For most of my life, I have been defined by what I am rather than who, even by myself. By “what” I mean by my relationships or functions rather than as an individual. I have always been the daughter, the wife, the mother and more recently, the widow and even the girlfriend. Most people seem to perceive me as an appendage to someone else. I think that may be because I have always been surrounded by strong characters, whilst I have tended to be the quiet one.
My father dominated every gathering he was part of. As his daughter, it was always understood where my place in such society would be. Such larger-than-life characters overpower all those around them, often, as with my father, unintentionally. He always thought of himself as a genial and well-meaning figure, but in reality, he demanded and always got his own way. My mother and I would never dream of contradicting him, although I have to point out that he was never a violent man, just supremely sure of himself.
Growing up I had no problems with that subservient role. To be honest, I didn’t know any better. My voice was rarely heard and opinions rarely sought, but that never concerned me. Not at the time at least. My father’s unequivocal assurance that he knew best meant I did not have to think too much for myself. Even into my adolescence and early adulthood, his steely determination and unshakable self-assurance guided my choices, such as they were.
Looking back, even my marriage was orchestrated by him, all-be-it a little sooner than he had planned. Marriage transferred my position in society from dutiful daughter to dutiful wife and mother. In retrospect, I think he saw my marriage as just one more deal to be struck, a contract to be fulfilled.
When I look back at this period of my life I wonder exactly what was going through my mind. I was not unintelligent and I did have a lively almost tomboyish spirit. So why did I let these two men dictate my life choices so willingly? Both my daughters, Charlotte and Emily, are fiercely independent and enjoy freedoms I didn’t even imagine were possible at their ages.
Of course, getting pregnant before I could finish my degree put me on a path that none of us had planned for. At least, not so soon. There was no way on God’s Earth I was going to be allowed to have my child outside of wedlock. That would have been far too great a scandal for either of my parents to bear, so I was married off in haste and Emily’s appearance in rather less than the expected 9 months conveniently overlooked and never talked about, at least not in the social circles that my father was cultivating with even greater determination.
Of course, I will always play the roles of the daughter and the mother, but becoming a widow left me slightly adrift. Without the anchor of being a wife, I was a little unsure of how to define myself. Taking on and running the art gallery gave me a taste of how things could have been. For the first time I was just me. Clients and customers saw me for who I was and not my relationships. I may have lost the business but I feel that I have retained that independence of spirit that it ignited in me. For the first time in my life I am doing what I want to do and am starting to believe that I can be the person I want to be.
It is not easy to cast off a lifetime’s conditioning. I was born into a society and family to whom position and standing were everything and to stand against that was neither anticipated nor tolerated. One did as one was told and made the best of the paths one was expected to walk. I look around me now and feel so much pride in the strength and determination being made by so many young women to make their own mark in this world. Whilst I was never unhappy with the hand I had been dealt, I am determined that I will never again be the “plus-one” in any man’s life. I am me. I am proud to be me and I am going to enjoy being me.
The picture featured with the post is by American artists Debra Cartwright. When I look into her eyes I see the kind of woman I want to be: strong, independent and self assured. This is a woman that no one is going to mess with. All Debra’s pictures have this same strength and style. There is no denying their femininity but there is an undeniable inner strength to them as well.