I grew up in man’s world. My father was Dean of Men at a small college. Our family lived in Morrison Hall (pictured below), right through that center door and straight back.
From the time I was seven until I turned 20, I was surrounded by 18-22-year-old-males. The smell of testosterone was so familiar that I never really noticed it.
Dad loved deaning. He needed it. In the dorm Dad ruled. One summer we left Bethany Beach a week early because Dad wanted to get back to the dorm. No matter that my mom, sister, and I enjoyed vacationing on the beach. He loved his work more.
The tide of testosterone dialed down a skoche when Dad stepped through the door that separated the dorm from our apartment. He sat at the head of the table facing Mom at the foot. Beverly and I, the girls, faced each other across the table as did our older brothers, the boys. Three males, three females. This balance was a visual illusion.
Dad’s preference for all things male flavored every part of life. I tasted it early and often. I knew Dad was busy, but noticed the way he made time with the boys — to putter on a car, play golf, or meet on the soccer field.
Dad loved games. He believed in the value of competition. The game How Will You Make Us Proud? was always in play at our house. It’s a small miracle that Beverly and I liked our brothers as much as we did. The parents held them up as examples of excellence at every turn.
- When the boys were your age they took calculus.
- When the boys were your age they had jobs.
- When the boys were your age they knew how to study, socialize, exercise, and change the oil in the cars they bought themselves — all at the same time.
As luck would have it, there were ways a girl could try to compete. Dad shared his expectations freely about how I should: keep my room, do my school work, practice piano, style my hair, and spend time with peers. But no matter how I tried, I lost more points than I gained. There was always something that was not quite enough about my efforts, about me. Appearance was an area of particular interest to Dad. You look tired. Your blouse is too tight/low/wrinkled. You’re slouching. You seem a bit wide in the hips.
He was confident in the value of his opinion. It boiled down to this:
Dream, but not too big. You’ll set yourself up for disappointment. Be attractive, but modest. Be interesting, but not brilliant. (You’ll intimidate men.) After all, Don’t you want to get married and have children?
Growing up in a man’s world I came to believe:
- I will never have a penis and so I will always be second rate, a disappointment.
- Points go to the woman who makes her voice, her dreams, and herself tame, quiet, and small.
- No woman lives bright & big and finds approval. When I figure out I am bright and have big dreams I entertain the idea of a lobotomy. Yes, really. Better to alter my brain than live with longing I’ll never realize.
- I am a wretched ingrate. I collect all of the game-approved points — finish college, get married, have children, support my man — and it is not enough. I am so depressed I want to die rather than get out of bed.
I am angry that I believed this. I would love to redeem every single megawatt of emotional and spiritual energy I burned to win approval from Dad and the males like him I’ve met.
Someone — a mentor, neighbor, sister, teacher, coworker, writer — comes into your story. In my experience it took quite a few someones. It feels strange and disorienting when you meet a game-changer. Like the first spring thaw after a lifetime of winter. A game-changer finds you delightful, has no desire to fix you, and celebrates all of the you’s you become. You are neither too much or not enough. With this someone you cry shamelessly. Breathe deeply. Laugh freely. It’s weird and incredible.
I met Ken. And my friend Lisa. And a literature professor. And my therapist. And the writers Henri Nouwen and Anne Lamott. And many more. It takes a village. But I’ll talk about Ken.
Ken is nothing like my dad. So I try to fix him! I’m so accustomed to criticism and never being enough, that after we marry I give Ken prompts: Don’t you think I’m a little overweight? Look, Ken, here in the belly. I have a roll that needs to go. I’d look better if I lost five pounds, right? I badger him to take up the game. But Ken does not need me to make him proud. Quietly, stubbornly, he resists all that I have learned and believed about men and approval. He does not want me to be tame, quiet, and small. He respects wild, loud, and large, so he says the beautiful words I shared when I started this series,
Game-changers refute the rules. Male privilege exists, but it is not acceptable. We are not meant to live in a Man’s World. We are meant to be an all-inclusive world. Thanks to Game-Changers, the anger generated by impossible games recedes. It is still large and dark, but you can look it in the eye. Examine it in the open. Recognize its lies. Figure out what it’s taught you. And decide how to use it to make your life more deeply and tenderly your own.
This is one essay in a series I’m writing about personal anger. Something happens when we tell our stories. Only when we face & frame our stories of anger can we process this difficult emotion and learn how it can serve us.
If I talk about my anger, maybe you will find ways to talk about your anger too.
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