What Red-Headed Women Taught me about Success & Femininity

My mother, through some genetic anomaly, was born with fire-red hair. Apparently, shortly after she was born, my grandmother decided to start dying her hair red, so that no one would mistake my mother for someone else’s child.

My mother, like my grandmother before her, left the workplace when she had children. When my brother was born, my mother made the decision to leave her career to devote herself to raising children. She gave up what I later learned was a shot at her dream job to be a full time care giver.

This never struck me as strange.

I was blessed, as a child to have a mother who was always present. She taught us how to bake cookies, plant gardens and make art — the field which she herself would have blossomed in had she stayed put at work. Her presence was my joy and my rock. Because of my mother, my biggest dream for a long time was to be a mom.

Years later, when she and my father were in the process of separating, I remember my mother telling me. “Don’t rely on someone else for money. Make your own money. Then you’ll always be free.”

That struck me.

I think it must be terrible how one sentence you might not even remember saying can shape your child’s entire life. I watched how much my mother suffered as my father grew more distant and drew into himself. How trapped she was in her marriage if she wanted to continue taking care of us. I never wanted to be stuck like that. From that moment on, I was sure I would always be a breadwinner; I would always be able to take care of myself, and my future kids, so I would never be trapped.

That was a long road for me. Admittedly, I was raised in a world of traditional gender roles. Brought up to be someone’s wife and mother; not exactly to the the purser of a long term career. I had no realistic knowledge of how finances worked, and I blankly trusted anyone, since everyone had always been nice to me when I was growing up.

Female role models in the workplace were few. I had one aunt who worked for herself from home…every other close female relative of mine was a homemaker or a caregiver. Even in university I felt that the privileged world that I roamed in made getting an Mrs. degree seem like an all-too-easy way out. I had several strong, working-female teachers, but instead of exuding the beautiful feminine charm I was used to, they struck me as, well, manly.

It wasn’t until I was was 23 that I finally befriended my first successful business woman.

We met in Uruguay, in a small wind-swept town called La Paloma. She was on her first holiday since starting a now-successful underground music and culture magazine in Scotland, nearly 5 years earlier. She too had auburn hair. I drank in her stories of loss and triumph; of working 16 hours days on the floor of a tiny apartment. Her grit inspired me. I had never met anyone who worked so hard and built something on her own accord, out of sheer determination and a tiny investment. She lost the money, then gained it back again, but nowhere along the way did anyone rescue her, and at no point on this long road did she quit.

Going our separate ways, I went down to Buenos Aires and she up through Brazil. I quickly became sick of the nocturnal life of the Argentine city, and boarded a plane to meet up with her in Rio de Janeiro. I didn’t know it would be the start of my life as an independent human being.

The next few months were like finishing school to me. Between parties and barhops, I listened intently to everything she would tell me about drawing up business plans, corporate structuring and finances. We researched deeply a scheme to open up a version of her magazine in the Brazilian artistic capital — at the time a wasteland for information. It would be tricky, filled with buorcratic walls and cultural land mines, but we had devised was to divert each and every obstacle.

Until that point I had always thought that to be a successful woman, you had to be a man. Watching my beautiful friend with long, red hair, network, make connections and set meeting amidst a sea of lusty latinos, I knew learned that real feminine power could shine its own, unique, even brighter light. She was my first glimpse that a woman didn’t have to be masculine to be successful.

A South American magazine never happened. The plan, oddly enough, ended with her sudden engagement to a wealthy music producer, who took her back to Scotland with him. My compatriot who inspired me to female-led greatness had succumbed, it seemed to me, to the age old trap of traditional roles. She left our tropical paradise where opportunities seemed endless, and went home to become a wife and a mother.

She admitted to me that it was a relief to have a financial safety net, that it made working less stressful. Oddly enough, I still felt sad for her. Or maybe I just missed her.

From then on I struggled to find my own way. Without her as a guide, I faltered. I hadn’t realized how strong a woman had to be to be taken seriously, or how much easier it had been to be strong in a pair. Still, I kept pushing myself on, working from a friend’s living room floor with the intent to start my own legacy. I battled against the part of myself that wanted to give up and be taken care of. I turned down a marriage proposal from a millionaire, fearing that if I accepted it, I would be forced to shape my life around his and it would be the loss of my independence. It was an internal fight to ensure my own freedom, that I would never have to suffer like my mother did, trapped in a relationship she didn’t feel she could leave for lack of financial security.

I tried, failed and tried again. When my father passed away, I took the money from his legacy and tried to build a successful business. There was a problem, though. Somewhere along the line, I lost my femininity. To be successful, I still felt I had to act like a man.

Although I managed to make some money, in the end I was untrue to myself. Trying to be someone who I wasn’t, 300% of the time, led me to burnt out. Upon finally placing the tombstone on endeavor, I took time off in search of my lost femininity.

There were so many questions.

Why, in order to be a successful female, are we taught to act like men? Why is the raw, feminine power, so notably absent in the highest alcoves of the corporate world?

Most importantly, how could I be successful and still fulfill my dreams of having a family and being a mom?

It took time, and a lot of plane tickets, but I did find some answers.

Eliminate any expectations; of how you should act, or how you should be treated. Do what comes naturally to you, and be proud of everything you are. Change your ideas of what it means to be a man or a woman. What you think gender roles should be are things that were taught to you. They are not universal truths. Reteach yourself. Decide what you want them to mean, and make that the new truth. Ultimately, do not compromise what you want for anyone, or anything. That means a lot of standing up and being strong in the face of the expectations of others. It also means celebrating your femininity, not hiding it, and not being ashamed of your sexuality. They are things you are born with, and you should never be ashamed of who you are.

These days, I’m the sole working parent in a two-parent household. We have a beautiful three month old baby and a giant, overly rambunctious dog. My husband, super-dad, still struggles a bit which the role reversal, as he was raised in a Machismo-Latin culture. Yet he’s there, every day, stay-at-home Dad-ing, so that I can continue to follow my dreams and create the world I want us to live in.

Its funny how everything shifted. Although I had always dreamed of motherhood, I had a difficult time adjusting after my son’s birth. The time and attention that he asks from me takes away from the time which I could be working to support our family. The thought of staying home and dedicating my time soly to him seems stifling, not joyful like I once imagined it.

Unlike my former self, the current me thrives on the challenges that working brings my way. The inspiration that my mother brings me has shifted too. My mother, on her own for many years, has had trouble adjusting to being a breadwinner as well. These days I feel more like partners in arms; both of us trying to work out what it means to be feminine, successful and follow our dreams, all at the same time. My mother now confesses to me how difficult it was for her, leaving her work behind to raise us. I tell her how difficult it is for me, having a family and still wanting to follow my dreams.

I’m not incredibly successful, not by any traditional means. I am chasing my dream as a freelance writer, which means we’re often unsure about what our income will look like month-to-month. Still, I enjoy waking up every day and fighting the good fight. I enjoy trying to create a good life for my family.

Its hard not to stop sometimes and imagine idyllic days when my son is older and I’m not racing to meet deadlines, hustling for more work or scheming up new business ideas. Days when I hope to be free to teach him how to bake cookies, plant gardens and make art, just like my mother did for me. The only difference is that now, I don’t think of these as dreams exclusive to women. I think of them as dreams of anyone, man or woman, who has a family. To create a world in which we have balance — as much time to dedicated to following our dreams as time devote to, well, loving the people we love.

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Originally published at medium.com