What makes a woman fearless? Is it a fearless mother combined with the genetic code of previous generations of fearless women in her family?
Is it our nature or our nurture that makes us fearless?
Born at the end of the 1960s, I came of age under the women's liberation movement. Women moved from Stepford Wives to corporate executives. Bras were burned. Equal pay for equal work was the demand of the day. Gloria Steinem preached that a woman did not need a man to make her way in this world, and in fact, women need men like fish need bicycles. Just like sun tea, I was steeped in the feminism that surrounded me, or as much as could be garnered in the Deep South.
As a daughter of the American Revolution, I have pioneer stock genes mixed with a resilient Scots-Irish heritage. The women of our family are strong willed, outspoken, intelligent, educated and determined to succeed in everything we do from pursuading others to agree with our political opinions to climbing the ladder in our careers to baking the best casserole for the potluck dinner after church on Sunday. My mother's seeds of fearlessness landed on fertile soil.
At 18, the country's oldest women's college beckoned me to leave my hometown. I packed my bags and left Baton Rouge, Louisiana to go 1524 miles away to Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. I spent four years immersed in an environment that challenged me on every level - intellectually, spiritually, socially, emotionally and physically.
Four years later, a well-rounded, balanced confident woman emerged. The sapling was well on its way to becoming a mighty oak.
Ten years later, that woman completely disappeared in the midst of an emotional drought. As my marriage was failing, I found myself disintegrating before my own eyes. I was afraid of anything and everything. I was terrified that the windows would have a smudge on them when my husband got home, that I would make the wrong menu selection for dinner, or the laundry wouldn't smell Downy fresh. No decision I made ever seemed to be right. I refused to leave because I was too afraid. How would I make it on my own? How would I go back to work and handle the challenges of two young children, including a son with autism - alone? Although my nature was strong, the lack of nurture was causing me to wither.
One day, I looked at my daughter, Mairin. What kind of example was I setting for her? She was three. She was watching her mother melt into a puddle every single day. What kind of future was I creating for her? She had the right genes but was not receiving the nurturing that would help her evolve into the secure, resilient person I know she can be. The little fruit on my tree was shriveling.
I chose to prune the spirit of fear that had paralyzed my growth. I was not this shell of a woman that was holding me captive. Fear was simply a challenge that I had to face because my destiny was on the other side of that cloud of anxiety.
As I became more confident and self-assured again after my divorce, I realized how much ground I had to make up with Mairin. As a result of her brother's disability and because her early childhood was steeped in my weakness, her formative years had left her clearly insecure. This would not do.
Searching for small ways to teach her to step outside the box, I started to do anything and everything I could to embarrass her in public places. I spoke with a British, Chinese or Mexican accent while shopping in the grocery store. I kicked my legs out to the side while pushing the cart. I ran down the aisle making monkey noises, picking up a banana and answering it as if it was a phone. It was the perfect plan. We were around disposable people that we would never see again, so I had no fear about what they thought of my lunatic behavior. Mairin, however, was mortified. At the age of four, she would immediately assume the adult role when my childish antics would start, roll her eyes, put her hands on her hips and say under her breath, "MOTHER! STOP IT! YOU ARE EMBARASSING ME!"
Over and over again, year after year, trip after trip to the grocery store, the bank, or the dry cleaners, I would act like a raging idiot to embarrass her and show her that life should be fun. There is always a time and a place to be concerned about what others think of us, but there is a time and a place to just live life, have fun and be carefree, too.
Every outing fostered the same results. Rolled eyes, hands on hips and an outburst that would shame any normal parent. As a single parent who cannot afford a $90 an hour therapist for my child, this was the best that I could do. Teach my child confidence and offer her immunity to other people's opinions by acting like an idiot in Target.
As with any good therapist, a day finally arrives when the patient has a complete and utter breakthrough.
A few weeks ago, we were in Target performing our weekly grocery shopping. Apparently, I was from France and also suffering from a lame left leg, which I was dragging behind me like Igor. Tears were shed as we rounded aisle six because Mairin saw someone whisper and stare. She pleaded with me to stop acting like a "dork." I refused to change what I was doing and reached for the peanut butter. She stomped off in the other direction.
We rounded our respective corners and were now facing each other from opposite ends of the aisle. An elderly woman, very respectable and dressed to the nines, was selecting a Hungry Man frozen dinner. Mairin caught her eye and then gave me "the look." My Spidey Sense could feel it. This was the moment of truth, and triumph. The glint in her eye gave away her intentions.
Before I knew it, she started walking with giant, crazy steps, shaking her arms and sticking out her tongue. With a loud British inflection she yelled, "Shall I get the blueberry or strawberry Toaster Strooooodels for tea, Mum?" Then she flitted over to me like a wild ballerina performing in the Nutcracker the length of the aisle and gleefully tossed the Toaster Strudels into the cart.
Score one for Mairin.
The elderly woman stared with her demure Southern mouth hanging open at this unruly child during the entire performance and in no way would she be nominating me for Mother of the Year.
Hands on the hips again. Eyes rolled. "HA!," Mairin proudly proclaimed. "Now YOU know what it FEELS like when someone does something WEIRD in front of people and YOU can be the one that is EMBARRASSED!"
She might as well have graduated Summa Cum Laude from an Ivy League College.
I bent over, looked into her eyes and took her little eight-year-old face into my hands. Bursting with pride I said, "Mairin, I am so proud of you for being brave and learning how to be silly. Never, ever be afraid of what other people might think of you and there is no telling what you will do while you are here on this earth. Just make your decisions and follow your heart."
We spent the rest of our shopping trip speaking with British accents. We even went over to the shoe department, tried on all the ugly pairs and acted like complete freaks. It was spectacular.
Growing up with women's liberation, having incredibly strong role models and attending a women's college are not enough seeds to raise up a new generation of fearless women. We must nurture them, fertilize them, prune them and watch them in every season of their life until they become a mighty tree themselves.
As women, we must teach our daughters to stand on their own and develop the confidence that will sustain them throughout their lives by our own example.
It is as fundamental a foundation for their success in life as learning to read and write.