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.