There are days when I wake up overwhelmed with sadness. Almost six years after she passed away, my Mother can still stir up that emotion in me. She was my “mother,” that powerful presence in my younger life about whom I had very mixed feelings: adoration, respect, love, as well as resentment (why do you have it all together while I’m still fumbling awkwardly along?) and rivalry (I can do things better than you!). Dutiful and rebellious at the same time! And it wasn’t until our roles were reversed when she became sick that I finally became an Adult. That’s when she and I got closer than we had ever been; that we had deeper and more interesting conversations; that we were open and honest like never before; and that, knowing that she wasn’t going to be around for much longer, I began to miss her before she had already left! Ah!
Mama, ya Mama! Mothers! That Mother image that has been inculcated in our psyches ever since the Catholic Church (more than any other institution) had created the Madonna Mother as an Ideal for females: chaste and pure, sacrificing and loving, giving and understanding, traditional and deferring.
However, here we were, the Educated, Cosmopolitan, Sophisticated, Avant-garde Women of the post WWII generation questioning, as never before, so many Truths that we had grown up assimilating (mostly by osmosis from our surroundings), accepting and obeying. We had come of age in the Sixties and Seventies and were struggling whether to continue accepting that traditional role, or whether we were in the process of charting a new and different path for Women and Mothers? Many of us, who were educated city-dwellers, chose to reinvent that role and to avail ourselves of marriage and motherhood, as well as careers and a more self-centered role than the ideal we had been told to emulate. Yes, marriage is what we desired, but we wanted a more egalitarian relationship with our husbands. Yes, we loved our children, but we were beginning to realize that it was alright to love ourselves also. Yes, we wanted to bake cookies, but we also wanted a successful career. Yes, we would do a lot for our families, but we were also going to do things for ourselves. Yes, we may choose to get married and have children, but we had the option of opting for neither. Balancing all that, learning how to compromise on some of our aspirations, negotiating within the traditional norms without incurring the wrath of our families and societies was a very new and unknown territory that had to be trod very carefully and gently. In the process, we knew that we were setting new paradigms for the world, and the task was at once very challenging and terribly exhausting.
Hence, we brought up daughters* who were more independent, freer, more educated and less traditional than our recent history had ever witnessed. We brought up females with whom we were more open, with whom we had meaningful conversations from early on, and whom we encouraged and nurtured to become independent and equal partners in society. Oh, no! No Madonnas here! But, we also bestowed upon them humongous challenges, because cataclysmic shifts of this nature bring on huge threats to society, and there is a price to pay for that, necessary though it is.
Of course, throughout our history shifts and changes were constantly occurring, recent examples being: Agricultural shift to Industrial Age transformations; the Gay Twenties; the two World Wars and their revolutionizing aspects; the upheavals of the Sixties and Seventies. However, the societal shifts that took place throughout our human existence up to that time happened at a much slower pace than they did in my generation when more education, opportunities, better economies, better health care, availability of books, of radio and television, of cinema and more travel opened up worlds for many more people that had, up until then, been the purview of only the few.
Life had changed for many of us – not all, mind you – living within nuclear families in the big cities of the world, where interpersonal and familial relationships suffer more disruptions and a lack of that vital sense of continuity – the cement that kept families tightly knit and traditional. That cement, while it had provided a safe haven for all, had also suffocated experimentation and expansion of one’s horizons. That time had arrived. And, while my generation had started the ball rolling, we had also maintained a subtlety and a subterfuge that had shielded us from male and societal reactions and repercussions. It was yet early enough in the game to afford us that luxury. Our daughters came of age as the shift was in full swing (not that this has leveled off yet, and not that it will for a long time to come), and we had taught them to want it all: independence, equality, education, careers, marriage for those who chose that, children for those who wanted them, heterosexual or gay partnerships.
Hello, said the World?! And who the hell do you think you are, yelled Society? And who gave you that Voice, asked Men aghast? And how dare you reinvent the Madonna, angrily queried Religion and Politics?
Walls sprang up all around our daughters (as they had to a much lesser extent around us)! Barricades and Barbed Wires tried to fence them in! All sorts of Obstacles were thrown in their way! Many of them, unfortunately, succumbed and retreated back into the kitchen! Many others scaled the walls, walked around the barricades and hacked the thorns on the barbed wires. In the process, numerous scores of them bloodied their hands, but, more sadly, they often injured their psyches and souls. Nevertheless, they forged on and continued demanding their Rights. Having been born with an internal innate knowledge of the Powers of Negotiation and Outreach they now allied themselves with Human and Civil Rights advocates, with Anti-War organizations, with Environmental Protection agencies and with causes that they support, but that also support them.
Whereas my mother’s generation of city-dwelling bourgeoisie held onto their feelings, emotions, chagrins and angst, and carried on with that genteel stoic attitude, my generation began to let it all “hang out” as the saying goes. And we have not brought up a generation of daughters (and now granddaughters) who mince words, nor do they bite the bullet, nor have they a stiff upper lip. We have, thankfully, taught them to express themselves and vocalize their concerns and issues. While we were endowed with subtlety and subterfuge that we had gleaned from our female ancestors over millennia, they have chosen the more direct, open, honest and, sometimes, confrontational route that has not been without its hazards and pitfalls!
And now they are bringing up their own daughters . . . and the struggle will continue . . . inching itself towards a better tomorrow . . . crying with those who paid a high price along the way for its achievement: the single mothers, the divorced, the abused, the raped, those murdered, droned, uprooted and those unjustly jailed.
One day soon, it will be our turn to depart, and I know that we leave a valuable legacy on our daughters and granddaughters shoulders: a legacy that my generation – and many pioneering women throughout history – had begun for them in the hope that they will continue relentlessly to build on it. Oftentimes, we see them juggling their business phones while stirring the soup, engaging their partners as they empty the dishwasher and we feel that tug at our hearts which reminds us that they are no more our “babies” and that we cannot protect them anymore, kiss their ouch-ies away, nor bandage their bruised egos. We can only sigh to ourselves, sometimes in anguish, and at what we know is a difficult and treacherous path for them. I also know that they will probably have many of those same feelings that I had for my mother: love, respect and adoration, but also resentment and rivalry, for they can easily look at us and say: I resent the fact that you had it easier, and, yes, I am doing it better than you! Yes, I will!
But then, despite the difficulty of the journey, we can also hear them say: Yes, for we wouldn’t want it any other damn way! And hearing that, we would be beaming with an enormous sense of pride, as well as trepidation!
Happy Mother’s Day, My Treasures!**
*Sons are a different story! Check me out sometime in June, around Father’s Day, for my version of how their story evolved.
** US Mother’s Day is on May 10.