As a kid, I was growing up without once imagining myself in the future, because it seemed the future would fall into place the same way it had for everyone else. Except, deep down, I knew that I didn’t want the same things as everyone else, but I also needed someone to guide me along in figuring it all out. That person, whose guidance would matter the most in the end, turned out to be me, even though it took years to figure it out.
The first half of my life was spent growing up in the USSR. The life of a modern Soviet woman was driven by a sort of perfectionist push to be a superwoman who could do all and be all things, while still following a standardized timeline with the end goal being whatever would be good for the growth of society (work, productivity, and babies). Sure, a lot of this might not be very different from the life of a modern Western woman, but there just never seemed to be much questioning taking place. My parents’ generation was used to a culture where asking questions and going against the grain just didn’t seem like a smart option. Just in 1980, for instance, underground publisher and women’s rights activist Tatiana Momonova was forced into exile, along with several other feminist compatriots. If any of the adult women around me spoke about their dreams, asked questions, and philosophized, it had to have been happening out of earshot of impressionable kids. Basically, it seemed like everyone knew who they were and what they wanted, and there was no place for doubts or questions.
I realize that when it came to my self-actualization, I really was a latchkey kid, learning as I awkwardly plodded along (I think that’s still the case; you never really know everything or grow out of a sense of uncertainty). When we moved to the States, I had just turned 14 and found myself without any concept of who I was or wanted to be. Yet, while I was pondering my opportunities to carve out a unique path in life, I also had the expectations of my upbringing buzzing around in my mind like angry bees and I didn’t have the lexicon to translate everything that was going on around me or in my head. It’s funny, reading this now, and remembering how I felt like such an outsider; if only I’d known that it wasn’t just my bicultural identity to blame: I was going through an experience shared by countless other teenage girls, American or Russian.
Back then, I didn’t really have the level of comfort that I might have as an adult now to have heartfelt conversations about dreams, insecurities, et cetera, with my parents. We were frequently butting heads as we tried to restart our lives. It felt like I could have used some guidance from a fairy godmother, so to speak, or a feminist godmother, more specifically.
While I might not have been keenly aware of some gap that needed to be filled in my life, in hindsight I realize that I spent quite a bit of time observing women around me, especially “cool” ladies who were a little bit older. I think I was subconsciously auditioning them for a role – maybe it’s just what young people do when they go out into the world, trying to build relationships. My unspoken need for a guide had to have been the motivating factor for some of the first female friendships I developed outside of high school.
I imagined my fairy godmother as a mix of Annie Potts’s free-spirited style as Iona in Pretty in Pink, the sly wisdom of Whoopi Goldberg’s Guinan from Star Trek: TNG, and Auntie Mame‘s, well, Auntie Mame-ness. Equal parts sarcastic and considerate, super stylish, a little bit older and world weary, yet still youthful. More importantly, she’d be filled with the infinite patience – yeah, right – to not just hang out with some teenager, but actually dole out free advice that would most likely go unheeded. Basically, the stuff of magic (or television).
I found myself drawn to punky-bohemian women a good decade older than me when I first started making friends in junior college. Because my idea of a free-spirited, tough feminist woman was painted in TV tones, I assumed that the visual and stylish exuberance was an expression of someone who had it all figured out. I was so awed by these women, with their brightly dyed hair and lackadaisical attitude toward rules, that I put them up on pedestals. They could do no wrong, even when they drove drunk or let strange guys they just met follow them home. “Wow, you are so cool and uninhibited,” I thought. Having an awed teenager for a friend must have been doing something for them, too. Besides the fact that they must have appreciated the opportunity to dispense some life advice – advice that I knew had to have been a little wrong – I was also a source of youth to them, a confidence booster. Treating me to a sandwich or milkshake, in hushed whispers one of them told me about cheating on her boyfriend on a regular basis, while another admitted to not having cleaned her house in several months. They would date guys who treated them horrendously, break up with them, and then eventually drift back. I nodded, not understanding anything, and hung onto every word.
I was drawn to people who looked like they could have been characters on TV or in movies, but they were still just average young women, who probably wanted the same sort of mentorship that I so desperately sought. While I considered it a curse, my being timid and scared of breaking rules, it turned out to be a blessing. There were some instances where I could have taken some really poor advice to heart but didn’t. My instincts must have been strong enough because I somehow avoided becoming entrenched in drama or getting in danger (with a few minor exceptions). There is a reason that I am no longer in touch with these friends who, at the time, seemed like they would be in my life forever: I grew up. I found out that we had nothing in common but a void that needed to be filled, and I actually didn’t really like them very much.
A young person’s quest for a mentor to idolize is often a reflection of insecurities. I was self-conscious about my body and appearance, and I also was steeped in pop culture. The combination of the two created an unrealistic vision of the right kind of person to admire. Beyond that, looking up to someone isn’t always the best vantage point. It wasn’t until several years later that I began to figure out that to find myself, to become more confident, I needed to be at eye level with the people around me. I don’t know how I figured it out, but when I did, it’s like everything snapped into focus. A relationship where one person idolizes another doesn’t benefit any of the parties involved. This is a take away that’s meant not just for teenage girls venturing out into the world, but to all women who establish friendships in life. It’s fine to surround ourselves with people whose finer qualities we admire, but in order to really have a genuine, lasting bond, we have to admit that our friends will often be wrong, and that we have as much to offer to them as they do to us. (This is what makes online communities like Persephone so worthwhile, imho).
It took a long time of false starts, mistakes, and occasional friendships with people who weren’t the best influence, but eventually I figured out who I wanted to be: me! I know, I know, that is such a cliche, but it’s the truth. Ironically, I’ve grown up to be the exact kind of woman that I used to pick out of a crowd: I dye my hair, I wear funky outfits, I’m blunt and funny, I (seem to) have my act together, I have good taste in music. If my teenage self approached me now, looking to me as a source of authority, I would hug her and say, “If there’s really a fairy godmother out there to grant your wishes and help light the way, that person is you.”