2 – How I Helped Change the World

Not too long ago, one of my favorite people – a friend’s fifteen-year-old daughter – asked me if I had ever wanted to have children.

I don’t remember how we got on the subject.  She is a unique young woman, bright and pretty, interesting and interested in the world.  She has three siblings and her family is one of those families I always dreamed about.  They socialize with one another, support one another, celebrate each other’s highs and commiserate the lows.  And they love the children.  All the children – their own, their stepchildren, the nieces and nephews, the grandkids and soon-to-be-born great grandkids that they’re hoping for.

I told my young friend that I had never wanted to have kids.  I gave no further explanation.  She went on to tell me that whenever she voices that same sentiment, people tell her “you’ll change your mind.”  She is obviously troubled by the response.  People told me the same thing, and it troubled me, too.  So I said, “you just might change your mind, and if that happens, it’s okay.  But it’s also okay if you don’t.”  She seemed comfortable with the response, as though she may not have considered both options.

When I first voiced my feelings about the course my life would take without children, people responded with shock, or perhaps fear that a change was coming.  That was a long time ago, but it was the beginning of what my generation touted as a time of social change.  We broke the rules to change the rules, protested the war in Viet Nam, demonstrated for human rights, and fought for equal rights for women.  The idea of feminism brought all kinds of women to the fore.  The term “glass ceiling” came into being.  Equal pay for equal work was on the table.

While all this was going on, I was working, doing equal work for less pay, but I was on a career path that would last a lifetime.  I didn’t think much about the activists who championed the women’s movement of the 1970s.  I was too busy trying to succeed in a man’s world.

I remember the disdain I had for the label “feminist.”  Even as a woman, I didn’t understand what the Gloria Steinems of the world were ranting about. Eventually I would learn firsthand what they already knew.

Every year when I lobbied my boss for a raise in pay, he reminded me that I “earned pretty good money for a single woman.” The pressure from my family to conform became so uncomfortable for me that I withdrew from most of the gatherings where I was sure to hear “aren’t you married yet … aren’t you ever going to have children?”  When I went to buy my first house in 1979, lenders stifled their laughter as they politely showed me the door.  Eventually, I bought my own place with the help of a woman Realtor and one of the area’s few, if not the only, female loan officers.

I was so busy running the obstacle course of being a single woman in a man’s world that it never occurred to me that my actions might somehow make it easier for the young women of the future.  I assumed that one day young women would not feel a compulsion to fit into a predetermined silhouette of womankind.

While I was glad that my young friend felt free to speak up and express her thoughts about having children, I was disappointed that she was met with an almost identical reaction as I was so many years ago.

I know her family will love her and accept the choices she makes, even if she chooses a direction different than their own.  Part of that is because they are loving and accepting people, especially when it comes to their children.  But part of it is because a long time ago, young women like me began to change the role of women in the world.

I can empathize with my fifteen year old friend who is starting to think about her future as a woman, as a professional, and maybe – or maybe not – as a mother.  But more than anything, I am glad that she lives in a world where she has options and she is free to explore them.

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