For a long time, I thought I had no one to help me learn how to be.
As I tread deeper into “womanhood,” I feel less and less certain about how it is I should be, and more and more fearful of being how I should not be.
I know the best ways to be have something to do with not stealing, balancing my ratio of laundry cycles to pairs of underwear, and fighting the oppressors. But I’ve always felt both an awareness of and uncertainty about knowing how to and how not to be—especially when there are so many confusing messages about how female-identifying people should be. It is a long perpetuated expectation that the relationships female-identifying people have are riddled with jealousy and manipulation. Girls are competitive! They are mean! They lie to one another and make out with each others’ boyfriends! Female authority figures put down their subordinates to assert their power! When there’s no one to tell you how very underwear-laundry-cycle-less you should not be, how can one be expected to trust the same team that brought us Regina George and Miranda Priestly? For me, a particular kind of relationship to other women has persisted against such claims.
Until last year, I lived in the same house for 11 years. As I confronted my newly adult context—university, boyfriends, and jobs—it was comforting to still have a single, fundamental constant: home. All the new dimensions of being an “adult” sat comfortably atop it. Whatever my deadlines, heartbreaks, and general exhaustions, I knew I could go home at any time to my parents, my parents’ couch, and my parents’ dog.
Then my dad left my mom. All of a sudden, every context felt different. If I did not know how to be in Little League, pre-adult situations (e.g. proper ratio of laundry cycles to pairs of underwear… Seriously, can someone please contact me about this?), I certainly did not know to be in the goddamn World Series of adulthood (e.g. a cynicism about the very concept of love, etc.). I wondered if I would ever again know how to be. An even scarier thought struck me: had I ever really known how?
As soon as I found out my parents were splitting up, I called my… well, I’ve never really known what to call her. Friend is a little too casual. Crush is inaccurate. Sister does not make sense when she’s a fiery ginger who’s never even met my brother. Aunt is too adult and formal and, again, we’re not related. (Asian gingers are mythical.) I called Jackie. Jackie was my camp counsellor when I was nine years old. She was 17. Since then, she has come to see my school plays and picked me up from parties where people were way too drunk. She has coaxed away many tears caused by mean boys, and she has helped me over-prepare on the eves of job interviews for which I was under-qualified.
When I urgently called her, just like all of the other times I have done so, she reminded me to take a deep breath. To stay calm as I mourned the end of such an important context for my life so far, and to approach the next firmly. She reminded me how to be when I really thought I did not know how.
My own divorce, from home as it were, asked me to reflect on what – if anything – really had stayed constant over those pre-“adult” years of my life. The feeling of uncertainty, while suddenly amplified, was not new. Sure, it was now overcast by a decided distrust of men, but I’ve certainly never felt certain about how to be. And the dissonance I suddenly felt about trusting men illuminated the special, one-way relationships I’ve always had with older women.
This sounds suggestive. It’s not. That would be exciting. My special, one-way, platonic relationships were with mentors: quasi-friends, but not-quite moms to ask, to listen to, and to trust. I call the relationships one-way because they were and are not relationships with my equals. Yet these women did and do not interact with me for their own personal benefits. In other words, there was and is no real reason for them to have given me the time of day, let alone offer me leadership and advice in the best ways to be a person, “adult” or otherwise. In fact, it often felt as though they were at further disadvantages than advantages by mentoring me in the ways they did and do. My mentors are all successful and busy women in their own rights and really have no time to waste, especially with a lost, boyish child like me asking unanswerable questions like, “Hellooo! Quick Q: How do I be???” There was and is something truly distinctive and resilient about the relationships I’ve had with these mentors, especially in times of ambiguity and weakness.
My Grade 6 art teacher, Madame Hatchell, was the first person to assure me that being authentic, even (and especially) when you are an authentically huge weirdo, can be welcomed. I once interrupted one of her lessons by using a dismantled rubber baby-doll arm that I found in the back of the art room to stroke my peers who were sitting nearby on the backs of their heads. I thought it was so funny and all my friends were bursting. At the end of the class, she took me aside. I thought she was going to give me a long, stern lecture about being disruptive and, frankly, disgusting. Instead, she wordlessly handed me a bin full of similar rubber arms. From then on, I went to her when my high school friends were being high school idiots, when a mean boy made a racist joke and I did not yet have the agency to confront him, and when I did not know which boundaries to push in my graduation speech.
As I reflected on the ways in which I have benefited from these mentorships, I realized they have long, indeed, been one-sided. I have always loved comedy, and until embarrassingly recently Saturday Night Live was an integral, rigid part of my weekly schedule. But I did not realize I could partake in comedy until Amy Poehler looked at me through my television screen, pointed, and yelled, “Don’t tell me what to do!” This is how the Weekend Update correspondent ended a rant about barring women in congress from talking about birth control. She taught me so much about the relationship between ideology and comedy. With that one sentence and others like it, Amy instilled in me the power of harnessing comedy to talk about being a woman.
These days, I am a (trying) stand-up comedian. I perform regularly at shows around downtown Toronto. And now that I’ve changed my hypothetical relationship with comedy to a real one, it only makes sense that my female comedy mentorship is with a comedian I actually know. Her name is Natalie, and she’s a freak. On a particularly dreary night at an open mic when I was first starting out, I was catcalled and heckled for being both Asian and a woman. It was disheartening (albeit accurate). After my set, Natalie equipped me with words that have defended me since. “Remember who you are getting up and doing this for: those who look and are like you and who don’t have a voice, who feel silenced and alone. And for those who don’t yet understand what your experiences have been. Not for those assholes.” She said this in a way that was probably more vulgar than I remember.
I took many quiet, lonely hours of reflection last year to consider just how many strong women have yelled and whispered, told and shown me how to be. I could not believe how prevalent these kinds of magic, sister-friend-aunt relationships had been and how oblivious I had been to their recurrence.
Even more unbelievable, I did not notice who my longest, most glaringly obvious mentor was: my mom! Her fierce commitment to showing me how to be—especially with or without irresponsible men—provided me with templates to find further guidance in all contexts. Just as I had with my other mentors, I underestimated both the nature and resonance of our relationship. My army of older, wiser mentors—with my own mother at the forefront—has equipped me with the strength to take on challenges and the independence to face ones still forthcoming.
I’m not proud that it took a tumultuous falling out with a man to recognize all of the important women mentors in my life. But I feel a sobering fortune for their presence throughout, and I am actively trying to make up for what I have missed. I will never again doubt the power of looking up to the women I know—and the ones I do not. They all know so very much more than me, which is good, because I am so very much out of clean underwear right now.
I still do not know how to be, but I know now who to ask.