Here’s a fact you probably haven’t thought much about: there’s no real female equivalent to the concept of “emasculation.” Being “woman enough” isn’t really thought to be a stressor on the psyche, in the same way that being presumed as less than masculine is for men; being woman isn’t aspirational, isn’t a badge of honor. Being a woman is a lowly state.
Point in case: nearly every childless woman I know speaks of invasive questioning about why she doesn’t have children. Women with just one child are similarly subjected to scrutiny about why they won’t have more than one. And women with two or more? Suddenly the narrative shifts: we are told to close your legs or “jokingly” reminded how babies are made. You see this play out in virtually every field of life for women: slut vs prude, married vs single, working mom vs SAHM, curvy vs skinny, curly hair vs straight hair, and so on. Whatever makes a woman “enough” is whatever we aren’t doing.
At this point, it feels self-inflicted too. We’ve bought into the idea that we will, in fact, never be “enough” that we eventually pit ourselves against the world. It doesn’t matter how many boxes we check. We’ll never check all of them, will we?
I’ve written before about my own struggles with self-esteem, body image, eating disorder, and dysmorphia. These struggles are commonplace in women, shockingly so. Nearly every woman I know agonizes over what she eats to an extent that, I suspect, would boggle the minds of the average man. Swimsuit shopping is a battleground. Is it any wonder that we alternate wildly between weaponizing (and monetizing!) our bodies or hiding them away in shame?
For me, lately, this struggle has manifested again, not in disordered eating, but in motherhood. I also don’t know a single mom who doesn’t agonize about her decisions, endlessly worrying about safe sleep, feeding, birthing styles, educational styles, and on and on. None of us will be mom enough, in the end. But God help us, we’re going to try.
I had found that my self esteem was, generally, on the upswing, even during pregnancy. I felt healthy, strong, and, if I didn’t exactly find my curves sexy, I at least didn’t obsess over them like I used to. I felt more at peace, at home, in my own skin.
And then breastfeeding started again. I had a miserable time breastfeeding my first, and had no end of angst about it. After finally healing from that, I found myself at it again, and this time, it was going pretty well. I wasn’t exclusive, but it was infinitely better and more peaceful than my first go at it.
And then it wasn’t. For no particular reason, my second just didn’t want to nurse anymore. And I did something I’d promised myself I wouldn’t resort to again: I pulled out the breast pump. No shade to those who pump, or even do so exclusively. But for me, that awful machine had become a symbol of failure and misery, and my inability to provide nourishment for my child on my own. It reminded me of hours spent in tears, trying supplements and taping tubes to my breasts, trying to make this “natural” thing click for me, the way it has for millions of women since the dawn of humanity.
After my first pumping session, I went into the kitchen and sobbed. I felt like a failure. My body had failed me again. Like it always had. This stupid old sack of skin couldn’t complete the most basic of tasks asked of women: to be beautiful, to be skinny and curvy in the right places, to be effortlessly sexy, to give birth easily and naturally, to breastfeed those children. A deep well of shame and loathing I hadn’t tapped in years rose up, drowning me.
To be honest, I’m still treading that water. I want to believe that my body is still strong, to focus on how quickly I recovered this time, how much more in tune with my signals I am, and also recognize that my baby is strong and healthy, developing readily, happy and whole, and that, itself, should be a sign that I am doing a fine job.
But, cards on the table, I don’t really believe that. I believe it for you, friend, loved one, stranger. But me?
I’ll never be enough by these impossible standards. And no matter how I try to let them go, it only takes the sound of that machine pumping to put me right back into the box I was wrestled into by a culture that doesn’t even have a word for it. Woman up. Who even can?