Today in celebration of Mother’s Day a guest post written by Donita Dooley of Slight Southern Accent
Female empowerment is everywhere – from Beyoncé making lemonade out of her husband’s infidelity to the impending reality of our first female president. The generation that followed mine seems to have figured out this Girl Power thing from the get-go but for some of us, the path was not always so clear. I didn’t grow up around strong women but somehow I knew I wanted to be one. I wanted to lean in long before it was a hashtag. But more than confidence, I wanted attitude – I wanted swagger. I didn’t know what that would look like but I recognized it the first time I came face to face with it.
It took all of five minutes to fall in love with her. A fiery, southern matriarch with a sharp tongue and wits to match, Ann was unlike any woman I’d ever met. Outspoken and opinionated with an energy that commanded the room, she literally had me at hello. My boyfriend’s mother, my future mother-in-law. Although I couldn’t know it at the time, this woman would leave an imprint on me, an invisible tattoo that I would feel long after she was gone.
Without giving it much thought, I took his name. A sheltered, southern upbringing probably informed my decision but the truth was, I just wanted to be part of that family. I loved the name, a catchy alliteration, and decided to keep it even after the divorce. I’ve had that name for almost 20 years now, throughout my entire professional career. For better or worse, it has become my identity.
The lack of allegiance to my birth name might be found in a fractured relationship with my family. My parents are Pentecostal ministers and my entire family has adopted the dogma, everyone but me. I am the black sheep, the rebel, the interloper. Pentecost is a radical form of Christianity; a belief system with a myopic focus on heaven and hell, which are presented as real and three-dimensional. But I questioned the theology from an early age and because of this break in protocol, I have been ostracized. The more my values became defined as pro-choice, pro-gay marriage and pro-gun control, the wider the abyss became – my adult life has been one of increased estrangement.
Because of these differences, no one from my family attended my wedding. They felt I was making a mockery out of a sacred institution. No church, no minister, alcohol, dancing…no virginal bride. I didn’t argue, I just accepted it with equal parts sadness and relief. All my life I felt like God was my competition and now he had won a very big hand. With all the discord my mother was not around to help with planning, but I’d never been the kind of girl who dreamt about her wedding. I had given it no thought whatsoever so when it was upon me to plan such an event, I was clueless.
Thankfully Ann stepped in – a natural event planner. She hired the caterer, the florist, the photographer – helped me find a dress and booked a stylist. I eagerly allowed her to make the decisions I could not. She thought of every detail down to the linen handkerchief she slipped into my hand, borrowed and blue. And with no one to walk me down the aisle, Ann suggested we turn tradition on its head. So it was this phenomenal new force in my life who held my arm as I walked into a billowing white tent on her beautiful Tennessee farm. That day I became part of a family who accepted me completely. It was heady, irresistible – a balm to the heart of my wounded inner child. Finally, a family who thought I was fine exactly as I was.
I am by no means motherless. My own mother is a kind and loving woman who did the best she could but she was not prepared for such an outlier of a daughter. The first of nine children with an alcoholic, abusive father, my mother sought refuge from her tumultuous childhood in my father’s religious, stable family. She married at sixteen and shortly thereafter “found God.” Although I have longed for a closer relationship with my mother, my rejection of her religion was asking too much. I denied the very thing that had saved her.
My marriage didn’t end because of betrayal; there was no shocking surprise, just a relationship that slowly unraveled. We remained friendly and at peace with the fact we were no longer compatible. But years later when he remarried I felt a baffling sting. Immediately something begin to stir in the depths of my emotional waters. It persisted and so I sought guidance.
It was a 20 minute subway ride to the therapist’s office and my sessions were crammed into an already grueling schedule. But right away we clicked. Soon after starting our work, it became clear that the issue was not my ex-husband but what about the family that had become collateral damage? In one memorable session, she asked me about Ann and immediately I started to cry. I thought about all the things Ann had been to me, what I had learned from her. I realized she had done more than accept me, she had led by example. A lawyer who trained thoroughbreds, Ann was a force to be reckoned with and I marveled at her moxie. She showed me the kind of woman I wanted to be – a woman who didn’t kowtow to the men around her. She presented an exciting alternative to the world I grew up in – a world where women would never think of taking the lead and further, were happy in their passive roles, felt safe in subordination.
My therapist asked if I had taken time to mourn a woman who had made such an obvious impact. It was the prick of a pin that pierced the wound; I felt the emotion swell and I tried to rush past it. But she was a practitioner with great patience and said, “Let’s just sit in this for a minute.” Sitting in it was incredibly uncomfortable. I did not want to feel what was coming. No, I had not mourned Ann. But in that safe place, I finally invited the unbearable sadness to have its moment. Deep primal pain sliced through me, a sorrow so heavy it felt like a death. Grief that had laid dormant for years was knocked loose by the news of my ex remarrying. We had both been in relationships post-divorce but this was different. Marriage meant family; it meant someone else had Ann. I could survive the end of my marriage but losing her was another thing altogether. Silently the loss had knocked me sideways.
My divorce was friendly enough but even amicable divorces can play havoc on friendships. Relationships are precarious enough and as party to a failing marriage, your situation poses a threat. Friends of a divorcing couple often scatter to the four winds until you are no longer contagious, as if divorce were an airborne disease. It is an incredibly isolating experience, which is why in those situations, most people turn to their families for support. But in the absence of such family dynamics, you can find yourself alone in the world, alone to an unprecedented and crippling degree. The discomfort of others can drive you to a place you never thought you’d be. Alone on the precipice of life, it’s easy to fall off the cliffs.
And fall I did. That isolation drove me into a vortex – a two year trip down the rabbit hole. Ripped from a family unit I had been part of for more than a decade, I fell into a black hole of drugs and alcohol, dating grossly inappropriate men and denying my new reality. I found no solace with my family. They may have boycotted the wedding but divorce was unforgiveable. Even as an adult I was afraid of their judgment. The religious guilt so ingrained in my DNA, I felt I had broken some unknown commandment. I don’t know if it was their condemnation or their God that I feared more but following the yellow brick road back to Oz was simply not an option.
Only sheer self-preservation got me out of that wormhole but once I was out, I flourished. I created a life for myself in New York with a great career and a circle of supportive friends. In the years that followed my crash and burn, I developed a new skill; world traveler. My work requires international travel, a responsibility I have gleefully embraced. From touring architectural projects in the Middle East and China to leading press trips all through Europe and trekking through tropical rainforests in Central and South America, I never hesitate to jump on a plane bound for parts unknown. Because I travel for business I am usually left to my own devices but I’ve gotten pretty good at managing language barriers, figuring out exchange rates and making sure I have the right vaccinations and visas. Not bad for a girl who grew up being taught she couldn’t cross the street on her own volition, much less travel the world.
I am a different person than the one I was destined to become and I owe a debt of gratitude to those who made that possible, including Ann. She was the first women I knew who had that sense of self, that swagger and lucky for me, some of that chutzpah must have rubbed off. After her I gravitated toward strong women, nurturing friends, female mentors – anywhere I could get a fix of the maternal guidance I am always craving. Knowing Ann when I did fundamentally changed the woman I ultimately became – a woman who owns her own life. I became an accidental woman of swagger.
I gave a great deal of thought to changing my name. I’m not famous, I have no children to consider so reverting back to my birth name makes sense – except it doesn’t feel right. My family’s name doesn’t fit me anymore than their religion does. I associate that name with rejection and disapproval and that gives me pause. Giving up a hard-earned identity of any kind is difficult so I lean towards the name on my office door. The career I worked so hard to create was built under this name; changing it now feels like I would be cancelling out all my hard-earned accomplishments – accomplishments I could never have achieved if I hadn’t picked up a little hubris along the way.
But everything has its price. Keeping this name will forever remind me of a woman who helped me find my voice, my power. It will serve as a constant reminder that what might have been my greatest gift is also my greatest loss. But it’s a price I’m willing to pay.
Check out more of Donita’s writing on Slight Southern Accent!