Written by Meg Broadbent
I left work tonight later than I would have liked. I did this because just last week, my boss – a woman – sat me down and told me that I needed to be more “visible” in the office. She said others were complaining that I didn’t work the same hours as them. My peers, my superiors, men. Watching, angry.
After I had your brother, I arranged to work in the office from 9 – 4, committing to extra hours in the evenings and on weekends to accommodate this new schedule. This worked well until it didn’t, because of them. Because of you. I reminded her that I needed to work these hours because of your brother, because I am a mother. I wanted to see him in the morning, pick him up from daycare, spend time with him in the short window we had together each day. She told me she understood. She also told me that this was the wrong choice. Face-time, optics, she said. How does it look? No one gets special treatment.
I brought up my stellar performance reviews, my ten years with the company, my dedication and drive, my leadership, my results, my credibility, my hours and hours of unpaid overtime. Nodding, fingers tapping on the boardroom desk. Just come in a little earlier, stay a little later. A little less time with your child, a little less time for yourself. I felt little.
I tried to be big. I said this new policy disproportionately hurts working mothers. She said that’s the culture here. I said I’m being forced to choose between my job and my family. She said take it or leave it. I thought of your brother, thought of the bills, the rent, the fact that I’m pregnant again. Who would hire me right now? I looked at my hands, looked up. She shrugged. I said I’ll take it.
On my way home, no one gave up their seat for me on public transit, even though I am visibly 6 months pregnant. I stood, holding my back and my backpack, listening to Vivaldi, pretending that I could turn this commute into “self-care.” In a way, it is the most relaxing part of my day, even when I’m being pushed around and my body aches from the weight of you, the weight of my responsibilities. I am alone with my thoughts for 30 minutes: I can think about anything. About my dreams, my desires. I think only of you.
The streetcar stopped short half way home. Problem with the tracks, everybody out. I started walking in the minus 20 degree weather. My winter coat doesn’t do up over my belly anymore, and I can’t bend enough to properly lace up my boots. I struggled, shivering, holding you up, feeling the dull pain slowly creep in. I had to pee suddenly and panicked. No bathrooms in sight. Down my leg, just a little, enough to ruin my underwear, to ruin the part of me that used to feel in control. Hot, like my face, burning from shame.
Your brother broke me into a million pieces that nobody cares to put back together. Sweep them under the rug, no one will notice. I step on them and I cut myself and I notice every day.
No one prepared me for the possibility that parts of me would no longer work. The probability. They won’t admit anything. Movies told me childbirth was funny, a momentary humiliation where I would curse and sweat and then cry and laugh. I did cry and I did not laugh, haven’t laughed about it, not once.
I tell them I am traumatized and they tell me women go through this every day. That makes it ok, since it’s all of us. I tell them I am scared and they tell me there are drugs for that. They tell me to talk to someone. Someone else. A different specialist, then another. They don’t have answers, other than everything I feel is “normal.” Why is suffering normal, I ask. This doesn’t feel normal, doesn’t look normal. Please look. They stare. I shift in my seat, feel my skin itch, feel the lump start to form in my throat. That’s all the time we have today. The door clicks shut, every part of me clicks shut.
On the walk home I pass two men. Smoking, talking. One of them says did you fuck her? The other one says yeah, and she had gross tits. They laugh. They look at me, blow smoke. They look at my body, see you, decide I’m not worth looking at. A nudge, a chuckle, I look down and walk faster.
I get home and spend the night cleaning, cooking, putting away clothes. Wiping up crumbs and sorting toys, updating the calendar and checking work emails. Giving baths, never taking one myself. Reading books, but not the ones I want to read. Comforting fears, but not my own. Making lists, scratching them out, filling up the page again, filling up my glass of wine again, filling up the fridge, filling up the gas tank, filling everyone else up, running on empty.
These daily chores take up all of my time. My running time, my writing time, my time with friends, my time to breathe. Unrewarded, unpaid, unnoticed. Loads of laundry, the mental load, a load of shit. All of this is expected of women, as I am expecting. A woman, I lower my expectations.
At night I look in the mirror and I try not to cry. I look at my face and I look at my body and I know I am done. 37: Time’s up. When you become a mother you give up your right to feel desirable, to have opinions that matter, to sit at the table. When you reach a certain age you become invisible, discarded, used up. There’s a cream for that though, a few surgeries. You can fix it, fix yourself, fix everything. Try harder, but not too hard. You don’t want to seem desperate, even though you feel that way. Appearances are everything.
People said you’re lucky you conceived, a woman of your age. It will be harder to bounce back. You should have had kids younger, kept your figure, your energy. You won’t have as much time with them now, think of that. And just as your career was taking off, what a shame. You should have thought of that. What were you thinking?
I think about it. I take these words and I push them down inside of me and I let them melt into my blood. I tuck them away with all of the other words and the should-haves and shouldn’t-haves and I know they are lies but they are part of my story now, part of me. Written on the body. I try to erase them but the scars are still there, pink and angry.
I get into bed at night and you kick and squirm and my back throbs and my head pounds and I sing to you. I rub your back through my skin and no one rubs my back. I hold you in my hands and no one holds my hands. I want to be held and rubbed and sung to. I lower my expectations.
In the darkness, alone, I am exhausted. I whisper that I will fight for you, stand up for you. Things will be different for you, for all of you. I say this defiantly, loudly. You don’t answer. Do you already know that it’s not true? Are you sad?
The sad truth: I am one of the lucky ones.
I am not a single mother. I am not dark skinned. I am not trans or queer or gay. I am not an immigrant, or living in an impoverished or war-torn country. I am not disabled. I am not poor and I am not homeless and I am not in a violent relationship. I have none of the physical or emotional traits that add layers of complexity and indescribable hardship and injustice to the already painful reality of being a woman. I am one of the lucky ones.
Through no fault or merit of your own, you will also be one of the lucky ones. You will be white and you will have money and you will live in Canada and you will be attractive and you will be in the top 1% of the population. Still, because you are a girl, you will suffer.
You are fifteen times more likely than a boy to have an eating disorder, to become disordered. The world will tell you that the most important thing you have to offer, the only thing about you that matters, is the way you look. You will bombarded with thousands of images and messages a day telling you that you are not enough. Never enough. Not even close. You will look and you will listen and you will try to change yourself. You might not be able to endure the pressure of perfection and you might cut yourself from the pain. Or you might feel pressured into enduring pain, from a different type of cutting, firming, lifting to perfection. You will suffer.
You will be sexualized and groomed from a very young age. Isn’t she adorable, such a good girl. Such a pretty dress, are you going to be a princess when you grow up? What a sweetheart, what a sweet ass. You are much less likely to be praised for your mind or your skills or your talents or your actions, and because of this you will suffer a staggering decline in mental health and confidence by the time you are just 9 years old. This will only get worse with each passing year, until you’re a pretty little empty shell.
Your lack confidence will affect your academic performance and career aspirations, allowing boys to leap ahead of you from the start. They will leap right over you and on top of you and through you and leave you on the side of the road like a pretty little empty shell. They will crush you with their shoes as they walk by, kicking the dust into the air. You will suffer.
Your perception of what makes you valuable, or without value, will make you vulnerable, and susceptible to violence. Beginning in high school, if you’re lucky enough to make it that long, you will be pressured into doing something sexual that you don’t want to do. Just a bit, just for a second. Just one peak, just the tip. You will be glared at and groped and grabbed. You will be the victim of unwanted sexual comments and gestures for years on end. At some point, probably at several points in your life, you will be sexually assaulted or harassed. A rite of passage, a secret club. No password required, no handshake, no agreement. No consent. You have a 1 in 4 chance of being raped. You will suffer.
You will convince yourself that all of this has been your fault. Shouldn’t have worn that dress, had that drink. Shouldn’t have gone to that party, talked to those boys. Your mind will betray you in ways worse than you’ve already been betrayed. You will learn not to trust.
After this you won’t put your hand up as often, if ever. You will learn to stay quiet, to be on guard. Don’t draw attention to yourself, fade into the background. If you hide, they can’t find you, they can’t hurt you. Hide from your dreams, hide from your goals, hide from your life. Stay down, stay put, stay behind.
You will learn to lock the front door, the car door, the back door. You will learn to never trust darkness, never walk alone, never look down, or up, only straight ahead. You will walk with purpose through the night, through the parking garage, through the alleyway, and you will pray that tonight isn’t the night. You will hold your phone in one hand and your keys in the other and you will stay alert, always waiting. You will be ready for the inevitable. When it happens, you will suffer.
At work, you will watch your male colleagues soar ahead of you. You will watch them go out socially without you and push each other up the ladder. You will see handshakes and pats on the back and cigars and winks and you will watch your salary stay the same while you work harder and longer. When you try to say something, you’ll be told not to be greedy, not to ask for too much. If you complain, you’ll be labelled difficult, not a team player. If you have children, you will fall further behind, until you can’t even see the glass ceiling from where you’ve been left standing, waiting. For the promotion that won’t come, the flexibility that won’t come, the acknowledgement that won’t come, the understanding that won’t come. Come home, your children will say. You will go. The men will stay. You will suffer.
But while you are suffering, my girl, think about the fact that you still got the job. The fact that you got to attend school in the first place, to get an education, to have a fighting chance. Remember that the school got you in the door, and that your name sounded right on the resume, and that your skin was the right colour during the interview.
Think about the fact that you were able to have children when you wanted to, and not when you were forced to, not as a child yourself. Remember that you got to choose how many children to have, and that you weren’t forced to abort them, or prevented from aborting them. Remember that they weren’t torn from your arms at birth, that you weren’t torn from your bed and thrown bleeding into a factory, a field, a grave.
Remember that you aren’t raped every day, beaten every hour. Think about how you don’t live on the streets, or with your abuser or your pimp, or with a family that you were sold to. Think about walking down the street on two legs, voting, driving, dressing how you want, going out alone at night, or in the day, or ever. Remember that you haven’t been disfigured by acid or burned alive or stuffed into the trunk of a car.
Remember all of this when you suffer. Acknowledge that you are one of the lucky ones. Think about it. Then do something about it.
Stand up for other women and girls. Use your platform, your privilege. Talk to each other, trust each other, build each other up. Don’t be fooled into thinking other girls and women are the enemy – instead, join forces. Don’t let them divide you, because that’s how they will conquer you. Tell each other everything. Every secret, every lie, every fear, every joy. Find strength and courage in your shared experiences. Use each story as fuel for your collective fire.
Tell other girls and women that you see them. Tell them that you believe them. Tell them that you are here to listen to them and fight for them. Tell them that they can count on you. Tell them that they are beautiful, and loved, and worthy, and powerful.
Tell yourself the same thing. If you can’t, then read these words when you are lost and let me be the one to tell you: You are beautiful. You are loved. You are worthy. You are powerful. Powerful enough to make the world a better place for your sisters, for yourself. I know you can do it. My girl.