The only time I slapped a man across the face, I think I was as stunned as he was.
It was a couple of decades ago, in a Lincoln Park pub. You’d assume he was someone I did not know very well, but this was not the case. The man I slapped had been a friend. This pal, who I had known since college and briefly dated, uttered words you just can’t take back: “Your mother is a bitch.”
Now, without getting into the sordid story and dirty laundry (not the point of this story), he had too much to drink. But, I don’t kid myself that he hadn’t thought the same thing sober.
The world’s current misguided definition of “bitch” did fit my mother at times. But it still gave him no right to say it to me. Needless to say, after that evening, the rest of our friendship died on the vine.
This is dicey territory, so allow me to explain.
My mother was ahead of her time. An executive who ran several businesses. A woman who traveled on business frequently and was at the podium speaking to large audiences more often than not, at least in my formative years. I sat in the corners, behind stage or in the audience, slightly bored but thinking this is just what women do. At least, until I was old enough to realize most women didn’t do such things.
Mom was a woman who told me she found going to work “infinitely easier” than staying home with children. As a result, I had a slew of babysitters as a young child.
Had she not been born in the era she was, she might not have married at 24, had six daughters (damn that unreliable Catholic rhythm method) and tried—at least for a while—to fit the Betty Crocker mold.
But when I came along unexpectedly at almost 43, my mother had long since given up trying to fit in with the ladies of the PTA. She was doing what lit her up, what made her come most alive, what she truly enjoyed. She was taking charge and taking names. And, as a bevy of awards and some press clippings would show—she was damn good at it. Better, in fact, than many in the old boys’ network. Not that she ever made close to what they brought home each month.
She did not suffer fools lightly. Nor did she want her youngest daughter with any man she felt would not pull his weight, would hold her baby back, who lacked the right credentials. In this way and so many others, she was not perfect—but she was mothering in the way she knew best. She trained me to support myself, to value education, to know my worth.
I saw how hard she worked. I saw the toll it took on her, despite her passion for it. And I saw, as I got older, that women who broke glass ceilings were—more often than not–lonely. Peerless, in many ways.
The few times she showed up at school, usually for parent/teacher conferences, she chatted with the other mothers but they were never quite sure what to talk about. And sometimes they would huddle, as she got in the car to head back to work, I’m sure rolling their eyes at her suit and pumps. I saw it a few times.
And the men—well, they were not sure how to treat a woman who had an opinion on the stock market, politics, social issues. This may sound antiquated to some of you, but remember the times.
To both men and women, my mother could be labeled a “bitch” simply because she had a secretary, gave speeches, didn’t make time for idle chitchat, ignored the plea for baked goods for the class party. She did what many men did—but they were commanding, breadwinners, go-getters.
“Bitch” had less to do with her core than with her not fulfilling others’ expectations.
My mom was not warm and fuzzy. She could be incredibly tough. That I get. But I know an army of men who can be the same way and they don’t face the same judgment.
My dad—well, my dad was man enough to love her. It takes a real man to support a woman’s success as a true partner. To cook dinner, to help pick up the house, to do bath and bedtime duty for the kids. My dad, a WWII Air Force veteran, was no ninny. He was secure enough in his manhood to love a strong woman. He was wise enough to have fallen in love with the antithesis to a stereotype, a stereotype that would have bored him to death.
Dad didn’t see a bitch. He saw a go-getter. He saw a smart woman who helped him raise smart women. And for him, she baked bread because she knew he loved it. For him, she picked up prescriptions she didn’t have time to pick up, did laundry late at night, poured a glass of wine to share before dinner.
It wasn’t about gender-assigned roles in my house. It was about two people trying to get through the tough bits. Each knew the other’s strengths and the not so pretty bits. They didn’t always get it right. But they never held each other to roles society assigned in an unthinking manner many moons ago.
I have friends who work and friends who stay home. Friends who have done both. No matter, the gender roles still seem to leave women at a lack. You know who should cook dinner? Whoever has the damn time and is the better cook. Mowing the lawn? Anybody’s guess. Cleaning the bathroom? Flip a coin or hire a cleaning service because nobody likes that job. We need to question what is expected of us to be sure it fits. And I see so many people who do not question. I’d rather be a curious bitch than an unthinking lackey.
Hopefully, the “bitch” concept will die with the generations who created it. It seems to be a long, slow demise but I have hope. My sons see me fulfill the breadwinner role. They see that I am not crafty, I do not have copious hours to help with homework, I snap sometimes after a long day.
But they also see that I make things happen. I am asked for my professional opinion often. I get the job done. Perhaps while wearing brighter lipstick than my mother and with a more frequent laugh. On the flip side, I bake them chocolate chip cookies because I’m good at it. I cook exotic dinners for them because I like to—even though they sigh as they push food around their plate. They see I am soft, hard and everything in between. As we all are.
If we are still using the outmoded definition of “bitch,” then I guess I am proud to come from bitchy stock. Just don’t let’s have a conversation about it in a pub when you’ve been overserved.
I can’t speak to what my lightning fast right-hand reflex might do.
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My wife taught and did research as a professor at a small college. I stayed home with the kids and worked part time in the evenings. Judy had a lot of energy and drive, and her degree made her a better breadwinner. I was better suited to slowing down to little kid speed for the day to day grind. We divided up the chores according to talent and questions of financial survival. I’m a better cook and carpenter. She’s a better plumber. I know how to deal with car repairs. She can figure out taxes. Other folks sometimes thought our family life odd, but we just did what worked for us. Never understood why anyone cared about who did what. We were happy.
Right?! You do you. Our norms are too rigid and are based on gender rather than a whole person. Crazy.
I just had to click on the link… This is fantastic, Kristine. How lucky for you to be raised by a “bitch”…
Oh, thank you, friend! I do feel lucky, many days.
As you should. My mother was nev,er and will never be, a touchy-feely mom… and I dunno how much wisdom she has imparted over the years but she was always there for us.
Which is what makes all the difference
Yes. I like to think so.
One of the biggest conflict sources for people who wish to break out their molds is the extended family — relatives. Friends, you can choose, and I always have on the basis of mutual interests and sensitivities. Family dynamics can be really conservative, i.e. change-resistant. I moved from NJ to QC (across the border) a decade ago and I find these ideas about roles much more relaxed up here. I like cooking, so I do maybe 75% of it. I do alot of cleaning, but some stuff I remain clueless about how to clean and my wife does something magical and then *poof* it seems clean in 5 minutes. We don’t think of each other having roles — we just help each other, and raise our son, and talk about it. Likely I would not have been able to do this so breezily in my 30s, but now it feels great. Still — old attitudes persist. My father-in-law for example thinks it is unmanly to do grocery shopping and proudly announces he’s not done it for decades. We just ignore him.
It amazes me how stuck people get in roles, having grown up the way I did. I’m glad to hear you and your wife keep it easy breezy. There are enough things in life to worry about without making this one of them :-).
I slapped a man once too, but it was because he was drunk and told me to. then told me it wasn’t hard enough, and to call him deuschbag. Turned out to be a millionairre in disguise but it was still funny..
That sounds like quite a story. . .!
It was man, men sometimes! he he
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I can’t say it too much on this post. I am SO very glad I stumbled on this post today. I’m blubbering like a baby. Your mom and dad sound like me and my husband. Even in 2017, people don’t get it. I’m not warm and fuzzy either. My hubby is the better nurturer, but it’s me the children come to when they really want something done, and they want it done well. They ask my professional opinion. My cooking is ok and baking is my love…when I have time to do it. These are the things they respect about me…or did while we were speaking. I can tell I need more of the warm and fuzzies, yet it seems I’m not quite built that way.
Yes, even in 2017 we still fall victim to gender stereotypes, Crazy, eh? I’m glad you and your spouse have found a way to make it work–that’s really what matters, right? And that the kids know they are loved. Not everyone is sunshine and hugs–but if the love shines through, I think that is what matters.
I love this post! I do not know about men in the US but men in Malaysia still do not know how to respond to women who can talk with them about politics, world news and social issues. I have been told by men who are educated with bachelor’s degrees and MBAs that I would never get married because men would be intimidated by my “intelligence”. Well, my response was… perhaps I’m overqualified for those men and only the right man will marry me for my “intelligence”! 🙂
Amen, sister! Who wants a man that is intimidated by intelligence? Don’t listen to those cavemen.
The question should not be when will the bitch label end… It should when we would stop labeling people who we don’t know anything about
I think I’d like your family.
We joke that my father should have been canonized for living with seven really strong women:).
The B word, like many I have in time changed to a newer meaning. I can now use/say this word in such love and laughter (with the right people). Great tag line and post. You’re such a good writer Kay! It’s been great to catch up a bit 🙂
Thank you, as always:). My friends and I have translated it to biyatch–and yes, we can also use it as a compliment!
I read this post a couple of times, Kay; it struck a chord with me: particularly this line ““Bitch” had less to do with her core than with her not fulfilling others’ expectations.” Our mothers were opposites in the roles they played in life. (Mine was a stay at home mom who was never employed.) Yet, it strikes me that they gave us, their daughters, what we each needed to handle our lives — though I think I would have benefitted from a little modeling of the useful type of bitchiness your mom had.
Oh, I hear what you are saying. It’s not that I haven’t dealt with truly bitchy women–I have and I’m sure I’ve been one from time to time:). But, the terms seems a poor coping mechanism for anyone dealing with a woman who defies their expectations, rather than as a label for bad behavior. I probably could have used a little of the warm & fuzzy your mom gave you:). But, it all evens out in the end. Thanks for such a thoughtful comment.
Good for both your Mum and Dad. Even in these so-called enlightened times wives and mothers are successful in other fields at their peril of having to deal with far more crap than their male counterparts. And if their halos slip occasionally it’s no wonder.
And if we needed any reason to hope that a certain oaf doesn’t get near the White House then a tough if less-than-white woman is worth voting for.
Makes you glad you live in Jersey, doesn’t it? 🙂 The election bit. What a circus. I’m burnishing my halo as I type this:).
Great post. I also hate the “bitch” double-standard I alway saw in business. A man could throw furniture and he was “tough”. But a woman raising her voice was a bitch. Both your parents sound like wonderful, interesting people. They helped make you what you are today.
Yes, I’d like to say the double standard is a relic but it still exists in pockets. Am hoping we get a bit more enlightened with each generation. Thanks for the kind words on my parents–miss them each and every day.
People who blaze trails always have negative definitions attached to them, women more than anyone.
Our mom was a hero to many, especially to her daughter.
Nice right hand..:)
Not quite a right hook:). Dad never did get around to teaching me that one. Thank you for the kind words. It’s heartening to hear those words come from a man.
What wouldn’t any of us give to be ourselves, do what lights us up, and share a life unhindered by ill-fitting, generic stereotypes? Sounds like your mother and father were living authentically and with grit long before those ideals were trendy.
I truly believe we’ll get to a place where we can live that way. It’s just taking a lot of hair pulling and nail biting.
Thank you:). Sometimes, writing late at night pulls the creativity out.
Well, he was putting down someone you loved very much Kristine…how dare he.
And by your reaction, it hurt somewhere very deep.
Growing up watching her take lumps for simply being who she was made me protective, I guess.
Besides loving our parents, and our learning to protect those we love…it is an attack on us, simply by association.
This ‘friend’ having a go at your mom, feels like an attack on you…all from one word.
What great role models you had in your parents. You were right to slap that guy. My mother worked too, but as a professional musician, all of her commitments were at night and on weekends. And she didn’t work what I would call full time. Her mother worked too, as a teacher. I worked full time until I was 38 and had my son. However, since he was born, because of the nature of my work, I have been a stay at home mom.
You are a perfect example of it not being about roles. All of us, when a partner, should allow the other person freedom to move in and out of roles. I know it’s easier when gender roles are just assigned, for many people, because they just have to follow like sheep. But I never find those relationships look like a true joy.
I come from a long line of strong independent women too Kristine. You are right , they did their best with what they learned from their parents. Over the years I have had to nurture my feminine and allow some space for it to grow. I bet your friend never forgot your slap and definitively thinks twice about calling anyone a bitch! 💗
Isn’t it odd that being feminine and taking charge are seen as at odds with each other? I know men who can only see one or the other–and those are the ones I generally keep my soft side from.
It’s a balance! A hard balance. And in my counseling Practice I find a lot of men feel we don’t show this side. 🌸
The “roles” of women are so confusing at times. We are expected to do so much more than our spouses.
Exactly. Which is what I’m hoping will change with the next generation, many of whom have been raised by mothers as breadwinners. The gender roles are so antiquated.