Unintentional Feminism

Usually, my husband Chad and I divide and conquer the morning—I take our little one, Ellen, to her babysitter on my way into the office, and he sees Jane, our kindergartener, off to school before beginning his telecommuting work day. Today, he needed to run an early morning errand, and a virus hit me a few minutes after he left. 

Jane rose to the occasion of being her sick mom’s helper. She made her bed and brushed her teeth without being asked. She turned on Sesame Street to entertain Ellen. She grabbed her own breakfast. She donned her shoes and coat and told me to feel better before walking herself outside to wait for the bus. I stood at the window in our dining room so I could keep one eye on her and another on Ellen, who was happily eating cereal in her high chair. It had been drizzling on and off, and some neighborhood kids were waiting in cars with their parents. Jane pulled her hood up, seemingly unfazed by the weather. A minute later, a much older girl came to wait for the bus. Jane looked up (at least an entire foot) at this girl and started talking. By the time the bus came, Jane was full-on storytelling, gesturing wildly and moving her head emphatically. 

Suddenly, I found myself sobbing and laughing at the same time. I was overwhelmed by Jane, who had seemed to age dramatically in one morning. Then I heard Ellen’s voice: “Oh no, Mommy!” as she dropped her spoon. Tears rushing but smiling, I walked over to help Ellen and made it back to the window just as the bus pulled away. Maybe I felt some sense of grief that Jane’s childhood is so rapidly flying by. Maybe it was a sense of sadness and shame that I’m usually not here for these morning moments. Maybe it was worry that I’m missing so much more of Jane’s and Ellen’s lives than I want to. Maybe it was pride for this wonderfully independent, confident child I’m raising. Maybe I’m feeling extra sensitive about everything because of my complicated views on what it means to be a woman in 2017. Maybe I was tired and dehydrated. 

It was probably all of that. My experience as a mother has taught me these emotions are not definable and that trying to define them is useless.

When I look at the Women’s March and the barrage of reactions to it, I feel some version of “all of that.” I've come to think of myself as an “Unintentional Feminist” (which wave is that?). I studied business in college. I’ve never boycotted or protested anything. It was a shock to me to learn, upon graduating law school, that glass ceilings still exist. I resisted women’s events for the first half of my career because I interpreted them as women placing ourselves at the kid’s table. I’ve rolled my eyes at the concepts of bonding and work-life balance. 

But life informed me, as it so often does. I showed up at court dressed in a black suit and white shirt, and opposing counsel asked if I was a witness. I went to a charity event for an education association with my firm and was asked by someone I had met many times if I was a teacher. The subtle comments started to amass despite my attempts to ignore them, which made the blatant comments (including those from women, comments like, “I’m not sure why you’d have children if you aren’t going to raise them") cut that much deeper. Add these experiences to a growing awareness of my own privilege, and I've had a big wake up call.

I now devote much of my professional and avocational energy to supporting other women and considering the structures that hold them back. When I think about that, and especially when I think about what it requires of me, I laugh and sob exactly as I did this morning. This isn't the career that I wanted, but armed with more information than I had in my twenties, it’s the one I’ve chosen. Unintentional feminism, for me, means I’m a walking mix of frustration with both men and women, resignation, patience, grace (even marginal effectiveness for me requires a constant effort to understand, appreciate, find something approaching absolution for the sensibilities of men), and empathy. I’ve developed a habit of digging my index fingernail into my thumb to manage my facial expressions, which is both literally true and the most apt metaphor of my life. 

The Women’s March, which in many ways represented what now feels like a good part of my life’s work, felt alien to me. It built a sense of community for millions of people, but I felt alone standing at my dining room window crying about my daughters. Despite all of my efforts, despite all of our efforts, I know with certainty that they will both have versions of this moment. These emotions are not definable. The best I know to say, as an Unintentional Feminist, is that I hope in all of the momentum building, those who marched will recognize and make space for those of us who are quietly digging our fingernails into our thumbs every day toward the same ends.