Just Relax

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This post today by a friend resonated, specifically the doctor’s diagnosis. It reminded me of past times in my life when it seemed people all around would tell me the same thing: “just relax!” The implications of this were many: I was uptight, they weren’t, I was upset about things that I should just let go, they had already achieved that state. I had forgotten about going through that until reading her post. Have I changed, or have the people around me changed?

I can say with a reasonable level of honesty that I probably could have relaxed some. I could have realized that I had very little control and not worried about things that were beyond my responsibility. I definitely could have had more patience and been okay with waiting for certain outcomes to be reached, or not. I could have let things go that weren’t exactly the way I wanted.

I also think, as I look back on those situations, that there was a certain level of sexism at work. I was a young, intelligent, motivated, idealistic woman who had no trouble stating what I wanted and speaking up with my ideas. I loved to talk, and couldn’t let a bad idea go by without contesting it (in general, by and large, as long as I felt reasonably comfortable). I don’t think men – friends, colleagues, supervisors, potential mentors – were necessarily used to a woman who had clear ideas and would become upset when her ideas weren’t respected.

In, fact, when I look back, I have the strong impression that most if not all of the people who told me to relax were men. I may be misremembering, but I really can’t recall women telling me to relax. They tended to take me seriously. The men, however, wanted to mold me and it seems the most important shape I could assume was accommodating and flexible.

Grad school was a massive struggle in this regard. In an overwhelmingly male environment, I struggled for 3.5 years to maintain my sense of self while playing as an equal with the boys. In the end, I am very proud of how I came through. I excelled academically and reconstructed my sense of self through numerous encounters with the men around me as I stood up for myself.

At the same time, I look at where all of us are now. 3 of my male colleagues have tenure-track positions at universities. One has an advanced position at an international development agency. I have a good job at  good university that I only got a couple of years ago. It’s not really the same. Unravelling the whole system of patriarchy, education, mentorship, socialization and old boy network that lead us on our respective paths will probably go on for the rest of my life.

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