You Are Valuable: Female Archetypes, Change, and Relationships

No one wants to be a sellout, right?

In a lot of ways, our culture loves change. We celebrate enlightenment and self-improvement; we love makeover stories, romantic comedies, and the triumphant return of washed-up and/or drugged-out celebrities. But while we loudly praise transformation, we hate it too. “They’ve changed, man.” You can just hear the smug hipster saying that about anything from a band to a restaurant to a former friend. No one wants to be called a sellout. We celebrate metamorphosis, but for every person applauding the shining new butterfly, there just as many caterpillars sitting around talking about how they liked her better before she had wings.

Defining Women

From a very young age, women are defined by how they exist in relation to others. We’re identified by who loves us and why, and labeled accordingly. Whether we have a lot of friends (popular, cool, queen bee) or don’t (loser, outcast, nerd); whether we have a lot of sex (slut, whore, easy) or don’t (virgin, prude, spinster); whether we are nice to others (sweetheart, doll, good girl) or not (bitch, snob, crazy). As adults, these definitions shift, and we become defined by more formal relationships: wives, girlfriends, or single women. Careerists or homemakers. Moms (and from there, stay-at-home or working) or childless women (the very phrasing of which implies that something is missing).

“My friend got a boyfriend and now she’s not fun like she used to be.” “My friend used to love her job, but then she had kids and now all she cares about is her baby.” “My friends don’t have kids so they don’t understand.” “My friend got married and now she only has time for her partner.” We’ve all heard statements like these. Discussions about the ways people change in their twenties and thirties tend to be framed as either women changing who they are for men, or as women changing who they are when they have kids. As a culture, we’ve bought into the idea that a woman’s interests are tied directly to her relationship status, and never the other way around.

I experienced this firsthand not long after I started dating Eric. Even though I was pretty open about wanting a relationship in the months leading up to meeting him and never really saw myself as the all-star batter for Team Single (probably because most of my friends were in relationships), I got labeled as the happily single girl. Which I was! I loved being single… but then I loved being coupled! Not a personality change, not a big deal!

But I quickly learned that it was a big deal. Because even though I never said or did anything to indicate that I felt this way, people (mostly people on the Internet) saw my singledom as a declaration of war on coupledom. They saw my enjoyment of going out and banging random dudes from time to time as the defining thing about me—even though I spent way more time lounging around at home, cooking for my mom, and hanging out with my coupled friends. I shared all of these activities with other people, but the activities tied to my relationship status—my “slutty single girl” behavior—is how they chose to define me.

Us vs. Them

In her book Catfight, Leora Tanenbaum posits that women are typically defined in relation to men because of our lower status in society. She writes:

“…we grow up longing for male approval because men are the ones with power. Many women compete over the things men value, such as looking sexy… as women, we come to believe that male approval is more significant than female approval, and that a relationship with a man confers more status than a relationship with a woman.”

If Tanenbaum is correct and women are in competition over the things men value, then what other way would we compete if not in teams?

There are plenty of benefits to associating with a team. A well-known label allows you to stand for something without having to say much at all. “I’m a Democrat.” “I’m a Red Sox fan.” “I hate the Red Sox. Go Yankees!” These labels are certainly convenient. They help us identify ourselves and find like-minded people with whom we can form communities. And many of us are desperate for community.

The nuclear family has taken the place of what was once a much greater community (and even still, that is only applicable to those of us who have intact nuclear families). More and more, Americans are moving away from family and friends, and are less likely to be members of churches, synagogues, or other multi-generational communities. We’re missing the support and safety net that a strong community provides, so we seek to create that unity elsewhere. But the substitute communities many of us attempt to form in our adult lives are smaller, less established, less diverse, and far less multi-generational. Hell, some of these communities exist mostly on the internet (hey, APW!). These days, we search for community the easiest way we know how: based on the way we’ve been identified our entire lives. It’s why new mothers are advised to join a new mom’s group. It’s how we all ended up here on APW. Sometimes we find what we’re looking for, but sometimes these communities “other” us more than they help us form new bonds.

The problem is that even though most of us know there is far more to our whole selves than what can be gleaned from a relationship status, we go to bat for our team more often than we might realize. When resources are limited (in some cases these are precious intangible resources like cultural acceptance), solidarity matters. But what we call solidarity is just an illusion; in reality, once we’re put on a team, the only thing we seem to fight is other teams. In order to validate ourselves in a world that still validates so few of women’s life choices, it helps to feel like your choice is the right one. So we buy into the idea that the women on other teams are different from us—and inferior. To change teams, then, is seen as an act of betrayal.

More Than an Archetype

Being accused of such a betrayal hurts. Worse still is the implication that change and personal growth, whether real or perceived, is a mark of weakness or disloyalty. The underlying message is, “Women don’t know what they want!” It’s condescending, and it’s  toxic. The idea that women are fickle excuses just about everything from dismissing women’s voices (most of us have to fight to have our opinions on even the most mundane things taken seriously) to straight-up discriminating against us (not hiring young married women because of the prevalent idea that “she’ll just get pregnant and quit”). No matter what we say we want for ourselves, there is always someone ready to tell us, “Aww, that’s cute… but you’ll change your mind!” (And then someone else ready to be disappointed in us if we do, in fact, change our minds.)

But why are people so quick to assume women only change due to relationships? Both women and men struggle to define themselves in their twenties and thirties. Serious romantic relationships and babies tend to happen during this time, sure, but so do new jobs, cross-country moves, health scares, sexual exploration, financial reality checks, exposure to more diverse ideas and opinions, evolving relationships with parents and siblings, and so many other things. (I actually believe that new relationships are not what change us; maybe we get into these new relationships because we’ve changed. Perhaps the new spouse or the babies are not the cause, but the result, the last—but most visible—way we make others aware of a change that has been happening privately for quite some time.) Still, you rarely hear someone say, “Well, my friend was $60,000 in debt and decided to do something about it and now she’s not fun anymore.” Instead of believing that a relationship status is just one type of label, we let that become the whole of a woman’s identity.

But if we really want the ability to grow and change as people and to form lasting bonds with others, we  must remember that we’re more than a relationship status. We’ve got to open ourselves up to the possibility that spending time with the kind of people living lives that are radically (or maybe just a little) different from ours can be a very good thing. If we expand our understanding of women’s identities beyond the bullshit, one-dimensional archetypes, we can recreate the communities that we used to have—the ones where the child-free folks will watch your kid for a night so that you can go out (I will so do this for you!)…where the married women throw the best parties when you get a promotion, because they know how important it is to have the kind of support you need when you’re experiencing a major life change (I will also do this for you!)…and where we are allowed to be messy, funny, smart, creative, sad, uptight, loving, generous, tough, selfish, open-minded, kind, helpful, vain, aggressive, afraid. And maybe in relationships and maybe with kids, or maybe not. In other words: our whole selves. I would like to be on that team very much.

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  • Amy March

    What about the practical changes relationships and babies bring? When I was single, I talked to my best friend nearly every night, because we were both home alone and bored. Now that I’m seeing someone, I’m out with him several times a week and I talk to her twice. I think we both find it a normal part of life, but it’s hard to argue that it isn’t a relationship driving that change.

    Likewise, nearly everyone I know who has had kids has moved to the suburbs, where the schools are better, day care is cheaper, and they can give their kids the kind of childhood we had. Again, normal life step, but I don’t see them very much because an hour commute to grab a glass of wine on a Sunday afternoon doesn’t make a lot of sense.

    I actually don’t think these friends have changed personality wise, but they have joined new teams, which come with new responsibilities, so our relationships have shifted.

    • Laura C

      Yes, structure matters a lot. I agree with Rachel that we shouldn’t let ourselves be herded onto a single team and defined by one characteristic, shouldn’t be antagonistic towards other women who are doing other things. But I read her post and honestly the idea that people are running around being antagonistic like that all the time is not really a world I recognize, whereas … the simple recognition that people who have husbands are less likely to be available for 3am diner trips, people who have three small children are less likely to be able to sit down and type a really long meaty email, and so on, that stuff is very real to me.

      Sure, we’re likely all still the same people at our cores as we go through life, but structure matters, both to what we have time for and ultimately to who we are. And that, infinitely more so than some idea that people are defined into a single team and only allowed to be on that one, affects the social world I see around me.

      • Rachel

        Oh, I agree that structure matters…but my point is that we should take note of ALL the structure in a woman’s life. Like I said, a lot of life changes tend to happen around the same time and to think that a husband or a kid is the ONLY reason we are seeing a friend is what I’d like to see stop. I can think of a million reasons that I wouldn’t be up for a 3 AM diner trip now, you know? And none of them have to do with my relationship. So that’s where I think it’s so important to see the whole woman and all the things that contribute to the structure of her lifestyle, not just her relationship.

        • Yesss, thank you. This happened to me recently. I’m engaged and a friend invited me out for a night of dancing starting at 11pm, which has never been my scene, so I said no. She responded with some joke about me being married and boring. I should have reminded her that I have never been the clubbing type, and would likely have not accepted the invite even if I were single.

          • Cali

            I also think it’s worth noting that sometimes the big life changes can offer you an “excuse” to finally give in to some of the things you’ve actually always felt/wanted/etc. I’m generally not really into going out to bars till 2am, getting trashed, and dancing with random guys… but when I was single, I felt weirdly obligated to say yes to invitations to do those things because I felt like that was what single girls were supposed to do. Now that I’m married, (and older, I think age is a big part of it too), I feel more justified in not doing it and instead getting my girlfriends to have a wine and cheese party at someone’s house starting at 7:30. ;-) Really, that’s always been more my speed, but somehow I feel OK acknowledging that now.

    • Rachel

      I don’t think that practical changes have to put you on different teams (or be taken as personality changes, which you obviously didn’t do, but some people do). Team Suburbs vs. Team City doesn’t seem like it needs to be a distinction, because it mainly serves to distance us from friends emotionally. I think we can acknowledge life changes and lifestyle changes without turning those changes into a label that serves to divide people.

      • Amy March

        But my point is- is it really the label that’s dividing us? Or is it the actual changes? I’m not seeing a lot of othering of women based on relationship status, but I am seeing a huge impact of it on my relationships.

        Interestingly I see it later in life too. My parents have reconnected with lots of couples they haven’t really seen since they all had kids now that they’re starting to retire. Again, structural changes impacting relationships in a big (and fun! Sign me up for 2 weeks in a chateau with all my friends) and important way.

        • Rachel

          It sounds like in your case, you can look objectively at your situation and say it’s the life changes that are dividing you (and I’m guessing that is common with a lot of APWers, who tend to be an enlightened bunch) and that it’s okay, because it’s a fact of life. I’m trying to address the people whose knee-jerk reaction is to blame relationships and put women on teams without looking more in-depth at all the life changes that happen. And I mentioned this below, but I think sometimes it’s easier for us to use relationships as excuses…it’s so much easier to say, “Welp, I’m in the suburbs, I’m in for the night!” than to admit we don’t want to go do something or stay in touch with former friends. My point is really just that people who immediately put women on teams based on relationship or kids should be more open-minded about the way our friends change and the real reasons why.

          • Laura C

            I guess at base this kind of mentality is so foreign to me that it’s difficult for me to identify with or feel as a real thing. Which is great for me, since it’s an annoying thing I’m not surrounded by! And I’ll just take your word for it that it happens a lot.

    • I’m glad you talked about this. I think the teamification Rachel described is largely media-driven, and an over-simplification (in the worst way) of the structural changes you describe. I don’t really experience it first-hand, either, but my social groups are largely grad students and young bohemians, so I always wonder if I just picked the right crowd to hang with, or if the teamification is just fabricated by media outlets when they’re bored.

      I have a feeling, with the new job I’m starting, I may run into more people making such simplified assumptions. My new boss, for all her wonderful qualities, already drives me nuts with her very sit-com-ish humor, built mostly around heteronormative stereotypes.

  • Wow Rachel, you are so, so wise.
    I want to be on that team too. Instead it is so common to see women fighting each other, putting each other down, trying to justify our own choices by pointing out how other choices are “not the best”, when in reality our particular situations are so different and we are in it together, all trying to do our best with what there is.
    And this happens in so many different spheres… I hope the change you are talking about slowly permeates, I hope we start accepting each other as multi-dimensional beings instead of labelling each other.

  • This really resonates with me. Getting married didn’t change my personality, but it did change everything else. Two months after our wedding, we moved to a military base overseas. It’s strange enough that everyone I’ve met here only knows me as married, but much stranger that my identity to so many people here is military wife, Raj’s wife, or “dependent”. When I go to social functions for the spouses in his squadron, I’m introduced as New Doc’s Wife. These are the officers’ wives gatherings, because we’re separated from the enlisted wives. Most of us can’t get work here, so really Wife becomes the biggest part of our identity, at least for those (relatively few) of us who aren’t Mom. My closest friend here isn’t military affiliated at all (she’s an American who married a Japanese guy she met while here teaching English) so that’s venturing outside my assigned team, but we did immediately bond over being childless and unwillingly unemployed. The most important thing is that she knows me as Lori, not as Doc’s Wife. I need to find a way to make that happen with more people who live on this side of the world.

  • I want to be on that team. I’ve often said to friends with kids that I am happy to babysit for them so they can go our or to go out and do stuff with them. I try to be supportive through life changes be they relationship or otherwise.

    Where I struggle is that I deal with chronic depression which causes me to inadvertently push folks away when I need them, or to overthink things and be anxious about little things. I’ve lost friends in the past over this and I feel like it’s hard to explain what it’s like to deal with depression and anxiety without overthinking it (or worrying about it). I’m about to embark on a huge life decision (that’s not babies and isn’t moving) and I’m struggling with who to tell about it and how and when, even my closest friends.

    Even then, we got married in May, and while it didn’t change me, it changed a hell of a lot, that I’m just now realizing, in addition to that whole “husband/wife” title and relationship. My grandmother passed away a week after the wedding and I’m still processing this and it caused a depressive slide that I am just now getting out of, and while this may be oversharing, I feel comfortable enough in this community (yay APW!) to come out and say it, even when i turn to my husband because I haven’t been able to reach out to my friends and say to him “how long does it hurt?” While getting married didn’t change how we would talk about it, and well, getting married isn’t what lead to my grandmother passing away, it was one of several changes that happened with marriage. The other changes are less hefty but also cool: he can pick up my asthma prescriptions for me now; I can call him my husband; our insurance costs are lower (asthma. is. expensive.) and we are a lot better at calling each other out on our baloney.

    I’m sharing all of this (oversharing?) because I am for Team Women and Team Us and Team Together and I think if we cannot share what has changed, what hasnt’ changed, and what we worry about, it makes it harder to be Team, whether in my marriage (truth) or friendships (also, truth).

    • And because I can’t get the comment editor to work I meant to type my grandmother passing away isn’t a change marriage-related, but it’s occurred since the wedding and how I’ve dealt with it has been affected by having my husband around when I’m sad, and being able to say to him “my grandmother would have loved..” when I see something and think of her.

      • Thank you for being so open and sharing. I’m sorry you lost someone you love, and it’s the truth that solid relationships change the way you process that kind of loss.

        I love this –> ” I am for Team Women and Team Us and Team Together and I think if we cannot share what has changed, what hasnt’ changed, and what we worry about, it makes it harder to be a Team, whether in my marriage (truth) or friendships (also, truth).”

        I have so much more to say, but I’m in a location where I can’t be online commenting on awesome writing, so I’ll have to say it later.

        Also, asthma IS crazy expensive.

        • Thank you for your condolences. It’s been an odd few months, and I can honestly say that I’ve changed in a way from them, but not in a bad way. I still over-contemplate things, but not as much.

          I am excited to hear what more you have to say!

      • JessPeebs

        A little over one year ago, I married my husband. The next week we bought a house and the next week he started his job as a grad student researcher at the same institution that I’m at. The next week we both started back to classes, and the next month my grandmother passed away and the next month his sister passed away… and and and….

        And, Today, I’m finally feeling like I’ve reach the pre-wedding and pre-crazy equilibrium. For friends that didn’t know me well before the last year, I could see how it would come off as “she got married and now doesn’t do anything fun” Closer friends attributed things to their much more correct causes – lots of major life changes all at the same time.

        I guess what I’m trying to say is that I totally get where you’re coming from and I totally agree.

        • thank you for this, it helps to know that someone else is out there who took a while to get back to pre-wedding equillibrium, because I told my husband a couple weeks ago that I feel like I”m in constant “fight or flight,” and I’m FINALLY owning that I’m Team Me on weekends when I need to be Team Me.

          So thank you.

  • I was going to comment later but then worried I wouldn’t so am commenting now but in the middle of a hectic day so apologies in advance if any of this is unclear…

    Today someone reminded me of this

    and I kind of think it speaks to the same sort of thing. We are multi-faceted and that is BRILLIANT.

    Me at fifteen and me now? UNRECOGNISABLE. My five year relationship with my ex was part of me making a conscious decison to make my life different. When we broke up there were all of these possibilities, one of them was my husband and more recently he’s been exploring those possibilities with me and that is cool, but at the heart of it all I am still me, me evolving, changing and finding the spirit to be the me that I always dreamed of.

    Oh and in terms of the relationship being part of the change? A while ago when I first met someone, I’ll call him K he was a party boy and drunk a lot and lived in a batchelor pad, then a year or so later he bought a nice house with a garden near his mum, then he met um P and got into a serious relationship with her and now they are married and have a dog. He met her as part of his intentional path to “grow up and settle down” and he’s super happy. But you know what? He did change when he met her, he used it to help him be even more who he was gunning to be. So the basic bit about changing in/into relationships is universal as others have said BUT I do think teamification of women is a thing that goes beyond that though, I’ve seen it play out and be messy and MEAN. I like the idea of your new team. Can I join?

    • I just clicked on the the link you shared and thank you for that article! I hadn’t read it before and am happy that it was shared. The paragraph about the TARDIS made me chuckle (total whovian here) and it really resonated with me about the idea of the SFC, nearly mroe than the Manic Pixie Dream Girl phenom.

    • Rachel

      YES! Some quotes from that piece were in an earlier draft of this post. It really is fantastic. :)

      Also this? “He did change when he met her, he used it to help him be even more who he was gunning to be.” So true. I think it’s really important to acknowledge that maybe our friends have been wanting to change and a relationship is an excuse more than anything. I think it’s easier to think, “Oh well, the boyfriend wants me to stay in with him tonight!” than admit you’re just not up for going out and partying like you used to.

  • Winter

    I just wanted to affirm you Rachel, this post really spoke to where I am right now. I’m about to be kicked out of team single and about to join team married and the whole idea kind of makes my eye twitch. I want to be me and be on multiple teams and supported by my friends (male and female) where ever I fit in. Why is that so difficult? Well, back to work I go, thanks for writing this great article, I have more thinking about it to do…

    • Ann

      Ugh, being “kicked off” of team single is how I have felt. What makes it worse is that my husband and I are living in different states for the next 8 months. So, yes! I want to go get coffee and hang out! Yes, I want to hang out with my girlfriends. But I distinctly feel like my friends aren’t inviting me to the type of stuff they used to… and there are an entire host of reasons. I’ve talked to some friends, and a few people only want to hang out with newly acquired boyfriends and don’t want a third wheel (but say “let me know when your husband is in town and all four of us can hang out”), and another 2 feel uncomfortable in their “pre-engaged” state and don’t want to hang out around married people.

      BUT, my husbands friends where I live? Most of them (both men and women) are single and 100% want to hang out with me! I think part of the difference is that I am THE first of my college friend group (most of whom live where I live now) to get married–I’m 25. My husband is 28 and a lot of his friends are closer to 30, and it seems like they are much more used to their friends getting married and it being a normal life transition. They’re more interested in supporting me emotionally as I deal with a long distance marriage–overall, even though they’re people who I don’t know as well, I’m finding that they’re being much better friends.

      I’m wondering how much of this is the particular dynamics of my friends vs his friends, and how much of it is age and maturity.

  • Paranoid Libra

    Is it too early in the day for a slow clap?

    Wonderfully written, no wonder you are one of the interns this year ;)

  • April

    This: “Instead of believing that a relationship status is just one type of label, we let that become the whole of a woman’s identity.” I *hate* this – to the point where I really don’t talk much about my relationship status with someone until I know them pretty well. It’s not like I hide it, I just don’t advertise it.

    I love that moment when work acquaintances or old classmates I haven’t spoken to in years are like “Wait, you’re engaged?! Why didn’t you tell us?!! Why isn’t it on Facebook?!!!” Weeeeell, because I knew that if I did, that’s pretty much the only thing you would remember about me/I don’t talk much about my personal life with casual acquaintances.

    • I’d like to do the same, but my living situation makes that difficult. Usually, if I’m sharing a story with friends or acquaintances, I use my partner’s name and let them figure out the relationship. My roommate from college and I figured that out together– even though I’m spending a lot of time with my boyfriend, I don’t need every story about my weekend to be “My boyfriend and I this” and “My boyfriend and I that.” By using his first name right away, it’s an emphasis on spending time with another person or the activity we shared, rather than an emphasis on the relationship.

      However, I moved 1100 miles away from home to a city very few people move TO from the coast. So when I’m meeting new people, within the first conversation or two, I mention that I’ve only lived here a couple years, or that I’m from PA. And inevitably everyone asks me what brings me here, to which I answer that I moved here for my partner who is completing his graduate work, yadda yadda. Fortunately, my partner and I are independent enough that most acquaintances see me solo, rather than with him, so my behavior can serve as a counterpoint to the “girl moves for boy” label.

  • Jessica B.

    Since joining “Team Married” about a year ago, my family + my husband’s family have started to really push me toward “Team Mom”, and it’s something I am really struggling with. Before I was married, they wanted to know about my career, how it was going, where I saw myself, etc — and now it’s just “When are you going to have a baby?” … yet they continue to ask my husband about HIS job and HIS career aspirations. It’s especially frustrating because never, ever have I expressed a desire to have a child anytime soon, but it’s as if they’ve decided that must be my next step because I’m married — that because I have the wife label, now I need the mother label. So this post resonates with me. Yes, I joined a new team, but I AM STILL ME with dreams and goals. Curious if anyone else has experienced this?

    • p.

      I have definitely experienced this. I also see the same thing happen to friends and family who have kids. People ask the moms about their kids, not about them.

      • Jessica B.

        Honestly, that’s one huge reason I am afraid to have kids — I feel like once I’ve got the mom label, I lose myself completely and won’t be “allowed” to have my own interests, hobbies, passions, etc. I know that’s crazy-talk, but it’s definitely something I fear.

        • Sarah McD

          I think the best part about being on a “team” is that no one can make that decision for you. It’s not like we’re 7 and our moms signed us up for an after-school activity we’re not super into. As much as people voice their own opinions and push for you to join a team, the decision is ultimately yours. I’ve had people be disapproving about me joining Team Married because my fiancé and I haven’t dated for 3+ years so how well do we really know each other as well as people “mourning” my departure from Team Single because now what will we talk about since I won’t have bad date/drunk debauchery/alcohol-fueled bad decision stories to share anymore?

          To quote one of Rachel’s previous posts quoting Amy Poehler, “I don’t care if you don’t like it.” Do what’s best for you. Bring up your job and career aspirations when people ask about babies. If all else fails, make a comment about how you didn’t realize the occupancy status of your uterus was the only interesting topic of conversation with a married woman. I don’t want to bear children, so I’m laying the groundwork now with family (both mine and his) that I don’t want kids of my own. If people are pushing you to get knocked up, call them out on it (with whatever degree of snark you feel is appropriate for the situation.) Remind people that your husband married you for more than your baby-making lady bits.

          • Jessica B.

            SARAH MCD, I love everything you said, and you’re so right about choosing our “teams.” You sound pretty badass. Thanks for the awesome reply!

    • Ruth

      I’ve been experiencing this too, from my own family as well as my husband’s. I finally had to take my folks aside and say, “I love you guys, but enough. I am declaring a moratorium on all baby related discussions until my husband and I bring it up ourselves.” Eventually they got the message, and I’ve noticed that since then we talk about my career, our travels, and all the other interesting aspects of our lives much more.

    • Jacky

      Oh man. I’m not even married yet, but have been experiencing this ever since my fiance and I started dating. It’s not as bad with my fiance’s family, but my family has been pushing me towards progressively more “settled-sounding” Teams for years. When they first met hy fiance, I would get questions of “So are you two going to get married?” which eventually turned into “WHEN are you going to get married?” Now that we’re engaged, we’re getting “Are you going to have kids right away?” and I am dreading the day when it turns into “WHEN are you going to have kids?” Nevermind the assumption that we’re definitely having kids. We do in fact want kids someday, but I don’t recall ever telling my family about it!

      And, consistent with your experience, they always ask my fiance how his job is going, directing all questions about our relationship’s progression at ME. It’s super frustrating because I definitely put more time and energy into my current job than he puts into his.* While the family I’m building with my fiance is an important part of my identity, I really dislike how most of my family views it as my ENTIRE identity.

      * To some this might come off as calling my fiance “lazy” or something, but he’s in the middle of a career transition and his real passions in life aren’t things that make money for us (yet!). So at the moment he’s “working to live” rather than “living to work,” if you will. But people still ask about his job and almost never ask about mine.

  • Sara P

    This is fantastic – thank you.

  • Kristen

    I’m really glad my APW meet up group is going to have some feminism coffee klatches, because this piece, like many others on feminist issues, confused me. I get (I think) what Rachel is saying. I just don’t happen to look at the world this way. I can’t help but question why one would want to look at the world this way or what the benefit is in thinking along these lines? I ask not out of judgement – everything Rachel has written for APW shows how obviously intelligent and thoughtful she is. I ask out of ignorance. Because I don’t understand the life benefits to expending mental energy on these topics, but I’m happy to learn and understand more about it, even if I never agree on how useful it is.

    “From a very young age, women are defined by how they exist in relation to others.”

    This is a fascinating statement, but I don’t think its true. So does that mean I’m not a feminist? Basically that’s what I’m trying to figure out.

    To me, I try not to waste energy worrying about how other people view me, I spend my energy trying to be the best person I can be and hoping others appreciate it. It’s all I can do, in my mind. I’ve absolutely experienced some of the treatment that Rachel describes here – being judged for changing, having hard personal work be unappreciated by friends and family, being lumped into groups or judged for being emotional. However treatment like this is done by the individual, not the human race so I refuse to make generalizations or broad statements about “how the world treats women” based on how I am treated. I look at these situations as being so specific to the person(s) I engage with and I place the blame/shame at their feet individually. I don’t know, I guess I just often feel so alone in the way I think about these things and I’m wondering if I am.

    • Amy March

      I don’t think you’re alone in thinking this way at all, but I do think part of feminism involves acknowledging that individual situations are influenced by a broader societal treaent of women as a whole. Which doesn’t mean that every jerk is sexist, but for me rather that how we decide what behavior is jerky and how jerks chose their behavior is influenced by more than individual choices. The notion that your personal choices are political is a fairly bedrock feminist idea, and for me means that, yes, I see the appeal in living my life as an individual, but also, yes, from time to time there’s some sexism happening. I enjoyed Caitlin Moran’s take on this.

      • Kristen

        “I do think part of feminism involves acknowledging that individual situations are influenced by a broader societal treaent of women as a whole.”

        What a great way to put it. And if that’s the case, then I guess I’m not a feminist. Because I don’t think that “society” treats anyone like anything. I’d love to walk around in turquoise sequins everyday with cotton candy pink hair. I don’t because it’s not business professional (more’s the pity) and certainly the majority of people would think me eccentric at the very least. But I won’t blame society for how I live my life. I’m responsible for that. Short of everyone I encounter blatantly telling me to my face, I mean less because I’m a woman and that they feel this way because “society” feels this way, I’ll never believe that’s how “society” sees me – and why would I want to?

        Maybe there’s like a diet feminism, because I absolutely believe in equality for ALL. Is there a feminism lite team I can belong to?

        • 39bride

          Kristen, you’re not alone. And I love your comments. I sat there reading this beautifully-written, thoughtful, intelligent essay… and saying to myself, “Hunh? I never thought this way and never felt pressure from others who thought this way. Is this really a ‘thing?’ Maybe I’m just surrounded by awesome people…?”

          • Kristen

            Sometimes I feel like an old lady when I read the feminist pieces because all I want to say to the authors is, “Why think this way? Come on ladies, be positive! Look at the good things in life – why go looking for problems?”

            I think I understand that for people (cuz there’s guy feminists and I’ve met some) who consider themselves feminist, they (I think) need to be aware and on the watch for inequality and such. I think – again, not a lot of this makes sense to me because my brain doesn’t tick this way, but I think I understand the motivation behind this kind of idea. I just think its not good for people to worry about this stuff. That’s an old lady thing to say too I guess.

            I’ve spent a lot of time retraining my brain from all the bad and unhealthy habits I learned growing up and part of that was not looking for problems but instead looking for the bright side of life. So issues like this are hard for me because while I understand there is inequality in this world, to me the solution is simple. Shun or shame anyone you see being sexist/racist/dishing out inequalities of any sort. Join team human race and simply demand we treat each other well. Problem solved.

            I guess that sounds pretty naive or simplistic but hell, why wouldn’t you want to live life this way? It feels good and you get to love everyone and believe everyone is good and has the best of intentions. When you realize they don’t, you let them know how not cool it is and you move the hell on. I’ve had mixed results with this life outlook and I’ve definitely been burned, but overall, I just feel better trying to live every day optimistically.

        • Maddie

          I think part of the disconnect is that in order to believe in equality for all, we sort of have to acknowledge that it’s not yet the reality?

          • Yes! It’s recognizing that you have the privilege to avoid thinking this way, and the people who think this way, while many, many other women do not get that privilege.

  • Great post. I really appreciate this: “new relationships are not what change us; maybe we get into these new relationships because we’ve changed.” I think that’s spot on, and relates to issues of timing and maturity as well. My current relationship is the healthiest, most fulfilling and freeing one I’ve ever had–but I know if I had met my boyfriend, let’s say, six months earlier, then we probably wouldn’t have dated because I wasn’t in a place in life to be ready for something so serious.

    Another example: one of my college girlfriends was the token “slutty” friend in college. She always partied, hooked up with random guys, and really thought nothing of it; additionally, she always said she probably wouldn’t get married ever. I remember having a mini-intervention with her my junior year to say that maybe she should tone it down a little, and she looked at me with surprise and said, “Well, I’m sorry you have a problem with my behavior… but I don’t.” Three years later, she met a guy at a bar, moved in with him 6 months later, got engaged 6 months after that, married 6 months after that, and now she has a baby and a puppy and a husband in the ‘burbs. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard: “SHE’S CHANGED” because of all these life events. And… she did, but she also grew up, you know?

    Yet another example: my 22-year-old friend and running buddy recently said that she and her boyfriend were settling in for a relaxing Saturday night, but then his friend called wanting to go out. “We couldn’t be THAT couple, so we went,” she explained. I had to laugh because at age 27, I have no qualms about being THAT couple or person who wants sleep more than a hangover :)

    Last thing: Rachel and everyone else reading this post, definitely check out Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. In one section, Brown argues that shame and fear of vulnerability is at the root of all these label battles for men and women. It’s super interesting!

    • “Well, I’m sorry you have a problem with my behavior… but I don’t.”

      I love your friend. :)

      • I know! She definitely put me in my place, for good reason :)

        • It reminded me of the Amy Poehler quote.

  • Another thing that people like to overlook is that *all* of our relationships can help shape our lives and how we change, not just our romantic ones. Our relationships with our family, our friends, our bosses, our co-workers, our teachers, our mentors, our coaches, our teammates…

    When someone finds a relationship and suddenly “grows up and settles down”, that one new person is still not the only relationship having an impact on their changes. Influence comes from all over, and it is cumulative. We just notice the romantic relationships because they stand out more.

  • I cannot even tell you how strongly Rachel’s piece spoke to me! This is right on target with how my life is feeling these days. Hallelujah! I thought I was totally alone!

    I am married, have been for years, and was the first of my close friends to be married. That relationship change was NOTHING to navigate as compared to a few years later when I got a really, really great career going while still (very happily) maintaining my place in a fairly conservative religion. My “church friends” didn’t get my work-out-of-the-home status and my “work friends” feel (and often vocalize) their distaste of my religious choice. Add to that years of infertility and loads of treatments for that, and the delicate balance between missing too much work while still bearing the pressure I feel from being the last of our “church friends” to not have children…whew, it’s exhausting to try and keep up with others’ expectations of me!

    That said, I am always happy to watch our friends children and even delight in it! On the other side of the coin, I also love a good happy hour after work and the freedom that working outside of the home and not having to run home to make dinner for a passel of kids affords me! We are complex, critically thinking, loving, capable women. I appreciate this sentiment so much – thank you Rachel!

  • Jenna

    Thank you so much for writing this post, it was very needed and made me feel that perhaps I’m not crazy or a terrible friend.

    This year i started a new job, got divorced from a very bad marriage, fell in love with an old friend, traveled all over the world, got kicked out of my apartment due to the building being sold with no warning, moved to the city, and found out my father has Cancer. To say this year has been a shock to the system and a mix of both wonderful and horrible would be a massive understatement. Because of all of these things I have been a bit of a hermit. I needed time to figure things out, to sort out my life, and yes, i am in the mist of a new relationship so of course you are a bit more consumed with one another in the beginning. However i feel like thats all that people see, that i have a new boyfriend and so i don’t have time for my friends. My closer friends who have been around for much longer are much more supportive. They understand that i needed this year to be selfish and deal with my own life and yes take a step back. I hate so much that rather then friends saying wow look at everything she’s gone through she’s still standing and turning everything around, instead all they see if that I’m a bad friend because i haven’t had dinner with the girls enough

  • I enjoyed this piece as I enjoy all of Rachel’s writing, and it is interesting to see some of the ambivalent reactions. Strongly concur with the idea of more highly valuing the life changes of women which aren’t related to marriage and babies; my closest friends are currently single, and remembering to give the same weight and attention to things that they are going through, like job searches and moves and new relationships is a struggle for all of us, as our friendship has revolved around my wedding for the past several months. And I think, at the heart of it, that is what the piece is all about, not assuming that a woman’s worth and status is directly tied to romantic relationships and realizing that marriage and baby time shouldn’t be the only time women get celebrated, and also that it is not the source of all of their changes.

    But as much as we should push back against a sexist culture which overwhelmingly judges women for attached, marriage, and mothering status, we should also talk openly about how much these relationships can change us, and in what ways. I feel very different as I wife than I did as a girlfriend, and felt different as a girlfriend than I did when I was single. Seeing myself in the context of journeying through life with someone else has shifted a lot of things in terms of finances, boundaries, time management, priorities, outlook on the world, mostly in good ways. It has made me more protective and less patient with intrusion in ways that some may find offputting. I find myself much more drawn to hanging out with women who are wives not because that’s my team now, but because in such circles I can find people who can identify with my daily life and conflicts and struggles, who I don’t feel like I have to hold back on how much I talk about my husband or like I’m making my marriage too much of a “big deal.”

  • MDBethann

    I LOVED Rachel’s piece and found that it dovetailed really well with a post on another blog that one of my friends shared yesterday:

    I know some of the other commenters think that “society” doesn’t have expectations for us, but I disagree. Whether it is through media (movies, TV, magazines, FB, blogs, etc), tradition, families, churches, the towns in which we were raised, etc, we are all fed ideas of the way things “should be” and this is “society” telling us what the “rules” are. There is nothing wrong with doing things your own way and not following society’s rules – I personally think that is awesome. And to me, Rachel’s fantastic piece, as well as the “mom” one my friend shared, both focus on saying “that’s LIFE.” In fact, sometimes society’s expectations are downright unhealthy for us (like the stay-at-home-dad piece from earlier this week in which the husband was stressed & didn’t enjoy working outside the home but was incredibly happy at home).

    When I was single, I didn’t mind going out for dinner & the theater or a movie, but clubbing and cocktail parties and bars were not my thing, though I did it on occasion. Living out in the ‘burbs (where I could afford to own my own place) made it a bit easier to turn down invites to things I didn’t want to do without seeming like a stick in the mud (i.e. saying “It takes me an hour to get home on public transit & it is getting late so I need to head home” was more polite than saying “The music is loud & annoying & I’m not having fun.”).

    Now that I’m married, my friends are a mix of single, married, and married with kids. Some of my friends seem to place themselves (unintentionally or not) in the “Team Mom” bucket & instead of getting their husbands to run a child to a lesson or practice, insist on doing it all themselves, so trying to get together for dinner or even tea is nearly impossible (and if they’d rather just not hang out with me, I’d wish they’d say so and stop using their offspring as an excuse. I’d prefer the honesty). But some of my other friends with kids are like “I’d love to see X show with you, let me make sure I don’t have kid duty” and then we go to the theater or whatever it is that our partners aren’t interested in doing with us. Sometimes things work out and sometimes they don’t, but they’ve managed to find a balance in which being a parent doesn’t make them perpetually unavailable.

    Even though we don’t have kids yet, I still check with my husband before I make plans with friends – he may have something in mind for us that time. I did the same thing with my sister when we lived together so I wouldn’t leave her out of things or over book myself. It’s the polite thing to do when you’re in a family.

    I don’t think we have to or should be pigeonholed, but society makes it really easy to do that to ourselves and one another. What I like about Rachel’s piece is that she calls this out, makes us aware of it, so we can try not to do it so much to each other. And I think the “mom” piece I shared at the start of my comments emphasizes this same thing – can’t we just all be on the SAME team and support each other as long as our choices don’t hurt ourselves, our partners, our families, and/or our children?

  • another meg

    I just wanted to touch on how losing multi-generational communities might have increased our lumpiness. Some of us have been lumping ourselves and others into groups, for better or worse, and I wonder if we’d do that if we weren’t always around people our own age.

    As someone who grew up in a Catholic family with a parish and steady neighborhood, I feel a bit…lonely as an adult. I have plenty of friends and lots of family, but my friends are all my age. I feel lonely for wise people who believe what I do and might have some wisdom for me, or who will be another form of support. I also moved for graduate school, so everyone is far away. There are no neighbors who are twenty years older than me, but who I’ve known forever and can have a cup of coffee and talk knitting.

    I’m agnostic (at best) now and I’m really feeling the loss of community these days. I worry that my kids won’t have it, since when we have kids, my atheist husband and I will not be in a church of any kind.

    Anyone else feeling this? Anyone else who has ideas of other ways to get this kind of community when you don’t have a religion?

    • A single Sarah for certain values of single

      Yes, to religion being the key multi-generational community when away from family.

      Some other places that I’ve found friends of different ages:
      1) Work/school
      2) Library book club
      3) Talking to random people on the train or in the park (though the lasting friends have been within 10 years of me)
      4) Dancing/other local events. (And with that, I should stop making the list and go out.)

      Also, have you looked for a local Unitarian Unilateralist congregation? Some congregations are very atheist/agnostic.

      • A single Sarah for certain values of single

        Or Quaker meeting? Again, groups vary regionally. But may be worth a visit.

    • I haven’t seen it mentioned before and it varies greatly with location and activity, an whether or not someone is into that sort of thing, but I have found a great multi-generational community through a sporting group

    • Another Meg

      Woo! Thanks for the great ideas!

    • mackenzie

      “I feel lonely for wise people.” Me too. Me. Too.

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  • mackenzie

    “I actually believe that new relationships are not what change us; maybe we get into these new relationships because we’ve changed. Perhaps the new spouse or the babies are not the cause, but the result, the last—but most visible—way we make others aware of a change that has been happening privately for quite some time.” THIS.

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