Looking Beyond How It Has Always Been Done
It was March 23, 1985 when I was born into the world as a healthy baby girl. It would have been impossible for me to know at the time how the words, “It’s a girl!” would shape the future of my entire life, but they have.
A couple years later my family celebrated an “It’s a boy!” moment as my little brother joined us. Looking back at pictures from when he first came home from the hospital I know I have always been proud to be a big sister, even if I don’t really remember those first moments. As we grew up, I began to realize that we were different. From the way we played house and I pretended to cook things while he sat at the table in our fake plastic kitchen waiting for me to serve him the plastic food items to the types of gifts we received for birthdays and holidays - me Barbies and him Matchbox cars. We were raised in a very traditional family. As we started school I began to notice that we were scolded in different ways as well. He was a boy and therefore, by definition, tougher. I was a girl and, by definition, more emotional.
I remember in 7th grade I tried to underperform on purpose because I didn’t want to be treated differently anymore. I got barely passing grades, I tried out for the basketball team even though I was less than 5 feet tall, and instead of becoming fluent in Spanish, I switched to French so I would struggle more. I didn’t want attention. I was confused because I saw kids being praised for doing well in school, myself included, and ignored when they didn’t perform. I began to wonder if I took the focus away from me doing well, would the people who were praising me have more time to help the kids who were struggling? My social experiment gave me what I wanted for myself: no attention. It didn’t, however, give me what I wanted for the other kids in my class. So, my experiment failed.
Fast forward to high school. I saw both boys and girls were being bullied. For me, it was people spreading rumors about my character - an ex boyfriend lying that I was a slut as he struggled to cope with the rejection from no longer being in a relationship together. For boys it was kids slashing the tires on their trucks or seeing hundreds of rolls of toilet paper strewn through a front yard on a regular basis or tipping over port-a-potties in driveways. I began to wish I was invisible again, only this time it wouldn’t be because I was underperforming. I kept to myself and decided it was safer to be called a “nerd” than a “slut”.
I was also that little girl who dreamed of her wedding day, who thought she would marry her high school sweetheart. I didn’t meet my high school sweetheart in high school, but I did meet “the one” in college. College was almost over and I felt so much pressure to have met my soulmate by the time I graduated that it was all I could think about. So, purely based on timing, I ended up marrying the same guy I was dating when I graduated from college. We got married when I was 26. It was perfect timing for me to have three children by the time I was 30, being a middle child myself three children seemed reasonable. After the wedding, it was like my life was repeating itself. Here I was playing house again. I was doing everything - cooking, cleaning, laundry, but I was also working 2 jobs. The whole working 2 jobs thing while also playing house was not something my childhood plastic kitchen had prepared me for. I was doing exactly what I was programmed to do, and trying to make it work with all of the things I really wanted to do like advance in my career. The only excuse I had for behaving this way was the idea that, “this is what girls are supposed to do.”
But I wasn’t happy.
I started looking beyond my traditional upbringing the day I got a call from my doctor telling me I had a STI, I needed to go to the pharmacy to pick up antibiotics, and I would have to return to the doctor’s office after completing the antibiotics to make sure the infection had cleared and to receive counseling on safe sex. You can imagine my shock as I replied, “But I’m married, how is this possible?”
I’m an educated person. I knew how it was possible. My background in healthcare and nursing supported thinking about this situation in a completely logical way. But it directly contradicted the way I was programmed. None of the fairy tales, the movies, the stories of falling in love and marrying your high school sweetheart had prepared me for what to do with the information I now had. In my search for truth in the following months I began uncovering the other things that weren’t true in my life:
I was not going to grow old with my first love.
I was not going to be able to honor my wedding vows.
I did not want children.
I did not want to be 100% responsible for maintaining a household and a career.
I was afraid of being lonely.
And then a few years later I began to flip the story and found out what WAS true in my life:
I could be happy alone.
I could be successful without a man.
I could take care of myself.
I could buy myself flowers.
I could travel or go out to dinner alone.
I could negotiate a pay raise.
I could apply for a job (and get it) even if I didn’t fulfill 100% of the requirements.
I could find someone who wanted to be a partner and who didn’t expect me to do everything.
So I started a new experiment. The one where I hid who I really was to blend in with everyone else had failed multiple times now. When I had given adults more time to help kids who were struggling, those kids continued to struggle, when I had given other students in high school a different reason to call me names, they went and bullied someone else, and when I had given my husband a chance to be honest with me, he lied. Then there was a little voice in my head saying, “Stop waiting for someone else to rescue everyone, if you have an answer you have to teach it to other people.”
We are all just people trying to feel like we belong, but the feeling of belonging does not come from making yourself the same as everyone else. If we look beyond our differences at humanity as a whole, those moments I listed above are really moments when I had power. I had the power to make a difference by being different. And when each of us is in a position of power, it is our job to empower others by sharing what we are great at. If each of us seeks to understand how we can take the areas of our lives where we are powerful and to give that gift to someone else - we all become better together.
About the Author:
Tara Rae Bradford is a women’s leadership coach, writer, speaker, and advocate for acceptance and equality for all people regardless of their gender, race, or sexual orientation. She is also the founder of The Potentialista where she uses the power of content marketing to help thought leaders, socially responsible small businesses, and clever start-ups get the visibility they need to make a massive impact on the world.