What being a woman means to me: A Writing Challenge

A friend issued a writing challenge, asking to answer the following three questions. Below is my entry.


(1) What does being a woman mean to you?

I realized right away that the way I wanted to answer this question was to start highlighting the many incongruities with the concept of “womanhood” and what womanhood actually means to me. In other words, it was going to be an essay about what it doesn’t mean to be a woman.

It doesn’t mean I like shopping, or babies, or makeup, or that I have a vagina. Being a woman has nothing to do with my anatomy or my hobbies or my sexuality or my talents.

So I spent a few minutes trying to figure out what it does mean.

I think that being a woman means learning to adapt to a world that insists on making decisions for you. It tries, at first, to make you believe that this is the world you want to live in – because “decisions are difficult, and women are weak, or emotional, or incapable – and as a woman, it is a relief to be given all the answers.”

And when, as a woman, you begin to question that – because, at one point – we begin to question that, you face the many ways that the world continues to manipulate you into staying inside the nice, comfortable box they have designed for you.

I think that being a woman means learning to adapt to being consistently underestimated. Some adapt quietly, some react with defiance – but regardless, it is a fact of life for a woman.

I think that being a woman means absolutely nothing, because “woman” is a socially constructed label.

Being a woman means that I am a person.

And being a person carries far more relevance in my world than being a woman.

(2) What about being a woman do you want or would you impart to your own daughter by the time she reaches adulthood?

Were I to have children, I would want them – regardless of gender – to understand and respect the power of living authentically. With respect to women, I would want them to understand that our society will attempt to erase their individuality while simultaneously selling on all the ways they can be more special. I want them to understand that so they can never fall victim to it.

I also want them to understand that those who hold tightly to the systematic oppression of women are often as much victims of the patriarchy as we are. When we confront these ideas, we are confronting their stability. Instability frightens people. Fear makes people feel attacked. People who feel attacked attack back.

I would want them to understand the difference between forgiveness and understanding. One must strive to understand their oppressors, but to forgive them is a personal choice, and not one I’d likely to make without a sincere apology.

At the same time, I want them to understand the power that forgiveness gives them over their own pain. When they are ready, I want them to embrace that power for themselves.

I want them to understand the importance of respecting nuance, imperfections, and the diversity of perception. I want them to embrace the challenges of facing our own imperfections and learning from them to become more enlightened members of the human race.

I want them to love themselves and to not feel like doing so is a sign of selfishness. I want them to love themselves so well that the people who love them have a template for how it’s done properly.

An I’d want them to know that regardless of who they are, who they love, or how they choose to express that love – they would never lose my respect, unless they willingly harmed people without consent.

(3) What would you impart/share with her around the age of 13-14 as she’s entering her teen years?

There’s a part of this I’ve written before:

By the time my step-daughter wanted to read the Twilight series when she was in her early teens, I’d already read them. I told her she could read them on one condition – we had to have a chat first, and we’d have to have another chat before she got to the final one.

All her friends were reading it so she agreed to the chat.

Here’s the gist of what I told her:

This book makes the bad guy sexy. He wants to hurt her but he loves her. She is the ONLY one that drives him this kind of crazy and because he loves her so much he holds the whole “I want to kill you” instinct back. This is not a healthy relationship. This book will make you want that guy, and it’s okay to fantasize about that guy – but that guy is not the right guy when you start actually dating.

By this point in her life, my step-daughter had not yet given us many clues as to her sexuality. She had admitted she liked boys, but had not denied that she might also have an interest in someone who was not a boy.

And if she had shared with me that she might be into dating someone other than a guy, I’d probably have done a lot more reading with her on what some of the challenges and hardships that are inherent in that. I’ve recently become aware, for example, that there is inadequate-to-zero sex-education for lesbian teenagers leading many to find out much later than necessary about safe sexual practices, and have some confusion over what “losing one’s virginity” even means.

So, yeah. Right around when the hormones are about to hit – my priority would be to help my daughter prepare for them.

1000: Even deeper than I thought I’d go

I began blogging on FetLife (a kinky social media site) close to three years ago. Today I reached the milestone of my 1000th post there (many of which began crossing over to this blog about a year ago). That’s the context you need to have the post make sense.  Carry on. 


When I first started writing on Fet, it was in the wake of heartbreak and renewed hope. When my writings first started getting noticed on fet, it was in the wake of even more heartbreak and lost hope.

The more I exposed my pain and vulnerability, the more tenderly I was received. It was a light in a dark tunnel, and I followed it through.

But there came a time when I realized I was perhaps exposing too much. I don’t exactly recall how I came to this conclusion – but, it was (at first) a suggestion made by someone else.

That someone turned out not to be compatible for friendship, but nonetheless – their suggestion remained present in my mind. I was able, eventually, to recognize there were some unfortunate consequences to my oversharing, but they ran deeper than the ones I’d been warned about.

I’m not having a good day.

In fact, I’ve not had a good couple of days.

Relax: I can handle it. It’s okay for me to have bad days. But, it’s been a while since I’ve felt so low. I am experiencing emotional doomsday feelings where my mind travels to the worst places, and drag up memories of the most helpless moments of my life. I am also experiencing physical manifestations of the anxiety that has been dragged upward – the choke-sobbing fits and the acidic ache in my chest and knotted pains in my belly that won’t seem to pass.

I feel, at any moment, like I could give in to the bubbling emotions just beneath the surface and go into a full blown anxiety attack. And for teetering moments at that edge, I almost want to do it – if only so I can let it all out and find myself in a state of dulled emotional capacity on the other side.

Though it has been some time since I’ve been in this state, it is one with which I am familiar. Reverse back a few years, and this is a shadow of what I used to experience on a near weekly, if not daily, basis.

I know what this is.

I also know why it’s here. Not just the obvious catalyst for its arrival, nor even the underlying essential motivations, but deeper down to the fathoms of my existential being, – the stuff I think most people don’t access on a regular basis – I do. I’ve got my number.

1,000 posts ago I’d have shared those details. I’d have given you, the anonymous reader, all of the data: the catalyst, the motivations. I might have, by the end of the essay, drawn a line toward my existential conclusion.

And the reason I’d have done that? I’d have painted you a word-picture of my pitiful state for the purpose of gaining your tender support. It’s a form of manipulation, but not in a nefarious way. After all, writing and story-telling of any kind is a form of emotional manipulation.

So yes, I’d have explained the who, what, when, where, and why of my despair and swam in the soothing elixir of your concern.

It’s what I needed then. But, over time, I became dependent on it. It became a crutch without which my emotional limp would heal but never reach maximum strength.

Now, 1000 posts later, you’re not so anonymous. I know who many of you are on some level.

I also have, for perhaps the first time in my life, an understanding of who I am independent of my relationship to anybody else, (including family, friends, lovers, husbands, stepchildren, or colleagues).

I exist as a person on my own. The people in my life closest to me that inspire love and affection provide an enrichment that I’d never want to take for granted, nor mistake for the emotional equivalence of oxygen.

What’s this got to do with my bad day?

Well, that’s just it. It’s my bad day. I know why it’s here and what caused it, and I’m well aware that it will be fleeting.

So, while I feel the urge to tell you all about it – to dive into the details of the why and how I’m feeling the way I feel – I also now know that the resulting concerned feedback does not help to achieve my purpose.

I just want to share. I just want to to share my truth. I want to illuminate that even one with a charmed life can sometimes struggle – not for the purpose of eliciting your pity, but in an attempt to narrow the chasms that sometimes separate us.

We all suffer, in varying degrees and for different reasons – but we all suffer.

I don’t want to feel separated from humanity. My current (and admittedly temporary) state of despair should not serve to isolate me when, in fact, it has so much potential (and history) of doing the exact opposite.

I want to tell you that you’re not alone, because – in doing so – I remind myself that I am not either.

Sex-Specters, Orgasm Demons, and Jizz Sheets: An Evolution of my perceptions of other people’s sex lives and *my* space

 

I was in a love-full and sex-less marriage. I don’t remember the last time I had sex with my husband before he died, but I’d estimated it’d been at least three years, if not longer.

When I started dating again…well, the first guy was poly and his partner wasn’t comfortable with him having sex with me because I have genital herpes. So, we didn’t have any sort of genital contact in that direction. My mouth made plenty of contact with his genitals, though.

Then the second guy was deathly afraid of my fearsome hoo-hah. He was also attempting poly. He ended up having sex with his other partner but continued to refuse me, though he said he loved me. He just couldn’t bring himself to cross that line.

Again, he had no issue with my touching his genitals with my mouth.

By then, I’d re-discovered the local kink community and started throwing house parties now and then, inviting friends over for weekends of food and fun.

The one thing I asked was “don’t have sex in my house.” See, ’cause if I wasn’t having sex in my house then I didn’t want anybody else to have sex in my house. It was my space and if I didn’t get to use it that way, I didn’t want anybody else to use it that way.

Not all my friends got that memo, and it’s not like I had the rules posted on the wall. One of my friends and their partner went to go take a nap in the guest room, and ended up having sex while I was in the house entertaining other guests. I could hear them. Eventually, I got over it, though I was admittedly annoyed they left the sheets on the bed at the end of the weekend for me to change.

A year later, I had another friend come stay with a partner for an extended period of time. That friend knew how I felt about being abstinent in a sexually charged world and asked if it would be okay for them to have sex with each other while staying with me. I still wasn’t having sex, but …whatever. It was a guest room and it had already happened with other people, so why not?

I told them as long as they washed their own sheets that was fine.

It wasn’t fun, knowing other people were doing things in my house that I couldn’t do because the string of partners I’d encountered up to then didn’t want to do it with me. Of the mouthfuls of men who didn’t fuck me over the course those two years, there were a couple I would have wanted to have all-the-way sex with if they’d lasted long enough for me to trust them.

All of them opted out.

I’m glad of it now. I’m especially grateful for the one who opted out because he KNEW I had feelings for him that he didn’t return. His opt-out wasn’t about the herpes, it was about being a good friend and not tarnishing that friendship by leading me on any further.

Eventually I met someone who became (and still is) the partner who didn’t opt out. I recall the first time he invited me to stay at his place, which he shares with one of his partners. I jumped into my poly chatroom and asked a bunch of questions. What is the proper etiquette for this? They don’t have a guest room. I’ll be shagging on her bed. Should I offer to wash the sheets? Bring my own? How do I ensure that I am not encroaching on her space?

And someone in the chatroom reminded me, “it’s his space, too.”

Turns out, if my metamour takes any issue with others sleeping in her bed, it’s a surprise to me. Our partner takes it upon himself to wash and change the sheets before and after I leave. I help him re-make the bed on the few occasions I stay there.

I realized I truly admired her for this. The more I’d think about it, the more my original feelings about other people having sex in my house feel odd to me now. Like, who cares? I stay in hotel beds all the time that have probably had thousands upon thousands of people fucking on them before I got there.

That never bothered me. It’s just a physical space, and …yes, technically within my house that I own it is my space, but it’s still just space. There aren’t little sex-specters hanging around haunting me…”ooOOoooOooOOOooooo! I am the ghost of your sexless past, phi!”

And yet, not even two months ago I wrote a post here asking if it was normal to feel weird about wanting to masturbate in my coworker’s apartment while she was out of town and letting me stay there during my water-leak fiasco.

Spoiler alert: I did. She’s none the wiser and I’m sure she’s not being haunted by my orgasm-demons; though I’ll admit didn’t do it on her bed. I sat on the floor in the bathroom.

All of this was inspired by a friend’s recent situation. While the friend is out of town, their partner is entertaining a guest in their shared apartment. It’s all well-and-good, except just prior to the trip, this guest and my friend had a falling out, and now they are not feeling so good about having their space “invaded” by someone they’re not on good terms with.

And I see the point. But I also see the point of the people in the chatroom a long time ago who reminded me that “it’s his space, too” and regardless of metamour-relations, their partner is still entitled to use their space the way they want to within the boundaries and agreements of their particular poly relationship, which (up to this point) includes inviting other partners over when one is out of town.

It was interesting, though, as I was listening to my friend’s story, how different my reaction is today as to how it would have been two years ago when the thought of someone else having sex in my house made me feel uneasy, much less in my bed with my partner.

In this particular instance, I think I would feel similarly – that someone who’d disrespected me should not be taking advantage of my space for their orgasms; but then again – I live alone. I think if my partner lived with me, I might have to swallow my discomfort because it’d be his space, too.

But, that particular example notwithstanding, I no longer feel that other people (in good standing with me) fucking in my house would bother me, as long as they wash their jizz-sheets and re-make the bed before they leave.

Go figure.

Addendum to the self-improvement manual

Are you trying to make a change in your life?  Acknowledged some bad habits and are doing the work to address their sources and make adjustments to overcome them?

There’s something that’s not in the “self-improvement” manual that I think you should know.

There are people in your periphery who are going to be hard-pressed to acknowledge that you’ve changed. I’m not talking about those closest to you who are witnessing your efforts, cheering you on, and providing support along the way…

…I mean the ones that you call “friends” but are really more like acquaintances.  These are people in your life you would not call upon if your car broke down at 3am, but you would have a conversation with them at a party.

They took a mental picture of you back when you first met, and filed it away in a folder with your name on it. That is who you are to them – no nuance, no complexity.  You may be a three dimensional object but you are static, not dynamic.

This is a normal thing.  You do it to people all the time. There was a woman when I was in my 20s who was in her late 30s that didn’t realize I’d overheard her when she said to a mutual friend “I don’t want phi to tag along, She’ll take all the attention away from us” when we were making plans to go out dancing in a group.  Later that afternoon, she feigned a migraine and told me our plans were cancelled. I filed her away as “jealous, petty, insecure, lying bitch.”

I’ve not seen nor heard from her in 20 years.  In that time she might have changed completely and become the sweetest, most charitable, and kind-hearted grandmama you’d ever meet – but I wouldn’t know it.  If I were to run into her today I still think of her as the woman who lied to me because she’d created a competition in her mind that wasn’t there.

“Ok, so people won’t believe I’ve changed.  Who cares? I don’t care what they think.”

Well, to an extent, yeah.  Except for a lot of us, our self-worth and self-acceptance is wrapped up in how others treat us. Many of us are programmed to seek validation from others in order to feel secure about ourselves.  What happens when there are a bunch of people who still treat you like you’re the town drunk when you’ve been six months sober?

You start to feel like that hard work you’ve put into self-improvement has no payoff.

THAT’S what’s not in the manual.

The idea of self-validating *is* in the manual; at least, it was in mine.  I was given that piece of information early on by someone who was a friend and is now in my periphery.  He said I had to learn to stop seeking external validation.

I didn’t understand why, or how to do it – but I did know that it was part of the changes I would have to make.  What I didn’t know is that nearly every one of my successes now can be traced back to my learning to self-validate.  To disassociate my self worth from the value set OTHERS placed on me.

It’s not the same as saying “I don’t care what people think.”  I do care. I take it into consideration when I look at myself and ask “are they right?”

If I believe they are, then I ask “am I okay with that?”

And if I’m not, then I’ve got a new challenge to take on.

Learning to love without solutions: further insights from a recovering codependent

Many years ago, I had a friend, Brian, who went through therapy and was able to accept that he had codependent tendencies. With his therapist, he began to set boundaries, and by talking about it with his friends, he kept cementing the new value-set in his brain.

Problem was, Brian turned into a bit of a cold-hearted prick in the process. Having to keep reinforcing those boundaries made them stronger and stronger until he went in the complete opposite direction and stopped caring for anybody, ever.

By then, I had been made aware of my own codependent tendencies through my own therapy sessions. What I hadn’t done yet was accept them as a problem. I thought it was still possible to be healthily codependent, and didn’t want to change. I certainly didn’t want to turn into what Brian was turning into.

It’s not easy, you know? For me, rules are comfortable. Black and white. Yes and No. Stop and Go. But reality? It was easy for me to say, for example, “I will never again date someone who suffers from depression.”

And yet….

I have. More than once, since Tony.

It’s a boundary I tried to set because I knew where my personal boundaries are weakest. I want to help people. I’m a problem solver. And depression isn’t a problem that can be “solved,” it’s more like a condition that gets “managed.” I’ve learned a lot over the past few years on where and when to set that boundary and now have allowed myself to get close to people with depression again without falling back into my default responses anymore.

I care for them, and when I start to feel responsible for their feelings, I know it’s time to take a step back and remember that it’s not my job to “fix” anything. My job is to be a good person who cares. That is all.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s easy to stay on either side of that line – codependent or cold and distant, but to locate the healthy boundary and camp out there is sometimes more challenging.

Based on the definition I’ve seen on “empaths,” I’d say I’m probably somewhere on that spectrum, though I’m not woo-woo enough to say so with much certainty. I feel people’s feelings like they’re my own. It’s great when they’re happy, and it’s distressing when they’re sad.

There are going to be times when I have to step away and turn up the emotional A/C. I might go silent for a little while, or not ask things like “how are you?” It’s not that I don’t want to know, it’s that I’m feeling a little bit vulnerable myself and think if the answer is “I’m not well,” it’s going to turn into one of those things where I’m going to absorb those feelings and try to “solve” them.

I got to the point for a while where I got into the habit of never asking “how are you?” It put some of my friends off. They thought I didn’t care. I do care, but….

My old pattern was something like this:

Phi: How are you?
Friend: Eh. Not so great.
Phi: What’s wrong?
Friend: (explains the problem)
Phi: (tries to solve it)
Friend: (pivots and turns the problem into a different problem)
Phi: (tries to solve it)
Friend: (pivots again and turns the problem into a different problem)
Phi: (starts to get frustrated because it feels like this person just wants to be upset)
Friend: (feels even worse because phi is now frustrated with them and they feel worthless)

In order to break that pattern, I stopped asking “how are you?” for a while. A long while. And I fell out of practice of reminding people that I really do care about how they are. I drew the imaginary line from “I’m not doing great” to “please give me advice on how to solve it.” Today, I try to only offer advice when it’s explicitly asked for, but sometimes that old behavior comes out. I frequently have to remind myself that someone admitting that they’re not feeling great is not an automatic request for advice.

You’d think that would be a really basic concept to comprehend, but for me it wasn’t. And it’s still something I struggle with from time to time.

But, just like it’s not my responsibility to solve other people’s problems, it is not other people’s responsibility to mitigate their feelings around me. I have to learn to shield myself and focus on healthy reactions to everyday situations.

I want people to trust that I care for them and understand why I can’t let myself feel responsible for their happiness, and I want those same people not to feel responsible for mine. I’ve worked hard to overcome some of those patterns, and I’m strong enough (and honest enough) to recognize when I need to take a step back.

It’s usually when my reaction to someone else’s distress falls along the lines of “how did I fail? or “what did I do wrong?” or “How can I fix it?” that I know it’s time to reset the tent back a little further from the line.

There are many people in my life, past and present, that struggle with varying levels of anxiety and depression. This isn’t about any one of them in particular. It’s about me. It’s about recognizing that I can care, and I can be present without losing myself in the process.

I don’t have to go all Brian on them.

Shooting spitballs at butterflies

They met in the caterpillar colony, under the shade of a broad leaf.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I’m shooting spitballs at butterflies.” he responded.

She seemed puzzled. “The butterflies are beautiful and free. Why are you shooting spitballs at them?”

He shrugged. “They’re not any better than we are. And when I hit one, it proves just how fragile they really are. Butterflies aren’t any more special than you are.”

She liked the sound of that, and she crawled over and sat by him.

Time passed. Friends would come and then go.

“You’ve been around a long time,” they’d say. “Yeah, I like being a caterpillar,” he’d say. People can go and be butterflies if they want to, but I like it here on the ground.”

“I want to be a butterfly one day and be free,” said the friend.

“You can be whatever you want to be,” said the caterpillar. Later on, they’d see their friends shedding their cocoons and flying off. “Do you think they’re prettier when they fly?” asked his young friend.

“Nah, they’re alright, but they’re not you.” She liked the sound of that and decided to stay a caterpillar another day.

“Wow. It’s really great up there,” the friends would say when they’d stop off on the leaf for a visit. “Views for days, and when it’s warm out the wind feels great under our wings.”

“That’s cool,” said the other caterpillar. But he saw his young friend beside him look longingly at the colorful butterfly wings.

After the butterfly took off, he looked at her. “They’re no better than you are, you know. Just because they can fly now and have pretty colors. You’re great as a caterpillar. In fact, you’re even BETTER this way.”

And that was the last time she ever thought about building her own cocoon. Instead, she’d curl up contentedly each morning beside him and watch the world from a leaf, never from the sky.

“What are you doing?” she asked him one morning.

“Shooting spitballs at butterflies.”

“But that was our friend.”

“We’re caterpillars. We don’t have butterfly friends. They can’t be trusted.”

Minutes later, she was rolling up spitballs, too.

Willie Nelson and Monstrous Gorillas

I’ve got Willie Nelson’s nasal voice in my head singing “you are always on my mind,” on the upswing.  The first time he says it in the verse when it sounds hopeful, not the second time when it sounds complacent.

Last night I had a dream I was driving a white van with a bunch of people in it.  People I care about were in it.  And it was like a desert-like environment.  Not exactly a road, but definitely there was only one way to go through.  The problem was there were these GINORMOUS gorillas patrolling and trying to stop the vans from getting through. When I say ginormous, I mean roughly three times the size of the van.

Part of me wanted to stop and take stock of the situation.  Check for a pattern in their movements, like you would in a game of Donkey Kong, so you know when it’s safe to jump.

Part of me wanted to let someone else take the wheel so I wouldn’t be responsible for all the lives on board if I failed in getting us across the expanse.

And the whole time, pedal to the metal.  Full speed ahead.  Trying to calculate on the fly whether to swerve or head straight and try to outsmart the monster trying to derail us.

Ever have those dreams when you get stuck in a critical moment but the action continues? Like when you’re running toward a door and the door isn’t getting any closer, but you’re still running and reaching the door feels imminent.

That’s what was happening in that dream last night.  I was in a constant state of having to make that decision.  Stop or go? Hand over the keys or be self-reliant? Take the risk for the ultimate reward or turn back and halt progress?

*You are always on my mind….*

That time it was on the downswing.  Is complacent the right word?  Resigned, perhaps.  Or, in a better mood, secure.

Letting go of bad habits isn’t easy to do.  Sometimes you’re not even convinced the habit is so bad. Is it so wrong to be the person they turn to when their day is going astray?

The difference is, I think, in the desire.

Is it wrong to be that person?  No.  Is it wrong to WANT to be that person?  That’s where shit gets tricky.  If you start to look forward to being the stronghold at their emotional ground zero, then you might start to rely on that position to feel validated.  You might even start to find a silver lining in their sadness.  Hello codependency.

Are these two threads even related?  The Willie Nelson song and the dream, I mean.  Loosely, yes.  I don’t know how deeply I want to explain their relationship, but there is one.

Old me, or previous me, or the Phi that Was would have been classified as fairly high up on the needy scale. I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with being needy, but moving away from that classification helped me become a better version of me.  One that’s more in line with the view of myself I enjoy having.

I recently accidentally upgraded to Windows 10.  I was half asleep and the computer told me to restart for the update and I thought it was the regular kinds of updates.  Turns out it was the entire operating system update.

I’ve not yet changed it back. I haven’t had anything other than minor inconveniences with Windows 10, but there’s certainly a lack of the comfort in knowing where things are and how things work that I had with Windows 7.

The new Phi is a little bit like that.  There’s a familiarity in old habits that are not so easy to disregard. The familiarity with old relationship styles, old communication patterns, old yearnings to “be the one he turns to when he’s sad.”

So on a day when I don’t really hear from him, it’s easy to default to those old programs.  To blame something else, or to look at a text message as “proof” of love (and a lack of text message being the denial of love), or to wonder if perhaps he’s just having a rough day and then wonder why he doesn’t turn to me if it’s that rough.

And then NEW me, the Windows 10 version spits out an error message:  codependency is incompatible with new operating system.

*You are always on my mind….*  (Upswing). First thought of the day, last thought each night, all the thoughts in between, yadda yadda yadda.  Look, I don’t write about it much but kids, I’m legit smitten here.  Talk to people who see my face when his name comes up or when I’m in his presence.  There is no doubt of my smitten-ness.

*You are always on my mind…* (Downswing).  Hit the gas.  Plow through the day. Avoid the monsters that are trying to derail you. The silent phone doesn’t mean his heart has gone silent.

This operating system is incompatible with the impossible.