‘That Girl’

Click on this link to hear the theme song and opening sequence: That Girl

I loved “That Girl.” I wanted to be Ann Marie, the lead character. She had great hair (I’ve written about my struggles with my hair before in Hair: Not Long, Not Beautiful). Hers was shiny and straight with a stylish flip at the bottom. Her bangs were perfect. My bangs always curled – the least bit of humidity or sweat and my bangs were history, just frizz and curls. She also had a cute figure, like a real-life Barbie doll. She had a boyfriend who was devoted to her, despite her sometimes-exasperating adventures. She was bubbly and had a great smile. She lived in Manhattan and her loving parents lived in a nice suburban house. Oh, why couldn’t I be her?!

I was seven years old when “That Girl” first started airing. It was on for five years. No matter what I did, my hair would not look like Ann’s. No matter what I did, my body was simply too thick. I come from Eastern European peasant stock, after all. The closest person, in real life, that I knew who met that ideal was my Dad’s cousin, Carol. Somehow the peasant stock was noticeably absent in Carol. She was petite and had fabulous hair that she wore in the same style as Ann Marie. She lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and she was a lawyer. I was in awe.

But, and this is big, she wasn’t married! While it is entirely possible she had a boyfriend, I was not aware of that as a child. This was a major problem, in my young mind. It confused me. According to my sophisticated world view, she should have either been married or had a steady boyfriend, since she was the epitome of what a woman should be.

The messages I received as a girl growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s were conflicting. I was paying close attention to the women’s movement and I bought in to the idea that women can and should have it all: career and family. That message turned out to be incomplete – maybe we could have it all, but not at one time. It was also unrealistic given the need for all of society to change – men, the world of work, families, our institutions. It was a tall order that hasn’t been fulfilled yet – 50 years later.

Even with those ideas about changing roles for women, my notion of romantic relationships remained quite traditional. I thought a woman should marry a man, have two children and a cat. The idea of having a cat may have been revolutionary, but otherwise, I was quite traditional.

I got the message that a woman should be attached, that something was amiss if she was without a husband. Even as a girl, I felt that pressure. I could not separate what was societal, familial or my own neuroses.

In my family, the dating status of single female adults was not spoken of. Generally, you had to be engaged to be married for the relationship to be recognized. And, while that is understandable, in terms of welcoming someone into the family, it doesn’t explain the silence on the subject. I took the silence to mean there was something wrong with being a single woman. In our extended family, there were a few who fell into that category. Oddly enough, there was only one single male, my Uncle Mike, and it was understood that he certainly wanted to be married (which he did, eventually). We had no ‘confirmed bachelors.’ In retrospect, I wonder if the silence around the women who weren’t married was more about wanting to avoid any conversation about sex.

All of this contributed to my great fear that I would not marry. If Carol wasn’t married, pretty as she was, how would I ever ‘catch’ someone. Why, as an adolescent, was I preoccupied by this fear?

I remember a conversation I had with my brother when we were teenagers. For a couple of summers, Mark and I worked at the same summer camp. One time there was talk on the girl’s side about a counselor, Robin, coming back to her bunk with grass on her back and in her hair. There was some joking and teasing about who she had been with. Rumor had it that she was with my brother. That was weird for me to hear. Some brothers and sisters may talk or joke about their dating lives, but that was not the case in our family. After hearing the scuttlebutt, alone with my brother, I asked him if he thought Robin liked him. He responded that he hadn’t really thought about it.

That was an ‘aha!’ moment for me. He hadn’t thought about it!! That is all I would have been thinking about. It was all I ever thought about when it came to guys: does he like me? Not, do I like him? I would worry about that once I knew that he liked me! Now, my brother may be unusual, actually, I know he is unusual. But I do think there was something to this. I spent endless hours with friends parsing words, body language, tone of voice to determine if the guy was interested. While I don’t doubt that guys were concerned with whether they were liked, I think their priorities were elsewhere – like: What’s for dinner? How did the Mets do? When would they next have sex? Maybe that is an overstatement, but I think there’s truth to it.

So much of my self-worth hinged on whether there was a guy interested in me. Or at least that’s what I thought during my teenage years and well into young adulthood. The irony is I came to learn that having a boyfriend or husband didn’t fix that self-worth issue. As author Anne Lamott said in her recent TED Talk (which I highly recommend watching here), that is an ‘inside job.’ No outside validation can silence the persistent voice in your head that tears you down. You have to find a way to do that yourself.

 

 

 

 

Anger

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Is it socially acceptable for women to express anger? I have thought about this forever– long before Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was called to task for dropping the f-bomb in frustration the other day. My first reaction to Senator Gillibrand’s outburst was, “Way to go! You tell ‘em, sister!”

Anger is a mysterious emotion to me.  As a girl and then as a woman, it was/is difficult to express. There is a caveat to that. I have had no problem expressing anger with my mother or my husband. Aren’t they lucky?! While they might prefer it be otherwise, I choose to think of it as a mark of how comfortable I am with them. They are the recipients of the full range of my emotions. That is the positive spin I’m putting on it and I’m sticking with it. (Perhaps I’m letting myself off too easily.)

My children might say that I freely express anger with them, too. (Leah and Dan, you can take this opportunity to offer your first public comments on this blog, if you wish.) That may have been true when they were children, but it is much more complicated now that they are adults. The truth is, I don’t often get angry at them. More frequently I can be hurt or frustrated, emotions which are also difficult to express.

Which brings me to the question: what is anger? Isn’t it the result of fear, frustration or hurt? Is anger actually a separate thing? Turns out these aren’t original questions, as the image below reveals.

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I reflect on my Dad’s temper (which I wrote about previously here) when we were growing up.  I think 95% of the time his anger was a manifestation of frustration. Driving the car in New York City traffic, where other drivers did dumb things, where rubbernecking could cause endless delays, where the Van Wyck Expressway was under construction for my entire life, the aggravation sent him over the edge. Add Mark teasing me, telling me I was adopted or calling my shoes canoes, and me responding by hitting him or whining to my parents; it was a toxic mix. “Don’t make me pull over!” he screamed. Dad’s voice was deep and intense – in a small space like the car, the sound reverberated. We got in line quickly. Until the next provocation.

It also seems that some people are born angry. I don’t know if that was the case with my dad, but it seemed to be the case with my son. Perhaps it was low frustration tolerance, or over-sensitivity, but Dan was angry a lot. If something didn’t taste the way he expected, or if a fabric was rough on his skin, he objected strenuously. Gary and I tried various strategies to help him manage it and find outlets for it. I wouldn’t presume to speak for Dan, but by the time he was in high school he seemed to have a much better handle on it.

For me, anger was often expressed in tears and sometimes when I least wanted them. I couldn’t cry in grief, but I could cry in anger.

I was working for the City of Pittsburgh’s Finance Department in 1984. Computer systems were being implemented and there was resistance from staff. One of my jobs was to train the city’s auditors on the new system. The audit department was comprised of about 15 men (zero women), who had been doing their jobs, on average, for more than 10 years. I was 24, right out of graduate school, from New York City and Jewish. And, at that time many of the Finance Department employees, even in the audit department, only had a high school diploma. I was an outsider for many reasons and my message of change was very unwelcome.

I walked the group through the new system. I don’t remember exactly how it started to devolve, but it became a gripe session. They vented all of their anger and frustration on me. The department supervisor, a man at least 30 years my senior, stood by silently. I almost wondered if he was taking pleasure in the display, after all it was directed at me, not him. I tried to stand my ground, explaining how this was a tool to help them, explaining how I was not the decision-maker here but the messenger, how I would share their concerns with the higher ups. After a while, although I was angry, I got shakier and shakier, my voice cracking. Eventually some tears rolled down my cheeks. I wished I could have channeled my father’s rage. Finally, mercifully, the session was over.

I went to my office to collect myself. Then I went to see my boss, the treasurer. I told him he might hear some things about the training session and I wanted him to hear it from me first. While at that point I was composed, I was still shaky. The one thing that came from that meeting was that he spoke with the audit supervisor about his failure to step up and help, given that he was a member of the management team.

A few days later, I ran into one of the auditors on the staircase. He apologized for his behavior, explaining that I was the unfortunate recipient of their built-up frustration. I accepted his apology, but something about it made me uneasy. I felt like he was patronizing me. He was one of the most aggressive offenders at the training session –  his last name was Heckler.  Unbelievable! How appropriate.

It wasn’t the first time and it wasn’t the last time that a workplace experience played out that way. If I felt that my integrity was in question or if criticism was unfair, it resulted in tears, rather than anger. I hated that about myself. Fortunately, the circumstances didn’t arise very often. I was in my late 40’s when I finally could stand my ground without tears.

Actually, standing my ground in the workplace, even without the tears, didn’t work out that well either. I never did figure out how to successfully express disagreement or frustration (if success is measured by changing minds of those in power).

As I got older and less concerned with what other people thought, I was freer in stating my opinion. This didn’t always go over very well. When I worked for the school boards association, if the organization was taking a position that I thought was not in the best interest of students or my fellow employees, I could be quite passionate in expressing my views. I wasn’t very effective in changing minds, which could reflect the weakness of my argument, or it could have related to how I delivered the message. I came to believe that it was at least partly because strong opinions expressed by a strong woman were not welcome.

Research, at least in one study reported on in Psychology Today,*  suggests that when women show anger, they lose credibility, while men gain credibility when they do. That finding is certainly consistent with my experience.

For both men and women anger is a tricky emotion to manage. But for women it seems to be a no-win situation. If you come across too strongly, it turns people off. If you are too meek, you get walked over or patronized. I don’t know how this will ever change, but I am hopeful that awareness is the first step.

*Salerno, J. M., & Peter-Hagene, L. C. (2015). One Angry Woman: Anger Expression Increases Influence for Men, but Decreases Influence for Women, During Group Deliberation. Law and Human Behavior, doi:10.1037/lhb0000147)

Nature vs. Nurture and Other Ruminations

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This is exactly what I’m afraid of!

When I was in college I remember having long conversations with my friends who were all psychology majors (I was the lone poli sci major in our group). We talked about all sorts of things, from our favorite Beatle to the meaning of life and everything in between. We discussed whether nature or nurture was more important. This was back in late ‘70s when it was still commonly thought that homosexuality was caused by overprotective mothering and autism was due to mothers who were cold and withheld affection. Fortunately we have come a long way in our understanding of those issues (at least most of us have).

We spent many a night in our dorm rooms puzzling over how we came to be who we were. I am still puzzling over that question, though, hopefully in a more informed way. At that time, I subscribed to the nurture side of the equation. I thought family life and surroundings were much more determinative of personality and the path that a person’s life took. I was preoccupied with how my parents shaped me. I saw myself as an uneasy combination of my mother and father – with less emphasis on the genetic aspect of that and more on their personalities and behaviors. Today I see them, genetics and behavior, as inextricably linked.

While we have a more nuanced view of the question of nurture vs. nature, I still think it is relevant to consider it. As a parent and as a society making policy choices, what we believe about this is important.

Data shows that if you are born into poverty, it is much more likely that you will remain there. So many factors play into that, but I certainly can’t accept that it is a genetic predisposition. Therefore, it behooves us to make public policy choices that can help change that cycle. If we look at a person’s health, nature may hold sway. After all obesity, addiction and all sorts of chronic illnesses have been shown to have a genetic component. Being born female or male also has a huge impact on the path a life takes.

Where does that leave us as parents and as a society?

Years ago when Gary and I were faced with some parenting challenges, we consulted with a child psychologist. He shared his belief that children were born with a certain temperament and that temperament could be thought of as a continuum – from easy going to extremely difficult. Children at either end of the spectrum faced challenges. Parenting strategies could help the child move a bit on the continuum, and help them cope, but we couldn’t change their temperament. I found that comforting (unlike the t-shirt pictured above!). Otherwise, it was scary to think we held so much power; better to understand that there were limits to our influence. While Gary and I provided the genetic material for Leah and Daniel, we certainly couldn’t control which ones! His view was consistent with what I was observing in my two children.

Leah and Daniel came into this world with very distinct preferences and personalities. Many of those characteristics were also consistent with general ideas about gender. Prior to having children, I thought most of what was considered ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’ was learned. Again, it is nearly impossible to disentangle the various influences, and my children aren’t a representative sample! But, I was amazed how some of their behaviors seemed to be classic sex-linked attributes from the get-go. Of course, from the get-go babies are learning, absorbing their surroundings – the colors on the walls in their rooms, the toys we offer, the tone of voice we use – all of which likely play a part in forming gender identity.

With that said, it seemed to me that Leah and Dan arrived defined to a larger extent than I anticipated. Leah was fascinated by people; Dan by objects. He was absorbed by the mobile over his crib, leaves shaking in the wind, cars and trucks barreling down the street. Leah was much more interested in faces. She craved interaction: singing, storytelling, cuddling. Dan liked to be read to, also, but would rarely sit still for it. Early on we wondered about his hearing because he often didn’t do the typical things that let you know he was attending to what was being said. He would appear distracted or tuned out. Over time we realized that in fact he was taking it all in. There are some amusing stories about that actually. Leah, on the other hand, made eye contact, she wanted you to know she was listening. She needed the feedback – she gave it and wanted it in return.

It is possible, of course, that these behaviors weren’t hard wired. Gary and I may have taught them to behave stereotypically, but it certainly wasn’t conscious on our part.

We didn’t offer toy guns to either Leah or Dan. When one of his uncles gave Dan a large plastic tank as a birthday present, Dan took to it immediately. He knew exactly what to do. He proceeded to use it to rumble around the house and blow things up. Dan also had his beanie babies wrestling! All of these activities were accompanied by the appropriate sound effects. Vroom! POW! In contrast, Leah would take her clothes out of her drawers, take the fabrics and rub them on her face. She loved soft textures against her cheek. Leah’s Bobbe, her paternal grandmother, had a shoebox full of fabric scraps, zippers, thread and other sewing paraphernalia (no pins, needles or scissors) that was a treasure trove to Leah. Dan showed no interest in that assortment of playthings.

We tried to baby-proof the kitchen cabinets (emphasis on the word tried). Gary installed latches that required that you insert your finger to release the mechanism. Leah pulled the door as far open as the latch would allow and studied it. After a while she put her finger in and released it. Dan took a different approach. He kept pulling on the door, harder and harder, with as much force as he could muster, until it popped open. So much for relying on the latch to keep them safe!

This isn’t to say that there weren’t exceptions. Leah and Daniel didn’t conform to all of the stereotypes associated with girls and boys. Leah enjoyed roughhousing. When she played soccer or basketball she didn’t shy away from physical play. Dan, on the other hand, didn’t relish that part of sport. While he loved basketball, he didn’t enjoy mixing it up under the boards.

I have tried to figure out if there is something inherently female or male, aside from the obvious biological traits, mostly to understand myself. How do we put ourselves together harmoniously – the feminine and the masculine? Growing up I sometimes felt I was waging an internal war (as I wrote about in another blog post – here).

Is there utility to the concepts of feminine and masculine? Do we need to categorize ourselves and others in those terms?

I admit to feeling some discomfort with abandoning those ideas. Categories help us understand and make sense of things. It seems to be a human instinct to order things by defining and categorizing them. Can we do that without putting each other or ourselves in boxes? Can we leave room to embrace the exceptions?

When I meet someone I want to understand who they are. But maybe I don’t need the categories we have always fallen back on. Is it important to know if the person is male or female? Black or white? After all when we make assumptions based on what we see, it can create problems. But it’s hard not to do it. I think, too, we are searching for common ground and those categories can help find it.

When Leah and Dan were in elementary school I stopped trying to assign their characteristics to one side of the family or the other. I accepted that they were each a unique constellation of attributes. I wish I understood that about myself all those years ago. While I have moved beyond the nature vs. nurture question, understanding that the two are inextricably linked, I am still left pondering identity and how we form it.

Thumbnail Sketch: Aunt Diane

It’s funny how I hadn’t noticed it before – the likeness around the eyes. The first time I saw Aunt Diane after my father died, it unnerved me a bit. Now it comforts me.

My father was the middle child, one sister (Diane) three years older and another sister (Clair) two and a half years younger. They are three of the smartest people I have ever known. It’s kind of amazing that three siblings could each be so sharp. They have different personalities to be sure, but they shared incisiveness, a capacity for insight and intelligence that is quite impressive and could be intimidating. They also shared lively, large, blue-gray eyes. I always wished I had inherited those eyes.

In a traditional Jewish family, especially of that era (the 1930s), the son was the prize. Typically the family’s aspirations were tied up in the success of the son. Not so in my dad’s family. While I take pride in the fact that it was the eldest daughter who became the doctor, it seems that my father was overlooked. By his description, corroborated by Aunt Diane, he was not given encouragement or attention by his parents. It is a mystery that will never be solved.

Growing up I didn’t know Aunt Diane that well. We celebrated Passover and Thanksgiving together most years, but those were large gatherings and didn’t provide much opportunity to have intimate conversation. I knew that we all respected Aunt Diane and called upon her whenever there were medical issues that needed to be addressed. I remember her reassuring presence at the hospital when I had eye surgery, by an opthamologist she recommended, when I was 5 years old.

But the relationship between my father and his older sister, while loyal and loving, could also be tense for reasons I didn’t understand. Or maybe the tenseness related to her husband, Paul. It was not something spoken about, just something I sensed. It would take some unusual circumstances for me to get to know Diane on my own.

I was preparing to go to Columbia University for graduate school, but housing wasn’t available when the semester started. It was September 1980 and Columbia was rehabbing a building on 80th Street and Columbus Avenue that would be offered to graduate students. I reserved a studio apartment in that building, but since it wasn’t ready, Aunt Diane and Uncle Paul offered to let me stay with them so I wouldn’t have to commute from Canarsie. I lived with them for almost two months, making the easy trip from 104th and Broadway to 120th and Amsterdam where the School of International and Public Affairs was located. And, I got to know Aunt Diane. I can’t say I got to know Uncle Paul.

I spent any number of hours talking with Aunt Diane about a range of subjects, from national politics (lamenting Ronald Reagan’s nomination to be President) to Israel to health care policy to personal values. I learned she was a lot more liberal than my parents were! I learned about her history, about the challenges of going to medical school as a woman in the early 1950s. She was a trailblazer and a free-thinker; a woman before her time, especially in terms of male and female roles.

One area where Aunt Diane was distinctly more progressive than my parents was in her attitude toward premarital sex. I knew she and Uncle Paul took a more relaxed view of the subject so I asked her if Gary could stay over with me. Gary and I had already been together for a year at that point and he was working at a lab at Columbia Presbyterian, even further uptown (on 168th street). Gary was living at home with his parents in Rosedale, leaving him with a monumental commute to the lab. Aunt Diane explained that she had no problem with it, but was not comfortable allowing something that would go against my parents’ wishes. While it was true that my parents would not sanction that in their home, I thought they would be okay with it if she was – after all, I had been away at college for the four previous years. I think my parents took an “out of sight, out of mind” approach to the subject. I suggested she talk to my mom about it. I was not privy to that conversation, but a day or two later Aunt Diane told me that Gary was welcome to stay over.

Aunt Diane was a pediatrician who worked at a clinic in a hospital on the lower east side of Manhattan. During one of those conversations she told me she didn’t believe money should be part of the relationship between a physician and her patient. As a result, she spent her career practicing in the clinic and working for the New York City Department of Health, organizing continuing education for doctors. I always respected that choice, but today as a mature adult fully aware of the implications of that decision, I admire it even more.

A few weeks ago Gary and I met Aunt Diane for lunch at a diner in her neighborhood. She still lives in the same apartment on the Upper West Side, the apartment I have been visiting since I was a child. Uncle Paul died a number of years ago. She walks slowly with a cane. We sat in a booth and chatted. We talked briefly about her health status; she has a number of medical issues, as any 86 year-old would. But mostly we talked about other things, she told us stories of her visit to Israel with Paul in the 1950s. She invited us to join her that afternoon to see a movie, A Tale of Love and Darkness, based on the book by the same name by Amos Oz. She was meeting a friend to see the movie at 3:00. We would have loved to go, if only we didn’t have another commitment (which we really did, and we really would have preferred to blow off).

It was a lovely visit. I saw my father in her eyes while we sat in that booth, especially how they crinkle up when she laughs. I am grateful I get to see them still.