She was the first in her family to go to college, then grad school. She was the first person from her home town to leave the country. She was a pioneer in many ways and spent a great majority of her 20s building a career and establishing herself. Her accomplishments are made even more exceptional when you consider her background; born and raised in a remote village town in country where women’s rights was not even a topic of discussion, where practices such as female circumcision, and arranged marriages for child brides were the norm. She defied societal standards and overcame so much. She is awe inspiring.
But life, sometimes, beats the defiance out of people. The past decade or so have been so hard on her. She moved to the United States to provide her daughter a better opportunity for life. She dropped everything; the career she had painstakingly built, the lifestyle she had established and the status she had earned, to come to America and start from the bottom again. The minimum wage jobs, standing at work for 16 hours a day, feeling like a cog in the machine took a toll on her body and her psyche. Self doubt slowly seeped in and eroded her self confidence and her sense of worth. This time it was harder. Making it in America demanded more, more time, more energy, more resilience, more defiance. She was tapped out. She could not keep on fighting. She could not dedicate the same amount of effort to rebuilding her career. She gave up. But worst of all, she let defeatism consume her.
I once idolized her. I beamed with pride every time I walked into her office and saw the respect and admiration her subordinates had for her. I pretended to be a career woman like her, wore her pearls, waddled around in her pumps and tried on her lipstick. She shocked me recently, when she told me how if she could go back in time, she would have dropped everything and had more children and spent her time raising them than build a career. She cared about image and subscribed to the accepted standards of beauty. She wanted social acceptance and was willing to soften her stance on the things I thought she was once adamantly against. She cared about other people’s opinions, even when they were not based on facts. She was not the woman I knew. But I knew her! I’ve seen her speak to crowds and inspire other women to demand more in that country where they were treated like objects. How can these two women exist in one person? Did the person I knew when I was a child ever exist? Was the facade torn off when she faced a new type of adversity? Did I really know her?
She’s not too excited about the road I’m taking. She wishes I had stayed at the company I was working in even if it meant I would never do anything of substance or get an increase in salary. She resents the fact that I do so much on my own and wishes I cared about what people in our community think. She wants to be consulted on my life choices. I wouldn’t mind getting her take on my decisions or even doing certain things the way she wants me to. But I want to hear it from the old her, the defiant her.
The image I had built of her as the defiant and ever resilient shero disintegrated over time. It kind of sent my sense of self into a tailspin. I always took pride in being from the same stock and expected so much of myself so I can measure up. But which stock is that? What do I measure myself against now that I know what I know? I guess the real questions are, does she owe me perfection? Has she not done everything she could possibly do to provide me with the opportunities I had? Should I not draw my motivation from within myself?
I think I’ve past the point where I can measure myself against her accomplishments. I now have to continue on setting standards up as I go. I’ve gotten this far because of her, or the idea of her. But I think it’s time to let go of the crutches and walk on my own.