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LFCA Latest Issue: Friday, September 25, 2009.

Latest Post on BlogHer: Parenting after Infertility.

My Status: Fed Josh's almonds to the squirrels. They needed them very badly.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Finding the Phenomenal Woman

When I taught middle school, our private school had an electives program and kids could sign up for one elective each semester. I taught many of the electives on various years including etymology, anthropology, and--one of my personal favourites--women's studies. Which is to say, women's studies for middle schoolers. It's like serving Gloria Steinam as a glass of milk rather than a cup of strong coffee.

We started out the class the same way every day. The girls would rush in and immediately whip out Maya Angelou's poem, "Phenomenal Woman" and recite it together, growing increasing louder with each stanza until we shouted out the final lines. Did I mention that this was a private school?

Phenomenal Woman
by Maya Angelou

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's size
But when I start to tell them,They think I'm telling lies.
I say,
It's in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It's the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can't touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them
They say they still can't see.
I say,
It's in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

Now you understand
Just why my head's not bowed.
I don't shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It's in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
'Cause I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

I believed that poem.

I taught that poem to the girls and made them recite it every day because I wanted them to have confidence in themselves as women. I didn't want them to try to form themselves into what they thought others wanted them to be. I wanted them to love themselves so intensely that they showed their strength in the the click of their heels, the bend of their hair, the palms of their hands, and the need of their care.

I taught this particular class after our wedding but before we started trying to conceive. When I read that poem aloud, I felt like it came up from somewhere deep inside of me. I was a fucking woman. With a uterus and ovaries and breasts. I was going to try to make a child soon. As much as I bitched about my period, I was glad that I was the one who was going to carry the child. I didn't think that it would be bearable to be a man--to see life growing in your house and not be able to feel it from inside of you. When I recited that poem, I felt like a phenomenal woman. I felt like I was making a difference in the lives of my students. And I believed that I would soon be a mother and intimately influencing the life of a young child. Life was good.

Since I wrote that last post, especially after hearing my own thoughts echoed in the comments, I have been thinking about how does one return to being a phenomenal woman when what they considered to be part of their womanhood is taken away? Examine the poem--there is not one mention of being able to procreate. Not one mention of breastfeeding. For Maya Angelou, womanhood transcends the ability to utilize a uterus. It must because not every woman in this world will choose to carry a child and not every woman will be able to carry a child.

So why do I still feel like so much of my identity is tied up in my body's foibles?

I started writing that last entry the night before when I came home from the Starbucks and read it aloud to Josh. He was completely horrified by my thoughts and spent the better part of an hour trying to convince me why I was wrong. It's not a matter of being right or wrong. It's a matter of this is how I feel. And no one can make me feel something different. It's up to me to find that inner woman again and redefine her. I can have help on the journey (and your comments have helped tremendously), but the last few steps need to be taken by myself. I edited out some of the stronger self-hatred that was in the first version. One reason was that writing down those thoughts helped me to release some of that self-anger. The other was that Josh was truly horrified.

The question I posed to Josh was how he would feel if he was sterile (and aah0424 brought up this very point in her comment). Wouldn't his self-esteem take a beating no matter how much I told him I loved him and I didn't care? Would he feel like less of a man? At least initially? We are all works-in-progress, so hopefully we don't remain in those stages of self-esteem. Hopefully we learn to accept our limitations and not have the weight of our limitations burden us indefinitely. It has not been long enough for me and I don't have the gift of space and time. I'm still in the middle of wrestling with my body--at least fertilitywise. Until that portion of my life is finished, I think I will always been fighting that urge of feeling like a third sex.

My mother is an infertile woman and I never saw her as anything but a full woman. And she is my role model. I can honestly say that my mother is one of my closest friends and I have always looked to her when shaping myself as woman. If you had asked me before I started trying to build my family how I defined a woman, I would have remembered everything I learned from my mother: women hold themselves with grace. That they remain strong even in the face of crisis. That they are kind and take care of others and themselves. I would have said that a woman allows themselves to show emotion. That a woman brings beauty into the world.

I would have said that every woman is different therefore the definition is infinite.

It wasn't until that ability to procreate without assistance was taken away from me that I added the ability to carry a child and feed a child into the definition. But for so long, that has been the focus, therefore it has overpowered every other part of the definition.

I am really trying to rewrite my definition. It's difficult to do when you are still part of the words you are trying to erase. I can tell you things that haven't work: wearing a dress, putting on some make-up, shaving my legs. I have ruled out enough external changes to realize that this is solely an internal change. A shift in view. At some point, I know that I will become a phenomenal woman again. I will think of myself as solely a woman. And I may even look back at that entry and forget how much my self-esteem was hurting from all of this.

In this moment, it's just nice to know that I'm not alone.

All the phenomenal stirrup-queens in the house stand up.

On a side note, thank you for all of the kind thoughts for my friend. When she's ready, I'm going to ask her to read all of this support. She is not in a great space--it's been a terrible roller coaster ride that is filled with tremendous guilt. She isnt really even at the point where she is putting one foot in front of the other. Loss is loss and it hurts no matter where you were in life prior to feeling the crash.


Anonymous said...

Until my son was born, I never questioned my womanhood. I never equated it with breastfeeding or carrying a child. But after everything, after the realization that I wasn't going to experience labor, that my body may betray my child's body, that the risk of my body killing my child is bet.
When he was born, I couldn't hold him. I couldn't feed him, though I pumped, it isn't the same. I could only hold his hand for a little while at a time.
I distanced myself for a while. I beat myself up over that still. I couldn't let myself get attatched to this child in front of me. What if he died? What if *I* caused that?
I couldn't look at pregnant women for a long time without this feeling of...envy, sadness, even a bit of hatred. What kind of woman was I that I wasn't able to carry my child to full term?
Now, in dealing with wanting another child and being unsuccessful, I'm having another bout of this. What kind of woman am I that I can't? ...
This post makes me think, something I've been doing a LOT lately.

TeamWinks said...

I have blogged a lot about how infertility has stolen a piece of my womanhood. This was compounded when I found out that my reproductive organs were actually just plain wrong. So, defective and infertile! Oh no! Yup, beat myself up over that for a while.

It doesn't help when even the dictionary says, "Woman, female, lady are nouns referring to adult human beings who are biologically female; that is, capable of bearing offspring. Woman is the general term." Grrr. Not nice Webster! So, we infertiles need to create our own definition of a woman. Hmmm, could be my post for tomorrow.

Sloooooowly, I'm realizing that procreating isn't the sole source of my femininity and womanhood. I've read a lot of Maya's books, and they are all wonderful.

Anonymous said...

I was thinking the same thing about that poem - where's the bit where it mentions procreation? And a blissful natural birth at full-term followed by effortless breastfeeding?

I've got the impression (and this is going to sound really really obvious) that this sensation of "being a third sex" is deeper in those with FF infertility. Despite the failed cycles, chemical pregnancies and LP spotting, I just don't seem to have as much of a sense of it - perhaps because our diagnosis is still MF. In fact, I remember stimming made me feel more womanly than ever.


Anonymous said...

This makes so much sense to me. For me, a huge piece of the emotional crap of infertility has been how defective it makes me feel - and every month when I get my period it's just another reminder that I remain defective as a woman.

The poem is beautiful. I'm sorry to say that is the first time I've read it all the way through. Thanks for posting it.

decemberbaby said...

What an amazing poem. I'm printing it out and putting it in a frame by my bed.

IF has affected my sense of womanhood, but I'm holding on to the last few shreds of it by priding myself on my awesome cooking and baking. I love to feed people... it's maternal... and so it reinforces my sense of self.

It'd be nice, though, to cook and bake AND pop out babies any old time. Must work on that.

Gil said...

Brilliant poem. I'd never read it before either, but I think I'm going to make a point of doing so from now on. *runs to print it and post it at the office*

Woman: an adult female person, the feminine aspect of a person, feminine nature or emotions.

I have two dictionaries at my fingertips (Gage Canadian and Canadian Oxford) and neither of them includes anything about procreation under the definition for "woman." So why is it that so many of us feel this way? I've no idea. But we do.

We beat ourselves up and internalize it; we blame ourselves and get lost in the sea of infertility without finding the island of femininity.

I suppose our task is to somehow redefine ourselves, find that island and build the confidence that we used to have in our own womanhood. For in the end, we are all women.

Just as you asked, I'm standing up.

Anonymous said...

I'm in the same boat as you. I *do* feel less of a woman. Because it takes so much effort for us to get pregnant. Because my body killed our babies. Because I have this deformed uterus.

And J did the same thing with me- last night, after reading my blog, he tried to convince me why I was wrong. He reacted very much like Josh did.

And I found it funny that though we have severe MF as well, I don't think of J as less of a man. Sometimes he jokes that HE does - particularly since he was put on Clomid to increase his testosterone levels (and therefore sperm count). But I've never once thought of him as less of a man - the blame is all on me.

This all leads me to believe that my definition of being a woman is completely overshadowed by my internalization of our IVF failures. Because I cannot get pregnant, it must be my fault. My failure as a woman.

So in order to redefine your inner woman, you need to let go of the feeling of it being your fault.

And that's really hard, when you're in the thick of infertility.

Let us know how it goes. I would love to feel like a woman again. Maybe even a phenomenal woman.

Anonymous said...

I loved that poem, I have it framed at my house , it was a present from the girls in the Residence Hall where I worked as an RD when I lef that job. I had earlier during Women's history month, made each girl a small photocopy of the poem and on each one told them what was I thought was Phenomenal about them and I read it out loud to all of them one night over pizza.
I always thought I would be a good mother, I always thought that whatever mistakes I had made in my youth would be fixable once I got a chance with children of my own.
Having those young women in my life, having them look to me for advice and love, having their parents tell me that I made their lives better, that they were better people because of how I treated them made me FEEL Phenomenal.
Yet, with IF It has taken a lot of that feeling away from me. I no longer think that I am capable of anything , that I am a whole woman or proud of my body anymore. I try, very hard to feel that , I try very hard to remember that conceiving is not what makes me a woman, but many days I can't forget it either.

Anonymous said...

After our conversation I've been thinking about what I think being a woman means, and I realized that I quite unconsciously equated femaleness with menstruation, conception, gestation and birth. I am kind of appalled that my unthinking assumptions are all in the "biology as destiny" camp. And me a feminist! Hell, even "nurturing" didn't make my unconscious list (and neither did breastfeeding, oddly enough.)

I was making cupcakes this morning (because I am crazy, and because I wanted carbohydated laden chocolate to salve the crappy week I've been happening and cooking was easier than going out) and thought about cake mixes. Really. When boxed cake mixes first came on the market there was an immense resistence to them because so many women equated their worth as a woman to their ability to make a cake from scratch.

I don't know what the connection there is, other than the exterior crap we allow to define us can be really strange and unconnected to anything of real value. I love the poem. Maybe a little more Maya and a little less fertility and cake will do good things for me, and us.

Anonymous said...

Meant to say "a little less defining ourselves by our fertility" not "a little less fertility"

More fertility is good!

Anonymous said...

I think the way you're reaching out to other women dealing with IF makes you a phenomenal woman. I bet if I knew you personally, I'd be able to find a lot more things!

Anonymous said...

So here's the REAL question: Did the middle schoolers all giggle when they had to recite "its the ride of my breasts"? 'Cause I would have giggled. Actually, I giggled a little just now when I read it.

My morphology is low, low enough to be a real concern. It definitely does affect the way I feel about myself.

Oh! I almost forgot! I got to meet Maya Angelou once, when she visited my college! She actually scolded me! In my young idiocy, I called her "Maya" and she responded "You and I are not familiars, therefore you call me Ms. Angelou".

Now THAT made me feel like less of a man...

Ellen K. said...

What a fantastic post and poem. Thank you, Mel, for sharing both with us.

Sex columnist Dan Savage's adoption book "The Kid" talks about how infertility does a number on heterosexuals' self-identity and sexual identity. I found that book tremendously validating.

Anonymous said...

First of all, I know and love that poem, and second of all, I love the image of a bunch of middle-school girls reading it aloud together!

I find the question of whether the inability to conceive and carry a child without assistance makes me feel less of a woman really interesting...and as I've read your past two posts, I think that what I'm realizing is that for me, the feeling of being "betrayed" by my body is nothing new. As someone who has struggled immensely with body-image and an eating disorder since I was about 11 (wow, that makes it 21 years), I have always felt like my body wasn't the way a woman was supposed to be. Yes, before it was about how my body LOOKED, and the infertility thing has made it about what it can/can't DO...but the feeling is the same.

So there are a lot of things that I think about in relation to this -- 1) that I hate that being a woman seems (in my mind) to be SO caught up in the physical. The poem talks about so many things that have nothing to do with the body...and yet, it's been a lifelong struggle to let go of thinking that my value as a woman is primarily tied to my body in some way.

2) that for me, this is all about the illusion of control, and the feeling of desparation and loss around realizing that I don't have control over my body. Not what it looks like (although the eating disorder was an attempt to change that) and not what it does (can't change the fact that I can't even seem to ovulate without medical help)...

So my journey to get out of the feelings of self-hatred is really one of accepting that 1) I can't control my body and 2) it's me that has this idea about how things are supposed to be, and I can change my ideas. Change my definition of what a woman is -- or rather, expand my definition to include all sorts of experiences and body types and everything else.

I am impressed by your journey through this ~ and I hope you do get to a place where the (in)ability to conceive without medical help doesn't feel as central to your definition of womanhood. Thank you for bringing this topic out in the open, it's amazing to really start to talk about this with fellow warriors on the path....

Ms.Once said...

In those month-to-month failures to get pregnant of infertility, I certainly felt like a failed woman--failed eggs, failed cycle, failed body, failed self. My losses--no matter how much I told myself there was nothing I could have done--felt like tremendous failures, too. But it's also been interesting for me to see that despite knowing this--all that deep feeling of inner failure--that I somehow expected pregnancy to solve some of that. That in the rush of hormones and growth inside and out I would somehow come to feel like more of a woman again--that I'd earn that right back, somehow.

It hasn't been that easy.

What I'm brought to now is not just the difficulty with femininity and womanhood that IF and loss bring, but the real blow to _personhood_ that comes with it. How much strength got used up just getting from day to day, week to week, cycle to cycle, so much so that many days it seemed hard to stand up into full straightness. How I didn't feel like a phenomenal _anything_. And so it's also made me aware of just how difficult it is to stand up and say, YES, I AM _as a woman_, particularly. How still, now, we have to earn that respect among strangers, how we have to take it for ourselves and declare it, and how very much strength that takes. The poem rings out because it's this act of taking back and standing up, precisely because this is not easy to do when we're most expected to sit down properly and take what we're given. I'm glad for the sentiment, but also sad for how very much its needed, still, for how much courage it takes to say that, and for how very much harder it is after IF and loss to do so.

Anonymous said...

you've given me lots to think about....thank you for being so articulate cos i'm at a bit of loss to express myself right now, with so many thoughts and feelings swirling around...

one of the things IF has brought me is a huge weight gain and an awareness of what food and eating does for me...between the IF and the weight, i have lost my sense of being a woman...and the way back to womanhood seems murky at best...

thanks too for the poem, which i am going to share right now with a friend who i know will appreciate and value it as much as i do...


abogada said...

I'll stand up with you, fellow stirrup queen. The start of my moment of realization that I was still phenomenal occurred when I was crumpled up in a ball in my newborn daughter's pediatrician's office, crying because I wasn't producing enough milk to adequately nourish her. I sobbed that first my ovaries didn't work (had to use donor eggs after four years of treatment), and now my breasts seemed like they were worthless as well, therefore, I must be utterly worthless as a human being. She put her arm around me and said, "there's so much more to it, you'll see." And, I've come to realize that she was right, thanks to my daughter, who has helped me see the big picture and know that there really is so much more.