lens close

Glitches in my matrix, in footnotes

It should come as no surprise that my dominant worldview lens is feminism. It clicked into place when I was still pretty young, but old enough to appreciate its framework. Say, about middle school.

Empowerment, personal successes, perfect pitch responses to thinly veiled misogynistic remarks…feminism cheers for these. And, man do I love praise.

But what about the times I unball my liberation fist for a moment? Am I letting the sisterhood down?

See, feminism is also the lens my perfectionistic critic uses. When I cede power, when I fall short, when those perfect pitch responses come a beat too late…it’s the critic—or is it feminism, after all—who shakes her head in disgusted disappointment.

The problem is actually me, I know. It’s my lens. If it’s faulty, why not crush it under the heel of a smart autumn boot and begin again? If only it were thusly possible. This is one example of many commandeered conceptual misfires toward which I tend, and which I must manage as is. I’m in the lens and the lens is in me.


Never before has there been such a perfectly crafted dual purpose tool for female use. Ignoring some very well-crafted vibrators, of course. Feminism allows us to rise to our ultimate, fully realized, empowered potential. But/and…never before has there been such a fierce and furtive weapon we might turn on ourselves. Perfectionism and self-judgement—not to mention fear of judgement from other women—drives us to such sad ends.

I am so often left wondering, is feminism a set of guidelines and allowances, from which we choose, cafeteria style, as it suits us? Or is it just another -ism, demanding we rise to our potential? Does this demand imply we must follow certain rules, make constant contributions and hold specific beliefs?

See what I mean? How much ass-kicking awesome is getting done while I sit here arguing with myself over conceptual basics? Chrissakes, who needs the patriarchy? Obfuscation and oppression work just fine using only our fear of doing-it-wrong and our weasely, narrow-eyed inner critic.

So fuckit. Here is what happens when me and the critic look through the lens together.

¹That one time I had a baby

Shortly after marriage, mortgage and miserably tracking the american dream, I uttered ridiculous and now-classic words to my husband. Very pregnant, and awash in romantic, first child idealism, I actually said “I can give up my life for 6 months.” I’d held jobs I hated longer than that. Of course I could dedicate myself completely to my baby for that long. In fact, I had to. But more on that later.

My husband had a traveling job; I would be staying home. This was a choice, and that alone should be a feminist victory. Right? Maybe? Then there was the other problem. Even with the burning bras of the 1970s and legions of 1980s career women fanning the flames with their big-shouldered jackets, The Fire of Ambition had never been stoked in me properly. There was nothing I ached to do. Unless you count be loved, feel worthy, and sit comfortably in my skin. Surprisingly, no one was advertising a living wage for that shit.

Oh and? I had an English degree. With a Philosophy minor. And a Women’s Studies garnish. Maybe I should have gotten my Masters, I would have had more focus. Or at least more loans to pay off, therefore motivation to climb the ladder. I could have joined the Peace Corps, or something. But I was risk averse.

Vulnerability interlude

Jesus. Allow me, please, to present my V-Card and correct this flaming euphemism. Fucking risk averse? I was scared shitless. School was the only place my life made sense. In first grade, I convinced myself that a gold star was *almost* as good as a hug. Maybe I was shy and cry-prone and maybe a bit broken, but I was also quiet and obedient. And that’s what mattered.

Did I mention I went to Catholic school? All the way through college, actually—17 years of Catholic school. No wonder I was scared of life outside the bubble.

That bubble had rules, lots of them, and I was a good little girl. As long as I followed the rules, it was safe. The world outside classrooms was uncertain, changing and untethered-bungee-cord terrifying. Admittedly, grad school would have *totally* been an expensive hide out. And that’s one of the main reasons I didn’t do it. That, and fear of rejection, which would come later. Everyone agreed it was time to leave school. So I did. There might have been another reason, too. Um…? Oh. Yeah.

²That one time I skipped grad school for a boy

It was my duty to the machine. Make my own money. Be the independent woman I purported myself to be. I couldn’t take up any more space for education. Most of all, though, see, there was this guy.

It makes me want to weep, now, remembering how I opted for graduation a semester early to follow a boy south of the Mason-Dixon. With promise of neither marriage nor job opportunity. Instead of starting my Masters, I moved to a cardboard walled apartment complex in Columbus-fucking-Georgia where the closest neighborhood eatery was Waffle House. Smothered covered, and topped every Saturday loses appeal quicker than you think. Nevermind that I could have been halfway through a Masters by my regular graduation June, with just one more goddamn semester to finish it.

How could I have known that the relationship would be over in 6 months? About the same time I would have walked the graduation stage with the rest of my class. If I would have said yes to me, I could have saved myself a whole lot of pain, bullshit, and two cross country moves.

But no way that was possible. Never enough, always looking outside for validation.

³Workey-work, busy bee

Through passing years, I have appreciated my liberal arts degree more and more, but in my early working years, I flopped around some. I never struggled for work and made a decent living. Job offers came in regularly…in marketing. Always in marketing.

An aside to English majors: if you know now that you do not want to work in marketing or advertising, go ahead and ‘hide out’ in grad school for one more year. The workforce has little use for your wordsmithing abilities except to sell, shill and spin. I eventually made a good living in marketing, but any ember of ambition my 1980s sisters may have left warm inside of me was snuffed out. I adopted an elite ‘do what you love’ attitude. I think differently about it all now.

Clock in, clock out. It went like this for while. Marriage, mortgage and oh…back to that baby.

¹ªBond versus Balance

Let’s revisit my insane pregnant declaration. I think I just wanted to do it best. Be the gold star mom. After all these years, gold stars seeking is still how I organize myself in the world. That 6-month promise was a linear, all-or-nothing take on our parenting style.

We planned to practice attachment parenting. Now, I know this is trigger topic among some modern feminists who worry that AP puts women right back in the kitchen, barefoot and dependent, powerless. Others think that AP is a natural extension of feminist philosophies. Whatever. It’s a debate I shall avoid, like vaccination, religion and whatever Fox and Friends may have said on Thanksgiving morning.

For our purposes here, all you need to know is that AP was a deeply personal choice for me. Remember that time I said I ‘needed’ to give up my life for my child? If I gave her enough, maybe then I would be enough. If you know BB’s work, you know what comes next. We can never give our children what we don’t have ourselves. To be a good enough mom, I have to first believe I was enough. No way in hell was that happening.

So. What did I do instead? Attachment Parenting. Besides being a beautiful philosophy on child rearing, it was was an attempt to plug a leaking hole in my heart. There are 7 Bs to attachment, but the one I got hung up on was bonding. For me everything got boiled down into the singular importance of BOND.

All except BALANCE. I had, unsurprisingly, missed that one altogether. I mean, I told myself that I got it, but it was all lip service. During my daughter’s infancy, when I needed to ask for, beg for, demand anything for myself, I came completely unglued. Frustration. Shame. Panic. Convinced that I should be able to do it all, lest be a bad mother, I tried. Too hard. I just couldn’t be a bad mother.

My mother and I had struggled with that particular B, bond. I had arrived at a completely inopportune time, an errant stitch into the already rent, threadbare fabric of my family. She had already raised her kids, a brother and sister 2 years apart. Then here I came, 13 years later. There was  so little left for me.

But whatever. Scars, sadness. Onward. I was *sure* that being a bad mother was worse than being the child of one. And because I knew what that felt like already, all that was left to do was avoid the flip side.

That which we focus on expands

Sadly, regretfully—and hilariously ironic in retrospect—my unwillingness to value BALANCE as much as BOND resulted in the most dreaded outcome. When I desperately needed help, but tried to fake it; when I refused help offered, just to prove [to whom, love?] that I could do it, it always ended the same.

Eventually—and always spectacularly—the lid would fly off. There I’d be shuddering, sobbing and sometimes crouched in the corner of my basement while my daughter cried in her crib. That corner bore a suspicious resemblance to the flip side. And I looked exactly the way I remembered my mom.

Yes. The realization was as heart breaking as you imagine.

Modeling an adult life worth striving for

It was so clear that needed to start taking back my life. For me, obviously, and that should be enough. But also for my daughter. I wasn’t showing up a complete, complex, flawed, fully present woman. My fear of becoming my mother had turned me into her. How could I expect my daughter to learn to embrace her shortcomings, or be willing to fail, if I never gave myself the same slack. This modeling thing in parenthood is a truly brilliant design. We might start for them…we keep at it for us.

Then, I discovered Madeline Levine, a best-selling author and psychologist on child development, who coined for me a perfect parenting mantra:

One of the most important things we do for our children is to present them with a version of adult life that is appealing and worth striving for.

Yes. This.

All my reading of Brené Brown leads my to a single truth, and I could have been done with this post 1750 words ago. It all comes down to worthiness. Am I _______enough? Pretty enough. Smart enough. Organized enough. Liberal enough. In this case, feminist enough.

This question of worthiness, of being enough…it’s my original glitch, the mother/father 01 bits from which all others derive. Shame and unworthiness are like a virus, infecting us in the this way, rewriting our code, turning our own cherished beliefs against us. The secret is to see ourselves differently, more clearly. More compassionately.

Pivoting the lens

I am in the lens and the lens is in me. Me and my critic, both. My daughter, too. Stuck, all of us. She’s seven now. Maybe, if I’m careful, I can show her how to use this lens, feminism. And how to tame its twin, destructive  –ism I constantly wrestle with, perfectionism.

You can’t be what you can’t see. We’ll fiddle with the focus, zoom out for the long view, go in close and analytical. Worthiness clicks into place, too. I alone hold sway over where that lens points, and how its data is used. Just as it should be.

Through this powerful and exquisite lens, maybe we’ll discover some clarity. Together. Finally.


patti carlyle

Writer, feminist and activist in Cleveland, Ohio. I curate a collectic blog of quotes, links, images and long form writing. Learn more or find me on Facebook, Twitter, .

Latest posts by patti carlyle (see all)