Your Unique Cultural Lens: A Guide To Cultural Competence

Layer 9: Gender and Sexuality – Example 2


UCL I’m not the woman I am supposed to be.

One side of my family featured the evangelicals, in which we lived the patriarchy up to and including advice to go home and ask your husband if you had a question about the Bible. The other side was a clear matriarchy supported by the incomes, inheritances and life insurance policies of husbands and fathers.

The church people wanted me home, submitting and raising children. The women who married men “with potential” wanted me home, enjoying the privilege that comes from being the wife of a rich man. The script was: grow up, get an education (lest your husband die), get married immediately, buy a house, have some kids, definitely stop working, live happily ever after.

Dutifully, I did it. I was near the top of my class at my very competitive high school, got a full-ride scholarship to college, started working full-time at a good job even before graduating. Meanwhile, I found a man who was a budding success from a solid family. Engaged at 21, married at 22, a homeowner at 25, earning a higher salary than my father ever had by 26 –  it all was going well on paper.

Yet it was also slowly dawning on me: this is not working. My husband and I loved each other but did not have a functioning partnership that could translate to a happy household much less healthy parenting. My idea of being a wife and his idea of having a wife were very different. His life plan changed and slowed; in tandem, I thought that if he wasn’t going to go to business school as planned, maybe I should. My random job became a career I was actively managing, with a paycheck that was consistently as big as his. In the process of trying to understand and fix my marriage, to crib a Gloria Steinem quote, I was becoming the man I wanted to marry.

My eventual divorce was the culmination and the beginning of many things, including my own personal gender role crisis. I am female, I wear the clothes they sell in stores for women, I am attracted to men, I have sex with men. None of that adds up to feeling like a woman when you’re 30 years old, newly single and off any life path you ever imagined or had described to you.

Only after years of reflection, a few “non-traditional” relationships and gaining a sense of peace in self-sufficiency have I come to some sense of what the hell happened, and what I want to do with my life, inside or outside the woman box I see out there in the world.

For me, the set-up of traditional gender roles was flawed from the start. Following through on the dogma and enculturation I grew up with required looking past the reality of my actual life, not just as a married adult but also as a child with divorced and only semi-functional parents and grandparents of both genders acting outside their roles to help fill in the gaps.

My mother’s father, in particular, knew the raw material I was dealt by genes and environment in no way assured my life would be a success, and he mitigated hard, raising me in God’s and his own image. Having hitchhiked from his family’s farm to the closest major city to put himself through night school, he was devoted to providing the ingredients he believed I needed to build a successful life. I was an extremely willing student, realizing only after he’d been gone for nearly two decades that what he was teaching me to be was a modern him: directed, dogmatic, sober, strategic, practical, successful. Not all of those adjectives are immediately compatible, and none of them describe the women I was supposed to be emulating, including his wife or daughter.

The model they and my other female relatives all generally subscribed to never really appeared to be a happy one, even through my child’s eyes. My mom made more money than my dad did when they started out; she was certainly smarter and resented being less successful after they divorced. My mother’s mother told me once in a low-oxygen trance that she regretted getting married and hadn’t been happy. My father’s mother lived alone, apparently very contentedly, for 40 years after her husband died. Were these the success stories I was aiming for?

Following the path as described also required an active dismissal of my own potential to succeed, both in the home and in the wide world beyond my middle-of-the-country upbringing.

While most people in my early life were either bemused or proud of my precociousness, they were also generally a little freaked – why can this little girl think faster than me? The brain that a friend once imagined “everyone is in love with” was not considered an asset. But it and a healthy dose of grit served me extremely well from the start and were hard to quash, even when I actively tried to do so.

My grandmother once said that I should become a lawyer and my cousin should marry one. Years later, still stung, I relayed this to a friend, and she instantly responded, well, she doesn’t think much of your cousin, does she? But that’s not what my grandmother meant. She meant I was smarter than I was pretty, more likely to succeed in business than in marriage. And, it turns out, she was right.

Finally – not that it matters much in cultures that have strict views of how women should behave – there is a question of interest. I am good at the guy stuff and slightly bored by the girl stuff. I love flowers, letterpress, earnings and loud dresses. I love business models, solid balance sheets, hearty meals and strong decisions more. Given the choice of gardening or a football game, I’d have flowers delivered to put by the TV. A close friend, a man who suffers from his sweetness like I suffer from my hard edge, asked me once, what’s with you and aggressive men? Well, I thought, to start with, I am one.

Throughout my childhood, American society, my home culture, my church and my family told me my worth as a woman was in my beauty, my presentation, my weight and my ability to be caring and accommodating to a husband, children and the community. Experience, the bulk of good advice I got from anyone (including my relatives) and plain old common sense told me I could have a happy – read: stable – life only if I could emote, communicate and, eventually, provide like a man.

So down an admittedly winding path, I became an “independent woman,” albeit one with some outstanding questions:

• How do I live happily with someone else when I was raised to be a flawless woman on the outside and a stoic man on the inside, effectively without humanity of any kind?

• How do I gauge when it’s to my advantage to use my training as a traditional woman versus my experience as a modern one, serving peach bellinis while entertaining my husband’s clients versus asking my assistant to make a steakhouse reservation for entertaining my own?

• How do I remain dedicated to building and tending family without that being my only identity?

• How do I build an amazing career having been imbued with zero career ambition whatsoever?

• Is there a way to reliably get jars open without a man present?

In some ways, all of this is moot once I physically or mentally leave my conservative homeland. The cultural idea of a woman in the 21st century is much broader than the conservatives or the religious want you to believe. On the other hand, as I actively work this paradox out for myself, I also am aware I’m living a life that, to many of the people I love most, is almost unfathomable.

The truth is that I want the best of both. I want to bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan, and invite who I want to a dinner I cook and serve at a table that I head. Doing so happily will require continued and continual work to understand myself, what society makes of it and how those can intersect in ways that are generative.