Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Thinking Post-Friedan

DailyKos diarist judybrowni wrote a moving essay about the impact of Betty Friedan on her life; she talks about her mother's painful life and her own struggles through the women's movement.

Quite literally "moving", this essay; I am now moved to think more deeply about the lives of the women in my family. My mother has always been a bit restless; she went into nursing, one of the only acceptable careers in the late 1950's for women. She came from a very small town in northern Michigan; there wasn't much opportunity to learn about the rest of the world or travel, simply not much see or do. I don't know if the restlessness I felt as a kid and still feel emanating from her were borne out of an isolation or conditions over which she had no control.

Or was she simply hardwired that way?

She pushed the boundaries in more than one way; she one of a very few (quite possibly the only one) who went on to college after high school from her small town. She met a man a handful of years older who was from an unimaginable world away, going to a nearby college. It still amazes me that a local girl from "Yooperland" ran into a former Navy guy of Polynesian descent and got married. They left the north country not long after they had me, ending up in California.

I remember only little flashes and snippets of a plane ride, my infant sister upsetting everyone with her air sickness; I remember dancing wildly with my aunt in the living room of my grandfather's house to the Beatles' tune, I want to hold your hand. The dryer is running, the clothes spinning inside it. The weather is cold and gray. And that's all I can recall of the trip back to north country when my grandmother died in 1964.

My grandmother died of cirrhosis of the liver; she had a quart a day habit that eventually killed her. I don't know much about when it started. I know only that in my grandfather's eyes she was worth waiting for. He and another rival beau had shown up at the same time at her home to take her out; she took a very long time to come down stairs. Hours, if memory serves. And Gramps out waited the other guy. But I don’t know if she was already drinking then at that point in her life.

I really didn't have a grandmother, only the unfulfilled promise of a grandmother. I have pictures of a woman who wore plaid woolen jackets and chinos and dungarees that held me in her arms. I have inherited genetically what is probably her jaw line and her hair. In my closet is a wool, long-sleeved undershirt she wore along with a couple of scarves that came from her dresser; in the cupboard is a glass pitcher dating back to the turn of the century that she must have used. She left me nothing else, not even the provenance of the pitcher; perhaps as much as she doesn't exist for me now, I didn't exist for her then.

She worked with my grandfather in the gas station they owned; I wonder how much she did if she was lit every day. She must have managed around the house, perhaps with increasing help from my mother. My aunt tells me that her sister raised her; it says less about the twelve-year gap between these sisters than it does about the dwindling impact of my grandmother on their lives. It also explains to some degree the drive my mother had to leave her small town and move far away, binding herself to someone who was utterly unlike anyone she'd met before. It may even explain her restlessness of spirit.

There's something missing in this muddle of clues. Was it simply that my grandmother was genetically doomed to be an addict? I can't be certain, and other bits and pieces suggest otherwise. Her own mother lived well into her eighties and wasn't known to be a drinker, only for her stubborn refusal to speak anything but Finn. My grandmother was one of eight children; the others all died of what one would consider "normal" or age-related causes, save for the middle daughter. My great-aunt died as a result of a botched surgery for fibroid tumors while she was in her 30's. Perhaps this was a trigger to my grandmother's drinking, but I've never heard anyone in the family make this linkage.

Or was my grandmother simply depressed, self-medicating with another depressant? After reading judybrowni's essay, this makes more sense. A lot more sense; the concept resonates in my bones as an underlying truth.

None of the pictures I've seen of my grandmother are of a happy woman after a certain point in time. She is coyly smiling with my grandfather on their wedding day, laughing with friends one evening, but that's it. The rest of the pictures are of someone who appears withdrawn.

The place in which she lived could drive anyone mad. Snow piles up in the hundreds of inches from October through April, sometimes as late as May. The sun shines on average less than twelve days a month. The personalities around her were a motley collection, not unlike the cast of the television sitcom, Northern Exposure. (Heck, Grandma might have been Ruth-Anne's depressed twin...). The times themselves weren't conducive to expression, either. Uppermost Michigan didn't leave the Great Depression for decades. The economic drivers dried up permanently. Television programming was scant to non-existent, and what radio they could receive only reinforced the notion that the world was leaving them behind.

What would have happened if my grandmother had lived in time where she could have fled, been on her own, could have free to do so? What if she'd been free to divorce my grandfather could have lived in a post-Friedan, postmodern world? I have absolutely no reason to believe she didn't love him, but what if she wasn't happy with my grandfather and the life they had together? What if she'd really not wanted children? Again, I have no reason to believe this was the case, but there was no way for a woman to say so without enormous social consequence at that time.

I've missed having a grandmother; I've wished this not for myself. We don't miss what we've never had. But I miss her for my mother's sake; she had no one to model what a grandmother could be like, what a whole and healthy mother could be. She had no one who could help her reconcile the restlessness she felt, help her learn to focus on something other than society's expectations. My mother has been a bit of a rebel, more than willing to do the opposite of what was expected simply because it unconventional. I miss my grandmother for my aunt's sake, too; she became an űber-mother, was stopped only by nature from having more than six kids. I suspect her űber-motherhood was a response to the deficiency of maternal influence in her life.

Because they were so challenged by their circumstances, I've had to look away from these women at times in order to find other roles models. Society still does horrific things to images of womanhood and motherhood; I make a concerted effort to stay away from any corporate or commercial "programming" as to what I should do. (Gad, the crucifixion of Britney Spears as a mother has been disgusting. She's barely a girl herself, had a hothouse, over-processed childhood, and now her maternity and motherhood dissected and served up for entertainment. Agh.) I've had to build my own mother-figure out of a patchwork of women I've known.

The fact that I am raising a woman makes this job more important; we have conscious and open discussions about the nature of girlhood and womanhood, of motherhood. These are conversations I’ve never had with my mother and I doubt my mother ever had with her mother. Sometimes I catch myself stepping back and forth between being an observer-witness and being a woman, a mother and future grandmother; I wonder whether this is something that Friedan gave us, an ability to change our awareness of changing roles and the choices between them, feel less doubt about being a woman at any state in our lives. I know from Friedan's own words that she didn't see her womanhood as a series of either/or propositions into which she was trapped.

I am grateful I can share this sentiment.

I can't believe there aren't any comments on this post, yet, but then, I only found your new home recently myself...

There is something both odd and poignant about having to invent yourself out of whole cloth. But, somehow, Rayne, you've managed to manage your own restlessness, and become the kind of mother neither your mother nor her mother could. Now that is something. Not everything about you, certainly, but really something.

[I had a restless and wandering mother, too.]

And I think it's still true that there is a lot of negative pressure for women who might otherwise say that they don't really want to be married. Or they don't really want to have children.
I think that's the very root of Friedan's work, Karen; we are no longer bound by societal expectations and tradition, we are free to pick and choose what we will be. We can make our own whole cloth.

Although in saying this I know we are not fully liberated; there is a lot of programming we are still fighting every day. I expect it will be at least two more generations into maturity before we will truly be able to choose as we wish simply because the entire society must come along with us (we need legal infrastructure, for example).

We also aren't all of us conscious as we make this new woman; it worries me enormously that many young women are completely unconscious of the price paid to get to this point, of the ease with which corporations manipulate our awareness of what we are and should be. It's a battle every day to do this for my daughter, help her see it before it grips her without her conscious permission.
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