As women, especially, we carry our mothers within us. We carry our grandmothers, our great-grandmothers and so on. Beginning life through their looking glass, we interpret from their experience. As adults, we hopefully bring something new to the equation.
In The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, Sue Monk Kidd shares how she went from being the good Southern Baptist wife, to an awakening of the anti-female language in the church and the traditional roles she had fallen into without question, causing her to become the many breasted woman. She takes a precarious journey towards finding her own true voice, fearing that she will lose her husband or that her kids will be too shaken. But what results instead is a total awakening that greatly improves her relationships and her life.
I go back and forth between two worlds on a consistent basis. Living in downtown Seattle I am surrounded by strong-willed, independent, mature, and passionate women. They hold themselves tall. They’re never looking at the floor, but straight out into what they can learn and how they can grow. They earn respect from their peers, and are active in their community.
Being around them long enough, I can forget that there is another world, the one that I come from, where women live beneath a patriarchal religion that tells them they are unclean and not worthy; the downfall of humanity beginning with Eve who tempted Adam with an apple; a Bible with so few mentions of women, that as a girl I clung to the stories of Ruth and Esther for dear life.
It’s a struggle to still see this mindset in my family members. I am often held to the same standards as the mothers who went before me, even though my husband and I do not share the same value system as my family. Trying to gain their respect as an independent human being, apart from my husband, is difficult. I often feel that for them, a husband is the replacement of your father, and my decisions are like a child’s whims that need to be reined in.
My mother was raised in the fifties and sixties in the Midwest. The negative messages she received about being a woman were manifold. She began to believe that she was dirty, ill equipped to handle life, unintelligent, not worthy of a college education the way her three brothers were. She says that her greatest achievement is having given birth to my sister and I, and raising us well. My mother did the best that she knew how. Though within her, I always sense an untapped potential – creative talents lying inert, a lack of belief in her value. She wonders out loud, “I’m already sixty something, and what have I done with my life?”
She was always with us, always there when we got home from school. But as then, and even now, there is a sense that she is often absent. Maybe it is the trait that my sister and I both share with my mother – we all have a tendency to get lost somewhere up in our heads. My nieces also share this trait, with their wild use of the imagination and sudden bursts of wit. With this up-in-your-headness, there is the danger of retreating from a fully functioning life. All of us women in the family are artists whether we express that or not. Maybe the problem lies in wondering whether our expression is valid or valuable.
In Sue Monk Kidd’s The Dance of the Dissident Daughter – A Woman’s Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine, she writes, “I like the way Clarissa Pinkola Estes says it: ‘When a woman is exhorted to be compliant, cooperative, and quiet, to not make upset or go against the old guard, she is pressed into living a most unnatural life – a life that is self blinding… without innovation. The world-wide issue for women is that under such conditions they are not only silenced, they are put to sleep. Their concerns, their viewpoints, their own truths are vaporized (Monk Kidd, 21).'”
I want to know my mother from before I was born. In photos she looks mischievous and carefree. She wears dark eyeliner, with funky 1960’s hairstyles, and mod clothing. She plays the piano, or munches an ice cube in old film footage at the racetrack with my dad. In photos, they goof off with their Old English sheepdog, Big Boy. They are young and beautiful, and life is rich with possibility. She worked for the telephone company, and he was an engineer. On the weekends they took random road-trips, not sure where they’d end up.
As a child, her mother was bipolar and overwhelmed by raising five kids. Grandma preferred her three sons to the two daughters. She never really liked women that much, and she also wasn’t very happy with her emotionally distant husband. But she did love fashion, expressing herself, and working in retail.
On my father’s side, my history of mothers only exists in photographs. His mother died of cancer when she was my age. In photos, she is always laughing with friends. She looks like the center of the universe. Her face is a strangely familiar territory of my eyes, and my sister’s lips. So many aspects of her have been passed down to us, but what they were (outside of photos), we’ll never know. I cling to these images – a grandmother, only visible in stills of black and white. I build up stories around her that only make her more beautiful, more daring, more carefree.
I quickly flip past the photos near the end of her life. She is washing dishes, with my dad (a toddler) playing at her feet. The lines beneath her eyes have turned purple, her shoulders slump towards the sink, exhaustion is written all over her failing body. I choose to forget this, though it lingers in my subconscious, and I wonder if like her, I could possibly die young.
My history of mothers didn’t have the opportunities that I do. Through everything that I do in my life, I celebrate them. I celebrate my right to speak, to write honestly and openly, and leave a record of myself that goes beyond old photographs found in a shoebox. So much of what my mothers really felt, was never spoken.
As I think about opening my life to the possibility of motherhood, I understand the importance of a line of mothers. I see the magnitude of knowing, before I take that step, my own value as a self. It’s painful to me when my mother writes off her life as not being very important. All I can really do is make up for it, everyday, with how I live my own life.
When she lost her mother, I was nine years old. Mom lost her luster as a distant perfect goddess, always washing dishes at the sink. She became a human being. Our family was split down the middle at the time, mid-move from Chicago to Seattle. She and I were still in the old house. She was afraid, scared, hiding boos in the back of the refrigerator (she never drank). Every night we stayed somewhere else, or a friend stayed with us.
Suddenly, it seemed that I was becoming the mother. I resented her for it. I didn’t know how to control my anger. That was when mom began to say that I reminded her of her mother. I was scared that like grandma, I was bipolar too, and maybe diabetic. No one really painted a positive image of grandma, though she was always nice to my sister and I. And it was my aggression that brought up the comparison.
“Most of my life I’d run from anger as something that good daughters and gracious ladies did not exhibit. Perhaps the thing most denied to women is anger. ‘Forbidden anger, women could find no voice in which to publicly complain; they took refuge in depression,’ writes Carolyn Heilbrun. Her words came true for me. Without the ability to allow or the means to adequately express the anger, I began to slide into periods of depression (Monk Kidd, 74).”
You could say that depression runs in my family, but I broke out of a habit that descended down through the women for generations. It was a long, painful process, letting go of that mindset and way of being. But then one day I woke up, fully in charge of my own life, fully capable, and fully expressive. The sluggish, then raging, suicidal thoughts were completely gone. I cracked the code. The answer was within me all along. As long as I face life with no fear, give what I have to offer, and value my gifts, I am happy. It’s a simple equation. But there was nothing simple about how long it took, and difficult it was, to figure it all out.
In life, there is always what we are, and what we were. They live together simultaneously. Some people catch up to who we are now, and some never do. But we all manage to learn from each other. Though my parents raised me, their daughters have raised them as well. My family speaks a different language through an opposite worldview, but we can still connect with laughter, good food, and the stories of our interconnected lives. Everyday, we grow in awareness of ourselves in relation to each other.