On Being Born, a Woman

“For self is sea-boundless and measureless . . . the soul unfolds itself like a lotus of countless petals.” Kahil Gibran

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All of me is connected within an intricate web of being. I cannot separate my artistic self from the other spaces that my life fills. I am all the time an artist, all the time a woman, a mother, a lover. It is here in the tension of this internal web that I develop and enrich the breadth of who I am ever growing into. “Wholeness . . . is not achieved by cutting off a portion of one’s being, but by integration of the contraries.” (C.G. Jung). Inspiration flows naturally when I nurture the whole of my being.

Only now, as I anticipate the birth of my first daughter, have I really begun to explore the grit and power of my internal feminine. I contemplate the climate of the world my daughter will be born into. How will her experiences within this culture be different simply as a result of her two X chromosomes? How can I mother in a way that allows her to grow into her true feminine strength, that teaches her she is an equal while also valuing the unique qualities her femininity offers? The exploration of these questions has led me to my own awareness of the current patriarchal system and its immense power it has held in my life. I am a woman, awakening.

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I am awakening to the patriarchal voices pervasive in our culture, both directly and indirectly declaring a woman’s inferiority even in the earliest stages of her life. We are conditioned to treat our daughters as fragile and delicate in comparison to our rough-and-tumble sons. The worst childhood insult is to be “like a girl.” Our educational curriculums are full of stories of men changing the world and making their mark on history. Even our language itself excludes the feminine experience through its semantic rule that sets male as the norm.

The spiritual under-pinnings of our society are built upon the dominantly masculine framework of Christianity. The origin story of creation tells how man, Adam, was formed in the image of God, while Eve was created for man’s benefit. And while woman was second in creation she is also first to sin. Biblical texts are full of stories in which men encounter God and change the world. The God of the Old Testament is the God of Abraham and Isaac, not Sarah and Rebekah. Man is granted divine authority  while woman must “learn in silence with all submissiveness” and “be kept silent” (1 Timothy 2). Women’s roles are supportive, humble and submissive: the prayer of Mary “Let it be done to me according to your word” is the ultimate spiritual posture of the devoutly Christian woman.

These examples barely scratch the surface yet already beg the question: how do these subtle messages of value effect the development of the female psyche?

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As I reflect on this, I ask myself, how have these cultural voices named me?

As a young girl, I stressed perfection, intellectual achievements, hierarchal systems of learning and organization. I looked to masculine role models and failed to develop any true emotional connections with others or within myself. I adopted pleasing behaviors and developed relationships more often with boys rather than my female counterparts. I had no understanding of my physical body, of my value and strength. I looked externally for truth, for something to save me, to validate me, to define me.

In college, I didn’t study art. The arts are often associated with more feminine values, and as such, my father did not believe they were in tune with common cultural standards of success. I allowed my fear of rejecting his advice and my fear of not finding a substantial career in my artistic passions to determine this critical life choice; rather I chose to study more intellectual and practical forms of communication: language and education. My true voice however, whether in fear or ignorance, was left silent. Looking back at sketches throughout my journals, I see now how my artistic voice reflected the state of my being: I painted women without mouths. With feet rooted to the ground with no freedom of movement. Women in cages whose hands had become the walls enclosing them. In one poignant piece, the woman’s heart is external of her body, flourishing into the branches of a tree, yet completely disconnected from her physical form. I didn’t see that I had power internally, that my voice as a woman, as an artist, at its core was what I sought.

The patriarchal system taught me to value the spiritual and intellectual aspects of myself while disrespecting and devaluing my physical body. This brought about a natural division in which my spirituality was transcendent from my physical reality. I viewed my own body as a sexualized object and understood my value in relation to how my body served the men in my life. I chose my clothing in fear of how a man might respond. I ate less and exercised more in order to fit into a cultural mold, believing in my beauty only as it related to a cultural norm, defined by men. I acted subservient and made decisions affecting my own wellbeing as if I were secondary. In so doing, I masked my own physical power and beauty and hid from my true self.

Even now, I see how cultural blueprints and expectations attempt to lay claim on my experience as a woman. The ultimate experience of woman is not the all-nurturing role of mother as society suggests. In motherhood, my body becomes literal food for others: I carry my children for nine months in my womb, I nurse them with milk my body creates. These are good, natural acts of motherhood, but they do not demand that  I find my main source of fulfillment here. I can love my roles as mother and lover and friend, but my highest virtue is not the completion of another’s life. Rather, as Emerson wrote, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of (my) own mind.” I will not sacrifice my soul and inner voice because my culture claims this to be my role.

. . .

It takes courage to channel an energy, especially once painful, into an act of creation. But if I choose to silence my voice, what has begun to form inside of me will remain within and calcify, as an unborn child. My feminine strength must arise and be reborn. I must explore the truth of who I am and remember the sacredness of the feminine within myself and those around me.

Within a woman is the power to be inhabited by another being. Our bodies are able to be broken, to create life and sustenance for another. Our bodies, our beings are sacred. We are connected internally to the cycles of the earth, of life and death, of growth and reaping. Naturally, from women, a we-consciousness arises, an understanding that we are all connected within an intricate web of being. Naturally, women love, from the deepest spaces of our being. And naturally, we find the power to create life.

What truths need to be told that have long been forgotten in our patriarchal histories? What are the values of the feminine that have gone missing and how has the world suffered from her omission? What could we do, if we allowed ourselves to awaken, to be reborn into a new awareness that holds in equality the masculine and feminine? Would we find within each of us, male and female, a great unifying connection? A deep power to love? Would we find within ourselves the strength and courage to create?

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