Changing the Female Narrative is Going to Happen at Brunch… Not the March
Single, never married, no kids, and just turned 37. If I was a guy this would be an ideal Bumble profile, but for a woman it’s more likely to be the opener of a bad cat lady joke. I’ve been preparing for this birthday since January, with self pep talks and affirmations. You know, just in case I spontaneously combusted into an emotional meltdown the day after I turned 37. Because, when even your imagination is working against you, it’s best to be prepared. So, over the spring, I hunkered down for a totally non-existent self-manifested yet-to-happen storyline. A reaction that completely countered a promise I had made to myself a while back, which was to applaud diverse female narratives.
It all started on a trip to Mozambique a few years ago. I was in my early 30s and jet-setting around the world for work. It was my first trip to Mozambique — a new adventure! I must have been ecstatic right?! Nope. Instead of being excited, I spent that flight shielding my eyes so no one could see my tears (Pro-Tip: Do not watch The Fault in our Stars in a pressurized cabin surrounded by strangers). I’d love to blame my movie decisions for my chagrin, but truthfully I was at the end of one of the most annoying dating tropes that exist and still pretty raw from the experience.
Ladies, we all know this one:
He’s intrigued by your “independent” nature. You vibrate at the frequency of Lin-Manual Miranda playing Alexander Hamilton — high energy and nonstop. He balances better with the “Talk less, Smile More” Burr types (For the Gen Xers out there aka Mr. Big’s Natasha) so he wasn’t really on your radar. You are flattered but try to explain that you don’t see the fit. Your dismissiveness only piques the intrigue and the charm kicks into high-gear. Despite knowing exactly where this rabbit-hole goes you decide to let your feisty-self run carefree. Then, like clockwork he goes from 100 to 10. First, the slow retreat. Then the “this is a lot” line. You are left incredulous going, What? I told you that — you are the one who started this whole thing in the first place! You have got to be kidding me…
I digress, back to Mozambique!
Stylish and exuding joy, she bounded over to welcome us. She was one of the few women working on a highly male dominated oil company campus and embodied the confidence needed to get things DONE. Over the two days we spent traveling to project sites, we got a chance to get to know one another. Her family was Muslim, her parents fairly traditional, and she lived at home. She wanted to make deals and travel the world. She was dating the love of her life, but he was Christian and their families didn’t exactly approve. They were trying hard to make it work. I was born in Egypt and moved to a small town in Iowa at the age of one. I left home for college and have been living on my own since. I loved my work and I got to travel the world with barely any hoops to jump through thanks to the privileges of a US passport. I was not a fan of indoctrination of any kind and I lived in a country where I had the freedom to voice that opinion as loudly as I wanted.
On our last night, she suddenly turned to me at dinner and asked, “How did you get out?”
Her words, heavy with meaning, smacked me out of my melodramatic funk. I realized that I was writing a story that many women on this planet can only dream about; yet somehow I was still measuring my life up to the same-old single story female plotline. My cheeks flushed, and I became self-conscious of my often forgotten privilege. Sure, I’ve had to battle my own cultural expectations, brush off a handful of hurtful stereotypes, and work through an identity crisis or two. I’ve had my share of heartache, loss, pain, and disappointment. Life has thrown more than a few curve balls, but in the grand scheme of things, these hurdles were small in comparison to what most women around the world have to deal with on a daily basis.
“The thing is, I didn’t really have to do that much. In this respect, I got lucky,” I sheepishly answered. My father, an incredible engineer, worked for an American company and was given the opportunity to transfer to the US. Yes, dropping me into the middle of a corn field in Iowa definitely played a big role in my ability to counter cultural expectations, but I also wasn’t exactly starting from scratch. My family in Egypt was secular, highly educated, cosmopolitan, and well-traveled. They were part of Egypt’s elite. Sure, women were expected to marry and inter-cultural marriage wasn’t in the lexicon, but back in the early 80s that pressure was more akin to a 1960’s New England conservative Protestant vibe than the far more extreme views that have swept across the country over the past two decades. My grandmother and her friends rode bikes to the pyramids in flowing floral skirts. My grandparents married for love and ran family affairs as partners. My mother’s generation wore micro-mini skirts with knee high boots. They grew up to become rock-star ambassadors, professors, deans, doctors, and business owners. In fact, it was actually in the Midwest that I found myself surrounded by a more subdued female narrative. “Midwest kind,” which was perfect for my introverted prim and proper mother, was a stark contrast to the boisterous, opinionated, and sassy women that I would find myself around when we visited Egypt. That was my grandmother’s Egypt… that was the Egypt I knew. This Egypt has become unrecognizable to me, but that is a story for another time. What this meant, however, was that I was already starting with more privileges than the average Egyptian because of the family I was born into. If I had been born just a few miles down the Nile in a small village or across the Red Sea — I would have faced hurdles that looked a lot more like the ones my new friend was facing (even if we had moved to the US).
After that day, I made a promise to myself. That I would be grateful for the story I had the fortune of writing. I promised to applaud diverse female narratives and push against the notion that a successful female story had to include marriage and children. I would remember that my ability to live my life in chapters instead of one single story arc is a gift. The gift of freedom. The freedom to wait for the right person; to consider which path is right for me. The choice to make my own mistakes, learn my own lessons, and write a storyline that is uniquely my own. A few months later, I had the opportunity to activate that promise. I was moving to a new city and there were many brunches to be had to celebrate this new chapter. Somehow, without fail (usually around mimosa #4) one of my girlfriends would say “This is it! Life is moving you there because he is there.” We were living in a culture that allows us to write any story we wanted and somehow we were still wed to a single narrative. At the same time, I started to notice that the conversations I was having with my guy friends sounded very different. They were primarily filled with speculation around Chicago’s ability to become the next great tech innovation hub, Elon Musk’s newest schemes, or that million-dollar idea we were totally going to have this year.
I realized then that changing the female narrative was not going to happen at a march — it was going to happen at brunch. If we wanted to write our own unique stories, we needed to examine how we define success as women. So I began to share my Mozambique story and the promise I made to myself, anytime the inevitable “he is there” comment came up. I challenged my friends to consider the message we were giving one another (and their young daughters) if we continued to make “guys” the epicenter of every chapter’s narrative. How was that going to set us up to feel empowered to write any story we wanted to?
Fast forward to 2017. At this point, you are probably wondering how I found myself anxiously awaiting the proverbial wall to hit at 37 after all that talk and all those promises. Maybe it was having several of my married male friends asking me the fun “don’t you want to be married or have kids?” question this year. Or maybe it was witnessing so many friends deal with soul crushing fertility battles. Or perhaps it was that damn “You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story” refrain from Hamilton that did me in (Who’s going to tell my story??!!). Whatever it was, by April I had worked myself into a frenzy and completely forgotten my promise. So of course, life sent me a reminder. In the form of… you guessed it, my least favorite dating trope. You might be thinking, “This time she skillfully steered away from the rabbit-hole. Right?” Wrong. (Come on! The world was burning and something glimmered like a tiny bit of hope? Wheeee!) Down the hole I went. Luckily, I did belay myself with a bungee cord of skepticism for a rapid catapult out, but the damage was done and I didn’t stick the landing. I was beyond disappointed in myself. I felt like a fake. All those promises — empty. All my talk of applauding unique narratives and there I was reaching for something that wasn’t right for me. A quick fix to the impending “you are not where you should be” turmoil that I feared would consume me the minute I turned 37-years-and-one-day-old.
Thank goodness for soul sisters who lovingly reminded me that hoping for a certain outcome doesn’t negate being a champion of diverse female narratives. They are not mutually exclusive. The key is to live graciously in the story you are writing regardless of where it takes you. The thing is, diversifying our narrative is not always easy. As women, our plotlines are always going to be nuanced and complex. If we are truly going to lead the discussions on the issues that uniquely impact us, we must first engage with one another and collectively applaud diverse narratives. We need to have these conversations with friends but also try to reach across the aisle. To come to the table ready to hear stories that may not always resonate with our own views. We should be open to embracing stories that contradict themselves. (We need to try to tell our Carrie to see her Natasha as a foil to learn from not compete with.) These real, raw, and honest discussions aren’t going to happen at the march, especially when a huge swath of women feel alienated by them. They are going to happen at brunch… and by brunch I mean… at community centers, book clubs, networking groups, and yes even at Thanksgiving. Lastly, we should engage the men in our lives who love and support us and share these stories with them. They may not be able to walk in our shoes, but there are incredible sons, fathers, uncles, spouses, friends, and co-workers out there who are willing to listen and engage in a dialog (even the uncomfortable ones). They are the men who will lead by example for the next generation of strong and compassionate men who will write their own unique narratives in a world that is changing and will continue to.
As for me? Well, I decided to launch a Women’s Podcast Club, a sort of abbreviated Book Club for busy women to share, learn, and discuss. I’m also happy to report that 37 came and the sun did indeed come out the next day! In the coming year, I’ve resolved to try to worry less about who is going to tell my story and more about writing a story worth telling.