Monday, 11 June 2007

the women we were raised to be

I just had a conversation with my mother that made me feel eager to get off the telephone as rapidly as possible. Why? Because I tried to discuss something having to do with work. I should know by now that such a move always is a recipe for irritation. So I am going to try, in this post, to turn that irritation into a larger reflection on mothers and daughters. More broadly, I want to reflect upon on the generational change in the scope of the feminine sphere that occurred in the 1970s; a shift that shapes much of my generation's relationships with parents. You may expect some personal venting, as well.

The problem with the communication between my mother and myself boils down to this, I think: she cannot fully “own” the ideas about female independence that she feels she should espouse. Rather, her default preoccupation in regard to women is marriage: whether someone is married, will stay married, is pathetically single, is single but has a good marriage prospect, and so forth. It took me a very long time to identify this discrepancy, in part because the preoccupation with marriage only manifested itself, in my own life, once I graduated from college. I think she probably is typical of her generation in her inability to consider an unmarried woman to be anything other than sad and desperate; and marriage to be the most important triumph of a woman's life, regardless of anything else she may achieve.

When I was a teenager, however, my mother mostly gave me positive messages about being smart, sassy, independent, and so forth. I say mostly, because I do remember her saying things like, “Boys won’t like you because you act too smart” -- but then she’d follow it up with advice that it was good to be smart, but that I should act dumb in front of eligible males. She taught me, “be a leader, not a follower,” that women could do anything men could, that I shouldn't be afraid to express and defend my opinions. She even told me to "play the field" - though she did not mean sexually (a subject about which she is quite uncomfortable), but rather, that I should have lots of boyfriends without being serious with, dependent upon, any particular one. (Since I was, in fact, an undesirable nerd in HS, there was no question of any of this actually happening.) She bought me any book I ever wanted, took me to museums and ballet. Moreover, she provided a role model: although she did not have a degree or work, she was at that time a woman of strong opinions, politically active in Democratic causes, going to anti-war rallies in Washington in the early 70s, confident, even brash and outspoken. She herself was always reading, and reading "good," literary books, not potboilers and romances. As a kid, I considered her to be clearly superior to my father in every way.

Yet at the same time, it was openly understood in my family that only my brother really “needed” to go to a competitive college, for only he would someday have to support a family. But after both my older siblings dropped out of their respective colleges (Sis later went back), I became the last, best hope of my upwardly-mobile-striving family to get that first college degree. I was encouraged to apply to elite colleges and was desperate to get into one, for I detested my substandard, clique-ish high school (despite having three school-age children, my parents moved to their community because it had low school taxes -- and therefore, terrible schools).

When I was accepted into an exclusive, and expensive, private SLAC, my mother went back to work as a secretary for the first time in over 25 years in order to help pay for it. It was a bargain she made with my father, who deeply resented paying the bill for this school for a girl. It must have been pretty terrifying for her, but she sucked it up and did it for my sake. Around this time she even, as a mark of independence within her own marriage, went back to using her "maiden name" most of the time. Yet, despite this sacrifice and support, she increasingly began to make clear that what she really was hoping for, in sending me to college, was an “MRS degree.” As I became an adult, her earlier rhetoric of female independence and self-sufficiency fell by the wayside and was replaced by an obsession with my marriage prospects. She expected SweetCliffie and myself to wed as soon as we graduated. When, instead, we lived together for many years while pursuing our PhDs, she began a stream of anxious complaints: “He’s not really committed to you if you're not legal.” “When are you gonna get a great big rock on your finger?” and my personal favorite (as well as one of hers), “Why should he buy the cow when he's getting the milk for free?” Over... and over... and over... in every conversation, for years.

The change of tone had crept up slowly, but it confused me, nonetheless. It was not the standard of achievement I had been raised to strive for, and I kept on relating to her in the old way even as things changed. When I did get married, I imagine she fully expected me to drop out of my PhD program; she must have assumed I was finishing only because I was funded through grants. I’ll never forget the day I called her, elated, after my final dissertation defense. I explained that I had finished my final requirement, and that even though graduation was not for a couple of months, by convention I could now be called “Doctor.”

“Good!” she replied, chirpily. “You've proven whatever it was you had to prove. Now you can let SweetCliffie go to work as a professor, and if you really still want to work, you can get a job as a secretary!”

It’s one of the only times in my life I literally have been speechless. I think the secretary reference is significant, but I still am completely flummoxed by the memory of this.

I am who I am because of the mother who raised me, but that woman somehow vanished once the raising was done. Indeed, as she grew older, she moved farther and farther from the person I remember in the 1970s. In her mid-50s, though physically healthy, she became consumed by irrational fears. The confidence I recall evaporated as she became agoraphobic, terrified of airplanes as well as of long car rides, a hypocondriac, prone to constant panic attacks. Some of this attenuated and she now is more active, but she is... diminished. She no longer reads, she no longer is politically active, she stopped using her own name, and she certainly no longer is outspoken or opinionated. I suspect that this is the person she was raised to be – and probably was throughout her life except during that one decade of her forties. Then, she somehow felt different, forceful; she was swept up in cultural and social change. And that decade coincided with my formative years.

What happened to women of her generation? How did the woman she was raised to be, raise the woman I was raised to be? Did all of them do this -- be shining with strength for a while, then slowly fade... and vanish away? I sound harsh, but what I feel is mournful. I miss the person she was.

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