Dear Ellie — Let me tell you about a talk your mother and I once had with your grandfather and Uncle Nick. It was about 10 years ago. If memory serves, we’d just demolished them in a holiday game of Trivial Pursuit, and the two guys were kind of contentious. (Men get like that sometimes.)
Anyway, while they sulked, the subject of gender came up. Namely, was it harder to be a man or a woman?
That one was easy. We all agreed that it’s a harder life to be a woman. There are still so many inequities and prejudices women face, even in this semi-enlightened, 21st-century world. Even in a relatively progressive country. Women have more professional and educational opportunities these days, but we still spend more time on household work and child care.
But what these two smart, liberal guys couldn’t understand, just couldn’t get — was that your mother and I wouldn’t have changed places with them for anything. Sure, it was harder to be a woman, but we preferred it.
They thought we were crazy, and I’m not sure we ever got them to understand. But I think you will.
I think women lead richer lives than men — and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. We have closer friendships that we tend to like lush gardens. Over my lifetime, I’ve spent thousands of hours with women friends, walking, drinking coffee or wine, talking trivia, talking politics, talking marriage and divorce and relationships and love and hate and sex. We’ve screeched with laughter and we’ve cried, sometimes in the same conversation.
And occasionally, we’ve just shown up for each other and waited to see what we could do. I had a good friend like that when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. She just showed up and listened to me. She didn’t judge me, didn’t tell me what I should be doing or feeling (which is what almost everyone else was doing). She just let me be.
I’ve tried to always remember that kind of love when I’ve had friends go through hardships — divorce, broken hearts, the loss of children, disease, dying. Sometimes, you just need to rant and rail and go crazy and know you’re still loved, no matter what. (Writing that, I recall some of the times I’ve failed or fallen short as a friend. I haven’t always been the kind of friend I want to be. Maybe we all go missing in action from time to time, maybe we can’t always be there for one another. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.)
At this point, I don’t even know whether I’m writing you about being a woman or about women’s friendships; the two are inextricably linked in my mind. “I don’t think you understand — being around friends is like oxygen to me,” I told your grandfather once. I think he said no, he didn’t understand, or maybe he just nodded.
So, maybe it’s about pure breath, but at any rate, it’s a long way from Trivial Pursuit. The point is, we hear a lot today about what women are doing wrong. They don’t lean in, they don’t speak authoritatively enough, they don’t negotiate aggressively — essentially, they need to act more like men if they’re going to succeed in professional worlds that are still men’s domains. And I won’t argue those points, except to say, well, then, we need to change the damned workplace more than women need to change themselves.
But, you know what? There’s still so much women already do right. I do think we see and live in a more complicated world than men, laden with technicolor emotion and wounds that need to be salved and hearts that crack open. But again, there’s so much richness and depth there that I wouldn’t give up for anything.
Welcome to this vivid world, my baby girl. Love, Coco
(Copyright 2016 by Ruth Pennebaker)