INTERNATIONAL WOMEN'S DAY
“You can’t empower women without listening to their stories.”
“What separates an ordinary woman from an extraordinary one? The belief that she is ordinary.”
It’s International Women’s Day today, and I’m giving a shout-out for the extraordinary traveling spouses I’ve met around the world. You know who you are, my friends, so, stand up and take a bow.
You are women (and also some fabulous men – but, for today’s sake, I’m talking about my girls) who pack up your family every few years, and pretend Roberto-Benigni-style that La Vita e’ Bella.
You are wives or partners of diplomats, businessmen, academics, journalists, missionaries or simply adventurous sorts. Often, before heading out to join your husband at a work function or picking up your kids at school, you wipe away tears because you are usually leaving one place you love and moving to another you fear.
You are women who do acrobatics to get their kids into new schools at the last minute. You are veteran reporters as you research a new pediatrician, general practitioner, dentist, vet, eye doctor, and dermatologist in foreign cities. You pull out your back as you tug masking tape over hundreds of moving boxes. You make executive decisions on whether Lego should be kept. You secretly throw out books, clothes, board games, and kitchenware when your husband and kids aren’t looking. With every new container that shows up to be filled, shipped to a foreign land, and floated down new channels, you look in the mirror, count the grey hairs, and you wonder if you’ll ever find as good a colorist as in your last post.
You are extraordinary women. You are some of the strongest I know. You might not say much at the start in your new post because you are exhausted. Emotionally and physically. You are coping with kids who don’t want to be in their new home. You are FaceTiming with your parents who are growing older and needing you closer. You are unpacking hundreds of boxes of junk that you question why you keep. You are screaming on the phone with the local utilities’ company (often in a foreign language) when all you really want is WiFi so you can call someone you miss -- which is everyone from your previous post. You probably don’t own a home. But you make a new one wherever you go. And people who visit tell you that you are amazing keeping it all together, and, then they say, “I don’t know how you do it.”
You are often judged when you are introduced as the “wife of.” Chances are you have given up something that you loved doing before you started moving around – but few know this because few ask. It might have been a job or a hobby or a friendship that gave you strength and a sense of identity beyond your team partnership with your husband. You are the backbone of the family and the household. You have learned how to read road signs in foreign languages, navigate illegible ingredients in supermarkets, find and manage new babysitters, weather the new storm of a new school, and sort out vaccinations in another language. You find yourself constantly morphing in a constantly-changing landscape. Once you show others that you can laugh and cry about it all, you find your people. And those people become your family overseas. And, then, just as you feel settled, you say goodbye to all that you accomplished and all those you loved, and walk away from it. And you start over somewhere else. Over and over again.
You, my friends, are superwomen.
I heard one of you speak recently in San Francisco: her name is Michelle Obama. She might not be the first traveling spouse that pops to mind but, in many ways, she’s one, too.
She gripped her microphone at the Dreamforce 2017 Conference and calmly said, with a huge nobody-is-stopping-me smile that nothing should silence a woman’s voice. Because we all have a story to tell. And many of us don’t know how or when to start telling it. So it may as well just be now.
“Put girls in a position to practice their voice,” she said. “I can’t waste this seat I’m in now. I have to advocate my voice.”
Her role as First Lady came with few thrills: no salary, budget, ability to work or vote in the Senate. All she had was her mind and her voice. She advocated her causes on a shoestring. But, she worked hard, and won over a country by her magnetic personality and dedication.
“Take a finite set of issues and go deep, not broad,” she offered as advice in choosing a goal or a cause to support. She chose to fight obesity because she knew that her husband was going to make health care one of his major, presidential platforms. She knew she could gain the support and leverage of members for her cause that were also supporting her husband’s health care agenda.
She said she felt it was as important to show the world her jumping jacks on the White House lawn or push-ups on a talk-show as it was to tell CEO’s Salesforce Marc Benioff that men need women in the work force in order to accomplish things.
“Do not think that a group of men sitting around a table are going to get much right,” she said to Benioff during their fireside chat at the conference. “No offense. You need us at the table.”
She confessed that her sense of self is still evolving. She who seems to have it all together is still coming to terms with her own identity as she is in the process of writing her first book.
And, finally, she said that one of the greatest takeaways from her job as First Lady was learning how to be patient.
So, my friends, I leave you with this: As we bump around the world and turn into different women than we were at the start, we must be patient with ourselves, with where we are and with all that we have accomplished. We will find our voice and capture it on the page, through an image, at a podium, on a canvas, or simply in making a toast at a family dinner. But it takes time with all the other things we are juggling as we move around.
Right before Thanksgiving last year, I did something I’d never done before: I read my own work in front of a live audience at a bookstore in San Francisco. My voice did not quiver as it often does when I speak in public.
I wasn’t the “wife of” that night.
I was Me.
I must admit that I liked standing up at that podium. Just as I think Michelle liked gripping that microphone.
Happy International Women’s Day, my friends. Keep passing the mike.