(I’m not one for trigger warnings usually, but this entire thing is about abuse, so you should know that going in.)
Any discussion of feminism must start with our mothers. And what was wrong with them.
My mother comes from a long line of fucked-up women.
Let me begin that again. Here’s a thing I think about: Awful, traumatic, unspeakable things are happening to large population groups all the time. World wars. Starving poverty. Sweeping diseases. Hurricanes, tsunamis, all that stuff. Even smaller traumas are more common – housefires, buildings falling, car accidents that wipe out everyone but one kid. There are gaping wounds left, which become scars, new ticks and tocks on the DNA. People grow past these events physically, but they pick up things along the way, cellular ghosts – alcoholism, depression, massive emotional walls, triggers that make no sense, anger.
We, the new ones, are still inheriting those scars decades later, but each generation filters out a little bit of the pain, processes it, deals with it; they pass on just a little less stress to their children, a little less obesity, or fear of loud noises. And so on and so forth, till we’re almost healthy. Then some new fresh war happens, and the cycle starts again. Human beings are charcoal, and pain drips through us, generation through generation, to become clear and fresh again.
My grandmother inherited my great-grandmother’s scars – which were based in war-torn Europe: a long, dirty boat-ride, a tenement house, and a textile factory where she wrapped her stomach to hide her pregnancy so the family wouldn’t starve. My mother inherited my grandmother’s scars: an abusive husband who hits her daughter, then disappears and is never spoken of, plus whatever other secrets are in my grandmother’s heart and head, now closed up tight with dementia.
My mother, she tried super hard to keep the scars from me, the oldest daughter same as her. But I got some of them anyway. My mother refused to watch Mad Men with me, because she said it reminded her of when she was one of those office girls, and it was painful to think about the sexual harassment. My mother has an ex-husband she never speaks of, who only exists as a tall, blonde man in a single wedding photo, squirreled away in her desk and found by a younger me — doing that thing where you go through all your parents’ stuff just to learn who they really are. My mother has a daughter she gave away. My mother, sent away from a dangerous house with an abusive father at twelve, to live with her grandmother, sent me away at twelve to live with some old nuns — because “we” fought too violently. My mother told me, when I was getting ready to start high school, that boys wouldn’t want to date me, but would think I was easy because I was fat. She said it because she was trying to be helpful. She wasn’t wrong, it turned out, but still. It was mean.
My mother made it clear we had to be pretty to be loved, even though intellectually she didn’t believe it, because her mother had believed it, and it turns out when we talk, the cruelty of our mothers comes out of our own mouths when we least expect it . Where does that viciousness come from? How is it embedded in us, physically and mentally? It is like being possessed, to hear the particular cadence and tone of your womenfolk come from you. Each line of mothers has their own style, right? Even though they may seem so different as individuals, there are things.
My sister and I have taken decades just to come to terms with our hormone cycles, and the mood swings that are our genetic inheritance. We had the help of the internet, and childhoods full of educated women around us, who talked about things like periods, dissatisfaction, and valid irrationality, who wrote novels and essays trying to articulate what those moods did to you. How they both were you and were not you. Mom only found that world later as an adult, just in time to give it to us. Grandma never had that. Her mother didn’t either. Certainly, they must have known they were broken, but could not articulate the hurt, or the contradictions, and so it sat inside their bones, waiting to get to the mouths of my sister and I. Waiting for someone with their same cells and skin and blood to say “Okay, I see how awful you are, and I forgive you, because it’s not your fault. You tried.” Reflective forgiveness.
Feminism in my life is not a broad political spectrum, but the crawling march of painfully slow, growing self-awareness through the K——- bloodline.
I was driving a long stretch of highway late at night with my friend. She was getting married soon. It was the kind of coastal highway that makes you think you are driving into the middle of nowhere, the sea will swallow you whole, and you will never come back. Fatalistic. We had left her bridal shower, and were now talking about parents and children.
“You know, I love her now, but my step-mom and I would get into this terrible fights, like we would hit each other. I was scared of her,” she said.
“Me too. It got really bad, I’d get locked in the basement” I replied. “And then later I would get into these terrible fights with my boyfriend, and I could see that come out in me, like I would hit him and throw stuff, I would be like a child. He would throw just one thing at the wall, a phone or a remote or something, never at me, but I would just snap anyway. It hurt me so badly, because I could see that it was her coming out in me. I worry about that. Do you worry about that coming out when you have kids?”
“I do,” she said. “I snap too. I can see it sometimes with the kitten. He’ll do something bad for like, the first time, and I’ll just smack him when I should be using the water bottle. It’s not fair. It should be the sound, and then the water bottle, but I don’t even give him a chance. I don’t want to be like that with a kid.”
Feminism is us having that conversation in the first place. The right to admit where we are broken, where it hurts, and to say that to another person out loud.
I think the fighting and screaming, and the anger wells up on my face. I try. I try to remember I was her first child, and she had never confronted her abuse issues before. I had screamed at her as a child, and to her, maybe that was a trigger. Maybe a memory of being screamed at by someone much bigger and taller than her came rushing forward. Maybe that’s what I did with him. Maybe she just didn’t have the pre-programmed set of controls over her anger. I try to remember how much my mother tried to be better, and tried to fix herself. I can see now, as an adult, how her childhood PTSD comes out in moments of emotional stress, how awkward she is with conversation, how she tries to be careful and loving, but always manages to say the wrong thing. Because she is still trying to play the role she was given by the world that raised her, and it’s so enormously contradictory to who she really is, the cracks can’t help but show.
My father, powerless in the face of one raging adolescent monster, and one emotionally-scarred, premenopausal one, would tell me all the time -“Listen, just walk away from it. Don’t get engaged in it. Just get far away from it.” Which is how you tell kids to deal with bullies, also maybe bears. But I couldn’t just walk away. I was a kid. I didn’t have the perspective. It seemed to be the end of the world all the time. There were cops, there was the stint with the nuns, there were locked doors and living at my friends’ houses in high school. Later, with that same ex-boyfriend, I would repeat the pattern of making the world end all the time, just so we could put it back together.
That habit, that tendency to roll up and down between apocalyptic fights, you can’t tell me that isn’t coded on my DNA somehow – some hormonal combination, stress triggers burned in the genes through generations of repetition.
And so when guys say things like “But it’s totally true that women get super moody and crazy sometimes, that’s not sexist, that’s just true”, I can only softly, (not as soft as I mean to be though) respond with, “Has it occurred to you that maybe that’s not an inherent, created by God quality, but an emotional result of millennia of abuse and slavery?” And I don’t know if that’s true, but when you look at the long march of women fighting against the men that sold them and raped them, denied them learning, taught them to destroy their bodies to please them, killed them for fun, told them that God hated them –when you look at the centuries of women who tiny bit by tiny bit have pushed themselves forward to get to where we are now, where I can be a middle-aged, single, childless woman who goes back to school because she feels like it, and gets up on stages broadcasting her emotions and thoughts to the world with hardly a hesitance, who later goes out in public with her shirt buttons undone, and suffers no condemnation, no stonings or outcastings, who can drive cars and speak out against presidents, and think of her mother as a whole and complete person, broken but still lovable, not good or bad but just what she is, that “craziness” is purple majesty beautiful.
Our mothers carried their own bit of bloody history. They shouldered that yoke, they took those whips. And their mothers before them. Some of them became terrible people because of it. That’s what wars do; they kill people. They kill our goodness with pain. But our now-wrapped-up-in-steel-wool mothers are not villains. They aren’t martyrs either. They are just victims. They are some of the last of the most poisoned ones, swirling down the drain. We are the charcoal.
My mother sees me post something on Facebook about living off of half a pound of coffee for the next two weeks because a freelance check is late. It’s a joke, but she calls immediately, leaving me a voicemail offering me money. Because she is still trying. Which is love.