As much as I hated the small town where I completed my undergrad degree, I stopped going home to Chicago after the first summer break.The reasons were many and diverse but chief among them was the inability of my mother and I to stand each other for more than a day or two. It took many years and a lot of therapy to be able to verbalize the internal strife and emptiness in our relationship, that I would later come to understand as my mother’s consistent distrust and competitive spirit where I was concerned.
It was always that way. At the same time that she pushed me to live out her own frustrated academic and musical dreams, I couldn’t do so too successfully or she would weep and insist that I believed I was better than her. If I was finally popular in high school, enjoyed a string of boyfriends and my father preferred to talk sports with me, the son he never had, my mother could be seen glowering not far behind.
For most of my life Gloria was this impenetrable figure, often actively undermining her eldest child’s attempts to grow and locate happiness. During one of the last phone calls we shared before I graduated college and moved back to the Chicago to begin my first job, she came right out and admitted that she found me impossible to love. A year later, she had committed identity fraud against me to the tune of $17,000, and when confronted, took off for parts unknown with little more than a carton of cigarettes and the clothes on her back. I haven’t seen her for 10 years.
There’s much more to say on this topic and a lot of other heartbreaking details to share, but the point of this essay is that the complicated relationship I acted out with my mom affected the way I related to women in general for many, many years. I always had my sister and a couple of very solid female buddies, but by and large, I just didn’t trust members of my own sex. These were the same people who bullied me in junior high because I came from a “weird” family – enough so that I had to change schools. It was a group of women in my freshman dormitory who pranked me with unsolicited subscriptions to Ebony and Jett magazines and wrote “Wigger” on my dry erase board – for the crime of dating a Jamaican man.
Most of my friends, from kindergarten up until 2010 were men – for better or worse. My estranged husband has often accused me of “acting like a man,” which is his mind typically means ambitious, opinionated, invested with a sense of freedom and agency that has kept me from “settling down” well into my 30s. We can certainly debate the merits of questioning my womanhood based on a hard won assertion of individuality, but it is nonetheless true that female friendships and I have often been at odds.
A lot of tough things have happened this year. But one thing that has altered, undeniably for the better, has been the way I relate to my feminine peers. I suppose the transformation began a couple of years ago, when I fled the safety of the corporate world to strike out as a writer. The first mentor I found, the first person to give me a real writing job and connect me with an all-female journalism group, was a talented, gracious middle-aged woman. My current boss at the small publishing firm where I am employed is a woman of fairly high repute, yet you wouldn’t have any idea based on her down-to-earth respect for my talent and genuine concern for my well-being.
I am presently surrounded by all-female co-workers, an idea which would have horrified me not five years ago. But these women, of a diverse age range and experience level, have been behind me 100 percent as I endured the trials of marital dissolution with concurrent health problems.
No matter where I look these days, I am adding some fabulous new lady to my tribe: former classmates from my graduate program, a fellow redhead and fun-loving girl from the gym, an unlikely friendship with the gal who did my makeup before a charity fashion event last year.
Positive female relationships are suddenly everywhere I turn, and I am well aware that this is every bit as much about my readiness to embrace them as it is the quality of sisters I am encountering.