepreneur scared her. She had wanted me to go into a traditional women’s line of work and not put on my Amazonian warrior shield and go out and battle on men’s turf. She had encouraged me to become a teacher, a nurse, or a secretary. She wanted me to be able to take care of myself, but the most important thing for the stability of my future, as she had seen it, was to get married and get settled. Being a female business owner did not fit her interpretation of what would make a good wife. I asked her:
“Mom, what if I had been your son?Would you have been supportive of me then? Would you then maybe even have been proud of me?” My mom became pensive as we walked on. I could tell that love and regret, in that specific mix that I know so well from my own parenting mistakes, were radiating from her. Finally she broke our silence: “Oh yes, Marie. If you had been a boy, I would have been proud.”
Feelings of injustice flooded me. It took me a few days before I found appreciation for her courage to be honest with me. Her truth stung.
It was when I realized that she had tried her best to protect me that I learned something about how expectations had shaped her, and how they, in turn, had also shaped me without either of us being aware of it. She had been shaped by a culture that fed constant messages to her about how ambitious, visible, feisty, and independent women were a turn-off to men. Such women did not have good chances of getting married. “Good” potential husbands wanted smart, well-educated, beautiful, demure, and classy women. They did not want competitors.
When my mom had me in the early 60s, she lived in a world, where women were socially encouraged to be domestic goddesses. Although she worked as a teacher and my father encouraged it, she felt the expectations to women all around her as a pressure. She felt that she did not measure up to the ideal because she didn’t fit the domestic mold since she worked.
Back then, women were valued for staying behind the picket fence of suburbia wielding newly acquired kitchen appliances. They were encouraged to keeping their offspring tidy and cooking delicious dinners for their husbands. After the kids were sent off to bed, they were expected to change into dutiful sex kittens in the bedroom where copies of Master’s and Johnson’s findings on orgasmic fulfillment competed for space on the nightstand with the King James Bible. Inner conflict and silent rage were dulled with evening cocktails, pills, and occasional shopping sprees.
In the world my mother grew up in, women had to be to be likable. Without a husband, life was tough. Seen as “spinsters” or “old maids,” unmarried women were treated with suspicion or pity. These women were excluded from the fellowship of nuclear families that offered perceived stability and strength in the culture emerging from the ashes of the Great Depression and WWII. It was a society, whose populace was often affected by lingering PTSD and internalized fears from the past; a society that existed increasingly in the fearful shadow of the Cold War.
A little over fifty years ago, in the mid-1960s, women could not get a credit card without their husband’s consent and approval, they were unable to attend Yale University, and could not participate in the Boston Marathon. For the thirty percent of women who worked outside of the home, they made about fifty-nine cents to a man’s dollar. Out of five hundred-and-thirty-five members of Congress, only about a dozen were women. Women could not use birth control in many states, even if they were married, and could not refuse to have sex if their spouse insisted. You were unlikely to have a female doctor, minister, or see women in any positions of power. A woman could not work if she was pregnant, could not report sexual harassment in the workplace, and getting a divorce was costly, humiliating, and difficult.
For my mom, all these memories were quite recent back then in the 1980s. The expectations and the pressures felt in her lifetime made her worry about the well-being of her daughter. I was blind to her concerns back then, but I realize now that they shaped me nonetheless in unspoken ways. I felt shameful about being my own boss just as often as I felt empowered by it. I felt I had to fight for my right to be seen, and that I was still never really good enough. I partied a bit too much on the weekends to dull my confusion.
The first time a woman was elected as governor of a state was in 1975, and until 1995, no woman had ever served as CEO for a Fortune 500 company. Even today, less than five percent of Fortune 500 CEO’s are women, and only one out of five members in Congress are women.
Still, today’s women have many legal advantages over those of our mothers and grandmothers. The expectations however, passed on to us as women, shape us in ways that hold us in double-bind ambivalence about our ability to step forward, step up, and be in positions of power. Of course, there is also the small detail that women are still expected to be the main caregivers to children and the ones who stay on top of getting food on the table and keeping the house clean.
Popular gender research seeks to make the case that men are from Mars and women from Venus, that there are significant differences in the ways male and female brains operate, and that there are biological reasons for why women are less adept to being in leadership positions.
The vast majority of research on differences between the sexes however (that gets little to no attention in the press), makes clear that there are in fact only minute differences in the way that female and male brains work, and that the differences often overlap and become statistically meaningless.
The main differences between the sexes are cultural and based on expectation, peer pressure, and conditioning. Both men and women are constantly flooded with direct and indirect messages and expectations about who we are and how we are supposed to act. And these messages cement and maintain stereotypes.
On the pages of a recent People Magazine, Kanye West had taken his little son off to a sports game, while Kim Kardashian brought their daughter to a fashion show. The boy was in rough-and-tumble sports attire getting ready for to participate (active), the little girl was dressed in a shiny, sequined, bare-midriff outfit including trendy props striking a sexy pose to let others admire her (passive).
Our actions continue to create expectations that we communicate silently and implicitly to ourselves and to future generations.
My mother’s honesty that day was a gift. It helps me identify and separate expectations I have to myself and those I receive from those around me. After all, becoming aware is the best thing anyone can do to choose between that which we want to live up to and that which no longer serves us.