Sometimes, just sometimes — maybe someone has just asked me to describe myself in an interview, maybe I’m introducing myself at a coffee date, maybe I’m just scrolling through my Instagram feed of inspiring, assured, badass women — I am so excited about the woman I am becoming, and the woman I am.
In those moments, I feel my chest swell with pride as I think of the milestones I’ve crested, and my cheeks redden with memories of every time I’ve felt beautiful, every time I’ve caught myself in the mirror and smiled in surprise — Wow, I’m radiant, every time a man has looked at me with sincerity in his eyes — the kind of sincerity that is equal parts stolen and given, because his mouth is too afraid to say the words. In those moments, I can see myself surrounded by a diverse gaggle of beautiful, successful, confident women, clinking glasses to our success. In those moments, I can see myself surrounded by the trappings of “Baby girl, you made it!” — warm, comfortable, safe, grateful, with strong legs and a stronger smile.
Those moments are collected in a little secret cloud of self-assuredness I carry around me, because while they are not few or far in-between, and while they have only become more frequent as I’ve shed my little girl cocoon, there are also so many permutations of What If? floating around. Some What Ifs exist in my head, the bastard children of exposure and the weight of responsibility.
What if I can’t support my family?
What if I’m a world away when they need me?
Others are insects that have managed to worm their way out of the minds of well-meaning aunties and society-folk, who, under the guise of guidance and the embarrassing kind of friendship a generation gap necessitates, offer sage life advice. These What If-worms have burst through the private interiors of their minds, carrying whatever baggage their lives have saddled on to them — mundane husband, cruel in-laws, dashed career aspirations — and launched themselves into the air on their freshly-minted moth wings, ready to ride the airwaves of your insecurity and land afresh in your mind.
And because I’m a smart woman, because some parts of my brain click together faster than others, because I was blessed with access, opportunity, and an educated mother — because of these things, my What Ifs also morph into incredibly complex protein chains, each permutation a negative or positive molecule linked to the next.
The negative What If chains yell at me: What if you message him and it ruins the quiet, chill vibes you two have going on? But what if you’re just imagining the chill vibes in the first place? What if in his head he’s just thinking you’re a little weird, but okay to spend his time with for now. That’s assuming he’s even thinking about you at all. He’s probably only thinking about work and his cheeseburger. Why can’t I just think about work and his cheeseburger? Wait, my cheeseburger. Ugh, as if I need to eat any more cheeseburgers. I’m definitely over my recommended calorie count today. And how many days has it been since I’ve weighed myself? Didn’t Kate Moss say skinny feels better than food could ever taste?
This particular chain is the neighborhood auntie you’ve known since you were five, who has been such a consistent but negative presence in the mind of so many young women whenever they’ve managed to rev their hearts into action for a boy, going quickly and straight to their sense of self worth, to my sense of self worth, to our collective understanding of what makes a girl good, pretty, worthy, happy.
Other brain-eating What If-moths focus on my career: What if you can’t ever be one of the boys? What if they’ll never accept you? You’ll never have access to their smoke break conversations or their sneaking-away-to-a-club-after-the-conference adventures. You’ll never be able to back-slap a male client in a friendly way and negotiate favors the way they do. What if you’ll never be able to verbalize these concerns because you’ll come across as petty and insecure, and unwilling to take initiative and ownership? What if you’re not going to succeed? What if maybe you should just marry someone and give up this charade?
And then, the deadliest, the sneakiest, the only-occasional visitor, because poison this harsh can’t be served daily:
What’s the point of all this success, of all the hard work of building this phenomenal woman you want to be, if no one wants you?
If you’re always too much? For your family, for men, for the neighbors, for the community religious group? Too opinionated, too strong, too busy, too ambitious, too successful, too direct, too rigid — all the toos that have been thrown at you year after year, their pain both dull and fresh, always.
So, what if? So, why am I writing this? So, why am I going on with my life, making choices that make me happy, making choices that bring as little discomfort to others as possible, while tricky-balancing my happiness in the process?
Because, what if? Complex protein chains of positivity come to the rescue, making me happy-smile in quiet moments between kisses, or between embarrassingly heavy panting on mornings after a leg-destroying run. Like flavor insta-released the second you pop a Mentos, my positivity What Ifs rush to my aid. What if I make it? What if I land that promotion? What if he respects me? What if I don’t have to compromise what is most important to me? What if I can upload photos without body-morphing my curves to industry-approved standards? WHAT IF I’M A GODDAMN GODDESS?
So, dear insecurities, and my darling seedlings of hope, some wounds are still too fresh for me to thank you for your lessons (maybe that’s better saved for when I’m 50 or so) but I think what I can say, is I see you — clear, present, hungry. And I know that I have to decide who I feed, and who I let flounder. I’m too battle-worn to give one of those inspiring speeches about giving it your all, and never backing down, but I’ll say this:
Slow steps, warrior.
Persistence. No zero days.
And we’ll come out of this one and the next one, and the next one, one way or the other. So might as well enjoy as much of the road as we can.