Woman is the Strongest Word (And 30 Is The Toughest Birthday)

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Some girls grow up wanting to be women. They dream of embodying the elegance of female role models, the power of women executives, the nurturing spirit of mothers. This was never me. A clumsy tomboy with a penchant for adventures, I always relished in my girl card and its accompanying sense of freedom. I thrived on my chaotic travels, my childlike curiosity, my denim shorts and makeup-free M.O. “You look eighteen” was always the pinnacle of compliments, and not because it meant that my skin was still void of wrinkles (it’s not), but because it signified I had retained the youthful spirit that made me me.

Alas, every party must come to an end, and even the keenest experts at postponing real-life responsibilities are not immune to the time stamps that serve as checkpoints for self-evaluation. Sometime around by twenty-ninth birthday, it began dawning on me that I was still a kid, a girl, in ways that surpassed my love for Converse. I had just moved back from Paris and my life was a mess. I lacked financial independence. I had no job or clear professional direction. Last but not least, I hadn’t had a functional relationship in years.

With 365 days left until Checkpoint 30, I decided to whip myself in shape using the same aggressive approach that had previously winged me through countless exams. I assumed there was power in numbers, stocked up on both dates and responsibilities, and jetted full speed ahead.

The only problem is, life doesn’t work according to a point system and those who collect the most credits don’t get to graduate faster. You can have a new date every day, but this is pointless if you are desperate or don’t know what you want. You can be working 50+ hours a week but, if it’s the wrong job, this too is a futile effort. At the end of the day, the only real test is your own happiness.

Halfway into 2016, I realized that this was the very test I was failing. Sure, I was working hard, yet none of what I was doing actually felt right. If I wanted to write, why was I once again committing myself to a completely different career path? If I was looking to find a partner good enough to build a family with, why was I dating immature man-children? Speaking of kids, how was I ever going to become a mother if I was still, in many ways, a child? I had a sinking feeling that the real issues halting my personal happiness were slightly deeper than what I was equipped to handle. It was time to press pause and go back to the ABC’s.

An adamant denier of therapy (I’m Russian, after all), I swallowed my pride and found an overpriced Upper East Side shrink. On her exorbitant time as well as my own Ted Talk-fueled one, I cleaned house. I learned to be honest with myself and to admit when things were bothering me instead of shoving them under the rug. I confronted my feelings, the same ones that had previously made me feel ashamed and small and weak, and learned to see humanity and even beauty in them. Sure, I had almost been swallowed alive by years of insecurities, but maybe this made me more sensitive, or a better friend, or even a better writer? I realized that some of said insecurities, my dear old friends, would always come back to haunt me. Instead of self-destructively nipping them in the bud, I simply had to let them pass. This is called ‘sitting with your feelings’ and it cost me about $600 in therapy, but it was worth every penny.

In this process, I learned to be kind to myself, in the same way my mother is to me, in the same way I will one day be kind to my own daughter. To appreciate and respect my body, instead of punishing it for not meeting my nymphet ideals. I think this is called ‘mothering yourself’ and I didn’t have enough of a therapy budget to get this far, so thank you Ted Talks.

As I, oh cliché of clichés, learned to love myself, I realized that I also deserved to be loved. Instead of attempting to save fellow troubled souls, I resolved to find somebody who could actually stand strong on his feet. I determined my priorities and made a list of qualities I wanted in another person. (Similarly to Ajiri!) At the top of this list was kindness – and please don’t mistake this for pity. But if I was going to try out this business of being good to myself, I needed to find somebody who would be good to me. And I did.

I don’t want to give my story a fairytale happy ending, for there is still plenty of work to be done. Bigger balls to grow, more fears to override. One day, I would like to be brave enough to replace some of my ambiguous rhetoric with hard, detailed facts, to tell you the real story without brushing past the pain. (Isn’t it funny how a person who wants to be a writer can be so afraid of words?) I also don’t want to diminish all of this to a handful of therapy sessions. I had been practicing self-improvement for many years prior – quitting bad habits, writing, challenging myself through sports, traveling independently – gradually navigating myself towards the person, the woman, I had wanted to be all along. Yet it is only when I started being fully honest with myself that I finally became that woman.

On December 3rd, I turned thirty. On that day, my 87-year-old grandmother called me to wish me a happy birthday. “I have one wish for you. Always stay young and excited. Always enjoy life,” she said. I promised her that I would.

Two weeks later, I went on a crazy adventures with a man who appreciates crazy adventures as much as me. I wore denim shorts and got my hair braided (see here!) and stayed in a treehouse on the beach and attempted kite surfing, adding yet another page to my portfolio of experiences. One evening, over too much Don Papa, my travel companion proclaimed me perfectly fit to be a mother. It turns out, you can be a woman and still hold on to your cutoff denim. In fact, this is exactly what being a woman should mean in 2016 – not having to choose or to compromise.

With the feminist agenda stronger than ever, understanding what it means to be a woman is key. Being a woman is about being proud of who you are and never feeling the need to conform to society’s expectations. It’s about being honest with yourself and making your own decisions. About having values and principles and holding on to them under all circumstances. About never being too self-absorbed to practice kindness and loyalty and compassion, the very virtues that make the world a better place. Those are the thing that differentiate a woman from a girl, no matter how many braids she has in her hair.

The other day, somebody told me I looked eighteen. I paused for a second. “No,” I replied proudly, “I’m thirty. I’m a woman.”


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