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Spreading Myself Thin

There are times I’m a disappointment and I accept that

By Shayan Asghar Published 4 months ago 17 min read
Spreading Myself Thin
Photo by Karsten Würth on Unsplash

“I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat, or a prostitute.” ― Rebecca West, ‘The Young Rebecca: Writings’ (1911–1917)

I can’t disagree with West and I can’t think of anything less. Yet today, all those chapters read and memorized at university in the late 90s have amounted to political doublespeak. The whole time we were taught what Jane Austen prescribed in ‘Persuasion’ that it made us (wrongly) repel the usefulness of men:

“Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”

Okay, fair enough.

I was at a film festival seated as a panelist and a guest speaker to grace a few words themed on ‘Feminism’ when I shattered the glasses and broke the furniture. That’s a hyperbole, but no further than the truth of what I found myself saying, holding a microphone in my hand in front of an audience preened on gender equality.

I quoted the following in a clear voice:

“A feminist author by the name Jane Finette wrote, ‘The need for women to be in positions of leadership at levels equal to men has never been more urgent.’

Members of the audience, I would like to disagree with that.”

My colleague gave me a quizzical look, one that intersects disbelief and disapproval. If it was a text, she would have written, “WTF Nat? Aren’t you supposed to be an ass-kicking feminist?”

She took a sweeping glance at the audience and then served a frown at me. I looked back and gave her a wink. That wink is going to cost me a friendship.

“WTF, woman?” was the message from her dirty look.

At that point, the fuck was I had had enough of the dialectics of Feminism. There, I said it.

My colleague, who was also the event organizer, is bisexual, polyamorous, anti-marriage, pro childfree, a trans ally, anti-shaving and anti-capitalism. She is an intelligent woman with several degrees and a celebrated filmmaker in Southeast Asia.

She had spent her youth studying abroad and traveling across South America, picking up Spanish and worldly experiences which enthrall her students. I once shared a room with her on a trip to Borneo, listening to the benefits of using the silicone funnel-shaped menstruation cup, after she noticed my supply of sanitary pads.

Quite often she is angry, becomes aggressive when others dissent her views. Once, I had to separate her and a male counterpart during a staff meeting like it was kindergarten. At the time, she was 37. The other staff was 25.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not out to bash her, or anyone. This is merely a reflection on the various “feminists” out there like a spectrum. I started out a decade before her pounding excerpts from de Beauvoir, Irigaray and Kristeva cradled in the bosom of my idealistic youth. My professors were proud that they had created a monster.

Imagine their dismay when I decided to chuck them into the dustbin in my forties. I had had it, because life, it turns out, presents a different reality to the books we read within the gated community of ivory towers. “You have softened,” a few of my PhD friends commented.

Does it matter?

I was twenty when I was called to the dean’s office. I was offered a one-year tenure to a South Korean university as an exchange student. There were two other lecturers looking as pleased standing beside the dean’s desk. Apparently they were the ones who seconded my nomination for the program. A program no one knew about thus, this was like pulling a rabbit out of a black top hat.

“What do you say to this offer, Natasha?” the dean asked.

“What happens to my Master’s program?” I responded.

“You need to put it on hold. You’ll come back and finish it after South Korea.” The dean was still smiling.

I calculated the months in my head.

“Thank you Prof, in that case, I politely decline.”

Clearly the trio were not expecting a decline. Gone were the smiles. Perhaps they had conjectured this image of a naïve or desperate student eager to jump into a plane to a foreign land forgetting that I was midway with my Master’s program. A program I had paid for to complete with my own money. Money I earned working seven days at a tuition center.

“Why would you be silly to decline such an opportunity?” One of the trio asked.

“Because I prefer to finish my Master’s before embarking on something else. Thank you for the generous offer. Someone else can benefit from this.”

“But we choose you to represent.” Stressed the other professor.

It was at that moment something clicked.

“Why me? On what basis was I selected?”

The dean’s reply was of no hesitation or filter. “You’re a malay, muslim, and you’re a girl. You’ll represent us well in a foreign program often taken up by a non-muslim and non-malay.”

Another added, “Also, we know you won’t complain about the food there being non-halal.”

I stood there quietly for a few minutes. Processing. Half of what I was hearing was fresh horseshit, right out of the horse’s ass. The other was racial profiling at its best. I was hoping they’d mention my work, off-beat analyses, or my sense of humor. At the very least.

It was the color of my skin, my vagina and theology. The probability game, I call it.

The last thing I remember from that room was my dean calling me, “… a disappointment. Also a letdown to my race and gender.”

My Chinese coursemate Vivian went to South Korea. She halted her postgrad studies and returned with a husband from Canada she met in between eating kimchi and drinking copious amounts of soju. She still does to this day, as a good friend of mine.

At her 15th anniversary, she told me, “Yeah, I struggled to finish my studies but I got myself a husband. I do wonder if I hadn’t, and did what you did.”

“You shouldn’t,” I replied. “You made a choice. We all did. As long as it was your choice, no one else’s.”

Vivian, a self-proclaimed staunch feminist, was silent on my last remark. “Why did you turn down the offer? You could have found a husband yourself, haha.”

“That’s a surprise coming from you. I made a choice prioritizing my future over the prestige of the faculty. I own me. I represent myself. I didn’t want to see myself extend years paying tuition fees when I could go out and start earning. The dean couldn’t care less about us. She made that decision for her own good, not ours. Her fucking glass ceiling. Where was she when you struggled to resume your Master’s? She definitely wasn’t there as I was finishing mine. She remained upset with me all the way to graduation.”

I was invited to give a motivation talk centered on my “most distinguished achievement as a woman”. My colleague, a renown local male musician and a scholar, was always stoked about my travels and work. He wanted me to share the key moments in my life, the ones that shaped or defined me today as a woman. His students — predominantly female — were going to interview me and write an article for an assignment.

I was always in support of my friends’ endeavors, but it didn’t mean we were always on the same page.

I walked into the hall in my heeled leather boots, A-line skirt length below my knees, and a turtleneck. I was clad in black. Around my neck was a scarlet cashmere shawl wrapped loosely for a pop of color. My nails were French manicured. I had a dramatic flair: a cross-section between a thespian and a CEO. That’s how my friend described me in his class introduction. He was excited and so were his mass communication students.

I greeted the students and proceeded to tell them that after giving much thought over several days, the key moments in my life that shaped my work ethics and personal outlook were the three years I had spent in the US being a nanny.

It was not what my colleague had expected.

“You were a nanny?” He interrupted.

“You forget you have a Master’s degree.” He teased me in front of the students.

“Which made me a highly qualified nanny.” I laughed.

I narrated the story of an American friend I had just met upon my arrival in the US. She lived nearby and one day knocked on my door in tears because her third babysitter had bailed on her. Having a child while juggling a new career was one thing, but having a child when you didn’t plan one meant her life was in a tailspin as soon as she discovered she was pregnant.

She knew I was pro-childfree but it didn’t mean I was heartless. I agreed to become the default nanny upon realizing this was the closest to motherhood I was ever going to get. It was a better deal because I had skipped the painful labor and vaginal stitches. I bypassed the confinement months.

I looked at the three-month old baby and decided that this was to be my new project or a new degree program. It was funny at first, until it wasn’t. It was a massive responsibility caring for someone else who didn’t speak your language, didn’t understand night or day, or could control his bodily fluids.

Turns out, the baby was a lot more demanding than all my professors combined. It was through the 36 months I was a full-time nanny to this child named Carson Fiedler, a boy of German and Norwegian descent, that I learned to be a woman and appreciate my femininity.

Caring for a baby can make one easily forget the day. You befriend time really well because there is a time for everything: bath, meals, diaper change, sleep. Time is all you think about. You also look at the clock more often than usual because every minute becomes precious, especially when the baby goes down to sleep and you finally get a whole three minutes to yourself.

I learned soon enough that caring for a baby also made you easily forget yourself, your friends and how you look in the mirror. In the early months I cried seeing my reflection. It reminded me that I was no longer a corporate hot shot. I looked unappetizing, even to myself.

Growing up, image was key which helped to form people’s opinion of you. Why must I look disheveled looking after a baby? Why can’t I look like a magazine editor with a baby like a Birkin? Why must I forget myself? Why must I do this alone without my friends by my side?

It was then I decided I was to look like how I did back at the office while looking after a baby. My nails were painted, I wore makeup, and every Friday night, I needed friends over at the house when the baby had gone to bed to remind me that I was still the childfree person I came. It was here, I learned to improve my management game.

After breakfast and every evening, should weather permit, I’d push the stroller so Carson and I could enjoy fresh air together while I burned calories. I was able to keep in shape and prevent myself from losing my mind being stuck in the house. In Minnesota, the sun isn’t generous, so you take what you could.

My friend was often out of town, so the baby slept at my place. A whole room was dedicated to a baby and because my house was also my work and leisure space, it was a rule that toys were not to be scattered throughout the house. What you play with, you have to keep it back in its place. The playroom is restricted to a designated playroom. Rules are rules.

A tight schedule was created and taped to the fridge so everyone knew what was happening. A daily log noted the details, and this allowed me to practice my journaling. When the baby slept, I read and drank coffee. I didn’t watch television as I didn’t want the baby to adopt a custom of watching me in front of a muted television or be worried about cursing.

In the morning as Carson drank his milk, I’d drink my coffee with him. I’d read articles I printed from the net or magazines. I made it a habit of asking him, what do you think? Carson would nod or utter gibberish in response. We would count together and because children are sleek and move incredibly fast, I noticed I became more attuned to my surroundings and improved my own reflexes. I learned to differentiate a baby’s cry from pain, hunger and tiredness.

My friends would laugh thinking I was out of my mind — or that I was enjoying motherhood too much — but the truth is I was desperate to cling to the only life I knew — my working life. Thus, I designed one around my nanny duties. It became my life.

It was also the time I realized all the hardening and callous mannerism I had picked up working in corporate melted. I was impatient and nippy with others but dealing with a baby I had to learn to be more patient. When Carson was down with fever and cried incessantly throughout the night as his first tooth emerged, I cried too. Exhausted out of my mind it was teamwork I teased myself later. A long night gets redefined with a sick child.

Unknowingly, I was making consequential mistakes.

Like running a company, you can’t do it alone. I failed there. I thought I could. In the process I pushed aside the one person who needed me too — my husband. I’d forgotten marriage too was on my plate. I didn’t know how to juggle. He was just as new to this as I was. We didn’t know how to divide and be equal to the duties. I did it all because I was afraid if something went wrong I couldn’t mitigate in advance. Trying to be strong, I reduced his importance.

Often, you think you know what you’re doing, even when you don’t. People say a baby makes things better, it disintegrated my partnership with my husband. I’m a better leader today because of this judgment of error.

Unlike turning down the transfer program to South Korea, there are many dire consequences with this one I learned the hard way.

Firstly, I forced a project onto my partner who didn’t want a child in the first place. Secondly, I didn’t know how to allow him to help me since this was new to me. Thirdly, I underestimated the enormity of the task at hand. A child is not a pet. It isn’t a project either. It’s a commitment that puts aside all your selfishness and personal plans. Again, I had forgotten about my partner and our plans.

Fourthly, I was biting off more than I could chew. I wanted perfection and to not further inconvenience my husband. When you project you’re a solo act, you stay a solo act. No one dares to come and help thinking you don’t want any. That was a miscommunication in its own way.

I paid so much attention to the baby in the pursuit of being a super efficient nanny that I became deaf to my husband, my other best friend. I was hanging out with my new toddler best friend day in and day out, it separated me from other things in the adult world, like sex, being a companion, to even being sexy. I was being functional. That ain’t sexy.

It hit me: running an office is easy, running a home takes Herculean teamwork. You can’t please everyone and you’re bound to disappoint one person or the other.

“When you got divorced, did you regret being a nanny?” A student asked.

“Never. It gave me a platform to understand where my strengths and weaknesses were. I grew up thinking I needed to excel being at work, to serve others. Turns out we need to apply the same degree of effort into our personal management. We’re not born with the tools to do it right. We have the tools, but we need to fuck up a few projects first before we know which screwdriver to use. Everything is a project, but nothing comes in equal amounts, that’s the catch-22.”

The dilemma being a woman is there are moments you can take full ownership of your life. But there’s also time when you’re one out of two in a partnership. You need help and you need to learn to ask for help. The success of what I do is an effort of many. I was strong in my maternal aspects raising a child but I discovered I had gaps in other areas unrecorded. These areas are seen by others — but only if I allowed others to tell me.

My former husband tried to tell me, but he struggled to find the words. Being a wife didn’t mean I earned another degree of achievement. It meant I spread myself thinner with the things I wanted to do in my life. Being a nanny was my project. I thought it was what I needed to keep me and my mind useful. It wasn’t what we needed.

“What would you have done differently?” Another student asked.

“I should have just enjoyed being a wife. Embrace that, and learn to be a better partner.”

Back at the film festival my friend asked me to clarify myself. She added, “Women can do many things much better than men.”

“Perhaps, that isn’t the case to begin with,” I reasoned. “It’s within us.” I proceeded to explain to the audience.

“Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m all for women’s liberation. We have every right to speak, work and vote. My problem with feminism is the word ‘equality’. We’re not a law firm where we can quantify equal partnership. I prefer to use the word ‘balance’. Not always things can be 50/50 among us. It’s not something we can measure with a spoon. Often, we spread ourselves thin.

Women, we function and love by intuition. That’s our greatest skill. But it doesn’t make us less invincible or infallible. There are things we will continue to struggle with, one of them is asking for help. We can surpass men in maternal intuition, but we are not equal in physical strength.

Modern societies have allowed women to do and be many things. But through my own error of judgment and experience, there are days when I am depleted of all my resources. I can’t be equal or even a quarter to anyone. The balance will need to come from everyone else around me. The struggle is, as an independent, accomplished and educated woman, I can’t be ashamed to admit that. I need to learn to find balance within myself.”


About the Creator

Shayan Asghar

I am a professional writer with a passion for creating content that inspires, educates, and entertains. With over 3 years of experience in the industry.

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