guest post by Shaylee Jensen
I want to start off this post by recognizing that I am a very privileged person, and that my experiences that I discuss and the conclusions that I have come to are based on that privilege. I am a white middle class woman. I am in a heterosexual marriage, and my experiences come from a heterosexual dating life. I recognize that my conclusions work for me, but won’t work for everyone. My hope is simply to help others to begin thinking about how to become more positive and confident in themselves. With that said, here’s what I have to say:
The process of recognizing all of the things in the world that tend to teach that women are inferior, weak, or incapable of reaching their dreams can be a very difficult one. It has been for me, at least. Although I feel more informed and better equipped to be a stronger woman, recognizing the oppressive structures, traditions, customs, and ignorance of people hasn’t helped me to actually become a stronger woman. Knowledge is supposed to be power, but why is it that the knowledge of oppression doesn’t seem to help me to stand up against negative stereotypes, love my body, and give me more strength to brave a world such as the one we live in?
This has been a great paradox in my life. The knowledge = power can be very true to my experience, but other times the equation often looks like this: knowledge = pain + self pity + more feelings of helplessness. I have often found myself remembering my days of ignorance about gender inequality and the ability I had to just internalize the bad messages being sent to me and move on with my life. It seemed so much more simple back then, even if it wasn’t actually good for me.
What is the actual process of becoming a stronger woman? This question has been plaguing my mind for several weeks now because I want to face the world with more positivity. It is so important to me that I can have the strength to overcome trials. I am sure this process is different from person to person, so please don’t think my advice is the end-all be-all of answers. However, as I have thought about these things, I have found strength by doing some of these things:
1. Recognizing and praising strength when I see it in others.
I get so much strength from seeing others, especially women, lgbtqi+ people, and other minority groups, accomplish great things despite the challenges that society has placed on them. I could name a lot of people from history that inspire me, but none inspire me as much as my mom.
My mom braved single parenthood as a late teenager while also getting her Registered Nursing degree. She eventually found my dad and they got married in her early twenties. She had four more children before she was 30. The stay-at-home mom life was never for her. Instead, she has always been a wonderfully supportive parent, the main breadwinner in the house, and has always had a very lively career as an ER nurse. She got her master’s degree while working full time and being a parent of 5 kids. She started a non-profit organization called Southwest SANE to help rape examinations be done in ways that would stand up in courts, allowing many people the opportunity to testify against their oppressors with evidence. (More information about these kinds of groups can be found here: http://www.southwesthealth.org/sane-program). She has adjusted her schedule by working both night and day shifts at points in her life so that she can spend time with her children, sometimes only getting as little as 4 hours of sleep. She is an avid reader – even with work and parenting she has never seemed to lose the time to read. She also enjoys going to concerts and vacations. She doesn’t always keep a perfect balance between working, parenting, and playing, but she does a pretty good job for the most part. She also lost both her parents and her husband in recent years. These have been devastating events, but her ability to pick herself up after all this has given me more strength than I think I can express.
There is one moment in her life in which she was possibly the strongest woman I’ve ever known. When my dad died (it was a sudden and unexpected death), my whole family was doing our best to find the next step. This was especially hard on my mom, for reasons I am sure you can imagine. There had been many projects around the house that my dad never found the time to help with. One of the biggest projects was our backyard – we never had a real backyard, it had always just been dirt, rocks and weeds. I think that my mom really needed her home to feel more warm and welcoming, which is something the dirt and weeds couldn’t offer her. So she sold the family car (one that my dad seemed to use the most) and hired a landscape team. She also repainted the kitchen and did a few other odds and ends around the house. I think it was important to her that she did these things, because she needed to know that she had the ability and strength to do them. Being able to accomplish these tasks meant that she was going to be okay, because she proved to herself that she still had the power to do them. It seems like a small thing, but sometimes the greatest strengths come from the small things.
She took charge of her life when everyone would have understood if she hadn’t. That has helped me to remember that nothing can have the power to overcome you unless you let it. It reminds me of the end of one of my favorite poems, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” I look up to my mom every day. She continues to stand up against stereotypes with being a single parent, full-time ER nurse, and soon, a full-time student getting her nurse practitioner’s degree. She doesn’t let things stop her from becoming all that she knows she can be.
2. Recognizing and praising strength when I see it in myself.
I think it is also important to recognize the times in our own lives in which we have had strength. This is much harder to do, but this is important. It has taken me longer than it should to think of something for this, but here is what I have come up with for myself:
I dated a guy very seriously during my sophomore year of college. He had begun to talk to me about getting married and having a family together. I was young and I didn’t ask enough questions about this, but instead dove in and happily started envisioning the future with him. We definitely had many problems in our relationship, but we swept them under the rug and instead ignorantly focused on what might be.
Well, before the school year was over, things began to change for him. He told me that he didn’t want to talk about those things anymore and we began to fight. Then one day, he broke up with me, but once again, instead of talking about our problems, he only said, “I was praying and felt that God wants us to separate for a while.” I had not gotten this revelation, but felt that if he did, it must be true. I didn’t fight, but just willingly accepted. I ignored all inklings of problems that we might have for the hope that someday God would let us be together again.
The following 2 months were full of chaos. He had a difficult time letting me go, and I was struggling to understand God’s will through him instead of through God. He continually asked me to go places with him, have dinner with him, watch movies with him. To me, every time he asked me to be with him, I had this naive hope that God had given him a new revelation and we could be together again. It never happened. We continued to just break each other’s hearts. I continued to blindly follow him instead of finding out what I actually wanted. He had basically asked me to wait for him until he got a better feeling from God. I let myself be in limbo, refusing to address the problems, and doing my dutiful part as a woman in the relationship. I patiently waited for him to figure out what was the right thing to do.
Until one day, I made the decision that I needed to get away from him and from Provo. Everywhere I went it just reminded me of us, and began to ruin my relationship with God. I tried so hard to understand why I did not have the same revelations. I tried so hard to understand why he couldn’t leave me alone if that is what God told him to do. I tried so hard to make sense of it all, but in the end, I was just unraveling all of my sanity. If I wanted to save myself, I knew I had to leave.
So I applied to a summer camp counselor job in another state. This job would require that I work 22 hours of the day, 6 days of the week. I was not allowed to be on my phone or have internet access except for 2 hours every evening and on my 1 day off. It was the perfect job to have when all you need to do is separate from and forget about someone. It was an extremely difficult position for me. I am afraid of heights, and I was supposed to be a ropes course facilitator. I had to overcome that fear and dedicate my life for a few months to taking care of children and youth.
We had nap time each day at the camp. I used this time to write in my journal, read, and work out all of the problems that had been created over the last year. Each day I had a few hours to self-reflect – to discover things I had locked away for the sake of a relationship with a man and for the promise of marriage. I realized that in many ways I had lost who I was. I realized that I had tried to be someone else for him, and I let that man threaten my relationship with God, as well as with myself. Those few months helped me find who I was again, and just in time too – because right after I found my strength again, my dad passed away. It was and still is very difficult to deal with, but I know that if he had passed away at the beginning of that summer instead of the end of the summer, I might not have been able to handle it.
That is a time I will never forget and I am so grateful for. It took a lot of strength for me to leave Provo, and even more to work through all of my issues. But I have been made stronger for it.
The last point I want to make is the importance of being positive. I think it is really easy to see the injustices in our society and in life. It isn’t fair that my old boyfriend got to decide when we should start talking about marriage and when we should stop. It isn’t fair that I was expected and felt pressured to be a passive member of that relationship. I know many, many other relationships in which the gender roles play out in a much more negative way than that too. There is so much abuse at home, work, on the street, at school… it’s everywhere. But it is important to see more than what is wrong. It is important to find solutions and try them out. We have to approach these problems with the hope that they can be solved, and that we, even if we fit into more disadvantaged groups, have the strength to take up the challenge. We have to do more than just see the oppression – we have to find strength within ourselves to challenge it.
There are circumstances that may make positivity hard for us individually. We need to take care of ourselves, and sometimes standing up to oppression is beyond our strength at a particular moment. Luckily, there are so many organizations that we can tap into that can bring others to help. They come in all different forms – from crisis centers for survivors of abuse, to Facebook groups like Young Mormon Feminists. And sometimes, just like my mom calling the landscapers, the strength comes from just calling on those organizations.
Like I said before, my points are based on my own experiences, which are very privileged. I just want to end by challenging each of you to think about your own lives. What is your process of becoming a strong person? What moments in your own lives have you taken a leap of faith or stood up for yourself? When have you felt like a strong person? Who do you admire and why?
Each one of us has to find our own way through this life. Please feel free to comment below and share your own stories of strength, or strength of those that you admire. Please also feel free to discuss ways in which your process of becoming a strong person differs from mine.