When I was a senior in high school, for a few months, I dated an “older man.” He was a college freshman from Tacoma Park, Maryland, about two hours from my hometown. We met at a church conference, and he gave me a back rub, and I asked him to marry me.
We didn’t get married, and I think that is best for both of us. But for a while, we were smitten. I remember a play fight, where he referred to me as a kid or a girl, or something, and I was highly offended. So he played “Always a Woman” by Billy Joel, and we danced in the kitchen, and all was forgiven. The lyrics aren’t entirely flattering, but admittedly appropriate descriptions of my eighteen-year-old self.
Now I’m not eighteen, and I’m no kid. I’m 42, and I’m losing my uterus in three weeks. Something I had always taken for granted that defined me as a woman. But I won’t stop being a woman when it’s gone. Just like my friend Jenn didn’t stop being a woman when she lost her breasts to cancer. And this process is making me ask some questions about what it means to be a woman.
Brian and I went out for lunch yesterday, while Jack was in school. We sat outside at O’Dell brewery, and he had a beer, and I had a root beer, and we both ate steak tacos and quesadillas from a local food truck. And we talked about what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman.
He said that the masculine ideal of driving a big truck and having huge muscles and smoking Marlboro cigarettes didn’t apply to pretty much any man he knew. And I thought of that meme that’s gone around recently with Xena the Warrior Princess screaming. Delicate feminine flower, indeed. Most of the women I know fit the picture far better than the caption.
We talked about how women have more power and strength than is often attributed to them in the larger culture, while men are a lot more sensitive than their stereotypes. We also talked about the biology of gender. I have a friend and a cousin who are both going through gender transition, and as far as I know, most if not all of the parts are staying the same. My friend who is transitioning from female to male will still need to get pap smears every year to stay healthy. And the only surgery I know for sure that my cousin is pursuing is rhinoplasty, for a more feminine nose.
So, what’s a uterus? What does it mean to know that I’m a woman, just as my friend and cousin know in their hearts that they started out in the wrong kind of body? I remember a discussion in grad school where my professor quoted a theorist who posited that not just gender — the social roles of men and women — but also sex (the biology of male and female bodies) is just a construct, something we’ve invented to make sense of the world. I didn’t believe it at the time, but my mind is changing.
I can’t resist the urge, right now, to quote an old fast food ad: Parts is parts. My situation is mild. We have soldiers coming home without limbs. There are accidents of birth and life that leave people without legs or arms, and some of those people go on to compete in athletic events at the national and international levels. We are who we are. We have what we have. And we live with that. That feels, to me, to be the definition of a grown-up.
Thanks for the dance, old friend. I won’t forget it.