Female Bonding and Me (tl;dr)
I’m spending the weekend with my mom and my aunt in Ft. Worth and it’s working every feminist nerve I have. I love these women; they’re incredibly loving, and sweet, and funny, and smart. So why do they apologize for everything, all day, every day? And then why does the other reassure the first by putting themselves down instead? Everything is calorie related, and all food is either morally good or bad. They down diet coke like it’s going out of style, and ask if I’m trying to make them feel guilty because I drink water. “Aren’t you so good.” No. I have lots of flaws. But diet soda just ain’t my vice.
"I hate my hair and I’m so fat."
"No I’m fatter, and at least you have great ankles. I have cankles."
"Well, at least you have boobs. I’m so flat and unattractive."
God, seriously, this is seriously demoralizing. I just feel depressed and anxious and angry. I honestly feel anxious, really panic attacks coming on, and a feeling like I’m drowning. I know, I know. Overly dramatic. I did say “oh is this the part of the night where we bag on ourselves and talk about how much we hate ourselves and our bodies? Because I’ve gotta say, that’s my least favorite part of female bonding.” They kinda laughed, but it still happens.
"Thanks for making a salad for dinner. I just wanted to be good tonight."
"Oh it was nothing. Sorry for not making something better."
"I loved it! I should be doing this more for dinner anyway."
"I’m so glad you had the idea! Sorry I didn’t think of it first."
"No, I remember you making it before, and so that’s what gave me the idea. It’s all you."
Like, no one can take credit for any idea that is enjoyable. And I love salad, and you’re making me hate this fucking salad because I feel like it’s some statement about how we are going to be good little girls with loveable bodies and will power. But we’re also going to talk about how it’s a punishment because it’s not sinful, but also that it’s really not that big a deal to be good because that’s what a good woman thinks and worries about. Ok, then why have we talked about this salad for a week if it’s not some kind of issue?
So before we jump on the ugh-these-women train, let me explain why this is torturous for me. Because there is every reason in the world why these women should be way worse than they are. My mom is the biggest feminist normally, although I personally think she finds a lot of her life unhappy because she doesn’t actually live by her ideals a lot of time. My stepdad is by far the breadwinner, and my mom resents that she doesn’t have the autonomy she should have because she doesn’t make her own money. He gives her everything she wants, and she’s never had to stay at a job she didn’t like for long (and she doesn’t like any of them for long). She knows that that’s not what she wants me to take from her life, and it wasn’t even realized until recently because all my life, I thought of my mom as a super career woman with cool suits and snappy feminist maxims like “whatever someone gives you, someone can take away. make your own money and control your own destiny.” It wasn’t until I was older, when you start to realize your parents are actual people, that I noticed she quits jobs a lot, and she deals with depression and resentment.
My aunt (mom’s older sister) has also dated very, very rich men (like private plane rich), but hasn’t “trapped” one into marriage, and the older she gets, the less of a possibility that is. And the problem is the ones she always actually likes aren’t the ones with money.
They talk constantly about weight.
They hoard clothes and household goods.
They spend money like it’s water, and waste constantly.
So, once again, before we talk about what failures these women are as role models, understand that the other thing we’ve spent all night talking about is their mom, who died earlier this year, and their father, who just went to hospice and is going to die very soon. They are 2 of 9 total kids who grew up as dirt poor as can be. We were talking about school lunches and they were reminiscing about eating bread sandwiches that were spread with, not mayo, not butter, not even margarine, but shortening, and then sometimes they had sugar on that. No meat, no cheese, nothing out of anything other than black-and-white generic cans made by a mother who hated cooking and then had to cook for 11 people. Made by a mother who was alone with kids of all ages while the father was out of town for work every single week Monday-Friday. Hell, there might have been 9 kids because they were so excited to see each other when they actually got to spend time together.
They envied the “rich” kids in town who had produce and sodas, and things like chips and cookies. They used to pore over magazine ads for refrigerators because they were always full of food. They loved clothes and shoe ads because no one ever got new clothes and everyone always wore hand me downs.
My mom’s mom was actually brilliant and graduated from college by 20. She lived by herself for a little while and wrote a column for a Ft. Worth newspaper. And then she got married to the love of her life, and spent most days while he was gone in bed, crippled by depression that ran through the family, including the brother she had that hanged himself (including my mom. including me.) By the end of the line of kids (my mom is 7 out of 9), the older kids were basically raising the younger ones, one of the reasons my mom is still so close to her older sister. My mom always talks about the feeling that her parents had just lost interest by the time she came along unless they were hitting her or telling her she was going to hell or punishing her for talking to kids that didn’t go to their church.
And here’s where it gets dark: there’s also an incredible history of abuse in my mom’s family. She was raised in an incredibly repressive religious home, where boys and girls weren’t allowed to swim or dance together because it caused lust, where live music and singing and alcohol weren’t allowed by the church, where she could be beat up when she was in 6th grade by her oldest brother, who was already married with kids, for having a black “boyfriend” who she held hands with sometimes. There’s a history of sex abuse that I’m not going to go into here, from within her family and without.
Everyone in this family is broken.
So let me go on record to say I am incredibly proud of my mom and her resilience. Of the fact she volunteered for her first political campaign by licking stamps and envelopes when she was 12 (for a democrat, which got her a beating at home). Of her running away to San Francisco at 17 to live her own life. Of embracing feminist values from the time she was young because she knew that her life was wrong, and she didn’t want to recreate it.
So this is the long way of saying I understand why they have issues surrounding food, money, men, depression, morals, anger, self-hate. I understand and I feel for them, but shit, I don’t want to turn into them. I don’t want to have garages full of things I can’t afford still in packages like my aunt, who was never able to have kids after having an hysterectomy at 25 (from which my mom thinks might be from a botched abortion). Who was already divorced from an abusive guy she’d married at 17 because she wanted to escape to a house of love and stability, and got anything but. I don’t want to be like my mom, constantly buying new clothes and shoes, and giving them to me, or friends, or sisters, or charity, still with tags on, because somehow there’s a compulsion to try and fill some hole by buying things that will make her feel polished. I know why my aunt is a people pleaser who tries to bridge all the family who basically doesn’t speak anymore, and why my mom is so angry that she says she basically doesn’t have any family besides her one sister that she’ll ever see again after her parents die. Why she is conflicted about her mother’s death because she felt like all her siblings hated her and worshipped her father wrongly, and she felt a kinship with because of depression and shattered dreams, even though her mom never gave her the time of day. Why she’s conflicted about her father who ruled with fear and violence and was gone all the time, leaving the household to her mother, who didn’t really want it. And why she’s sad knowing that at this point, it really means there will be no big revelation, or patching up of relationships, or no big moment where he tells her he loves her and is proud of her and admires her or is really sorry that he failed her at protecting her the way a daddy should.
My mom says the fact that her dad wants to die, that he denies any treatment, just proves that they never really cared for the kids, just for each other. They had a grand romance. They were the love of each other’s lives and only had eyes for each other for over 60 years. Too bad about the 9 kids they had that weren’t as exciting to them, that only held them back from the things they wanted (especially my grandmother). It’s odd to look at this from such a distant perspective, because maybe obviously, we didn’t see her family a lot once I was about 10. Once my mom started going to therapy and had people tell her it was ok to cut off ties to people who were toxic, even if they were family. So it’s been a good 20 years since I spent any time with them on any regular basis. I know they loved me; in some ways, they were better grandparents than parents, or at least from a distance.
So all of this is just a peek inside my fucked up head right now, and if you got this far, sorry for the TMI (see? I do it too, all this damn apologizing just for being alive and having feelings and emotions). I really do worry about repeating the things they do that make me crazy. I know no one wants to turn into their parents, but I have a desperate quality to that feeling. I admire my mom for escaping it, but I know she carried her baggage, and I know she passes it to me. I know that includes depression and mental illness, a needy craving for love and affection, weird issues with food and possessions, and in some ways, knowing all this is what has led me to being passionate in my rejection of some of those things. Because it feels like fighting for my life. I have the aunt who’s been institutionalized, the abusive uncles, the hardcore conservative religion, and all that. And I get really scared in my dark moments that I’m going to end up like them: resentful, scared, angry, insecure. I’ve got all the same seeds, and on bad days, I feel those roots growing down, taking hold for good. Is knowing all that enough to avoid it? I don’t know.