Lately, I've been exploring the way womanhood is lived today. In its infinite variations, in a glory of individualism, or in an effort to connect and uphold each other. Regardless of gender, we think of ourselves as utterly autonomous, but we are probably more conglomerate than we would like to admit. You're a little bit different because of who you met in grade school, where you find your news, what you ate for lunch yesterday, how you perceive the color green, and your access to education. Everything shapes us. Paradoxically, just as it makes each of us more unique, it weaves us deeper into the world's fabric.
So, when we try to tell our own stories, we must trace our choices back to their foreshadowing. If we're able, we look to the people we came from. In my ongoing exploration of my own womanhood, I interviewed my mother, Geri. She started by telling me about her own mother—and then kept going, unfolding her life to me, unable to arbitrarily separate womanhood from her challenges and choices.
I began by asking her, “How did you decide how to be a woman?” and she leaned forward into my question. “My mother was instrumental. She was way ahead of women's lib,” she told me. “My mom was mostly a stay-at-home mom. But she would pack apples, do irrigating.” Her mother also performed accounting work for years, inspiring Mom's career.
Nana and Papa, as I call her mother and father, eventually helped form the Mesa Land Trust, a non-profit ensuring that local farmland would remain as such, protected from developers. With a gleam of pride, Mom told me: “with the land trust, she's the one who fought and prevailed with the IRS. Their [own] attorney wasn't sure they could win!”
That spirit had been evident in Nana's mother, who “invested in a piece of rental property before she ever got a divorce... that's what funded her move to California when she got the divorce. She was quite the businesswoman.” So, Mom reveled in the strengths of the women before her, who nurtured but also fought and won, and who worked hard with their bodies and minds.
Mom has fought, too. She was born prematurely, in the fifties, before today's sleek NICUs came into being. I swear she survived from stubbornness. She has always lived with purpose, with a sense that there are important things to be done. Even in high school, Mom was ambitious. She graduated as co-valedictorian and attended collage on scholarship. By her late twenties, she'd made partner at Boettcher & Company, an investment-banking firm based in Denver. Stifling a grin, she reminded me: “don't forget when I started work, there were no women partners in audit. Women hadn't been in the field long enough to make partner. Women weren't allowed to wear slacks!”
It took her long, long hours to get to that point, and she was proud, and tired. She was hoping to have children while she was young. So, after the partnership ceremony, but before her duties began, she and Dad left. They sold the baby grand and drove to Dayton, Ohio. It was Dad's childhood home, and the place he hoped to continue his own education, alongside an old friend. However, childhood memories are known to embellish their stories.
They lived in poverty for months before Mom found work. She tells me, after working for a time in a bleak, lonely office, and suffering a miscarriage: “I was so miserable, your dad said, 'Just quit.'” And she did. My family has a history of vanished pregnancies. I often wonder if those lost children haunted Mom, if they jostled her to the quiet coast.
Soon she and Dad found themselves in Massachusetts. Dad had secured a computer-programming job with moderate pay, and I was born. “I loved being home,” she confides, her face glowing, but “it was a challenge financially.” She laughs, “I can remember one time we went to a picnic and were supposed to bring something. We brought hot dog buns and we had to scrounge for change.”
Mom threw herself into parenting us in the same way she'd thrown herself into her career. She homeschooled us for years and enjoyed it, planning meals, field trips, and curriculum with apparent ease. I asked about her decision to do so, expecting a nuanced reflection on public schooling and religion, but instead she flashed a sassy look. “Your dad just started telling people we were going to homeschool,” she spat, “and I thought, oh, WE'RE going to homeschool. I know how this is going to go.” Dad plays with astrophysics with all the joy of a four-year-old on Christmas, so he made an excellent science teacher, but Mom did most of the work.
I remember the tension between them when I was a toddler, and the shouting matches. Especially for women with young children, a partner can drastically change the course of a life, giving freedom and support, or taking it away. So I asked her about their partnership, which ended about fifteen years ago.
Slowly and thoughtfully, she told me: “your dad was supportive of me. He wasn't chauvinistic, he wanted me to succeed. The problem was his income was sporadic. Sometimes people have asked me, why didn't you go into the job market earlier, when you [kids] were young. Subconsciously I knew if I went back to getting good money, he would quit. I wasn't ready to be the breadwinner and give up homeschooling. I played that as long as I could.” Still, despite her passion and strategy, she felt a little worn. “It was hard to be confident being married to your dad,” she conceded. “When he wasn't sure what to do, it was my fault. He was supportive at times, and then not at all.”
In the early years of parenting, Mom found purpose separate from her marriage and motherhood, leading a women's prayer group. She refers to them as “prayer warriors,” willing to take on any problem with the full weight of their God behind them. The group called themselves Aglow. She painted the scene for me: “it was Spring of '88. Joseph wasn't born yet, it was just you. We were living on Plum Island. [A woman at church] encouraged me to attend their chapter in Salem. I kept hearing that there used to be a chapter in Newburyport, but it got... unbalanced. I felt like the Lord was prompting me to start a group, and I had a prolonged argument with Him. I told Him I was too young. I was 32. I'd only been involved in Pentecostal things since '82.”
Eventually she gave in and took charge, with a friend from church as vice president. It was challenging, her plans kept needing revision. “For a year, we just met for prayer,” she said. “I kept hoping we could recruit someone from the previous chapter, but we were more just bringing healing for them.” It wasn't a glorified book club, though; it was a registered non-profit, and a serious religious organization with requirements to be met. “We had to find three pastors who were filled with the Spirit to sponsor us, for accountability,” she told me. After she moved away, the chapter lost its verve, closing after about a year.
“It was a good experience for me. It really stretched me,” she reflected. “So it was quite a shock when we went to Texas and none of those doors opened for me.” Semi-rural Texas, twenty years ago, was not exactly a feminist landscape. Sure, strong women abounded, as they do everywhere, but they were quieter about it, especially within Christian circles. Men were the leaders of the household, we were told. Women must cultivate a spirit of service. We were so well suited to teaching children; my mother was admonished when she inquired about teaching adult Sunday school at our new church. Taken aback, Mom needed a moment or so to readjust. “I focused on homeschooling and new relationships,” she told me. Always strategic, she was slowly sowing seeds among the church elders. By the time we moved away a decade later, the pastors were still all men, but women could be found in almost every other position of influence.
Within those ten years, my parents' marriage foundered and my mother re-entered the workforce. “I was getting myself set up because I thought divorce was coming,” she confessed. She was right. “Overall I loved the transition,” she said. “After a while I started doing some accounting work from home. I didn't go to substantial hours until Maria [our friend and neighbor] could watch you guys.” Although she was hired by a reputable firm a few towns away, and gained the respect of her peers, she was underpaid for years. “We had so many transitions,” Mom reflected of that period. Thinking back, I always remember the sight of her standing 30 feet up on borrowed scaffolding, repainting our enormous, battered Victorian. When Monday came around, she'd don an impeccable suit and go to work with paint flecks in her dark hair. She cut an odd figure. The neighbors stared. It must have been lonely. There were no suitable bachelors then, in that place, she told me.
When I left for college, she sold our house, packed up my two brothers, and returned to the orchards and mesas of Colorado. Most of her family remained in the Grand Valley, and she came back to them. Now, years later, she's married to an old cowboy, moonlights as caregiver for Nana, Papa, and my two small daughters, and runs two businesses. “I'm happiest now, I think,” she told me. “I don't have to prove myself. I'm not working for somebody, so I get to pick the skills I enjoy the most.” For Mom, her womanhood has been one of ambition and nurturing, rife with calculated risks, driven and full of heart.
Tammy Bendetti writes and paints on Colorado's Western Slope, where she lives with her husband and two little girls. In her spare time she enjoys dancing badly and drinking dangerous amounts of coffee.