Sunday, May 13, 2007

My Mother

My mother is a complex person and my relationship with her is not simple. She is not an easy person to write about, and she would not want to be written about in any depth without her consent anyhow.

I can write about my father; indeed I have done. My father and I are simpatico. He is muy amable, un bueno amigo; no solo mi padre, pero un compañero. It is easy to write about my father.

It is not easy to write about my mother, even though I owe her so much.

For example, the privacy thing: That is feminist in its essence: My life is mine. My experience is mine. My body is mine. I own me. Trespassers will be shot on sight.

I remember reading this as a young girl:

"I never thought of that," Tucker said, "but it's true. In my own case, I didn't even have any idea my mother had any ambition to be anything but my mother. She took this temporary job when my father was fired and I thought she couldn't wait to get back to just being my mother again. What she really couldn't wait to do was stop being just a mother. She wants to be something more important."

"I know," Natalia said. "That's neat."

"It is neat," Tucker said, "because she's been stuck being just my mother for fifteen years. I suppose that was important when I was little, but what good would it do her in three more years when I go to college?"

"'Dear Tucker,'" Natalia said, "'This is just your mother writing you again for the third time this week to ask how is my son.'"

"Exactly," Tucker said. "I don't know why I didn't see it before."

"That's why I never want to get married and have children until I'm very old," Natalia said. "The minute you get married and become a parent, you're nobody. You're just somebody's mother."

--and I thought, "Yes, my mother." But my mother couldn't say that. My mother couldn't hint at it. My mother was born in the wrong time. She was able to see that "you're nobody. You're just somebody's mother," was wrong. But she wasn't able to do anything about it.

So the story my mother tells is that she had to go to work when I was still a child, she just had to, because my father didn't earn enough and they would never have been able to buy a house otherwise. She did it for us, she did it for the children.

But my father tells a different story, one of a woman coming to him saying, I can't take this. I can't be shut in with children all day. I am losing my mind. They are driving me crazy. I need more.

There should have been room in the world for my mother to feel whole as a mother and whole as a woman and whole as a human being. There wasn't. There still isn't. Always with the women it's a trade-off. You do this at the cost of your wholeness in that identity, you do that at the cost of your wholeness in this identity.

Whereas a man is a man, always and forever.

I read sometimes the complaints by the younger feminists about the older ones, the dialogue between the third-wavers and the second-wavers. I don't participate in it; I think to myself, it will work itself out. One of the ways I think it will work itself out is, I think the third-wavers will grow into the understanding of why their elders fought what they fought and did what they did.

I say that because when I was young I did not understand why my mother did what she did, said what she said, hid what she hid. Now I know: She was doing the best she could, and when I look at the circumstances in which she grew up, in which she became an adult, and then a mother and then an elder, I cannot fault her anything; in fact, I find a lot to admire. Here are a couple of those things:

* My father, my mother, and I were sitting around watching TV sometime in the mid-90s. Some infotainment channel (by which I mean CNN) was running some piece on Tracey Chapman. My father said something like, why doesn't she do something with herself. She looks so unattractive.

My mother said, calmly, "She looks like a young African-American woman. She looks happy. Who are you to say she looks bad or unattractive? Not everything you find appealing is universal to all people. Not everyone wants what you want."

My father argued with her, but I don't remember the details. I was too busy thinking, "My mother gets it. My small-town-born-and-raised, stereotyped-as-provincial, lifelong-Republican mother gets it. My mother understands that the white beauty standard is bullshit."

* My parents are Mormons. My father is a convert; my mother was born into it. Unsurprisingly, if you pay attention to the religious and don't just write them off as superstitious folk who require a crutch to get through life, my mother who was born into it is more cynical about it. And perhaps cynical is not what I mean, because she still loves it and I do not. More pragmatic, maybe. Less inclined to see it with blinders on.

And when I was living with them in the mid-90s, my mother started signing us up to feed the missionaries once a week on a Sunday. If you are not Mormon then let me explain, briefly, that Mormon missionaries eat on the charity of other Mormons. To have enough to feed extra and not to offer it is a terrible thing. My mother had enough to feed extra and extra on the extra; she signed us up.

Only after many of these meals did she say to me, "I hate when they ask your father about his job."


"They ask him about his job--they never say, 'And Sister _____, what do you do?' And it's my money, my cooking--it's my work. But they just see the man of the house and they ask, 'Brother _____, what do you do?' Even though they know I work."

"They weren't brought up with women who worked, and they're ignorant."

"I know, I know . . . ."

"But I'm not saying that so you'll feel guilty. You shouldn't feel guilty. You're right. They're wrong."

"Well, no . . . no, if I'd married a hardworking man, if I hadn't married your father, I wouldn't have to work . . . ."

I talked to my mother recently and she was depressed. She was tired, she said, of going to work. I tried to draw her out: Was it the actual work, the actual tasks she was sick of? "No, I'm just tired of getting up and going to work." Okay; was it the people? Was someone being mean to her? "No, I'm just tired of getting up and going to work." I tried my best to offer a point of comparison, to identify using examples from my own life, but this only frustrated her more, and she became more direct: "I just don't want to do it anymore." She sounded just like Peter in Office Space. No, not just like--she sounded like a woman raised with the idea that real women don't work, who nonetheless felt that "women don't work" shortchanged her. She sounded like a woman caught between what she should do (which she didn't like) and what she had once dreamed of doing (which she was now thoroughly sick of).

She sounded, in other words, like a woman feminism failed. And this is the thing: Feminism does fail those women who expect they are going to see results in this lifetime. Feminism doesn't always offer results in this lifetime. And in that sense, and that sense only, it is a little like religion: You don't get the results in this life. You get them in your daughter's life (if you are lucky) or in your granddaughter's life, or, for those of us who are either childless or child-free, you and yours don't get them at all--you have only the vague hope of "future generations."

"Future generations" will benefit because you stood up when you should have sat down. "Future generations" will consider it normal for an analytical, no-nonsense woman like my mother to be CEO of Merrill Lynch; "future generations" will not say, stupidly, "If that's what she wanted, and she had the ability to achieve it, why didn't she?"

Me, I hope "future generations" will understand that the chains you are taught from an early age to wear are the hardest to shake off. Because what my mother wanted and what she chose (you young ones, always with the choice! You have no idea) to do were what the chains of her age permitted her to do--no more, no less. She WANTED, I think, to write, to think, to float ideas, to spend loving hours wandering abstractions--but of none of this did she dare dream. A good Mormon woman puts her family first. And of course she has a family, of course she buries her needs and her wants in a perfect graveyard of service to them, to others, to anyone at all but herself.

She works, she works, she works, and she has nothing to comfort her. Her own daughter is a disappointment to her. Her own daughter lacks her work ethic, lacks her discipline, lacks her swift and clear thinking, lacks her potential, lacks her competence. Her own daughter forgets to write thank-you notes, dodges emails, lets phone calls go to voicemail. Her own daughter has not been able to make things better, and that would be tolerable, maybe, except that all she has done has not made things better either. All the carrots my mother peeled after a long day of work because my brother and I would not eat canned vegetables--for nothing. All the potatoes she mashed because her children complained loudly about being served instant--for nothing. All the Hostess snacks she packed in our lunches, all the treats she made sure we had for the asking--for nothing.

Children she thought would go to Ivy League schools barely graduated their high schools--didn't graduate high school, in one case. Neither of them have college degrees, but she does. She went back to school when she couldn't take being a legal secretary anymore. It was not easy, to say the least, but she did it. She graduated with a 3.9, and she still feels bad it was not a 4.0.

My mother is an amazing woman.

And I live still in a world in which my own mother was never allowed to be a fully-fledged human being. It had nothing to do with reproductive rights, it had nothing to do with abortion, but it had everything to do with the thinking that supports restrictions on either. It had everything to do with my mother being a woman rather than a person.

I can't go back in time and fix this. I can't go back in time and whisper in my mother's ear, "Get out of here. Leave this town and this state and this country. Do not go to college locally; find the most affordable ticket to Europe you can buy and get out of here. Do not have children, do not have a husband, do not tie yourself down until you are 60 or more. LIVE. Live your life, your way. Do not follow the formula you have been given, for it is a death formula; not for every woman, no, but for you, certainly. You were meant for something else."

I can only do what I can to prevent this curse falling upon any other woman. And thanks to all the failures listed above, what I can do is not much.


Sage said...

"The minute you get married and become a parent, you're nobody. You're just somebody's mother."

Tell me about it.

Way to get me crying my eyes out before having Mother's Day breakfast with my kids. As much as feminism does, will it ever allow mothers to feel okay about doing something that's not directly benefitting the children? Is that even possible? I mean, I can't even imagine it. Is it just me?

It interests me that on Mother's Day, moms everywhere will spend the day with their kids, making them feel special and wonderful for the cards and flowers and giving up the whole day to do whatever the kids want to do with them. Being with the kids is what Mother's Day is about.

Father's Day is about getting away from the kids to go golfing or fishing. Men en mass celebrate being a dad by being awarded some adult time.

Beautiful post.

(Except I think there are more ways than just the one that feminism is like religion. We've got fundamentalists and progressives and some people shouting mantras over and over without really thinking about what it means or if it really makes sense; we've got holy books that we're not to argue against, people who are worshipped and held above reproachment,.... Hmmm, I'll think on that one further.)

gennimcmahon said...

Well, if it makes you feel any better, I started Mother's Day being punched in the face by the five year old. At least he's not being swayed by the artificiality of setting aside a day to act nicely.

I'm interested in how similar our mothers are, ilyka. Mine wanted a million kids, but a reluctant spouse left it at two. She, too, went to work, and when we were in middle school and her marriage was staggering about like a dying cowboy, she took a demanding job in another city. It was her way of escaping the marriage, and, therefore, the kids.

She would never admit this is true.

But, it did provide her with means after my father's death seven years ago; she can go on, and she has discovered that she doesn't ever really want to live with a man again, and because she makes plenty of money, she would approach any future relationship from a position of equality.

It sure gets set up as either/or. Either you stay at home, or you go to work. Either you are a good/bad woman who raises/is enslaved by the kids, or you are bad/good woman who abandons/entrusts the kids to others while you work. No middle ground.

Does your mom read this or have any idea that you do this?

JoannaOC said...

Maybe your mom won't read this or you don't want her to read it. But I wish she could read it and say, as she said to your father that day about Tracy Chapman, "My daughter is a talented, gifted writer, with a good heart, who loves me and sees me for who I am, in spite of the fact that I was born in the wrong time."

One of the best things that happened to my mother is that she got fired from her job at 73 (illegally, but never mind) and discovered finally the joy of not having to go to work. Now she paints, and has received her first commission as an artist. She could have run a company or her own business, or been an artist, or so many other things, but she thought she had to stay married to an alcoholic for too long for the sake of the kids, because that's what a good mother would do.

Thanks for this!

Twisted Ovaries said...

The minute you get married and become a parent, you're nobody. You're just somebody's mother.

I don't think I really buy that. I don't think it has to be that way. True, I'm not yet a mother, but I don't see why we have to say "Right. There's my life over for me, then." I hear it from my brother-in-law, I heard it from my martyred mother, and I just don't buy it. When I was married, I wasn't "just a wife". When I have my kids, I won't be "just a parent". I just don't think it has to be like that.

Your tribute to your mother was amazing. And I think you were awfully hard on yourself.

ilyka said...

Does your mom read this or have any idea that you do this?

She knows the pseudonym and could Google me, but I don't think she does, at least not usually. Let's hope it stays that way, because if she thought I was mentioning her on the internet she would murder me.

KMTBERRY said...

My Mother was by FAR the most important person in my life. Maybe to other people you are "just a mother"; but to your CHILD, you are THE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON IN THE WORLD!

I have no children, and won't behaving any (age), and it saddens me terribly to think that I will be old and frail, and there will be no one on earth to love and care for me the way I loved MY mom.

Sniper said...

Feminism does fail those women who expect they are going to see results in this lifetime.

Ah, I feel for your mom. When I was a little baby feminist I thought that all the problems I read about would be fixed by the time I grew up. Then one day I heard my mother screaming about the E.R.A not passing and I sort of froze. The hardest thing about middle age is realizing that I will die in the same world I was born into. Change is just too fucking slow.

Whitney Johnson said...

What a beautiful tribute to your mother!

Anonymous said...

kmtberry, there's no guarantee that a child will love their mother all that much. My mother's disappointment in my geeky, unfeminine self plus my own geekiness means that I can't wait for her to go home when she visits. Then again, my mother is pretty consistently annoyed by her mother. Oh yeah, I'm childfree, emphasis on free, so this madness and guilt stops here.

ms. jared said...

this totally made me cry. thank you for sharing it.

belledame222 said...

the chains you are taught from an early age to wear are the hardest to shake off.


joannaoc, that's a great story.

anarkallisti said...

That was just beautiful.
My mother should have never had children. I love her to death, but I sincerely believe she would have been happier without myself and my brothers and especially the men who fathered us. But she was raised to believe that kids and husbands were the way to go. At least I learned better from her example.

Anonymous said...

I don't remember the priest telling me when I went to Confession when I was a kid, "Well, Lance, it was wrong of you to disobey your mom and talk back to her like that, but since you set the table every night and do your homework and sent your aunt a birthday card, what the heck! You're a good kid. Your sins are forgiven automatically. No need for you to do any penance." 文秘 心脑血管 糖尿病 高血压 糖尿病 高血脂 高脂血症 冠心病 心律失常 心肌病 心肌炎 中风 偏瘫 脑出血心律失常 什么是心力衰竭 神经衰弱 心肌梗死 心脏瓣膜病 先天性心脏病 动脉硬化 风湿性心脏病 脑瘫 癫痫 羊角风 老年性痴呆 低血压 急性感染性心内膜炎 雷诺综合症 脑血栓 血栓闭塞性脉管炎 周围血管异常 肺心病 什么是心绞痛 脑梗塞 And maybe it's happened a few times and I haven't heard about it but I can't recall a judge ever letting somebody walk on the grounds the crook was a good guy and his friends really like him.

Kenneth M. Walsh said...

I'm blown away by this post, but I do have to say that I loved your mom when it wasn't fashionable.