I just finished reading She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb, for the second time. Since I don’t remember much about books I read, it may as well have been for the first time. Anyway, it is a coming-of-age story of a girl, Dolores, which begins when she is about 4 years old. Her first vivid memory is of that age because a television was being delivered to her house, a momentous and exciting event. Her family hadn’t owned one before.
The television comes to play a significant role in her troubled life as she uses it as an escape. Dolores retreats to game shows and soap operas when her own life became too painful. The book isn’t about the role of television in our lives, but it got me thinking. While I don’t relate to her behavior exactly, I do know that House Hunter’s International and Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show got me through the Bush Administration, Dubya’s that is.
I have established a rule for myself in this new retired life I lead. I won’t turn on the tv until after 5:00 p.m. I think it is a good rule. I’m still not always productive, after all now social media can be a tremendous time waster, but knowing that I can’t turn to television makes the odds better that I spend my time constructively. It is too bad I didn’t think of that rule when my kids were little (and there was no social media). Sometimes when I felt drained and unmotivated, I sat and watched talk shows, watching a whole day slip away. And, after watching, I felt yet more drained and unmotivated.
Thinking about television brought up another issue: the messages we are fed. My view of myself as a woman was certainly affected by the images presented. I have written about this before (here). I certainly couldn’t measure up to the standards of Mary Tyler Moore and Marlo Thomas – though I don’t blame them personally. We were inundated with unrealistic views of women (and men, too, I suppose) in programs and advertisements. I don’t know how much that has changed, though I think there has been some movement to offer more diversity.
But there is something else in the images that television offers that troubles me. We have read a lot about violence on tv and in video games and how that may desensitize people. But, we haven’t read, or at least I haven’t, about the portrait of the criminal justice system – particularly the police.
Gary and I, especially Gary, are fans of police procedurals – like the original Law and Order. We watched Hill Street Blues back in the day and NYPD Blue. These days Friday nights are spent watching Hawaii Five-O (actually I just keep Gary company for that one, I do crossword puzzles) and Blue Bloods. I know that these shows, all of them, are not depictions of real life, though the better episodes can make me feel real emotion. I have been thinking lately about whether they do damage in how they manipulate you to feel that it is okay to rough up a suspect. They are counting on you to root for the cop, even as he (and it is most often a he) physically and/or mentally abuses a suspected perp (I picked up on the lingo over these many years).
I know we aren’t watching documentaries. But how much license are they taking? I realize that the writers are putting together a 60 minute episode (far fewer minutes with all the commercials) where everything has to be resolved. Actual cases take years to move through the system. That license, to compress events, is less troubling to me.
I don’t know which is worse. If the way interrogations are portrayed is realistic, then we have major problems with police abusing their power. If the picture painted is fabricated, then what is the impact on people’s beliefs about the police? I think the ideas we have about our world are shaped to some degree by the entertainment we consume. Attention, though not enough, has been given to stereotypes of women, African-Americans, and other minorities. Studies have been done on the impact of violent content. But, I’m not aware of discussion of this – is the depiction of the way the police do their work done responsibly on television and in movies? And, if it isn’t, what is the cost of that misrepresentation?
By the way, She’s Come Undone, where I started this blog post, doesn’t get into this question at all. But like all good books, it spurred lots of thought.
Are you afraid I’m going to steal your lunch?” he asked.
I was hunched over the table in the cafeteria of my junior high school when some guy, who I didn’t know, asked me that question. My left arm encircled a Tupperware containing a small chef’s salad, while I shoveled a forkful of lettuce in my mouth with my right hand.
“No,” I mumbled.
I could see how it would look like I was afraid of that, given my posture. But, actually, I was trying to hide what I was eating. I was trying to keep to the Weight Watcher program I had begun six months earlier. Most kids didn’t bring salad to school. I wished I was eating one of those moon pies – a chocolate marshmallow confection of gooey goodness that they sold at school – but none of that for me.
I was humiliated by his question, though I didn’t think he meant to be cruel. He sounded more curious and bemused as he asked it. Still I was relieved that he moved on and left me alone. I continued eating, but tried to look less protective of my salad.
Junior high school was a challenging time. I was still recovering from the death of Nana a year and a half before. I was trying to find my way in my second year at a new school where I knew very few of the other students. The vast majority of my elementary school classmates were zoned for a different junior high. I made it through 7thgrade and now it was the beginning of 9th(I skipped 8thgrade as part of a New York City program that compressed junior high into two years instead of three) and while I was beginning to make some friends, it still wasn’t easy. (I wrote about one aspect of my junior high school experience, the boycott of schools caused by the busing plan in this blog post)
Making matters worse was the fact that I had matured early. I was fully developed which made me self-conscious. I also had menstrual problems. My period was very irregular and when I got it, after missing it for several months, it was terrible. It would last for two weeks, with cramps, and I bled profusely. My situation wasn’t as bad as my mom’s in that when she was that age she would pass out when she got her period. She told me that she had a friend assigned to keep an eye on her when she was in junior high school. Though she shared that story, I didn’t feel like I could talk to her about my concerns. I wasn’t passing out, and the thought of someone being assigned to me was completely unacceptable. My goal was to fly as far under the radar as possible. At 13, if I could have blended into the woodwork at school, I would have been happier.
It was 1972 and they didn’t have the feminine products available today – sanitary napkins were bulky and didn’t come with a wrapper in which to dispose of it (you had to wrap it in toilet paper). If memory serves correctly, the girls’ bathrooms in school didn’t have waste receptacles in the stalls either, just a garbage pail by the sinks. All of which meant that it was nearly impossible to be discreet about having my period. I needed to carry a purse (something I didn’t ordinarily do), and I would have to take that purse with me to the bathroom. Even on an ordinary day, the idea of using the bathroom was an anathema to me, I tried to avoid it. I didn’t want to be marked, I didn’t want anyone to know about my bodily functions. I don’t know why I felt ashamed, but I did. I thought other girls, if they even got their period, didn’t have the issues I had, and I didn’t have the nerve to broach the subject with anyone. So, I suffered in silence and muddled my way through, hoping not to embarrass myself by staining my clothes (which sadly did happen on more than one occasion).
Eventually, I had an episode of cramps that were so bad, I had to tell my mom. She made an appointment for me to see her gynecologist. I remember Dr. Holland asking me a series of questions before examining me. Mom was not in the room with me for that part. He asked me if I had had intercourse. Surprised by the question, I answered no (I was still only 13!). He asked me if I was sexually active. I didn’t understand the difference between the first and second question, so I told him no, again. A nurse stayed in the room for the physical exam, which wasn’t that traumatic. Fortunately, he found nothing wrong. He made some suggestions to treat the cramps if they were painful in the future and that was that.
Though I continued to struggle with my menstrual cycle, not everything was bleak during my junior high school years. Eventually I connected with a few girls. Toward the end of 9thgrade, a couple of us made a plan to leave school for lunch, a daring idea. Geri and Lisa came up with the notion of sneaking out – everyone had to eat in the cafeteria, no one was allowed to leave for lunch (maybe they were afraid we wouldn’t come back!). We decided we would go to Lisa’s house, where no one was home, since it was only a couple of blocks from school. We would make sure to get back in time for our next class.
The big day arrived and we successfully escaped. We were feeling triumphant and excited as we hurried to Lisa’s house. As we were walking down Avenue K, we heard a car horn and some hooting and hollering. We all turned to look. At first, I didn’t know what I was seeing. I saw flesh pressed up against the rear window. They were butt cheeks! We started shrieking and running. We were afraid the car would follow us. We got to Lisa’s house – we were laughing and terrified at the same time. One of the girls knew that it was called being ‘mooned.’ I had never heard of that. We took it as some kind of sign that we shouldn’t have snuck out. I didn’t leave school for lunch for the remainder of the year. I don’t think any of us did.
I ended my junior high school career on a high note. I was given an award – the Ben Ramer Memorial Award – for outstanding female athlete. When they told me about it, that I would receive it at the graduation ceremony, I was incredulous. The thing was there were no opportunities for girls to participate in sports, other than gym. There were no teams. We did the Presidential Fitness Program and we had physical education, but that was the extent of it. I couldn’t imagine how they determined I should get the award. I felt undeserving, but proud, nonetheless.
Mom and I went shopping for a graduation dress and found one that I felt pretty good wearing, which was saying a lot for me. Graduation day was humid with intermittent showers, which perfect for my hair! It curled just the way I wanted it to, the humidity calmed the frizz. I wore white platform heels and managed to walk across the stage without stumbling. After all of the Sturm und Drang of my junior high school years, things were looking up. I looked forward to a new beginning in high school.
7th Grade on the left, 9th grade on the right – things had improved
It was 1990. We had just celebrated Daniel’s first birthday, and Leah was fast approaching three years old. I was working full time for the Legislative Commission on Expenditure Review (LCER). Gary was finishing the first year of his Endocrine Fellowship. The kids were in daycare at Kidskeller. Those are the facts.
Gary and I were managing, barely. Financially the ends were just meeting, some months they weren’t. Emotionally we were hanging on by the skin of our teeth. Here was a typical day in the Spring of 1990:
We got up at 6:30 a.m., if we weren’t already awoken by one or both of the kids. If we were lucky we had gotten 6 hours of sleep, on a good night. We got ourselves and the kids ready for the day, packed up the bags for daycare, ate breakfast and got in the car (we could only afford one). We drove to Kidskeller, an easy ten-minute ride from the house. Each of us took one child and got them settled, then met back at the car. Gary drove me downtown (another ten minutes) and dropped me off in front of the Daily Grind where I would get coffee. He went on to work, parking the car at the VA Medical Center. I walked the rest of the four blocks to my office. At least two or three times a week I took a bus during my lunch break to look in on Leah and Dan at Kidskeller. Even if it was only 10 minutes each, it made me feel better to see them. Then I took the bus back and continued my workday. At 5:00 p.m. I went back through the revolving door of my office building, leaving every thought about work behind and caught the bus again. This time I went to get the car at the VA parking lot. I’d go pick up the kids and bring them home. I made us dinner and we ate. Usually around 7:00 pm I’d get a call from Gary that he was ready to leave work. I loaded Leah and Dan in the car and drove to either the VA or Albany Med to pick him up. We got home and began the bedtime routine. Then we did it all over again the next day.
Given the demands of our lives, there wasn’t much margin for things going wrong. If the car broke down or someone got sick, we had to scramble.
This isn’t to suggest that there wasn’t joy. Watching Leah and Daniel emerge, their unique personalities flower, was a source of pleasure and pride. But, there wasn’t much time devoted to Gary and my relationship. There wasn’t much left at the end of the day, so perhaps the events surrounding this particular experience are understandable in that context (I can write that with 25 years of perspective between then and now).
On rare occasions my work required overnight travel. Fortunately, I would know long enough in advance so that Gary was able to coordinate his schedule, and/or we called upon family members to help fill in. This particular time I had a trip planned to Mineola (Long Island). Dan was still recovering from his second bout of Coxsackie virus, a particularly unpleasant illness that involved blisters on his lips and in his mouth. Gary was able to adjust his work responsibilities so that he was home that day. The plan called for me to arrive back in Albany by 5:00 p.m. so he could then go to the hospital.
My colleague, Debra, and I left the night before so that we could get to the office in Mineola bright and early, leaving us a full morning to conduct interviews and review files as the project required. We were scheduled to make a stop early in the afternoon at a Westchester office to conduct another interview and then go back to Albany.
We arrived at the Mineola office as scheduled at 8:00 a.m. We parked in the garage under the building, as we had been directed. We took the elevator up and began our work day. So far, so good. We were there about 90 minutes when an alarm sounded. An announcement came over the loudspeaker advising us that this wasn’t a drill, we needed to evacuate the building immediately. We left without our coats.
As we got to the street, we were directed away from the building. We were told there was a bomb threat. We heard a multitude of sirens and saw police cars blocking the entrances and exits to the building and its garage. We saw German Shepherds being brought into the building. We were told this was going to take a while. I looked at my watch, it was nearing 11:00 a.m. I felt panic rising. I thought I better call Gary (this was before cell phones – they may have existed, but I certainly didn’t have one).
Debra and I went in search of a pay phone. We crossed the street and found a department store which had a bank of phones. I scrounged change from my purse and placed the call. I told Gary about the bomb threat.
“I wanted to let you know what was going on. We’ve been evacuated from the building and I don’t know how long it is going to take,” I explained.
“You need to leave and come back home,” Gary replied.
“I can’t. The car is parked under the building.”
“I don’t care. Get in the car and leave.”
“I don’t have my keys either – they’re in my coat pocket which I had to leave in the building.”
“Go back to building…”
“What are you saying, Gary? You want me to go through the police barrier? Are you fucking serious?!”
Debra was standing next to me, listening to this conversation, making no move to leave and give me some privacy. I think she was enjoying the show. I was angry and embarrassed. I put my hand over the receiver and asked her to go check to see if the building was still sealed off. Reluctantly she left.
Gary continued, “Well, if you aren’t going to get back in time, you better arrange a baby-sitter!”
“I’m on Long Island, for Christ’s sake! I don’t have phone numbers or enough change! You need to do it!”
“I’m not finding a sitter! I can’t not go in to the hospital, Linda, you know that! I need to round on my patients! You need to figure this out!”
“I might still get back in time. I’ll call when I know.” And I hung up.
As I took a few deep breaths, I rifled through my bag and found the number for the person Debra and I were supposed to interview in the afternoon. I called, apologized and told him I would have to reschedule. One less thing to worry about.
I left the department store and went to find Debra. I was none too happy with her either, but I had no choice. We needed to finish our assignment.
It was just after noon when we got the all clear to return to the building. We went back into the office and finished up our paperwork as quickly as possible. We got our things together and got on the road before 1:00 p.m. Assuming we didn’t hit crazy traffic, never a good assumption, I would get back in time.
The entire ride back, I stewed. I couldn’t believe Gary wanted me to go back in the building. I felt humiliated. This was not something I could ever tell my dad – he probably wouldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. This from the guy who had come over to my apartment with a baseball bat when he couldn’t reach me on the phone? That same guy wanted me to ignore a bomb threat serious enough to evacuate a building and call in search dogs?
We made it back to Albany with no further delays. I dropped Debra off at her apartment and drove home. I took a deep breath as I came up the stairs to our house. I opened the door and found Dan in his highchair while Gary offered him applesauce. Leah was also sitting at the table, starting to eat her dinner. I greeted the kids. Gary and I didn’t say much to each other, just exchanged essential information like when Dan had last had Tylenol. I took over giving Dan and Leah dinner. Gary left for the hospital.
Over the next days and weeks, we returned to our routines, going through the motions. I couldn’t just sweep it under the rug, though. Eventually, one day, after we dropped the kids off at daycare, we were in the car as Gary drove me to work, I brought it up. “I don’t understand how you could ask that of me,” I began. I expected an apology. I didn’t get one. Instead Gary described how demanding his work was, how stressed he was, how hard it was to meet the standards of his mentor, Dr. Goodman. I got out of the car feeling even worse.
I made a mistake in bringing it up when we had less than ten minutes to discuss it, since we both had to be at work. I arrived at my office upset, frustrated, angry and sad. Not a great recipe for productivity either.
I can’t tie a bow around this story. We didn’t come to a sweet resolution. We just kept going. Circumstances got better as time passed. Leah and Daniel got older and more self-sufficient. I went to a four day work schedule. Gary finished training and went into private practice. His hours were still long and the work demanding, but the financial strain slowly but surely relaxed. We found bits of time here and there to devote to each other. Damage had been done to our relationship. It took a long time to rebuild, and there were other low points (though not as dramatic), but we survived….together.
Class ended. Mercifully, after two and a half hours of policy analysis and evaluation, it was time for lunch. A group of six of us, all full time graduate students at Columbia, had a habit of going to the diner a couple of blocks down Amsterdam Avenue after class.
I gathered up my stuff and started walking with the others to the elevator when Dan nudged me to get my attention. Dan, who wore crisp oxford shirts and chinos to class and spoke with authority, asked “Why do you always apologize before you ask a question? I don’t get it.” I looked at him blankly, “Huh?”
He continued, “You always start your question, in class, by apologizing for it. Like, ‘Sorry, but I was wondering…’ Why do you do that?” There was more than a trace of annoyance in his tone.
I felt defensive. I thought for a moment, as we continued walking, trying to come up with an answer. Fortunately, the others in the group were chatting amongst themselves.
“Well,” I began, “I can’t say I consciously knew that I did that….” I was thinking quickly, reviewing what had happened in class that may have triggered Dan’s observation, trying to come up with some kind of reasonable response.
“There’s no reason for it, you shouldn’t do that.” he said, emphatically. “Sorry if it annoys you,” I responded, and I sped up to join the others. I probably annoyed him again by apologizing again.
This happened over 35 years ago. I thought about it then, and I still reflect on it now. Asking questions, in class or in conversation, isn’t that simple. At least not to me.
As I thought about it, many things came into play. First, was self-consciousness and insecurity. Maybe I HAD missed something the professor said. I knew some students, as a result of those doubts, didn’t ask questions. I had enough confidence to ask, but not enough to not preface it by hedging or softening it. I realized, as Dan pointed out, that I likely did start with something like, “Sorry, maybe I missed this, but can you explain….” I wondered whether there was anything so wrong with that.
I don’t think it occurred to me at the time, but it did years later, that it also probably related to being female. I knew that as a woman there was a line to walk, of not coming across too aggressively, but not fading into the woodwork, either. I had a hard time with that. I wanted to ask questions, I wanted to express opinions, but I wanted to be feminine, too. I think I felt that asking a question could be threatening and that was the last thing I wanted to communicate.
Other things probably played into it, too. When I was in college, Merle, my roommate, and I volunteered to work at the campus hotline, called High Hopes. It was a resource for students to call if they had questions. The question could range from the ordinary, like where to get birth control, to the very serious, like what to do about feeling depressed. We went through fairly extensive training – we weren’t supposed to be counselors providing therapy, but the hotline was a first line of getting someone help if they needed it. Some of the training involved attending lectures, getting information about drugs, sexuality and other common issues of concern to college students. We also learned about non-judgmental ways of listening to people and we did role plays.
We were trained, in a basic way, to use Carl Roger’s technique of reflection, which meant listening to the caller and repeating back what you heard them say. This method was intended to help the person clarify what they felt. Sometimes a person didn’t know exactly what they felt, so by reflecting back what you hear, he or she can evaluate whether it is accurate.
In addition, in reflecting, we were trying to refrain from judgment. Sometimes just asking a person ‘why’ can insinuate judgment. If we needed to ask the caller for more information, we weren’t supposed to ask, “Why do you feel hurt (or substitute any other emotion, angry, sad)?” It was better to say, “It sounds like you feel hurt. Can you tell me more?”
This made so much sense to me. I had a number of opportunities to use that approach on my shifts at High Hopes and, generally, it worked quite well. It turned out to be useful in parenting, too.
Leah was quite an emotional child. Supporting her through the roller coaster of adolescence was a parenting challenge. I was most effective when I remembered to use reflection (full disclosure: I didn’t always remember). It validated her feelings, helped her clarify them and often led to insights. I recommend it!
While that technique doesn’t exactly apply to asking questions in a classroom, which is what my classmate Dan was calling me out on, in one respect it does. As a result of my High Hopes experience, I became conscious of not implying judgment in a broader sense – I didn’t want a professor to think I was questioning their expertise, or suggesting they were a lousy teacher. It seemed like a reasonable strategy to start by acknowledging that I could be wrong or uninformed.
Before Dan’s comment, I hadn’t thought about it consciously, much less considered that there could be a downside to doing it. But I was learning that there was. If Dan was any example, it could be annoying. It also diminished whatever came after the apology, I was devaluing my own contribution. I didn’t want to go around apologizing for my existence. As I’ve gotten older, I think I’ve done it less.
This issue is relevant in another setting. As a school board member, and as a trainer of school board members, this aspect of communication comes up often. Frequently at board meetings a staff person makes a presentation and the board is given the opportunity to ask questions. This can be a minefield. A board member can, premeditatedly or thoughtlessly, embarrass the presenter by asking a pointed question. So much transpires in this communication. There can be history or baggage – is there goodwill as a baseline between the board and the staff? A particular presenter can be overly sensitive to questions. Some people are comfortable with public presentations and thinking on their feet and welcome engagement in the form of questions; others don’t. Even educators, who spend their day teaching, get nervous when speaking in front of the school board. We spend time at our workshops talking about modes of communication in order to raise awareness of potential pitfalls. I imagine this dynamic comes into play in many office settings. Who knew asking questions could be so fraught?
So, I’m still thinking about this issue. How do you ask a question?
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.
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.
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)
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.