By Jeff Denberg (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
I am writing this as my child interrupts me for snacks, potty breaks, passwords, and snuggles. Kid TV shows are playing in the background while I flesh out these words to convey my thoughts. This is my life, and it is good. It’s a far cry from where I was 20 years ago, trying to make it in the music industry as a singer/songwriter. I was happy then, too … but in the background of my songwriting season was a different kind of noise: the sexual harassment kind. The majority of men I encountered during my music career were trying to “make it,” just like me. All but a handful were incredibly kind and respectful of me as a human being. I don’t want to paint all men in the music industry with the broad brush of “sexual harassment perpetrator,” because that is not at all true. But there were some who were overly kind or generous—and I knew they were the ones who expected something more.
Last night I sat down to watch Kesha’s performance of “Praying” on the Grammys. It was late for our family, and my 3 year old was begging me to put her to bed, exhausted from having spent the day playing outside. But, knowing how that song affected me—always bringing a tear to my eye—I told baby girl, “Just a few more minutes. I really want to see Kesha perform.” She curled up on my lap, asking to nurse, and I obliged. I nurtured and fed my daughter as I watched someone else’s grown daughter rise up with fire in her eyes and thunder in her voice to confront her abuser. Again. She did it with her sisters around her this time. She spent her voice as they sang with her, lifting her up with their voices any time she fell back a little. I don’t know how she felt when she was done, but to me, she looked relieved and exhausted. The performance ended with her sisters shrouding her with their arms and catching her in hugs as if to say, “Me, too, sister. Me, too.” Then my feelings about my past life as an aspiring songwriter came bubbling up, and the tears flowed freely down my cheeks.
Back in the ’90s, things were different. I doubt that any amount of #metoo would have mattered. In fact, after seeing how the victims of a sports doctor were repeatedly ignored when they complained about his sexual abuse, I know it wouldn’t have mattered if I’d said something back then. The problem was cultural, systemic, and widespread. It was like a chronic disease that our world had learned to live with. Women were habitually not heard.
Now that I have this girl-child to raise, along with her older sister who is much more aware, my soul is assuaged with the hope that they might be protected from the harsh reality that I endured. Sexual harassment was a normal part of life. It was a fact not just in my efforts to get my music recognized and published, but in my non-musician life as a food service worker, as a marketing director, and as a woman walking to and from work in downtown Chicago. Knowing that there is a movement—in every realm of life—to bring equality to women, to protect my daughters, OUR daughters, from this type of abuse—buoys my heart. I want to keep them safe from the Dr. Lukes, the Larry Nassars, and the Donald Trumps of the world. The ones who make us think that we owe them access to our bodies; the ones who make us think that because they take care of us, we should believe them when they say that they aren’t doing anything wrong; the ones who will take what they want from us, whenever and wherever they want.
The culmination of Kesha’s performance, Nassar’s conviction, the #metoo and #timesup movements … it’s all so overwhelming. Couple that with the abuse I know still happens in the maternity care system, and I am almost frozen with shock at times. But I can’t be shocked anymore. We have these girls to raise until they spread their wings and fly. It’s heart-wrenching to think they could possibly venture into a world like the one I experienced, or worse. Seeing how pervasive the abuse is angers me, but it also emboldens me. Abuse survivors deserve change, and we all deserve to NEVER BE HARASSED OR ABUSED IN THE FIRST PLACE.
Last night, seeing Kesha supported by her sisters while I felt her pain as I simultaneously held and nursed my girl was a significant moment for me, and I woke with fresh eyes today. My work for mothers and children continues with a new and wider lens. I see more clearly the interconnections between human rights activism and my work in maternity care. My new lens now sees allies in places where I previously thought there were very few. It sees into the future, when my children might never know what it’s like to feel obligated to please anyone out of fear or intimidation. May it be so.