I was recently asked by a group of women who my role models were growing up. Given our current political environment, it seemed to carry more weight than usual as we seem to be losing our moral compass. And it should have been an easy question to answer. Yes?
You know how there’s real time – the time that’s kept by the ticking of the clock? And then there’s brain time – the crazy fast time it takes your brain to wander through an immense amount of thoughts and ideas? Well, here’s how my brain time reacted in the 3 seconds of real time before I uttered my response:
“OMG, I don’t have a role model! How did I not prepare for this question? I should have been thinking about this possibility. They’ll be disappointed in me. I’m a terrible person and should never have volunteered to come to this event. I’m a bad role model myself! Wait, you’re creative, you can improv here. Think. Think hard. Ouch! That hurts. Okay never mind about thinking hard, just blurt something and see how it lands – that might tell me who I really thought my role model was…ok, ready? Set. Blurt…Oh no, I want to blurt apricot and that’s not even a human, much less a role model. I don’t even like apricots! (deep breath) Okay. Gloria Steinem. I’ll say Gloria because everyone knows her and it sounds really good. Not that she wasn’t my role model, I just didn’t have enough money to afford to burn my bras, so I was always confused if I was a true women’s libber or not. Oh no, I’m thinking about boobs and bras in front of a group of women, that’s weird. Just say Gloria for fuck sake.”
Which is what I did and everyone ooohed and ahhhhed and nodded like I was a wise old soul. The conversation continued in a lively manner yet the question stayed with me for days as I churned through why couldn’t I name a role model.
Looking back, I was part of the first generation of women to “have it all.” Birth control was legal which meant I could control if, and when, I had children. That freedom of choice carried an imperative to take full advantage of the opportunity. I felt a responsibility to model this new found freedom for the next generation of women. I had to prove I could be super career woman, super wife, super mom, super homemaker and a lot of other “super somethings” that cropped up along the way. It was the 1950s version of womanhood with a mega-ton heaping of expectations. It was daunting and uncharted territory for me.
I can now identify a few women I wish I’d modeled. I wish I’d known about the notorious Ruth Bader Ginsburg but when I was looking around, she wasn’t yet notorious. Madeleine Albright would have been a great role model but I’d been turned off politics after watching the Watergate hearings in high school. There was a time I wanted to be Bonnie Raitt – I mean who didn’t? She was a kick-ass guitar goddess rocking a male world on her own terms. Alas, my finger-picking ability and vocal range were lacking, so I remained an avid fan but had to give up on the role model part.
I continued to ruminate on the topic. Then, as is the way with my subconscious brain, the answer came to me. In fact, it woke me up at 2:21 a.m. I’m going to trust this answer because now, in the light of day, it still rings true. My role model was Lucille Ball – the crazy red-haired comedienne of I Love Lucy fame. She was wacky, free and completely herself. Her curiosity always got her into trouble and her big heart always got her out of it. Her efforts were always with the best intentions, if not the best outcomes. Compared to my life, which was run by a strict father and chronically ill mother, her resiliency and adaptability were amazing to me. Her ability to be herself regardless of what others thought was an inspiration. As I got older, I saw her as a ground-breaking, successful businesswoman. She always seemed to be true to herself and I admire that to this day.
Lucy once said, “I’m not funny. What I am is brave.” Indeed, she was; brave enough to tell stories about her foibles, follies and fiascos so we could love, laugh and learn. I aspire to be that brave.
Now, as I reflect on my discussion with the young women, I am inspired and heartened by how many role models they could name. Many of them have chosen traits from different people and put them together to form their own version of inspirational models; part Ellen, part grandmother, part Oprah, part mentor at work, part best friend and what I love most, part themselves.
I love to think we can aspire to be our own role models. I love the conscious choice to show up, modeling my values, and modeling my best self. And I have faith in the next generation to move the conversation forward.
I’m curious. Who are your role models and what kind of role model do you want to be?