GIRL When I was a little girl, blonde, skinny, and silent, the messaging came from small moments when adults were just trying to teach me to be polite. I was to raise my index finger at the dinner table if I had something to say. Don’t interrupt. On the playground: wait your turn. To keep safe: don’t touch. At school: follow the rules. At nighttime: go to bed, stay in bed. It’s time to settle down. Simple words of instruction, correction, rebuke, sometimes kindly bestowed, other times snapped at me. I ingest them, incorporate them into the fabric of my being. I want nothing more than to please, to be a good girl, to be accepted. To do it right. To be welcomed. To be okay. I have a twin sister, thus from the very moment of my conception, I have always been part of a pair. A two-some, a dyad, each day a dance to discover the difference between who I am, and who people want “us” to be. Striving for independence feels wrong, uncharitable, a betrayal of my origins, and yet I feel a strain against the constraints of always negotiating with her needs. I learn to cater to someone else in the effort to be a good sister, keep the peace, clear the air, stop being so selfish. CHRISTIAN In high school, age 15, yearning to stretch my wings, test the waters of belonging outside of my immediate family, I become an evangelical Christian. My family are Christmas and Easter Christians despite the fact that my paternal grandfather, who died before I was born, was a Baptist preacher. Perhaps my father wanted to create a more permissive atmosphere in his family, and yet my sister and I both flock to Young Life, converted to its ways, like we could not escape our religious heritage if we tried. I am presented with new dictates that reorient what it means to be a “good girl.” I must save myself for marriage and convert others from their sinful ways. The consequences of my negligence are nothing less than eternal damnation. Adolescence becomes not a time of exploration but an opportunity for further taming. My flirtatious nature is shamed, flames of desire must be extinguished. I learn to become small. I try to become what is expected of me. I dwell in the disorienting marriage of being called to holiness alongside the realization of my total depravity. I am worthless without God, I am sinful, the desires of my heart wrong. The pressure to live up to His expectations crushing. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable. Make the most of every opportunity. May you always be doing those good, kind things. WOMAN I lose my father to cancer a few days before I turn twenty, my faith shaken beyond repair, all those desperate prayers unanswered, though I cling to it like a tattered security blanket for years, going through the motions though my heart is no longer in it. I begin to release my conservative ways, though their imprint still scars my heart, scrambling to figure out who I want to be now that Christian is no longer so defining. What does it mean to be a woman? The messages are no longer so clear, the rules not firmly delineated. They begin to contradict each other and I cannot figure out how to satisfy them all. I know that to attract male attention I should be sexy, but there are boundaries to that appeal, stray too far down that path and you become a slut. Women’s empowerment teaches me to be bold, but in the workplace, I sense they do not like my bossiness, that I should temper my ambition to something more suitable for a young woman. I should ask for what I want, people advise, but when I do, I’m told that it isn’t yet time, to wait, to be patient, my time will come. I was told to dream big, but in the real world, the message is: be content with what you have. MOTHER I’m now thirty and give birth to a child, and try desperately to align my experience with the expectations presented to me. Motherhood is the pinnacle, you’ve made it, now you can rest easy, you are truly a woman. Motherhood will fulfill you in ways nothing else will. But motherhood does not fulfill me, it depletes me. Motherhood requires everything of me and also nothing of me. There is no room for me in the role, all endless obligations, the needs that get satisfied never my own. I escape to yoga on the weekends, an hour here or there supposed to quench my thirst for the life I once knew. The demands are constant, never escaping my consciousness no matter how far I travel from their grasp. I want to keep working, but know that is not what a “good” mother would do if she has the opportunity to stay home. It’s just for a season, they say. You’ll regret it if you don’t. You don’t want to look back… You don’t want to miss out... It’s your job. It’s your duty. It’s a privilege. But it feels like a prison. I’m no longer sure I would have agreed to this if I had known that becoming a mother meant I would lose myself. REBEL I’m forty and wake up to the stiffness of my limbs after contorting myself into too tight boxes. I rebel against my existence, shuck off the words that have imprisoned me, decide to craft a life of my own, created by me, brick by brick, word by word. Everyone around me feels unsteady as I upend the life I’ve created for us, but I cannot go on in the same way. The previous terms were suffocating me. I vow to build a world I want to live in, one that shuns the patriarchal expectations that women must sacrifice and suffer, and instead allows them to thrive, to flourish, to be valued and cherished. A world in which women are worshipped, not for their selflessness but for their bigness, for their ability to claim their power. New words crescendo unheeded, a torrent of desire, a river that tumbles out of my mouth. Words to claim, words to embody, words to dwell within, words that create the very existence I desire. Unashamed. Messy. Loud. Selfish. Free. Enough. Complete. Beautiful. Powerful. Natural. Complicated. Creative. Greedy. Content. Intense. Satisfied. Joyful. Celebrated. Loved. Free. I indoctrinate my daughters with new words, different possibilities. With every show watched, every book read, I am annotating, revising, correcting the portrayals. You do not need to be a good girl. You do not need to be quiet. As we take walks, as I tuck them into bed, I fill their heads with possibilities, pour new foundations for their futures. Astonish me with how much space you can take up. How big you can be. How loud and messy and fast and ambitious and rude and too much. Be all the things. Be everything. You do not need to ask for permission. No one creates this world for us. We smash the old words to pieces every day. Together, we hold hands, firm in our worth and power, and say: We will not be small for your convenience.
About Cindy DiTiberio:
I am a writer and collaborator who has worked in publishing for twenty years. I am the publisher of Literary Mama and author of the Substack newsletter The Mother Lode. My writing has appeared on The Lily, Scary Mommy, The Brevity Blog, and The Voices Project. Before writing, I worked as an editor at HarperOne, a division of HarperCollins based in San Francisco for nine years before becoming a ghostwriter, collaborating on eleven books.