I am a woman. I am a wife. I am a mother. I have been a size four and I have been a size 24. I have nearly drowned in the depths of despair and depression but I have also tasted the sweetest joy. All of these things, and more, inform the way I perceive the world. As a woman—as a wife and a mother especially—I have been taught to be critical of my gender and positions in life by our culture and the society where I was raised.
I was blessed with a wonderful mother who was a dutiful wife. Growing up, she seemed to be the perfect woman. As I grew into adulthood, she was the yard stick against which I measured all other women including, most harmfully, myself. The truth was, of course, she was not and is not perfect. I had spent twenty-some years believing this is what it meant to be a perfect woman. I had worked towards being her my whole life and it wasn’t real; it was the naïve perception of a young girl who loved her mother and used that love to pervert her expectations of herself to unrealistic and unobtainable lengths. She was a victim of perception too. She had been raised to always put other first. The needs of her husband and children always took priority and when we were raised and out of the house she had nothing that was her own. She didn’t even know how to have something that was just hers and no one else’s. The looking glass through which I glimpsed and judged the world was shattered when I became a mother myself and grew closer on that unique level with my own mother. This loss of perception was a gift, and one I strive every day not to waste.
We all have that looking glass, that idea of what it means to be a ‘proper woman.’ Whether it is someone decidedly domestic, someone brave and independent of men, or someone somewhere in between, our perception of our place in society and how the women around us stack up against that perception colors every day we draw breath. It influences our decisions and taints our judgement. It betrays our fellow women and it betrays us. What we think a woman should be doesn’t matter if we don’t make room for difference, if we don’t allow ourselves unconditional acceptance of each other and of ourselves. No one woman truly fits the perfect mold of womanhood regardless of what your mold looks like. Some will come close in our perception but in reality, will always fall short if we don’t open our minds.
We are born knowing nothing but being open to everything. I am convinced, as adults, we know even less than nothing and are open to very little. Each year of our lives, every experience, adds a different colored lens of perception to the looking glass until it is so muddied and distorted we can no longer see anything clearly. Truth, lie, illusion: they all fade into the slanted angle from which we view things, no longer distinguishable for what they are.
My distorted vision of a perfect woman, of a perfect mother, is someone who can do it all: take care of the kids, take care of the house, nurture her own dreams and ambitions, keep the accounts in financial stability, all while maintaining a healthy body and mind. These things are not in themselves, perhaps, unobtainable but it’s how I define each aspect of that image that makes the image unrealistic. I can be walking through Walmart and see a young mother, thin and beautiful, children well-behaved and she is smiling and my first reaction is how nice it would be to have it all together like that mom does. Or, conversely, I might see a heavier mother like myself dressed sloppily, kids with hair unbrushed, faces unwashed and wearing pajamas, and all I can think is I hope that I look like I have it together more than she does because I believe I am in the same place as her. I am so selfish; all I can think is how I compare to those women. The reality is, what I notice about these mothers is all perception. I know nothing about them. Perhaps the first mother is unhappy while the second is just embracing motherhood in all its ups and downs. Perhaps both are happy simply because they accept that they aren’t going to do things perfectly and their happiness just looks different. Or maybe, and this is most likely the case, I just noticed what I wanted to notice, what my preconceptions and own self-judgment selfishly pointed out to me.
I spend such an obscene amount of time consumed with worry over what others perceive when they look at me. It’s impossible for me to know if no one says anything. It is a waste of time to think that I can truly do anything to affect a change in their perception of me or think that perception affects my life in any way. If any of you out there suffer from this, let’s make a pact right now to work on worrying less about how we are seen or how others appear to us. We are all struggling in our own ways and looking for connection and joy. We would be better off without this extra, unnecessary obstacle. We are not, none of us, perfect if we keep a ridged measuring stick in hand. Perfection only comes in our acceptance of ourselves and each other exactly where we are, exactly as we are.
A.M. San Nicolas