woman walking behind toddler

Mother May I

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the concept of permission, as it relates to being a woman. In my lifetime there has been a tremendous shift in the paradigm away from McCarthyist homemaker to defining for oneself what your idea of being a woman truly is.

There is this hangover, though. There are leftover feelings of anxiety in the wake of what we were taught to be versus what actually feels authentic. Bridging that gap is complex at best. We want to be all the things: be the good mommies and partners we were taught to be during our formative years, have killer careers, leave miserable marriages, raise amazing kids, make choices that consider our own happiness and wellbeing at least as often as that of those in our care.

My transition to adulthood was arrested by the death of my mother. In so many ways, I feel frozen at 22. That’s as close as I can come to describing the experience of losing the anchor for your self concept at such a momentous time in life. I was just barely a woman; all bravado, intellect, energy and hope. Then silence. I had it all mapped out and then the rug was out from under me. I struggled for years to find stasis.

I acted a fool in every way possible for a very long time. I mean, behind the scenes fool. I went back to Brown like a good girl and finished my degree early and with honors. I went to law school like an even better girl and muscled my way through an absurdly difficult curriculum on sheer memorization alone. But in the wee hours, I was so very naughty. There was this thrill of getting it all done. There was also no one to call me out. I kept testing this theory of “what happens when I do the very most aberrant things imaginable, will she show up then??” That won’t make sense to many of you. It made perfect sense to me at the time.

Once I had emerged from the other side of the Tunnel of Self Defeat (Juris Doctorate in hand don’t worry), I soon met and married my ex, spent the better part of a decade pregnant and raising my kids mostly alone, and did my very best to swing the pendulum all the way to the other end of the spectrum. This was the counter balance. I could do it all, reenact my mother’s life to conjure her in some way. It was a fucked up time in a different way. Neither role seemed to fit. In my head the whole time I heard her words of caution: “Don’t be like me. Have a huge career, go after everything, never be beholden to a man.” She spoke five languages and held an advanced degree in math. Those are about the least interesting things about her incidentally. But she elected to stay home with us while my father became the Micro-Engineering Master of the Universe. He was unstoppable, writing patent after patent. She dedicated all her energy to us and to making a truly beautiful life for the entire clan.

Once all the truly terrible stuff happened in the later years of my marriage, which I can’t elaborate on too much yet, I was left with some choices. I was at a major crossroads in my life, and each decision took on a new and novel gravity. This is where I come back to permission.

Women have a difficult time giving themselves permission to figure what really makes them happy. With most of the absolute shit that comes with losing your mother at a young age, there are a few silver linings. I have been my own judge and jury for more than half my life. My father and I had a very close relationship, and he was my protector until the day he died in 2021. Yet both of my parents were unique in that they instilled in us at a very early age the concept of agency. My opinion mattered from my earliest memories when I was four years old. I was always asked what I thought, and given equal time though I was the youngest and only daughter. Add to that living more than half my life without my mom’s counsel, opinions, or preferences and permission is not a concept that I get hung up on.

I realize that is uncommon. I have such compassion for the idea that many women are trying their best to please everyone around them. The ‘kin-keeping,’ the silent work of women that goes unacknowledged by all but those other women who also move like ninjas to make it all seem so easy, it is second nature to us. How can we then give ourselves permission to step away from that indentured servitude, to allow space for more?

I only know my path, and do not stand in judgment of anyone for the decisions they make. I truly believe most of us are doing our best. I have found the idea of permitting oneself to want more, to want to be more, feel more, laugh more- fascinating. I am nearly envious of the life where I had someone I felt I needed to ask permission from, someone I respected so much that without their blessing I couldn’t move forward. Perhaps that’s me seeing greener grass on the other side of the fence. I just know over here I make the rules.

I am giving you permission to make yours.

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