The Most Hated Girl in Watermelon Culottes

Adulthood, career, Childhood, High School, Motherhood, Self-Help

When I was in 2nd grade, my dad signed me up for recreational soccer with the local park district. This was in the Deep South, so the rest of my girlfriends were either in Girl Scouts or were ballerinas. I, on the other hand, was the awkward girl with very thick plastic prescription goggles and a slobbery mouth guard. I was the only girl on my team, so I had to hustle and endure a bit of teasing to get ahead. But being as though I’ve always been a bit thick-skinned, the downsides to this arrangement were trumped by the euphoria of competition.

Back at school, the boys would organize soccer games on the field during recess. A kid in my class named Darius was the self-assigned captain. One day, I decided to take the skills I had learned in the community league and show them off to my male classmates. Rather quickly, I found myself head-to-head with Darius during a very dramatic scuffle for the ball. Ultimately, I maneuvered the ball away from him, he stumbled and fell, and I scored. The glory of the moment was short lived. As Darius stood up, covered in red Alabama mud, he started to scream, “I HATE YOU! I HATE YOU SO MUCH.” The rest of the boys glared at me. There was no acknowledgement of my awesome moves, just universal distain for the girl who ruined their game by daring to play. The bell rang and we returned to our classrooms. Just as recess had ended, so began my entrance into the world of likability politics.

Scientific research has shown that men and women are liked equally when behaving in a participatory manner, meaning collaborating and sharing in an experience. Yet, when positioned in equally authoritative positions, women are disliked far more than men. Data shows us that high-achieving women experience social backlash for simply exhibiting the very behaviors that nurture success. That’s because those behaviors, such as forcefulness and decisiveness, violate traditionally feminine attributes such as warmth, gentleness, and friendliness. Perhaps it would have been warmer, gentler, and friendlier for me to let little Darius trot around me on that soccer field, allowed to easily score while I shot sunbeams of encouragement and approachability from my eyeballs. Instead, I played fairly, Darius tripped on his own two feet, and I promptly became the most hated girl in watermelon print culottes east of the Mississippi.

And the soccer fiasco of ’91 is only one of many examples in my life where I’ve been caught between wanting to be liked and having an inherent desire to compete and lead. Between the angry letters I got at the high school newspaper office when I was the opinions editor, to the eye rolls and condescending scoffs I experienced during the fiery debates in my political science classes, I am acutely aware of what it’s like to “rub people the wrong way.” And when I tried to shake things up and be the fun, loveable girl, I was nicknamed “ponytail” at my first job out of college, which I hated much more than any of the much more crass names I had encountered when I was my more authentic, bullheaded self. Yet, turns out that “ponytail” gets invited to more meetings and gets more promotions, so that has been the identity I’ve aimed to take on over the course of the last 10 years.

The truth is, as a society, we put a premium on charisma and charm. I mean, okay — when you’re 20, shiny hair and a solid hip-to-waist ratio can go a long way in getting people on your side. But pop out a couple of kids and get some adult-onset acne and you better hope you’ve got a decent personality. That’s why I’ve smiled and played the likability game like a champ. Rational pushback is often replaced with gentile diplomacy. Confrontation is avoided at all costs. Instead, I often take on the laborious task of massaging a harsh message to ensure that the person on the other end of the phone line doesn’t feel attacked or threatened, even though they themselves are the repeat offender of the most egregious of office crimes.

Maybe Dave thinks it’s appropriate to call me five times in two hours, requesting that I do his work for him by end of day. Maybe I want to tell him that his unrelenting disrespect will no longer be tolerated. Instead, I’ll scream in my lumbar support pillow, take a deep breath, and say: “Yes, Dave, really appreciate your rigorous follow-ups and your investment in this project. Moving forward, please kindly note that we typically require a 72-hour review period on such requests. However, given these special circumstances, I will get back to you by close of business. Thanks so much.” This has been my life. Every. Day.

But an interesting revelation has begun to take shape inside of me as I’ve been pondering where I fall along the spectrum of likability. Over the years, when I’ve shirked conflict, I had always convinced myself that it was because I was actually a nice girl who didn’t like confrontation. I always assumed it was the conflict in and of itself that brought me pain. But the truth is that I’m actually a bull in a china shop, trying too hard to be the graceful nice girl. That’s really where the dissonance lies. Likability is a tool I’ve been using to get ahead — because I know it will make me more palatable, not because it’s right or rewarding or even the most effective way to operate in the world.

Some of the women I admire most are the least conventionally “likable” people. Authors Roxane Gay and Lindy West are both prolific feminist writers, thinkers, and internet troll destroyers. They speak truth to power without apology, all the while knowingly alienating thousands of “haters” who think they should mind their mouths and stay in their place. Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, another renowned feminist writer who I deeply admire, once addressed young female writers, saying:
“Society teaches young girls the idea that likability is an essential part of you, of the space you occupy in the world, that you’re supposed to twist yourself into shapes to make yourself likable, that you’re supposed to hold back sometimes, pull back, don’t be too pushy, because you have to be likable…and if you start thinking about being likable you are not going to tell your story honestly, because you are going to be so concerned with not offending, and that’s going to ruin your story.”

This is great advice not just for young girls, but for all of us who want to occupy our space in the world with not just grace and charisma, but with honesty and authenticity. I still struggle with this daily. But as I reflect on that time when I put myself out there with all those boys on the soccer field, motivated only by the same love for the sport that they had, I think about my own daughter, who also happens to be 8 years old. If she came to me today and asked me if she should join the boys on the soccer field, even in the face of the very real chance that she could get teased or even screamed at, I would tell her to go for it, every time.

And that’s my litmus test. If I expect my own daughter to live her life authentically, then I should expect it for myself. At the end of the day, I think I’d rather like who I am and exist in that space alone, then to barter my truth in exchange for being liked by everyone else.

That’s my honest story and I’m sticking to it.

This Baby Has a Pencil for a Head

Childbirth, Parenthood

The day my daughter was born was a surreal one. I was admitted to labor and delivery at 6 cm dilated, which, for those unfamiliar with the mechanics of the cervix, is too large to not be horrifying, but also way too small to accommodate a child’s shoulders (also horrifying). Actually, the cervix is almost always an alarming discussion point. Unless it’s enlarging or there’s something wrong with it, it’s an unmentionable.

I, like every other woman ready to push forth the miracle of life, was placed in a rolling bed and a very ugly hospital gown. It had just the right amount of floral print to say “I am a lovely lady” but also just enough easy-access ties in the front and back to say “I’ve lost ownership of my dignity, so by all means, bring in all of your resident obstetric students to collaboratively insert that catheter into my urethra under the blinding light of these overhead lamps.” This is why you see so many middle aged mom types brazenly walking around naked in the YMCA locker rooms. It’s not because of those Dove body-acceptance commercials. It’s because they’ve already sat spread eagle in a hospital room, f-bombing their way through vaginal birth, all grunty, sweaty, and double chinned, chomping on ice chips like a cow in heat.

I lost count of the hours between my initial admission to the labor unit and the actual birth, but I would guess about 10 hours. Ten hours of talking to my family, friends, and random medical professionals between waves of pain and pressure, gracefully easing into this now chapter of my life with poignant observations like “MY VAGINA IS GOING TO BREAK, ISN’T IT?!” and “IS THIS GOING TO HURT SO BAD, IT IS ISN’T IT, YOU CAN TELL ME THE TRUTH, IT’S GOING TO BE OKAY, RIGHT?” and “WHAT IN GOD’S NAME HAVE I DONE.” I think the nurses were glad when the anesthesiologist came in with the premium drugs, thinking I’d shut up once I was drugged up. Well, clearly none of them had ever done whiskey shots with me or they’d know that Rachel Under the Influence can’t get enough of the sound of her own voice and prefers words with a three-syllable minimum. There’s nothing more fun than being forced to hang around a partially dilated know-it-all who is slurring big words like “bowel obstruction” and “rectal floor pressure.”

Speaking of rectal floor pressure, when it was time to push, I sobered up pretty quickly. That’s a pro tip for all you bar flies who need a quick way to sober up at closing time: imagine the effect that a triple dose of Imodium would have on a seven pound pork roast lodged in your nether regions. You’ll be the designated driver in no time.

The act of pushing out a baby is highly calculated activity. You can’t just clench your pelvis all willy-nilly – you have to “bear down” at the right point during any single contraction. For people like me who experience stifling anxiety related to precision – e.g. Jack in the Box popping up on that one specific note of “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush,” runners pushing off the block exactly when the gun goes off, knowing my “Pick 2” combination exactly when the Panera Bread cashier calls me to the counter – getting the exact push time down was extremely nerve-racking.

DOCTOR: Okay, Rachel. We’re going start the pushing in a minute.

RACHEL: Now?

DOCTOR: No, not yet. As soon as the contraction starts.

RACHEL: Now?

DOCTOR: No, not yet. Wait for the contraction.

RACHEL: Now?

DOCTOR: Not yet…

RACHEL: (exhales) Okay.

DOCTOR: Now! Go! PUSH PUSH PUSH!

RACHEL: WAIT, WHAT? HOLD ON!

DOCTOR: Okay, you missed it.

RACHEL: (sobs)

This process went on for about two hours before my daughter started to “crown.” When you go to Lamaze class, birth education insiders like to call this phase the “Ring of Fire.” Because that aforementioned cervix? It didn’t get much bigger than it was 10 hours prior, but it’s still expected to do the job of three cervices. And man, does it burn, burn, burn. So as I’m lying there, pushing a turkey through a garden hose, I look at my husband, who looks like he’s on that psychedelic boat ride in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, surrounded by flashing images of millipedes and birds pecking at road kill. I’ve never seen someone look so horrified.

And that’s when the kindly nurse asks me if I want a mirror positioned at the foot of my bed and “watch it all happen.” You know, so I can also jump on the freaky Willy Wonka boat ride too. Take it from me, ladies. You do not want that mirror. DON’T OPT FOR THE MIRROR. There’s a reason OB-GYNs make millions of dollars (probably). Therapy dollars.

So what has amounted to a painful ten hour acid trip is now the moment of truth: “Here she comes!” Twenty five years of my life, culminating to what feels like 600 tons of metric pressure collecting in my lady parts. Twenty five years of living for myself, of freedom and flexibility and naps and quiet evenings reading magazines at Barnes & Noble, all about to flutter away into the night’s sky with ONE. MORE. PUSH.

Out she flew, like a glorious, screaming trout being yanked out of the murky depths. And just like in the movies, the scene turned to black and white, Loggins and Messina’s “Danny’s Song” started to play, and together we embraced our soft little Gerber Baby, tears of gratitude streaming down our cheeks.

OR,

“Her head is shaped like a pencil!” my husband cried out. (Turkeys that are pushed through garden hoses tend to have temporarily cone-shaped skulls.)

PencilHead_art-01 (1)

“She has no thumbs!” my husband cried out, but only in his head this time, thank God. (She was clenching her fists. She had both thumbs.)

“You cut what?!” I cried out as my doctor stitched me up. Episiotomy. Look it up if you want to hate yourself.

The first night after you deliver your baby is confusing. You fall into deep, deep sleep and temporarily forget that you’re now a mom. I would drift into my normal dreams, weaving through lucid, baby-less plot lines. And then nurse would enter that dark room at 2 AM, holding a little baby that needed my body for sustenance and I’d jolt awake, so confused every single time. It’s a bizarre new chapter, and those first few nights really threw me for a loop.

PencilHead_art2

Still, the quiet calm of the maternity unit was so comforting. The rhythmic beeps of the monitors, the hushed voices of the attendants who would bring me breakfast in bed and tell me that I was glowing (it’s called sweating ten pints of residual fluid, but okay). Watching my husband sleep uncomfortably on a bedside cot, paying the price for impregnating me and ultimately being the reason I got an episiotomy. It was a rare moment of peace in the chaotic new reality of parenthood. If I could get all drugged up and get bedside eggs without having to deal with the vaginal stuff, I’d do this gig every year.

And that, kids, is why booze, breakfast in bed, and no sex is now a Mother’s Day tradition.

Illustrations by Kelly Riker