(Bare with me, friends. This one's a little long…but worth it.)
Yesterday was my fifth time attending the Massachusetts Conference for Women. Each year, my friends and I make the pilgrimage to fill our minds, hearts, and souls with new knowledge and inspiration. Truth be told, I was not as excited to attend this year as in years past. Yes, the keynote speakers were impressive: Amal Clooney (human rights attorney; wife of George Clooney; kick-a** dresser) and Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love; best-selling novelist; lover of all things pasta and gelato) but somehow, they just weren’t doing it for me.
There was another mini-keynote, however, about whom I was particularly excited: Maysoon Zayid. When you look her up on the web, it says the following under her masthead: “Comedian, Actress, Disability Activist & Tap Dancer.” For those of you who don’t know her, you need to appreciate the genius of this descriptor and how hilarious it really is. Maysoon has Cerebral Palsy and she shakes…constantly.
Her keynote speech was as profound as it was hilarious. She’s perfected the art of self-deprecating humor to bring awareness to not only her condition, but to all those who bear the responsibility of navigating an illness or disability. She spoke of how she wishes people would exchange the term “wheelchair bound” to “wheelchair free” because that is exactly what a wheelchair provides to those who need one: freedom. She spoke of how her father repeated to her from day one, “Yes you can-can” and how that became her family motto. How fitting to say that to a woman born with palsy who can now probably dance circles around any of us, never mind kill it at a can-can.
There I was, laughing along with the rest of the 12,000 women in attendance when Maysoon pivoted and talked about something that hit me like a lightning bolt. Out of nowhere, she said, “You know what people need to stop doing immediately? They need to stop automatically asking women how many kids they have.” Along, with a handful of others, I applauded in support of that statement. As a matter of fact, I had just that very morning articulated to someone that my biggest pet peeve is when I meet new people and they automatically ask me how old my children are. But then she went on to explain why this was so important (and I’m paraphrasing): “You never know anything about that woman’s journey when you ask her that question. She could have been born with a condition where she’s unable to conceive; she could have miscarried that very morning; she might have gone into debt trying to afford IVF; or maybe she just didn’t want to have children. You can never make the assumption that a woman has children, wants children, can conceive children or otherwise.”
And that’s when it happened. I completely lost it. I was a hot mess. I was overcome with such emotion that I broke into the ugly, silent cry. And it wasn’t pretty. My friend next to me grabbed my hand and reminded me to breathe. (I actually feel bad for the person who had to clean the tablecloth. Don’t judge: I had no tissues.) In that moment, I felt COMPLETELY alone. I felt as if I was the only person to whom Maysoon was speaking out of 12,000 women. And then all of a sudden, a friend of mine at another table came up and put her hand on my shoulder to give me a reassuring squeeze. When I looked at her, it was in that moment I realized that there was no way I was alone. I understood right then that there were probably scores of women in that room for whom that topic not only resonated, but devastated.
Long story short: No, I don’t have children. But it wasn’t for lack of trying. I won’t bore you with the details but here are the CliffsNotes: after surviving cancer and its treatments, my body wasn’t terribly fond of three IVF cycles. And when I actually did get pregnant, it ended in a spectacular debacle complete with a miscarriage, botched surgeries and extra hospital stays.
And, I’m just one woman with one story. There are so many of us, each with our own story. Sometimes what our stories do is allow us to willingly and easily share with others and other times those stories are deeply and painfully tucked away, just for us. But what our stories do NOT do is make us LESS THAN. I am not less than the next woman because I don’t have children. I love children. I feel like I have lots of children between all of my nieces and my friends’ kids. Despite not having kids, I have a very full life. I have a life full of love and friendship and family and laughter and career. And even though I feel that my body betrayed me, I know that I did not betray myself. I tried. It didn’t work. My husband and I decided that particular part of our journey had come to a conclusion.
AND THAT’S OKAY.
So in the spirit of the holidays, here is my gift to you: I want to give you the gift of letting yourself off the hook and not beating yourself up. Too often we walk around thinking we are the only one who is experiencing something or feeling a certain way. What I know for sure from yesterday’s conference is that there is no way my tablecloth was the only one being used as a tissue during Maysoon’s keynote. Find your people; share your story; help another heal; learn to look at your journey in a different light. Yesterday’s cry might have been an ugly one, but I now know that mine weren’t the only tears shed in that room.
Happy Holidays, my friends. By the way: Maysoon, if you’re looking for a tap dancing partner, I’m all in.