One of my favorite authors is the late Carolyn Heilbrun, whose wisdom about women still moves me when I pick up, as I often do, “Hamlet’s Mother,” or “Writing a Woman’s Life,” two of her books. The title of my blog, InHeynsight, is a rewriting, but not a rethinking, of her words—words I used as a chapter epigraph in my book, The Erotic Silence of the American Wife:
“Men tend to move on a fairly predictable path to achievement. Women transform themselves only after an awakening. And that awakening is identifiable only in hindsight.”
When I wrote about women who had had extramarital affairs, the awakening that transformed these women was not, as you might guess, sexual. (It’s not as if an affair is all about sex, anyway. It can be entirely emotional.) The awakening had to do with their no longer being eligible for the goodness award that was expected of wives, an award they’d all expected to win….until that fateful trip into the lawless land of badness, at which point they had to rethink everything. Not only had their vision of marriage changed, but of society, of who is good and who is bad and what that means, anyway; and of themselves. Their internal lives changed as profoundly as their external ones, regardless of whether they left their marriages or stayed in them; whether they told their partners about the affair or didn’t. The awakening that occurred, identifiable only in hindsight, was a profound transformation that allowed them to move forward more authentically and with more compassion and less judgment of everyone and everything. In departing so drastically from the trajectory they’d expected to follow forever, they excavated another person inside, a person they may have never imagined before, or only glimpsed. They saw someone who might be scorned by the world, but who was just another part of themselves, and entirely human. The trick was to keep their humanity while viewing her, not to step outside and judge and censor, while she incorporated her into the woman she thought she knew so well. That’s one kind of achievement, acknowledging your full self, and for these women it took a long time to get there.
Almost every woman I know is reinventing herself. She’s looking at her past achievements and wondering what lies next—and exhilarated, or terrified. She’s struggling with money and/or with love—will either be in her life anymore? This reinvention process is hard. It takes enormous patience and kindness toward oneself to get through it. It takes the same kind of humanity it took for the women who had affairs. “Can I proceed with my life and still be me? Can I make money when my skills are no longer valued, or even paid for? Am I too old, too unskilled, too….whatever? Is the real me acceptable in this world of shrinking options? Do I have to pretend to be something I’m not (younger, smarter, more energetic) in order to achieve? Can I cop to all that has happened to me, and all that I’ve done, and not disown even one moment of it?
We’ll keep looking outward, but also at ourselves, kindly and patiently, here in InHeynsight.