Kate, 29, United States (Washington, DC)

 

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What is your story of strength?

 

A lot of my strength came through processing my parents’ divorce. I was so little when they split up, so I don’t even have a memory of them being together. It wasn’t an amicable breakup. My brother and I were split up between my parents, but when you’re little you don’t realize what that stuff means. I would just think, “oh, it’s Tuesday, I’m with Mom” and it didn’t really matter, but as I got older I realized how difficult it was on me that I had two separate families and that my brother and I were split up. It’s a different way of growing up… there are two of everything, your parents don’t get along, your dad honks the horn when he picks you up at 5:00, and for a while that was just the way it worked and I had no knowledge that it could be any different. The divorce happened when I was six, and as I got older there started to be quite a bit of dysfunction on my dad’s side, from drug abuse to other forms of dysfunction. I knew it really affected my little sister, who lived with my dad and step mom, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized the toll it took on me, being around all of that. Being around my dad’s side of the family and seeing my sister suffer through that instability was really difficult for me. On a personal level, the relationship with my dad has always been hard. It was like having two separate families that were polar opposites, my mom’s side being mostly stable and my dad’s side was just not.

The divorce is the thing I’ve learned the most from in my entire life and what I’ve  really had to draw my strength from. In the face of struggle and abuse and dysfunction and confusion, you just have to make sense of the situation as best as you can. I feel like I matured at such a young age because I had to reconcile that world my dad was living in. I’ve seen two total opposite sides of marriage and of parenting: the stable side and the really tumultuous side. In the midst of all of that craziness I think I ended up pretty stable, thanks in large part to my mom’s side of the family that was a really constant source of love, but it took me a long time to realize that the instability on the other side of the family is not normal and that I don’t have to live that way.

It has helped me grow as a person because it gives me a sense of empathy for others going through their own personal situations, whether it be with family, abuse, addiction, or just generally compromising situations. I understand what it feels like, what the effects of that trauma are, and the ripple effect it can have on families. It also really affected my self-confidence and that of my siblings, as well as the way I approach my own relationships. After getting out of my last relationship, I look back and realize I was such a pleaser. I was always concerned about him, wanting to make him happy, and we basically isolated ourselves from everyone else, and that’s kind of how my dad is with my step mom. But I think the more I learn about myself and my relationships I’m picking up on those things that may have affected me and becoming more aware.

 

Can you tell me about a time in which you struggled or disappointed yourself?

Definitely when I ended the longest relationship I’ve ever had, with a guy named Drew. I started dating him when I was 23. He was a Green Beret in the Army, and I met him when he was home for a short period. We hit it off and did the long distance thing off and on for a couple years over the course of three deployments. We would write each other letters and it was almost a “Dear John” type of situation in which we could just let down our guards and open up through our writing to one another. We had such a deep love, but all the while he was either overseas or in the process of figuring out where he’d be next. He eventually got stationed in the Nashville, Tennessee area, and after a lot of conversation I made the decision to move out to Tennessee to be with him.

So, the time came and I loaded up my car and as my mom and I pulled out of the driveway I had a panic attack. We had to pull over and it took me a while to get over it but we kept driving. We finally made it there, and when we pulled up and I saw him I had another panic attack. My mom was telling me to get out of the car, but something inside me just couldn’t. I was paralyzed in my own skin. I finally collected myself and got out of the car and tried to make light of it and pretend everything was OK, but truthfully I knew something was wrong. I really did love him, but I think I just wasn’t ready to make that jump to leave my life, my career, my family and friends, and to live this new life in which he was deployed on and off and everything would be different. I don’t think I was ready to give up all that I had to give up to be there. But, at the time, I couldn’t figure out why I was freaking out so much, I just knew something was off.

I ended up staying out there for about six weeks. During that time I tried to get a job, trained for a half marathon, was cooking for him every night with candles and wine and the whole thing… I was trying to do things that were pleasing to him while also keeping my own identity. I was just so, so sad, to the point where I stopped talking to friends and family because I knew if I talked to them they would know something was wrong. I felt like I had committed to that move and to that life, and I was doing it for him while he was risking his own life and making the greatest sacrifice of all. I tried my hardest, it just didn’t work out.

The disappointment came because I felt so selfish and guilty for leaving. In hindsight I know it was the right decision for me to leave, but at the time I was so disappointed in myself. When I left he was curled up, sobbing on the bathroom floor, totally broken, and it broke me to be breaking him. I would think of everything that these guys go through being Green Berets… I would hear about the violent, sad, and scary details of his life overseas, and I felt so guilty for leaving him. For months when I got home I was depressed. I knew it was the right decision but I just had this cloud of guilt around me. I would go to therapy and cry and ask myself how I could ever do that to him. I was only there for six weeks, did I even give it enough time or effort? Did I give up? Am I a shitty person? Can I ever make a relationship work if I can’t make this work? It made me question everything and I just felt like I failed.

To date, it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done but it’s also one of my proudest moments, being able to get through that dark period. I matured a ton emotionally from that experience. I wasn’t very secure and didn’t have a strong sense of self the way I think I do now, after having that experience and having to pick up every piece of my life. If I didn’t do what I did, I’d be living a life that wasn’t for me.

 

What does being a woman mean to you?

Being a woman to me is just being so damn strong. I know it’s cliche, but SO much of the burden falls on women in terms of relationships, friendships, household responsibilities, bearing children… all of these things just naturally fall on us. But on the other side of that, my favorite stories of women are ones in which a woman pushes herself beyond what she ever thought she could do. I just ran a marathon and I NEVER thought I could do that. It’s cool as shit to do that and to see other women doing it, whether it’s their first or their 15th, whether they have zero children or five children. Women are just so strong and have incredible strength of mind to be able to manage all that they manage and to still push themselves to that level, whether it’s running a marathon or some other personal victory. That’s what being a woman is to me. Being strong in mind and heart and knowing your strengths but also being aware of how you can improve and be stronger to better your own life. I so admire my friends who become mothers when they never thought they could, who sacrifice for their partners, who pick their kids up and do homework with them every day… women show strength in so many different ways, and I think that’s really special that we can choose how to harness our own strength in different ways.

One quick example… my mom and her best friend Barb both have daughters named Kate. One time they got in a silly but pretty big fight about what they wanted for their daughters in the future. My mom said, “what if my daughter wants to have children and then start a career?” and Barb said, “well what if she wants to start her career and then have children?” It’s such a silly thing to fight about, honestly, but I’ll always remember that story because it’s so true that women really do have to make those decisions in a way that men generally don’t. So many women forego their own professional passions to raise a family, and the opposite is true, too, and that burden of consideration really does fall mostly on women. And now with social media you have to be making these decisions and doing all of these things WHILE being sexy and fashionable and so, so happy, and it’s a harsh world for women in that regard because you’re going to be judged or ridiculed no matter what choice you make. No matter what you’re going to be violating someone’s expectations, so it’s really all about finding our own individual strengths and harnessing them in a way that is true and genuine.

 

How can women better support each other?

Be the woman who cheers for other women. If you have a friend who forgoes her career aspirations to raise a family, don’t judge her, just ask her to enlighten you about what led her to that decision. Maybe you can learn something. My friends who are moms are making decisions and managing responsibilities I can’t even fathom handling, and I’ve learned so much from them. And on the other side, don’t judge or ridicule women for choosing their careers. There’s something to take away from every woman’s story, and we have to champion those parts of women, even the ones we don’t understand individually. If we can just ask to be let in and to learn about what life is like for women who lead their lives differently, rather than making assumptions or staying in our own safe spaces, I really think we can unite as a gender and as a human species to better support one another.

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