Something happened yesterday that rocked my world. My son, almost 9, learned that I am a woman.
It was mid-morning and I was leaving a doctor’s appointment. My son was home “sick” (mental health day) so he was in the back seat of our minivan.
I had to make a U-turn to get where we needed to go, and a large truck was partially obstructing my view. Still, my route looked clear, so I went for it. As soon as I did, I saw a pick up truck coming towards me. I had already pulled out far enough where there was no turning back, so I did what we all do in that situation – I gunned it and gave the apologetic wave.
I was in the wrong in this situation. Nobody’s life was put in danger, nobody had to slam on their brakes (in fact, nobody had to brake at all), and I was able to get in the right hand lane and give the pick up truck the left hand lane.
It was an honest mistake and the world should have kept turning. But it didn’t, at least not for me.
When I glanced in my rearview mirror to see if the driver of the pick up truck was going to forgive my transgression, my heart sank.
The truck held three young white men in baseball caps listening to loud music. The kind of men who have the world on a string. I sighed. Here we go, I thought.
“Hey buddy,” I warned my son, “these guys behind us may yell some bad words at me because of my U-turn, so I want you to center yourself, put up a bubble* and be ready for it, okay?”
“But you waved at them and said sorry. They’re real far behind us,” my son answered. His voice sounded nervous.
In my rearview, the pick up was gaining on us and I was bracing myself.
As soon as they pulled up next to me, the verbal onslaught I’d expected began.
The driver made sure to stay perfectly alongside my minivan, as his two buddies leaned out to their waists (in below freezing weather!) to scream at me.
“YOU STUPID B*TCH!”
“YOU’RE SO F*CKING STUPID!”
“WHAT A DUMB C*NT, DO YOU KNOW HOW STUPID YOU ARE, B*TCH?”
“WHAT THE F*CK WERE YOU THINKING, B*TCH?”
I looked straight ahead and kept murmuring to my son “it’s okay, we’re safe, I’m keeping us safe, don’t look at them, they’re not good people, they’re not making good choices, I’m sorry you have to hear this.”
This went on for a couple traffic lights. You know – a few blocks that felt like a few lifetimes.
Thankfully, we were headed to get some coffee for me and hot chocolate for my boy, so we turned off while the pick up full of angry dudes kept heading straight.
Both of us were very shaken up. My son kept remarking, “I’ve never heard anyone yell like that. They sounded so …. angry. Like just so loud. How could they have so much hate in their voices like that? They didn’t even sound like real people.”
He was right, of course. But I gently suggested he let it go because we didn’t need to hang on to that kind of angry energy anymore. It was awful, yes, but it was over now and we were safe.
As we sat in the Starbucks drive through line (it was below 30 degrees, remember?) my son asked me a question that caught me entirely off-guard.
“Mama, usually when people are rude to you, you’re sassy right back to them because you don’t like mean people. But this time you didn’t look at those guys and you didn’t say anything at all. It was weird for me to see you be so quiet while someone screamed bad words at you. Why didn’t you tell those bullies how mean they were being?”
And that, my friends, is the moment when my world stopped turning and my heart shattered into ten million tiny little pieces.
That is the moment when my 9 year old son saw me.
He saw my contradictions and my broken parts and my doubts and my femaleness.
For the first time in his life, my son had borne witness to the fact that I, his mother, cannot actually protect him from everything and everyone.
Not because I don’t want to, and not because I am not fierce or strong or brave, but because I am a woman, and that makes me inherently vulnerable as I walk through the world.
It felt like a rite of passage, an oh-so shattering one.
Logically, I knew I had done nothing wrong, at least nothing huge or dangerous. Emotionally, I felt like I had failed.
I felt small. I felt weak. I felt vulnerable and I felt like I had exposed my soft underbelly to my son, a boy who, for 8 years and 359 days had thought I was immortal.
I told my son that my job as his mama is to keep him safe. I told him that I can’t keep him safe if I’m not safe, and that anyone who uses language like those men did, or leans halfway out of their car to scream like that is probably the type of person who would also be willing to hurt me. I told him that if someone’s words or behavior make me feel unsafe, I know to “zip it, lock it, put it in my pocket and get out of there.”
He accepted this answer. And maybe it’s a good life lesson, to know when to speak up for yourself and when to just shut up, I don’t know.
But he kept talking about how angry he felt at those guys, and I couldn’t help but think that it felt like a torch had been passed, that something had clicked inside of him and he realized that there will be times where he will have to protect me. Because he is male and I am not.
It dawned on me that he’s allowed to be angry, that his maleness gives him access to expressing his anger without being labeled by everyone around him.
(What do we call an angry woman? A bitch? Psycho? On her period? What are the male equivalents of such labels? Not much, right? Just a pissed off dude.)
And I wondered….Had anyone ever asked me the question my son had asked me, point blank?
How do you discern whom to speak your mind to, and whom to just avoid eye contact with and pretend you can’t hear their ugly words?
When had I internalized this?
Sure – even if I had been a man in this situation, I wouldn’t have engaged. But my point is – would they? Maybe. But most likely not for nearly as long, and most definitely not with the same hateful language they did today.
I thought back to how many times I had been approached by strange men on various streets – how if I responded with a brusque, polite “hi,” it was almost always viewed as an invitation to walk and talk with me, so I had learned to pretend I couldn’t hear them.
I recalled how many times, ignoring catcalls or invitations to chat had prompted outcries of rude, ugly things – comments about my appearance, my weight, my sexual desirability – one time a comment about the smudge marks on my sunglasses and what this must say about my worthiness as a human being. (Yeah. Seriously.)
What if my daughter had witnessed this same event at the age of 9? Would she have asked me the same direct question? Or would she have already internalized enough of society’s messages about what it means to be female to just know to follow my lead and keep quiet, maybe silently crying in the back seat? Would I have felt the same guilty feelings if it had been my daughter, the same feelings of weakness and shame? Or would I just have felt outraged at the world and cried about it later?
I was shaken up all day and when I told my husband about it, he had the same reaction that my son did – he was angry at the men who had yelled at me.
When I told a dear friend about it today, her eyes welled with tears as I tried to verbalize the gravity of the situation, and she just silently nodded.
“He saw you,” she said. “Your son saw you.”
And that’s just it.
He saw me.
Today is the day that will go down in my own personal history as the day that I abdicated as reigning Supermom and became a woman in my 9 year old son’s eyes.
I am not an ignorer. Not usually, anyway.
I am a fighter, a world changer, a whistle blower.
I am a cheerleader, a teacher, a friend.
I believe in baby steps and exposing our broken pieces so we can fix them together.
I hope that when you read this, you reflect on how you carry yourself through the world.
My mission is to empower other women.
Any and every way I can.
That is my promise to you as a woman.
I see you, I honor your femaleness, and I am raising boys who will be men who will see your daughter’s femaleness as a strength and an asset, not something to destroy and tear down.
That is my promise to you as a mother.
*our kids take these classes to learn how to handle big feelings, grounding/centering and putting themselves in bubbles are tools they use to protect themselves from others’ big emotions.