Finding Hope, Redemption, Courage... from Cancer

"(At one time) my future seemed to stretch out before me like a straight road. I thought I could see along it for many a milestone. Now there is a bend in it. I don't know what lies around the bend, but I'm going to believe that the best does. It has a fascination of its own, that bend." - Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Why The World Needs Strong Women, and Why Kate Hudson Would Have Made Me Jealous Six Years Ago

As many of you have heard, both Kate Hudson and Victoria Beckham welcomed babies this morning - a boy and a girl, respectively. I offer them both my congratulations and my condolences. Babies are always good news, hence congratulations, but I can not imagine what it would be like to have your baby's arrival be announced to the whole world, hence, my condolences. Anyhow, that's for another post, something like Why I'm Grateful that I'm Not a Celebrity, or 10,001 Reasons to Stay As Obscure As Possible. But the news of these two rather dynamic women made me realize that had I heard this on my 25th, instead of my 31st birthday, I would likely have been jealous of Kate Hudson, and sympathetic towards Victoria Beckham.

Because, secretly, I really wanted to raise boys.

Yes, you mothers and fathers of boys are laughing at me right now. You have no idea, you’re saying. I agree. I don’t have any idea. But, when my husband and I were first married, I hoped that when the time came for us to have children, I would be given boys.

Really, it wasn’t a preference of a particular gender over another. It was just a cry of a frustrated, insecure woman.

To that point in my life I had felt gifted with traits that those in my environment primarily associated with men; I was naturally drawn to things like leadership and communication and candor. Unfortunately many of these personality characteristics lend themselves to professions also connected with men, or at least more populated with men, and I found myself in countless situations where I felt torn between my person and my gender. Did I change who I was? Or did I push the boundaries of what those with my anatomy normally did?

In the end I settled on a profession that at first did not excite me. Nursing was a means to an end, I reasoned. It would let me go anywhere and do anything, it would be that day job that would allow me access to the hobbies and passions I really wanted to exercise. Never did I imagine I would be put in one of the most perfect positions for me, in a profession that not only allows a strong woman to be strong, but actually requires her.

But I accelerate; let me fall back again to 2005, to the woman surprisingly pregnant with her first child that she fervently hoped would be a boy. A boy wouldn’t experience the injustice and unreliability that plague women's relationships, I - erroneously - thought. A boy wouldn’t witness his friends be treated poorly by men, I - naively - hoped. A boy wouldn’t be limited by anything. And if it were my boy, I might be allowed to influence one of the future great leaders of the free-thinking world. I may not be sanctioned or encouraged to do certain things as a woman, at least in my environment, I thought. But maybe I could teach a few of the next generation of men to lead and communicate and protect the women and children around them, and somehow, through them, I would be making a more fair, just, and safe world for women.

But I was given girls.

My first thought when Noelle was handed to me for that first time in November of 2005, besides she's really too cute to be mine, was, oh no, she’s going to have to do this. Not only would she experience the agony of labour, the incredible challenge of delivering children; but considering that, as my child, she would be anything but a casual observer of well, anything, she would also have to figure out that dance of who you know yourself to be with what the world perceives you to be.

I know now that this issue is not unique to women.

I also know now, after six years of loving and guiding future women, that perhaps I wasn’t as limited as I’d let myself believe. Perhaps I’d misconstrued my frustration as an issue with men, or rather, how, despite the women’s movement and all our efforts to the contrary, that the world still treats men and women unequally, rather than a frustration with myself.

For if I’d been truly secure, if I’d been alright with my dogged inability to let certain things slide, then I wouldn’t have been so offended when someone directly critiqued me for being difficult, since I was a 'strong woman'. I would have kept saying and doing what I knew to be right, apologizing for mistakes, or offenses, but not for being strong.

If anything, what I have to say is not an attack on anyone else. My insecurity is not their problem. Rather, I come to offer an apology. Not for strength, but for using my strength inappropriately. Not for challenging injustice, but for over-reacting in response to it. Not for bringing up controversial issues, but for allowing fear to sublimate what I knew to be truth into what others would accept. Not for being a part of conflict, but for taking responsibility for those conflicts that were really just expositions of things that shouldn’t have been there. And not for standing up, but for spending my energies on things that really didn’t matter.

I wonder if the gender-related inequalities we still see in our world, the pervasiveness of market-place injustices despite established laws to the contrary, are at least partly our responsibility, or perhaps more within our control than we realize. That much of the inequity I experienced as a woman could be due to my own mistakes, not to the general mistreatment of my gender. I wonder, women, if we’ve been our own enemy? If we've gone the right direction, but somehow missed the center? If we’ve mistakenly believed that strong women are something to apologize for, as if we were new or unique to the world, or if we’ve substituted the word strong for offensive, rude, or loud; if we’ve confused the gifting of strength as permission to propel ourselves forward, instead of protect the vulnerable; and, for those of us lucky enough to live in North America and other democratic countries, if we’ve seen only that glass ceiling instead of the immense freedom we’ve been given.

So, allow me to expose a few truths I've learned about us strong women:

1. We are not an invention of the last century.

Last May, after being captivated by the movie, The Young Victoria, I read several books on Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. What shocked me the most, reading about these enigmatic monarchs, was that the connotations the Victorian period embodies, things like restraint and propriety and denial of all deep soul desires, directly conflict with the nature Victoria herself. The queen was, if I can put it bluntly, one of the feisty-est, pig-headed, stubborn, and brilliantly defiant women I have ever seen come to life on page or screen. Fortunately for her, Albert's equal strength contributed to a passionate and satisfying marriage. Fortunately for her country, her husband's equal capability combined with hers to power one of the most progressive governments England has seen. She was professionally – and domestically – a pioneer, one of the first women to use drugs in labour, and one of the few in her generation to produce nine children but still live into her eighth decade.

2. Nor are we always 'the usual suspects'.

Jerry Jenkins, amidst the wonderful wealth of writing advice contained in his book, Writing for the Soul, also shares many behind-the-scenes stories of the various biographies he's written. His interviews with Billy Graham in preparing to write Billy’s memoirs, eventually titled Just As I Am, made me laugh out loud. For Ruth Graham may have been as entertaining as the great preacher himself. Ruth once told Jerry that if “husband and wife were to agree all the time, one of them would be unnecessary.” (Jenkins, p. 62). She also reportedly directly ignored Billy’s request to have “no more than two” fireplaces as they were building their estate, and Billy returned from a speaking tour to find five fireplaces already installed (p.63). She teased and challenged one of the most widespread, recognized and revered speakers of his generation; even those who rejected Billy’s belief system somehow still respected him. Yet Mrs. Graham was not the retiring wife we might expect her to be.

Perhaps, I wonder, if that was one of the reasons for her husband’s greatness?

3. We may have misinterpreted what a strong woman actually is. defines strong as powerful or vigorous, which, if we thought carefully, could be attached to every woman, especially those who have given birth. The abilities I see of women in the delivery room, in their homes, and in their natural environments – even if “all” they do are what we consider mundane activities of daily life - astound me every time. I am reminded daily of that rush I experienced the moment my daughters were born, the recognition that if our bodies were made for this, then we were meant to be anything but weak. It is no mistake that women are the ones primarily attached to child-rearing, no matter how involved the dads of their children may be; for what atrocious monstrosities would happen to our children, to our loved ones, if mothers, or women, period, were frail? If they said, sure, you can do whatever you want with my child, and I won’t care? What would happen to future generations if moms allowed children, or teenagers, to do anything they wanted? What kind of people would we raise if the women responsible for them were permissive or shy? Can you imagine what would happen to a child whose mother said, oh sure, you want to do (insert dangerous activity), no problem, if mom said, oh, you want to never have any boundaries and get to talk and act anyway you want, yeah that’s no problem with me?

Let’s take this a step further: what if we acted that way towards not just our children, but to men? How can we point the finger at them, if we let them treat us in whatever way they want?

The pendulum has swung, ladies, from one extreme to the other, and perhaps that’s part of the problem. Maybe at times we’ve thought that strong was code for loud, rude, blunt, jarring, alienating, or simply abusive of the ones we’ve claimed to treat us unfairly. Maybe we’ve thought we’ve only had two polarized choices: to be one of those irritating, angry women who seem to be in a fight all of the time about anything remotely resembling inequity, or to embrace powerlessness and uncertainty as norms for our gender. And yet, neither one of these extremes actually win. Fighting against everything produces ‘bleeding heart puddles of insanity,’ as I’ve said before, and doing nothing elongates the situation. Initiating a war doesn’t win people over; staying out of sight prevents anyone from hearing what you have to say.

And really, those extremes are not true representations of strong and weak. Rather, they may be equal amounts of insecurity. For where else does explosive anger originate but in those places that are most sensitive and vulnerable?

But then what is strength? Might it be possibly be quietly, carefully, but effectively pointing something out and saying, this isn’t okay? Or, better yet, this could be better? Or even better, simply looking at one we love with eyes that say, ‘is that really the best idea?’

4. We may have focused our strengths only on ourselves.

Women in North America have been given a major degree of influence, not only in our own capabilities, but in the lives of those in our circle, in our families, at our work, in our communities. Women are allowed a voice now, and we are often squandering it. We are using our strength, our leadership, our gifts of influence, to promote ourselves, our agendas, at the expense, occasionally, of those around us; to promote women’s rights at times to the degree that human rights for everyone else are infringed upon; or to become more and more powerful for the sake of being powerful, rather than for the sake of initiating change for the better in our whole society.

Just as the most effective leaders serve the people they lead, the most effective men, and women, recognize that strength is not a gift we’re given to fight our own ambitions, but rather the plights of others. If anything, strength is a responsibility, not a right. It is not for increasing our own influence but to speak and act for those who cannot protect themselves. Those with voices must learn to put words to what others are thinking but may not have the courage to say.

And unfortunately, I, and likely many of the strong women I know and love, have at times spent so much time focused on our own lives, that we have missed the very real plight of our sisters around the world who are trapped in prostitution, human trafficking, or to put it very bluntly, slavery. According to the A21 Campaign website, found here, more than 1.39 million people, primarily women, are victims of commercial sexual servitude worldwide. Human trafficking is the second largest global organized crime, with revenues in the range of $31 billion USD every year. Only 1-2% of these hundreds of thousands of people are ever rescued, and less than 1/10 of a percent of traffickers are ever caught or convicted of their crimes. It has been more than 200 years since William Wilberforce first worked to make racial-based slavery illegal. And yet, it appears that there could be more slaves today than when Wilberforce was first fighting against it.

It's just, we don't know about them.

Sobering, isn’t it? I spend my time fighting for a position, title, or recognition, and many women - and men, even little girls and boys - have given up hope of living a life free of malnutrition, sleep-deprivation, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Over a million invisible people think of forced abortions, STI’s, Hepatitis, AIDS, and probable early death as inevitabilities. I am speechless, and deeply apologetic. We have spent our energies fighting sandbox battles when there is a real, live war for the health, wellbeing, and very lives, of our sisters, mothers, daughters - and brothers too - going on all over the world, and regrettably, even in our own backyard.

I don’t know how exactly to be a part of that war. Fortunately, many people and organizations have recognized the problem before I did. Baywest, the company my husband works for, are involved with IJM, or International Justice Mission (, an organization working to relieve victims and provide aftercare, while seeking accountability for the perpetrators. The Abolitionists of the 21st century, or A21 Campaign, based out of Australia but exhibiting a worldwide presence, have built a shelter in Greece, unfortunately the global hub for sex trade and human trafficking. The A21 campaign offers some suggestions on how we can help here. There are several books on the subject that can raise our own awareness and the awareness of those around us, like David Batstone’s Not For Sale, that in one weekend has opened my eyes to the hidden suffering of so many.

But beyond joining those who are fighting insurmountable odds worldwide, I know that I can make a difference in my own world, right now, by raising daughters who will never be sold into slavery as long as I’m alive. I can make choices to counteract the factors that contribute to human trafficking, things like widespread poverty and social inequity. I can raise women that inspire people to both listen and laugh, for lightening the suffering of others is never achieved by taking on a vow of eternal somberness. I can be the kind of woman, who, if gifted with strength, uses that strength to serve others and not myself.

For, what would happen to our patients, our elderly, our dying, our sick, or our moms and babies, if those responsible for them failed to advocate appropriately?

That, right there, is why I am a nurse; that ability to fight for another person’s wellbeing is why I love my job.

Well, that and the fact that I work with simply amazingly talented men and women who do the same.

Which brings me to a very important point: we can also make a difference by supporting the men that truly care for us. We can applaud them when they advocate for equality and health. We can be grateful for them, and especially for those really great men we get to be married to, the ones who actually love and respect strong women, and want to help them be stronger. So many of our men are tripped up by our petty insecurities, instead of supported and championed when they do what is right. And so, so many of them work hard for that, for us, already.

5. We may have focused too much on the 'glass ceiling' instead of our immense freedoms.

Which brings me to another reason I love Vancouver. Our city gives our women so much freedom. Our people, our men, care about what happens to us and what we have to say. Just this week, the VPD has partnered with Barwatch, Battered Women’s Support Services (BWSS), Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW), and the BC Women’s Hospital Sexual Assault Service, to launch the “Don’t Be That Guy,” campaign, an effort to decrease the incidence of sexual assault in our beautiful city. Vancouver listens to its women. Here, we can be leaders, helpers, changers of our society. Many of the most poignant speakers in this area are women, who are not afraid to speak their minds. And many men are not only applauding them for their efforts, but also joining them. Bravo, Vancouver. Together, we can win.

Another way we can win in this war is to wake up every morning with joyful thankfulness that we are free of so many trials our sisters face worldwide. We can work, we can vote, we can share thoughts and voice questions. These are rights, but we would be right to, considering the suffering of so many, see them as gifts. And I intend to use those gifts properly, respectfully, rationally; working consistently to promote a safe, healthy, and happy world for anyone within my sphere of influence.

The world needs us, women. We each have something to offer. We are each strong. As Mother Teresa said, We can do no great things; we can only do small things with great love. If we each do some, then together we will be an immovable, unstoppable, respected force. And for those of us who are called to raise children, we can take this calling seriously, carefully raising men and women of courage, wisdom, and love, future leaders who are willing to use their energies to improve the lives of those around them, even the lives of those they can't see.

So it would seem, that if anything, we as women have not been too strong, but perhaps not strong enough.

Another thing I would not have learned without cancer; leukemia has pushed me to the edge of my insecurities and asked, will you give in and try to be that placable person you’ve always wished you could be? Or will you accept that you were made to be steady in the middle of uncertainty? The hard truth pulsed through: there is no room for flimsy-ness in the winds of cancer, particularly not one that has invaded your blood.

So, I choose to embrace strength; I choose to believe that power and gentility are not mutually exclusive. I will apologize for any times I have been or ever will be rude, brusque, obnoxious, bossy, or in any way hurtful towards another human being. I will apologize when I am selfish, overly ambitious, pretentious, or easily angered. But I will not apologize for being strong.

And this, I know now, is why I was given girls to raise. Because the world needs more women who are not afraid, or apologetic of what they can do.

So, while I congratulate both Victoria and Kate today, inside I want to pump my fist in the air and say, you go, Victoria Beckham.

Because the world, really, needs more strong women.

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