Friday, September 20, 2013

What It Feels Like To Be a Woman

My senior year in high school I rode the bus to school on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. But not on Tuesdays. On that one day of the week, my friend Michelle was allowed to drive her parents' car to school. She'd pick up me and a couple of our other friends (both of whom were named Jen), and we'd head over to the local greasy spoon for breakfast before driving to school.

One morning as we waited for our check to arrive we began distractedly creating a pile from various things from the table, while simultaneously continuing to be engrossed in our conversation. We started with the large, metal-topped sugar container and then added knives and forks, packets of jam, etc., until we had created a "sculpture" of sorts in the center of our table. We pronounced it a work of art and decided it needed a title. Someone suggested "What It Feels Like To Be a Woman," and we all laughed.

The joke was twofold. On the one hand, we were playing with the idea of art and what it means for something to be a work of art. If you pile a bunch of things on a table and give it a fancy name, does that qualify? The other part of the joke is that we were teenagers, on the cusp of womanhood but not fully in it. We were sitting in this restaurant drinking coffee and calculating the tip, but the experience of doing such things on our own, without grownups, still had a hint of novelty about it. We hadn't named our creation "What It Feels Like To Be a Teenage Girl" or "What It Feels Like to Become a Woman." We'd dubbed it "What It Feels Like To Be a Woman"—and what, really, did we know of that?!

Looking back on it now, I think we knew more than we realized.

What lay in store for us four? One of the Jens would enter womanhood early and leave it abruptly. She grew up fast, becoming a mother at a young age, and then, tragically, died early of breast cancer. The other three of us followed the more gradual route of college, marriage, and kids. I've lost touch with Michelle, but I know that the other Jen and myself have experienced joy and success, but also challenges and loss. Tremendous loss. Because life's like that.

I've been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a woman. I'm watching my almost-teenage daughters move toward womanhood while bumping against various cultural notions of femininity, beauty, sexuality, and the like. Meanwhile, my mother is at a different stage of life, railing against the long-term effects of the wage gap, as well as her diminished employability as an older woman in the job market. And me? I'm in the middle, wrestling with the societal myth of the Good Mother and struggling to find that elusive balance between work, family, and self, with limited success.

A cluttered pile of restaurantware as a metaphor for womanhood? To be honest, it doesn't seem that far off.

Fast forward approximately 30 years from the day of the What It Feels Like To Be a Woman sculpture and you'll find me sitting at restaurant table again, with three different female friends. This time, we are four adult women who met, over a decade earlier, at a maternity exercise class that we all took when we were pregnant for the first time. We are an eclectic group—diverse in ages, interests, and personalities—but we are bonded by our shared experience of passing through the various stages of motherhood together. We haven't done a great job of staying in touch. When our children were younger, we got together regularly, but then life got in the way. We got busy. We grew apart. This get-together in the restaurant is actually the first time we've all seen each other in years.

In the years since we all did the grapevine together with large, round bellies, we've had our share of hard knocks. Between the four of us, we've dealt with divorce, job loss, and ill and aging parents, among other challenges. One of us even had her entire house destroyed by a tornado! So what do we do when we get together? We put it all out on the table. We pile it up, piece by piece, until the collective thing that emerges begins to take on a coherent shape that could almost be called beautiful.

Beauty is eye of the beholder, as they say. I am a woman who was born at a particular time in history—an age marked by materialism, sexism, and a whole range of other isms. I am a product of both privilege and oppression. I am a friend of women. I accept my life for what it is, while at the same time working toward something better … for myself, for my daughters, for all of us. And I am still doing what I have always done—sitting at the table with other women, contributing my portion of stuff to the pile, and calling it art. I have yet to come up with a better strategy, and I suspect I never will.

Image courtesy of criminalatt at


  1. What a great post. Aren't women-friendships the best? They sustain us during our toughest times. Thanks for this reminder :)

  2. Thank you for reminding me of a morning I forgot, and transporting me back to a time when the world was ours for the taking. Women-friendships truly are the best (even when you are 17, and just "think" you are already a woman!) -Jen

  3. This is so beautifully written and so timely for me. Thank you for writing this and thank you, Jen, for sharing this.