questions answered, part four (#metoo)

I was thinking about how I’d answer Laura’s question: What is the single most important thing you want your daughters to know as they grow up? And as I was narrowing it down in my head, I was also reflecting on the stories women have been telling for the past couple of days under the hashtag #metoo – stories of sexual harassment or assault that they’ve endured in their lives that broaden the conversation beyond the exploits of one Hollywood producer and the numerous women he’s harassed and assaulted for decades. These two inner conversations have continued, and so I think I’m going to link them together here because they are important. It’s not going to be a pleasant read, so I’m okay if you skip it. It’s not my best language, it’s not my finest writing. I don’t think I’m particularly brave in sharing it, or brave in general, but becoming a mother has made me a stronger person, and a tougher advocate. And it’s reduced my tolerance for bullshit. By a lot.

…..

When I was E’s age, I went on a trip with three other girlfriends and two counselors to volunteer at a girls’ camp for young children exposed to physical and sexual violence at home. The camp was a week away from home for these girls – a chance to be a kid and make new friends and do summer camp activities. We weren’t involved in any of the deeper work sessions – we just ran the crafts and games.

The camp was several hours away from home, and we stopped somewhere in the middle at a small highway exit with just one gas station and a McDonald’s. The adults gassed up the cars, and two of us ran up the steep hill between the gas station and McD’s to grab an ice cream cone. We bought our cones and came back outside, crossing over the drive-thru lane and then the bus lane with a school bus packed with high school kids on some other camp or summer adventure. There were some whistles out the windows, and we were acting as high schoolers are wont to do – pretending we couldn’t hear them or were above a response, but also curious, and lingering just a bit as we walked. Likely giggling. Super into boys, and not uninterested in the attention from them.

It’s important that you understand just how steep the hill was between the two parking lots – steep enough that we paused for a moment and realized there was no way we were going to look cool running back down it again. So we finally just laughed and took off, barely remaining upright, and gaining speed quickly. A pickup truck at the base of the hill inched forward in the car wash exit driveway as we ran, and we had a hard time stopping ourselves at the bottom so we wouldn’t run into the driver’s door. This guy had his window rolled down and was smiling at us. He asked us if we knew where the interstate was, and we told him we didn’t know – we weren’t from around there. (If we had been a little older and wiser we would have realized the entrance ramp was directly in front of that driveway – his question was a bogus one.) He asked us where we were from, and about that time we both looked down and realized that he was masturbating as he was talking to us. He wasn’t trying to hide it, everything was in full view, and the act was completed as we stood there. We stopped talking and backed up a few steps, and then he drove away. I’m not sure how long we stood there, but both ice cream cones had melted completely down our arms without us noticing, and the sounds of whistles from the bus above us were still there. We told the adults, and it was reported to the station attendant, but we didn’t have any information to really lead authorities anywhere. We sat in shock for the rest of the drive, and we both cried in our camp beds that night. Our counselors were great about it, but I don’t think we really divulged all the details – I remember feeling like it was something I shouldn’t talk about. I rarely talked about it, but that image haunted me for a long time, as well as the way that ice cream looked and felt down our arms – how we had to physically wash up after an assault where we hadn’t physically been touched.

…..

After my freshman year in college, I landed a summer internship with one of the largest architecture firms in my home state. I had zero office skills, and I’m pretty sure the only reason I was hired was because a family friend pulled some strings. I worked hard and learned a lot, and have some really great memories of that time – I went on to work for them the following two summers as well.

The office had about 40-50 people working there, mostly white men, except for the one black man in the CAD department. The secretarial staff was all female. The exceptions on the architecture side were me (an intern), and two female architects. One was ten years older than me, and the other was recently graduated and working toward licensure. Both would become some of the most important women in my life over that time period. They always included me in everything – occasional after work drinks, always choosing places where their underage tagalong could go. They would invite me over for dinner, cook for me, include me in discussions with their friends. Both were wildly talented, intelligent, strong, and underpaid.

I developed a lunch hour walking habit with one of these women – we would change into walking clothes and head out of the office each day at 12:15. We avoided the fancy lobby in our gym shorts, and exited out the back door instead. That meant we had to walk though the CAD department, and endure their catcalls each day. They whistled and called us “Babewalk” which had morphed out of “Baywatch”, which was popular on TV and also featured on many of the pinup calendars prominently displayed at their desks. The would superimpose our faces onto the Baywatch bodies in their red swimsuits and hang the printouts up in the office. We rolled our eyes and ignored them, but that was it. What else was there to do? The men’s restroom had a stack of porn in it the men would frequently reference in conversations, and the cubicles were lined with half-naked women – it was better to just play dumb and move on. If the principals really had an issue with it, a little in-house cleanup would have already happened.

I also worked there over winter break, and went to my first Christmas party that year. It was a staff only event that happened during business hours on the final workday before the holiday. The drinking started early, and everyone had drawn names earlier that week for a gift exchange. Many of the gifts were raunchy and demeaning. Half the office thought they were hilarious, and the other half just put up with it in the name of holiday fun, or ignored it. I mostly hung out with the women in the conference room, where we enjoyed our own company and the dessert buffet until hooting and shouting started in the lobby.

Someone had opened up their “gift” and it was a blow-up doll. (Not the most original gift – apparently they made regular appearances around there.) But this particular sex toy had my nineteen year old face taped onto it, and the reactions were noisy and varied. When we heard the ruckus and investigated, I discovered that my manager (a shy, timid, but genuinely decent man) was trying to hide the doll from me and was yelling at the person who made it. Several others stood up with him, including the lone black man in the department. He had never participated in the behavior I described, but I’ve always wondered about how much shit he endured there, and how he must have also felt the pressure to put his head down and work and not rock the boat.

It was absolutely mortifying. Everyone was staring at me. I left with my friends, and we went out for our own celebration. I couldn’t even tell you the names of the men that harassed us on a daily basis, but I still think about the few that (finally) stood up for me that day, and the power of strong women as mentors in my life at that moment. After Christmas, my manager apologized to me. No one else ever did.

I worked there for two more summers, but never went to another holiday party. The small team I worked with in the public housing department was excellent, and my friendships with these two women really grew. I hung onto everything that they said. The older one was in a relationship with a visiting professor from France. She was independently wealthy – a member of one of the most prominent families in the region – but she had eschewed much of that lifestyle, including the power marriage, the 2.5 children, the leadership positions on local boards and charities, and had gone to architecture school and was working for under $30K a year. She was tall and thin and blonde and gorgeous, and didn’t give a shit about her appearance. She listened to me as if I always had something important to contribute; she advocated for me daily. The younger one was newly married, with an equally cool husband. I adored their relationship. In their first year of marriage they were housesitting for two professors on sabbatical, and their townhouse was a block from where I parked my car. They’d invite me to stop in for a few moments where they would feed me or we’d talk about our travels or plans for the future.

Sometimes she’d invite me to a larger gathering there, and the room would fill with interesting women and the conversation would take off in so many different directions. I have a specific memory of a conversation that centered around sex that was revelatory in so many ways. I’d never been part of a conversation on that subject – at first I felt really young and out of place, like maybe I hadn’t graduated to this level of honesty and intimacy with other grown women. Being included was life-changing for me. And having the ear of someone so clever and funny and smart and self-assured on daily lunchtime walks saved me many times over.

There are so many layers to those years for me. I think about a lot of the other things that I dealt with during that time, and I wonder how much of it was directly related to those incidents. I eventually became more vocal about the repulsive behavior in the office, and wasn’t invited to return for my fourth summer at home before graduate school. I felt very conspicuous, like the sight of me in the office or in a meeting or on a jobsite felt out of place, and an open invitation to comments from others. But I was also learning so much about what I wanted to be, where I wanted to go, how far I could push myself and still stay standing. How to dodge the unwanted shoulder massages from professors. How to stick up for myself, even when my voice wavered. How to find the words I needed when I needed them. How to move out of toxic spaces and places, even the ones that looked ideal on the surface. How to look for the toxicity in any situation, even if I wasn’t the one directly affected.

The juxtaposition of these two things is where I am when I think about how to answer Laura’s question. It’s hard for me to narrow down the most important thing I want to pass on or instill in my girls. But I think I’ve landed on this very intersection. I want them to “find their people”, to feel empowered to be themselves among them, to know that they are strong and good and worthy as they are. And I don’t want them to fear new experiences because of the very real and present threat of harassment and assault on their bodies and minds and spirit. The thought of something happening to them in a parking lot at a gas station during a summer adventure turns my stomach; I’d rather wish for them to never experience something like that. But they will. So I want to teach them that those experiences don’t define them, they aren’t their fault, and they aren’t their battle to fight on their own. That I am there for them, that their father is there for them. I wish for them dynamite mentors at every stage of their lives – a role that I know that I cannot play as their mother, and I’m okay with that. I want them to fully know how amazing they are – their bodies, their minds – how they live into and with that joy, how their sexuality is theirs to own and treasure and take charge of and revel in, and how to find the courage – not if, but when – they need to reclaim it again from the many ways that it will be taunted and challenged and managed and legislated during their lives. When I think about how vulnerability is exploited for power, it nearly breaks me. I wish for them strength in their own vulnerability, and that they always have the space and the freedom to grow into themselves at their own pace.

11 Responses to questions answered, part four (#metoo)

  1. Thank you for sharing these stories. You are an incredible person and are to me one of “those people” you are referencing, someone who makes me (and so many others) feel empowered to be myself and from whom I can’t wait to learn anything and everything you have to teach. I frequently call you my “mom crush”, but that doesn’t quite cut it. You are someone I emulate and who’s had an effect on my life in the most positive of ways. You make those around you feel so special and your girls are so so very lucky to have you as their mama.

    I can’t help but get a little mushy, reading your thoughts from across the country, back in the place where I first found you. Guess I just feel lucky to have you here and IRL. 🙂 REALLY missed watching you blow all the grandparent’s minds last weekend.
    Becky recently posted…Living In The Construction ZoneMy Profile

    • You are so kind, and I’m really missing you this fall. I appreciate your words here, and I’m grateful you are raising amazing boys in this world. xo

  2. Thank you for sharing these stories, the good and the bad. I find my heart aching for you for having to endure such harassment. While I’ve certainly faced some appalling behavior in my workplaces, I started out in nonprofits, with a large number of women in leadership positions, so the sexism and harassment were not quite as overt.

    But it was there, yes. Especially when I moved into the private sector. There were the business trips where I was asked to go to strip clubs (I always refused. I was labeled un-fun.). There were also colleagues who wouldn’t be so bold as to suggest I go to the strip clubs, but would repeatedly say how the business trips would be better if there wasn’t a woman on the team, as they could do anything in the evenings if I wasn’t there. Wink-wink. The coyness didn’t make the situation any better.

    There was the Asian client who insisted we celebrate the holidays singing karaoke, after making us pull an all-nighter to “fix” a presentation. They insisted on ordering my food and drink, giving me no choice in what I had for dinner. Pouring what can only be described as Korean fire water in my glass, which I would meekly sip before dumping in a spare glass or bowl. Then complaining that I wasn’t singing “sexy enough,” talking about how a woman’s place was in the home and Americans didn’t know that, and asking how I sang to my boyfriend. My manager did nothing but join in the laughs. On this project, the harassment really impacted my work. I couldn’t stand to be around these people. Always the first to be asked to get coffee, make copies, etc. Despite my MBA from an ivy league school. Eventually, I was taken off the project and when the principal told me he had been disappointed, he had expected more of me, I didn’t even know how to respond. I should have filed a complaint. Instead I sat there stoically, then flew home and thanked god I was off that project. Cried to my boyfriend, now husband. And tried to figure out how to fix my professional reputation. Until writing this, I didn’t realize how scarred I was from that experience, but it made me withdraw and took months to get over. Finally, I was put on a project with one the best principals I’ve worked with. He was kind and respectful, and he had put together an all female team, and he constantly would tell us how we were the best team ever. I will forever be grateful to him, and to the project manager on that client, a strong female if there ever was one.

    There were also the parties in college where I would get grabbed and pinched. I became fairly tough and defensive, and would surround myself with male friends I trusted. But I really should have called out the behavior. Of the part-time job I had in DC to make ends meet when I was a Congressional intern. I dispatched the pizza delivery guys for a popular Georgetown restaurant, and the cooks would joke around. But one would follow me home. Claiming we lived in the same direction, which we did not. My boyfriend at the time gave me mace for Christmas that year. Lovely. Luckily, I never had to use it – the guy was relatively harmless. But I won’t soon forget his face, or how uncomfortable he made me.

    I know you know you are not alone in this. But somehow, I felt I had to share to let you know that. It’s also cathartic. And probably good to remind myself that it happened. That it can happen. I tend to block these things, and write them off as just things we women have to deal with – not a big deal. But they were. They really were and are and we need to do better.

    I also have to admit to a bit of envy when it comes to the wonderful mentors, in both life and career, that you found at such a young age. I wish for that, too, for my kids. Your advice to your girls is definitely advice I will share with both of my kids. Thanks for being such an inspiration.

    • Thanks for sharing all of those stories. The after hours stories also sound so familiar – being forced to eat at places that made me feel really uncomfortable, or watching co-workers treat the wait staff in ways that were really unprofessional – while sitting at the table with other co-workers and clients. It was always such a baffling thing to me.

      I like to think that these things are in my past, but within the past six months my boss was asked by a potential client (a major university) if he had any competent women to send up for an interview. And then my boss felt like it was okay to pass that comment onto me when he told me why I’d be attending this interview. The comment alone was appalling, but I made sure to let my boss know that I was really disappointed that he didn’t a. directly deal with that comment with the client, and b. felt like it was okay to repeat it to me, in front of other women in the office, no less. I had zero desire to put any effort into the interview, and showed up as the token female and nothing else. No skin off my back that we didn’t get the job. (The project was a Diversity and Inclusion Center at the school. I’ll just let them do their homework first on that one. Eyeroll.)

      • I should not be shocked that things like this still happen, but oh man… I still am. And the Diversity and Inclusion Center, no less. Terrible.

        Re-reading my post, I didn’t mean to single out Asian clients. Sexism seems to know no cultural boundaries, and I did not intend to imply that. However, this particular situation was more difficult because of the cultural differences – everyone else on the team (all male), wanted to write it off as a cultural difference. Don’t make waves. It’s their culture. Frankly, the fact that these colleagues assumed all men from this culture thought and behaved this way, and it was acceptable, was just one more example of prejudice in my book.

  3. a powerful post, my friend. brave and strong and true. how we define ourselves for ourselves is the key. you have managed incredibly, beautifully. (now I want to go kick some ass, so send me names and addresses.)

  4. Wow. Thank you. What a powerful piece of writing.

  5. Wow, thank you for sharing. I’ve been having these conversations with my spouse and colleagues. It’s so ingrained in our culture I don’t know that I ever even labeled my experiences as sexual harassment/assault….it’s just how things are. Such a sad realization. The #metoo discussion has been thought provoking and I appreciate you adding your wise words to it.

  6. Thanks for sharing these and for your hopes for your girls. Dynamite mentors – yes. Gosh, do I hope my kids have them, especially in those high school/college years when you have so much to figure out about yourself and about life.
    Caroline recently posted…Finn QuotesMy Profile

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