Imaginary Elephants

We had an argument over imaginary elephants last night.

I’m not even kidding. It didn’t escalate into a fight or anything, but that is partially because Gil stopped to point out THE LEVEL OF CRAZY at which I was operating, and how I needed to blog about it as an example of the way a woman’s mind can work that men will never understand.

So here we are. Come on a little journey with me, won’t you?

It all started out innocently enough. We were talking about our upcoming trip to Europe this winter. I am counting down – it will be my first time visiting Europe, and we’ll be spending Christmas in Paris, which has been a dream of mine since I took French in high school. I failed at actually learning French, but discovered brie and red wine and I was sold. One of the other stops we will be making on our trip is Venice. Gil’s been to Italy once with his family, but it will be a trip of firsts for me. We were talking about the things we are most excited about, and I brought up the gondolas in Venice.

Now, you have to understand, I am WAY more of a tourist than he is. I want to do the things I’ve read about, and get pictures of it to remember the experience and remind myself when I’m old and senile what a fun life I’ve actually led. He has an aversion to big crowds and most things considered mainstream and popular. He could spend all day just wandering around the side streets and never take a single picture and be as happy as a clam.

So when I naively asked if he had ridden the gondolas when he was there, I really should have known the answer. “Oh, hell no! It looked fucking horrible. It was snowing and people were bundled up and miserable and it cost hundreds of dollars and you’re floating along what is basically sewage. I can’t understand why anyone would subject themselves to that.”

Oh. Tell me how you really feel.

“I don’t care. I want to ride in a gondola. If it’s dumping down snow then MAYBE we can skip it,” I responded. This was not up for debate. He realized he was going to lose the battle and conceded, but only after I agreed that it did sound kind of expensive and I would have to pony up for this one.

I told him he was being a stick in the mud, and that these things can actually be really fun, SO GET EXCITED. In hindsight, I’m not sure you can really command someone to get excited about something they’re being dragged into, but we don’t need to dwell on that part.

For some reason, I wasn’t done though.

“Seriously babe, we are going to travel so much and there are so many amazing things we’ll experience. But we have to do some of the tourist things too. I mean, when we go to Thailand, you’ll ride an elephant with me, won’t you?”

Young couple tourists to ride on an elephant in Pinnewala, Sri Lanka.

OK, pause. We do not have a trip to Thailand planned. We have talked about it in the abstract, and I know that it’s somewhere we both would really like to go, but a total of zero plans have been made.

For some reason, I just decided that this imaginary trip and this imaginary elephant were the perfect example of the types of things I want us to do together in our travels. This is where things started to go downhill a bit.

Unsurprisingly, he declared that this was yet one more experience he has zero desire to fulfill. “Hey, just because I don’t want to ride an elephant doesn’t mean you can’t,” he informed me. “If you trust it won’t have a heart attack and accidentally roll over and crush you, go ahead. I’ll be on the ground and I’ll be happy to take pictures.”

Spoilsport. Stick in the mud. Parade rainer-oner. Party pooper. These were all the things that were running through my head as he was talking, in the voice of 5-year-old Courtney. And I may have communicated some of these feelings, in the voice of 30-year-old Courtney. And while it had started out as lighthearted ribbing, somewhere along the way I started to actually get a little upset. I’m not proud of it. But it happened.

Let me illustrate an example of how the train of thought can derail and explode so quickly:

He won’t ride an elephant with me in Thailand. ⇒ He doesn’t enjoy the same types of things I do. ⇒ We are going to fight about the things we want to do on our vacations. ⇒ Shit, we are planning to travel a lot together and we’re never going to be able to agree on things to do. Ever. ⇒ Ohmygod, are we not as compatible as I thought we were?? ⇒ I don’t even know this person!!!  We are doomed. 

And here is how it would have gone the other way around:

She won’t ride an elephant with me in Thailand. ⇒ OK, whatever. I wonder what we have in the fridge. I’m kinda hungry.

I exaggerate. Well, a little. Kind of. Luckily for me, Gil is highly trained in detecting crazy, and as soon as I got suspiciously silent (long enough for some of the above crazy train to get rolling) he jumped in. “I want to point out this moment in time babe. Right now. As you are about to get upset with me for not wanting to ride an elephant that DOESN’T EXIST. On a trip we HAVEN’T PLANNED. You are about to get legitimately upset with me for not wanting to ride a made-up elephant on a made-up trip. I can tell.”

And then he broke down into hysterical laughter. So did I. I started laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe. The kind of full bodied laughter where you aren’t really in control of it, and suddenly you snort without realizing it, and that just gets you going all over again.

He was 100% right. I tried to play it off, telling him I wasn’t actually upset and was just giving him a hard time. But he knew. He knew I was full of shit. I hadn’t even realized it, but I was teetering right on the precipice and about tumble down into the crazy canyon of imagined issues and manufactured arguments.

Now, I’m not saying all women operate like this. I may be my own special breed of quirky. But I don’t think there would be so many best-sellers and advice columns and radio shows on the differences between men and women if I am really alone in moments like these.

I Can Do It Myself

I like to think of myself as an independent woman. An “I can do it myself!” kind of person. And as my mother has thoughtfully reminded me over the years, that was both the best and the worst part about having me as a daughter.

I can’t even imagine what it would be like to raise me. Or to raise anyone for that matter. But it must be a struggle to want to help your kid and make sure they have the best, but to know you need to let them make mistakes on their own and figure shit out if they are going to be a productive and functioning adult someday.

Under no circumstances do I think it would be easy to strike that balance, but I can’t imagine where I’d be if my mom hadn’t figured out how to do it. Being raised to be able to do things myself, my way, made me who I am. It allowed me to develop my own sense of style and creativity early in life, it allowed me to make stupid mistakes in college and learn from them (mostly), it allowed me to excel in my career, it allowed me to move to New York, try a new job, try a new city, buy a condo, quit my job, start over, and make new mistakes, all while trusting I would land on my feet. I am also lucky enough to have a support system that will catch me when I fall, which certainly made all of those things easier. But the foundation was there, the message ingrained from the start: I can do anything.

I can change a light-bulb, check my oil, open my own damn pickle jar and change my own freaking tire. Well, that last one is a lie. I guess I COULD, but I don’t really care to. But you better believe I can make my own money to pay for AAA, who will send someone out to change it.

I was recently reading some of the submissions on “Women Against Feminism” and it got me thinking. Firstly, that there is a lot of confusion about what feminism actually is, and secondly that very few people seem to distinguish the difference between accepting help (which is healthy and awesome and sometimes actually a very hard thing to do) and feeling dependent on another person to do things for us.

Sometimes I worry about what happens when women are under the misguided impression that we need someone else (specifically a husband or boyfriend) to do things for us. Sure, it’s nice to have Gil open the pickle jar if it’s really stuck, and I definitely leave the handiwork around the condo for him to do, but if he disappeared one day, I’d survive. I’d run my pickle jar under hot water. I’d hire a handyman.

These examples seem innocuous enough, but if women aren’t raised to really believe they can do things themselves, it’s easy to go down the rabbit hole, and allow these little things to add up. And then one day, quietly and without notice, all the little things feel like the big things and now all of a sudden you can’t imagine how you would get through life alone. That’s the mindset that scares the crap out of me, because I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it lead to bad relationships, abusive situations, and toxic marriages that lasted far longer than they should have. A relationship should be about a lot of things, but dependence isn’t one of them.

So I hope there are a lot of mothers out there like mine… mothers and parents who will teach their daughters that they can do anything. Parents who will allow their daughters to fail. To fall down, and get back up again. Mothers who embrace the mess, embrace the challenge, and allow their daughters to do it themselves. As hard as it might be, and as much as you want to intervene to help, I implore you, the mothers of young girls out there: Let her do it herself. Encourage her to try, to make mistakes and to try again. I can’t begin to imagine how hard it is to raise kids these days, and I don’t pretend to know the challenges you’ll face. I don’t plan on having kids, so I’ll never know. But I DO know what it was like to grow up in that environment, where my stubbornness and determination to dress myself, decorate my own birthday cake and assert my independence in general helped shape me into the woman I am today.

So moms, I know biting your tongue and letting your daughter mess things up will drive you crazy. I know you’ll want to pull out your hair. I know this because my mom tells me how crazy she went watching me do things she knew she could “fix” or make better. But she also realized she had to walk the walk – if she was going to raise me with the message I could do anything, she couldn’t say no when I wanted to decorate the cake for my 5th birthday party. She was a smart cookie though – she made two cakes: one for me to decorate and then one that was actually presentable for party guests. And to her credit, she served both of them.

And when I wanted to paint my own face when I dressed as Superwoman (who else?) for Halloween when I was 3, she had to bite her tongue and just let me go. I wanted to do it myself. I always wanted to do it myself. And if my parents hadn’t let me do the little things myself, I might not have even tried when the stakes were higher.

halloween

It might not seem like much, but all those times moms say “No,” or “Let me help you with that,” or “I’ll just fix that for you,” they might be sending a message to their daughters that they don’t really intend at all. But those million little moments add up to a much bigger sense of self. So say yes. Let her do it her way. Help her build a sense of self that allows her to have faith in her own abilities and instincts. One that will allow her to move out of state to chase that scholarship, to join a traveling sports team and be out on the road, one that will give her the confidence to march her self-sufficient butt into her boss’s office and negotiate a raise. Let her do things herself and give her the courage to walk out of that dead-end job and chase her dreams, or the strength to escape that abusive relationship.

It’s a hard, scary job to raise an independent daughter. And it’s one I don’t plan on signing up for. But I’m so glad my mom did. And I’m so impressed with all the moms out there who are doing it, and finding that balance every day.

So thank you Mom, for letting me do things myself. And for making second birthday cakes, and not redoing my face-paint when I was 3, and for letting me walk to your car in the parking lot from Kindergarten so I could feel independent. The world needs more moms like you.