sam & ella's

a unique take on life from some unique women

Self Esteem

Here we go. I thought I’d kick off this category and go heavy, right off the bat. Appologies for any wandering since this is more of a stream of consciousness than a formal college essay. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my philosophy as it applies to feminism. This begins with the concept of human beings as a unit of value, and then extends to the implications of that. If I operate from the premise that we are all of value, created equally, then it stands to reason that no one person is fundamentally better than me. If this is true then no one has moral authority over me. No one else can lay claim to my thoughts, and conversely, no one can be blamed for my failures. I’m talking about ultimate spiritual liberty. The inalienable one mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. You there, in possession of that human mind, are free. So there you have the basis of my belief system. I think that my evaluation of myself and my complete autonomy is my platform for happiness and everything extends from there. Now, my next question would be, how did this thought make its way into my little bird brain. I will do what any card-carrying generation X/Y would do: blame it on my parents.

I grew up in a conservative household. I don’t mean politically, though there was an element of that. I mean that my parents methods of child-rearing reflected those of a more socially conservative crowd. They were strict, by most people’s standards and “traditional values” are something with which I am very familiar. Curfews were enforced, whining was not tolerated, and chores were given out in response to any expressions of boredom, such as sitting around, picking fights, or saying we were hungry outside of mealtimes. As my mother’s sister once put it (she has and still is raising her teenagers with similar methods) “This is not a child-centered home.” With 4 of us within 4 years, all with very different personalities and ample room for exceptions if they had been allowed, I think my parents were aiming for clear boundaries to keep things easier.

When I was little, this was just the way it was. There was no room to question it. My parents had designed it so that whining, laziness, and bad behavior got you nowhere. In fact, it got you less than nowhere; it got you sent back to your room. When you have a 6-year-old mind, you are incapable of creating an argument beyond “but whyyyy?” or pursuing answers beyond “because I said so.” These were the easy years for my parents.

Enter 12-year-old me. As we hit puberty, we start flexing our newly discovered “reasoning skills.” I use the term loosely, as an expression for what more accurately might be termed an “approximation or appearance of rational thinking.” Regardless, we started arguing with our parents more intelligently. We’d barter, we’d plead, we’d try to catch them off guard, we’d triangulate, we’d shame them with comparisons to Suzie’s mom who lets her wear short shorts. This is when my parents very cleverly changed their tactics, though I’ve never asked them if it was intentional or in reaction to our lost listening skills. Here is how it worked: They never told us not to do anything. Everything was presented as a choice. A choice between doing what they wanted or being punished. I was either home on time, or I was grounded the next day. Both sucked, but I got to choose which one sucked less, and the punishment was subject to change without notice, which made cheekiness a risky game. Now, this may sound exactly like being told what not to do, but that subtle choice of poisons injected an element of control on my part. Obviously kids always have a the option to stay out of trouble, but somehow, this small manipulation created a sense of empowerment, like staying out of trouble was my choice and not theirs. The bastards.

This later translated to subjects like smoking and drinking. Again, they never told us not to do these things, but they very carefully laid out all of the consequences. This may have been before Facebook, but in a small tight-knit community there were concerns about reputation, or being kicked out of school, not to mention the health dangers or my mother’s declaration: “If the cops pick you up, don’t waste your phone call on us.” I took that seriously, considering her nearly perfect record for siding with my teachers in grade disputes. A balance had been struck. On the one hand, they had given me a role in my own education and shown some respect for my need to know why. On the other hand, they avoided granting me undue respect, being that I was in fact a child and did not command the respect due a functional, contributing adult.

This brings me to the purpose of this article. What my parents understood, or pretend now to have understood, was that their greatest parenting duty and achievement was to raise 4 children, now 4 adults, with self esteem. I don’t mean self esteem developed as some say by means of praising children for their existence. That is not self esteem. To be told you are powerful is not the same and being led to witness your own power. It can’t compare to good role models and enforced standards. To experience a loss as a result of inferior work is something a child needs for success.

This is a topic very much discussed as the test results of an embarrassingly indulged generation are coming in. We all expect to be paid a lot for doing nothing. While the proposed solution is often some snarky suggestion that we return to the 1940s & 50s with its beatings and relative neglect, I would say yes and no. In a metaphorical sense, my parents empowered me to choose between meeting their standards or the paddle. It may not seem like much of a choice, but that is what life is made of. Put in more hours or no car payments. Work or starve. That is the choice, and it is mine to make. I am solely responsible for the health of my body, mind, and spirit. The love, money, intelligence I rake in is in direct proportion to my dedication to what it take to have those things. No one else can be blamed or given credit for what I am. That is self esteem. A profound recognition of your value as a human being, and your unique ability to define it. I am now 25 years old, and I am not a CEO, a famous actress, or a political thinker influencing millions. I could have been. I could be still. I am where I am, because I chose it. Not directly, but through a series of small decisions I have made through a set of circumstances. This realization has brought me an immense amount of peace, and I think on a grand scale that’s all parents want for their kids. I would like to formally congratulate my parents in their success.

How does this relate to feminism? Clearly I haven’t made much mention of it, and that’s sort of the point. When dealing with who I am, I don’t think in terms of gender. That is not an identity issue for me. What I see as a female role model is someone like my mother, who doesn’t stand with a protest sign and reinforce the idea that she needs someone else to make room for her in the world. She boldly does. She gets in her truck and starts projects. She changes her community with ideas that take a long time to germinate. She demonstrates her value rather than declaring it. She lives by a philosophy that applies to everyone, men alike. If you have to tell people what you are, you probably aren’t. It’s incredibly freeing to feel like Gloria Steinem and her successors are not fighting my fight, I am. I don’t think Gloria Steinem ever fought my fight, quite frankly. I think the people who get things done in this world are the ones who work hard, creatively, respectfully, and without the bitterness I perceive in most feminist literature today. I think whether, male, female, black, white, gay, straight, the ones who operate with true self-esteem will get what they want. Maybe not immediately, but ultimately.

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This entry was posted on April 10, 2013 by in The Modern Woman.
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