By Taylor Ciambra
I was riding shotgun to my grandma in her gold Lincoln Town Car when the question occurred to me. We were on our way to lemon ricotta pancakes at a restaurant around the corner from her big white house. When I think about our life together, we are always set in the colorful, chaotic tableau of our family at the holidays. Which made today special, just us and the promise of pancakes.
“Grandma?” I asked. “When did you feel like a woman, not like a child or a girl?” She thinks a minute, her thick glasses glaring in the sun and obscuring her blue eyes. “When I got a job…” I nodded. Throughout our conversations, I had begun to realize how much work meant to her. I wasn’t sure if it was the money, or being a supervisor, or just being able to do something other than taking care of babies, but working means a lot to my Grandma. She got laid off once and was so upset, she didn’t go to work on the last day. She said didn’t want to be escorted out or have to return her security badge. So my grandpa did.
I got my period when I was sixteen and I thought that’s when I would feel like a woman. That’s like the definitive sign, right? That red stain in your underwear and the quick left hook to your stomach by an internal fist, BAM! You’re a woman. I was just about to finish the last Harry Potter book when my mom found my stained underwear in the laundry and asked me if I got it. “I, um, I don’t know.” I could feel tears growing hot behind my eyes. This was embarrassing. “Sometimes it’s brown.” She supplied.
“Oh…” “I think you did.” “Oh.” I said again, the tears were spilling out now. “Do you feel okay?” I didn’t feel okay. I thought I would be excited and happy. After all, I was among the last of my friends to get her period. I could finally weigh in on how bad cramps really were, I would become skilled in the fine art of using tampons, I could use the excuse that I had “feminine needs” to get out of any uncomfortable situation I wanted. I would finally be a woman!
Instead, my hormone ravaged mind was screaming DANGER! I remembered how men look at women differently from girls and that women are always the target of serial killers on TV.
Women can get raped. Women can have babies. I felt like I had to be responsible and in some way more careful, to not fall into an adult type of danger.
I was eighteen when my then-boyfriend called me a woman for the first time. I laughed. I said I wasn’t. I barely had my first kiss. Women, I asserted, have wider hips and are taller. They have their own apartments and stunning self-confidence. I had a list of things women had that I didn’t. But by the end of college there was some overlap. Was I a woman after all? No, no, I still hadn’t mastered yoga or been able to afford dinner at the fanciest place in town. I didn’t know enough about wine and I didn’t own a dog. Hell, I didn’t even have a career!
I thought when I became a woman I would feel like one and I thought that’d feel great. I thought it would start with my period and hit full force when I had sex. Maybe I’d change my name.
Maybe I’d buy lacy bras and underwear, and wear that every day instead of cotton and cami’s. I thought “mom” and “old lady” were status achievements on womanhood timeline. I thought I’d feel sexy and wise.
I did not become a woman at sixteen just because I got my period, and I definitely didn’t become a woman at eighteen just because my boyfriend thought I was. I became a woman at twenty-two when the love of my life-so-far walked out. I remember standing on the sidewalk outside of my apartment when it occurred to me. It was March and the snow was melting on my front lawn revealing bright green grass and thick mud. I wanted the seasons to stop changing and I wanted to stop hurting so damn much. Which is when I knew that I loved him with my whole heart. And that sounded like something a woman is able to do.
I was officially, and unceremoniously, a woman.
But I wasn’t like Grandma. My woman-ness was tied to other people and that fact in itself, made me feel like I wasn’t a woman after all. Just a girl trying on her mom’s heels and falling flat on her face. I was pathetic and I had failed.
“We were pretty cute, huh?” It’s the first time Heather and I have seen each other in a year and it’s been at least five years since some of these high school photos that are sprinkled around her apartment were taken. There’s a sweet glow in our faces that seems both innocent and far away. After college, I moved to Alaska and she moved to the South for grad school. I was finding myself and she was getting a Master’s degree. Between the photos and the people who stood in front of each other now, it was evident that so much had changed and so much hadn’t. Since high school, I shaved my head, my face is pocked with more pimples now and my teeth have begun to wander since I am no longer compliant to my orthodontist’s rules. It strikes me that we just look older. We’re not the same kind of cute.
We giggled through Facebook pictures and caught up on what our letters hadn’t said over the past year. She picked out an engagement ring, she’s saving for a wedding, and she tells me about her almost fiancé’s family. She’s so happy it’s contagious. She tells me how he calls her a “strong lady” and how that made her think more about being a woman. The more they talked about their values, the more it became clear to her that she is in fact, a woman. “When I was a kid, I always saw a woman as a strong figure and an adult who took care of others and I think that’s the direction I’m heading in and who I want to be,” she says.
I’m glad I’m not seventeen again. I’m glad I’m not as ignorant or callous as I used to be and that I know how to cook. I know how to love people so much better now and fear is a thing to be conquered, not bullied by. After all, no matter the miles I still have pals like Heather to come home to.
And maybe that’s what it means to be a woman.
It isn’t an either or question. You’re not a woman because you have a job or you have a family. You’re not a woman because you got your period or a PhD. You’re a woman because you know how to care for yourself, connect with others and stay true to your values. And that happens whenever it happens. Gradually and suddenly. There is no timeline, no biological clock, or equation.