So I have this cousin. Well, I have a lot of cousins, actually, but on my mother’s side of the family, besides yours truly, there is only one female offspring. Just a few years apart in age, we grew up together. In a sea of outspoken, outgoing boys, we floated on a dainty little raft, donned in matching pink skirts and leg warmers, bestowed with duplicate dollies at Christmastime and sporting similar side ponytails.
She is nothing short of amazing, my cousin. She is smart and talented and well rounded. She is a doting mom, a loving wife, a caring daughter and granddaughter and literally the teacher of the year. She is stunningly beautiful. She is successful and driven and patient and humble and is one of the kindest and most thoughtful people I have ever met. I love her like she was my actual sister.
But this wasn’t always the case. Twenty years ago, before I ventured out into the great wide open, I would not have given her this glowing praise. If I’m being completely honest, I would have HATED to hear anyone say any such thing about she who I thought to be a spoiled, snotty, bossy and arrogant brat. I’m sure the feeling was mutual, of course, but this is my article.
As kids, dressed akin to the deceased twins from The Shining, we fought constantly. Every function, every activity, an emotional and dramatic battle of wills. In our teens, our separate evolutions toward “emo” and “prep” respectively, only served to widen the divide. When we eventually each went off to college, it was without as much as a second thought for one another.
Years passed. We finished school, got married (or divorced,) moved home (or away,) started careers (both of us managed to do that, actually.) We saw each other over major holidays, sometimes, but didn’t have much to talk about. Our rivalry had faded with time and distance, but I don’t think anyone would have called us friends.
Fast forward to adulthood. Not the best years of your life, “I’m frantically sending out resumes, barely making rent and driving a dumpster fire of a car,” adulthood but actual grownupness. The kind where you’ve lost parents and cut up food for small people and have acquired a 401k and a mortgage and go to bed at 9 o’clock on a Saturday night. She has a Rockwellian family and home and a tenured teaching position. She’s an actual beauty queen and a respected visual artist. I’m a traveler and adventurer, having come off a long and luxurious nomadic experience working in the performing arts, rubbing elbows with celebs and living the night life, and settling into an Executive job with a theatre company in our hometown to be closer to our family. You know, grownupness.
I knew no one when I came back. I wasn’t the person who had left and my real friends were long gone in faraway lands. So I found, as is often the case in the Midwest, the company of my cousins. My she-cousin’s big brother, he-cousin #1, and I have always been close. Our life-long bond has been the reason I have regularly referred to myself as a “guy’s girl.” He, and most boys, in my perception, are fun and funny and sarcastic and devoid of drama. They don’t care if you’re gross or crass. They don’t judge or gossip. They’ll never back talk or two face you, they’ll always give it to you straight and if you fight about something stupid, in five minutes you’ll be entirely over it. So upon my return, I naturally gravitated toward him. And, being his sister, she was there, too.
I wasn’t UN-happy with her proximity, because grownupness, but I really didn’t anticipate any sort of friendship to form after all that had been said and done. But it took me no time at all to realize that just as I had become someone else, so had she. And she was absolutely delightful. And for the first time ever in our lives we actually got to know each other, talked and listened to one another and just hung out as cousins. As women. As friends.
And here we find our lives are much more alike than they are different. Our ideologies almost entirely in line with each other. Our sensibilities and senses of humor in sync. Our faces, with age, have even begun to bear some similarities. As I laugh with her now and am so full of love for her and her family, I wonder why we wasted so much time at war.
So I hold up the mirror: What the hell was my problem? Was she really arrogant? Was I really a “guy’s girl?” Seriously, kid, “emo?” As I look back on my too-nearly 40 years, and examine the situations and circumstances that led me here, the journey of the me that was to the me I am now comes into focus. I was a tomboy and she was a brat. I was a brat and she was a princess. We were kids. But more importantly we were females immersed in a culture that made sure we understood our roles. And they were painfully generic ones.
We were matched from day one, but we were NEVER the same and NEITHER of us are in any way generic. I am extroverted, a natural leader. She is thoughtful and creative. I am impulsive and spontaneous. She is gentle and careful. But we were both given the title of “girl.” Our deep differences and our individual desires to have our own identities set us up for competition. And that competition was continually reinforced in a small and insular community of our family, peers and mentors. Rather than being celebrated, our variances were called to the carpet as disruptive or disappointing. It was easier to treat us by the rules than to let us break them. The “girl” was set upon two different, dynamic people by our society, and we took out that stifling stagnation on each other.
And beyond my relationship with my cousin, I can see that same conflict silhouetted in my friendships with other women throughout my life. I grew up a “guy’s girl” because I was conditioned to “compete” with other girls for resources, attention, affection. Under the umbrella of a cultural narrative that continually reminds women there are a finite number of good jobs, partners and potential futures so we’d better always look the best, act the best, be the best, we find ourselves wrapped in a thick blanket of insecurities, made heavier and more burdensome when we don’t get hired, or get dumped, or what have you. And in those tough times, it becomes a lot easier to blame other women, to tear each other down, to project our loss and hurt onto she whom we perceive as a threat, than to try to suspend the stigma of perceived failure and support one another, lift one another up. Lather, rinse, repeat.
I had very few female friends in the past because of this perception. I thought it was because I simply “didn’t trust women.” Because women were obviously out to get my man, my job, my role. I found myself resentful, jealous and judgmental if I thought another girl was prettier, smarter, more talented than me. My own learned and conditioned insecurities caused me to perceive mistrust.
But as I entered my twenties in a far larger, less insular community, and my self-confidence and list of accomplishments grew, I started to find myself surrounded by more and more women, whom I trusted just fine. In fact, much to my surprise, I liked them a great deal, and having them in my life and liking them made ME better, and made me like myself more, and we grew together.
While male friends might be the best for a night at the bar or a card game or to engage with in a fart and film fest, only women can truly understand what it’s like to be you. They have experienced the wage gap and hit the glass ceiling. They have had a coworker brush a little too close to them a little too frequently. They have pulled their keys out of their purse and clutched them between their fingers as they walked through a dark parking lot at night. They have felt the frustration of being called “crazy” for having simple expectations for respect in a relationship. They have been ignored at a car dealership and heard casual comments from friends and family about their weight or their clothing choices. They have felt the pressure to be perfectly coifed and the guilt of trying to balance a career and motherhood. They have picked themselves up, brushed themselves off, grown stronger and persevered.
And these are only the difficult situations you share. They also know the excitement of professional accomplishment, of finally getting that much deserved promotion after fighting for it for many years. They know the sense of pride in pulling off an impossibly long and stressful day at work then getting home and making sure everyone is fed and clean and safe and happy. They know the deep, rich love, passion and joy that only a female can feel. They know the incredible feeling of being a warrior when they overcome an insurmountable obstacle, pass a monumental milestone, or bring a brand new human being into the world. They know how unbelievably great it is to finally get back into their pre-baby clothes. They know the safety, security and strength of being the glue that holds their family together. They know what it’s like to be the one to stay standing when everyone else falls.
It’s exhausting to tear each other down. And it gets us nowhere but angrier and more resentful, more full of insecurity and self doubt. When we mistrust each other, we are an island. We sink our own ships. With some practice in perception, over time I have reconditioned myself to see my sisters as supporters rather than enemies, and the more I rejoice in their successes and accomplishments, the better I feel about my own. Now I’m part of a fabulous fleet. On the bad days, I have friends who understand, sympathize and support me. On the good days, I have friends who congratulate and celebrate me. That makes both experiences better. And when I watch a friend who is prettier and smarter and more talented than me, I can think, “Good for her, she deserves it,” and not take on her victory as my failure or let it diminish my self worth, because not everything is about me. My god, that knowledge is power.
When I got home after my journey to grownupness, it took me no time at all to realize how wonderful my cousin is. And it became crystal clear to me with 20/20 hindsight that being told my whole life I was jealous of her clouded my ability to see how much better we would have been championing rather than challenging each other. As a team, combining her strengths with mine and balancing each others’ weaknesses, there is honestly nothing we can’t accomplish together. When we stopped knocking each other over and started lifting each other up, we became a fierce and fabulous force to be reckoned with. I wasn’t jealous before. I was lonely. And now, I have someone to be proud of who is also proud of me. She still supports me, even though she remembers the “emo.” If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.
Amber Rae Bernhardt is an adult theatre kid, a career promoter, a marketing director, and a proud mama. She loves Elton John, stand-up comedy, well-written television, spontaneous travel, and hanging out with her rock n roll partner, their two beautiful boys, and their bulldog. Many friends bless her life. Amber is grateful to be surrounded by inspirational women.