Unbecoming of Young Women


by Ella Boureau

I had dinner last night with my roommate and a friend. The talk centered on our fathers for a while and my friend mentioned she had written a paper in colleg about the ways in which women participate in enabling men to stay children and not allowing them to fully become parents. She said her father could never discipline her, and his only form of punishment was to sit her on top of the fridge for time out, “Which I loved. I would do bad things just to get sat on that fridge. I felt very important up there”. We laughed. I offered an anecdote about my aunt, who, when her daughter was born, said she made an enormous effort to make room for the father of the baby. “She said the effort was almost inhuman to include him. But she couldn’t always stop herself from correcting him. He would dress the baby in the morning, and my aunt would know that her daughter would be too hot in that jacket and that the pants, the pants were all wrong, they weren’t warm enough. So once my uncle triumphantly entered with his fully if oddly dressed daughter in his arms, and handed her off to my aunt. She would purr in thanks, wait until he left the room, then wordlessly re-dress her”. We all laughed at the idea of my aunt surreptitiously undoing the small, thoughtless mistakes of her partner.

Then the talk turned another corner. My roommate said “I’m becoming my mother”. “Ugh, me too, it’s heinous, I will completely be my mother one day,” my friend sighed.

“Oh stop,” I said, somewhat playfully, “I hate that phrase ‘I’m becoming my mother’. Yuck. I definitely don’t want to become my mother”. That record-scratching silence, and suddenly both ladies were gawping at me, lamp-eyed.

“Why not? You have a great mom!” my roommate said.  It sort of shocked me that it was not evident to them that I can love my mother, think she is a fabulous person and still find the idea of becoming her absolutely creepy and defeatist, and that I’m sure she’d agree.

“That isn’t the point. I just hate the way we always say that. It’s such insidious language.” I shivered “That endless female replacement thing.” My friend tried to catch the roommate’s eye in order to give a get a load of this fembozo look, but my roommate appeared genuinely confused.

“There’s no one I would aspire to be more than my mother. I would absolutely love to become her.”

“It’s unavoidable,” my friend said quickly, “you’ll catch yourself saying things she said and doing things she does.”

“I’m sure I will, but my mother made plenty of mistakes I don’t want to make, and I’d rather look at what she did wrong or didn’t do and try to learn from that,”

“Of course, of course. We’re not saying you’re not your own person. You can still be you and become your mother,” I was confused. How could I fully become myself, inhabit my skin, unravel the particular flaws and potential that is my own, and still be expected to morph into another woman who already exists? It felt like magical thinking.  It felt unpleasant.

“No. That doesn’t seem possible to me. How can I be me and my mother at the same time?” more frustrated looks.

“You wouldn’t actually, like, BE your mother, you would just, you know, be her. Become like her.” I remained incredulous.

“No, listen that’s a completely creepy thing to say. I don’t like that phrase. I think we can, and should, work not to become our mothers,”

“My mother inspires me, there is no one who inspires me more than her. I already am her. I pick up where she left off,” my roommate insisted.

“That’s a different thing than saying ‘I am becoming her’.”

“Splitting hairs,” my friend interjected.

“I don’t think it is. You guys know this female replacement is a thing, right? One mother who replaces the next who replaces the next who replaces the next. And men get to stay children/ become men. I mean I find this to be a banal but totally real example of that. We say it all the time. It’s one of the ways we hypnotize ourselves into letting that happen.”

“Fine.” My roommate demurred, “I will now say that my mother’s life inspires me,”

“Good,” I felt triumphant. Then she grinned

“When I’m around you, that is.” Touché.

*

Even though I eventually made my point in this conversation, it felt strange to me that while we were talking about fathers and the ways in which women are responsible for continuedly skewed gender dynamics, everyone was laughing and having a good time. But when I brought up something that had nothing to do with men and everything to do with femaleness, the tension of mother-daughter individuality, and our responsibility to change a story that tells us how we should live, somehow what I was saying was ridiculous and uncalled for. The visionary bell hooks has a useful and spot-on analysis of ‘female replacement’ in her essay On Death and Patriarchy in Crooklyn. One of my all-time favorite movies, Crooklyn is a movie set in 1970’s Brooklyn about an educated bohemian black family in which the mother, Carolyn, is dying and the only daughter of five children, Troy, eventually replaces her and in doing so brutally comes of age at 10 years old :

In sharp contrast to Carolyn, Troy is concerned with femininity. Carolyn expresses rage at not being able to “take a piss without six people hanging off my tits,” repudiating conventional sexist thinking about woman’s roles. Troy, flirtatious and cute, manipulates the men with practiced charm… Troy embodies all the desirable elements of sexist defined femininity. Indeed, it is her capacity to escape into a world of romantic fantasy that makes her and everyone else ignore her internal anguish and torment. When she lies, steals, and cheats her acts of defiance have no consequences.

Taken to the hospital to see her mother, Troy is given instructions on how to assume the caretaker role…The interruption of her girlhood stands in sharp contrast to her brothers’ freedom to maintain their passions and spirit of play. Clinton, the oldest boy, does not have to relinquish sports to become responsible because his mother is sick and dying. He can still be a child. Becoming a mini-matriarch requires that Troy relinquish all concern with pleasure and play…

In keeping with the denigration of black girlhood in this society, Spike Lee romanticizes this violation by making it appear that it is a “natural” progression for Troy to become a matriarchal figure, that sexist gender politics are not coercively imposing this role via a process of socialization… As if to highlight patriarchal thinking that females are interchangeable, undifferentiated, and therefore one can replace another, the film suggests there is nothing wrong with a ten-year-old girl assuming an adult role in the household. Indeed, the mother’s dying is upstaged by the passing of the torch to Troy.

It’s a great essay, one that deals with the racialized politics of Hollywood, death, black girlhood, and the radicalization of Spike Lee, but for the purposes of this essay, I focused in on the mother/daughter-replacement aspect. I wish I had been able to whip out this quote at the dinner table where I had been slightly exaggerating my stance, but only because I had a point to make.

I know that we can only go so far in one generation, but I believe that we can probably stray a lot farther than we think if we pay serious attention to patterns and are willing to grapple with the hard work of becoming better people.  Honestly, I didn’t feel safe bringing up the very tangible reasons I had for wanting to avoid becoming my mother in that conversation, for fear that my reservation would be diminished, deemed exaggerated or pronounced part of “natural progression”.

Let me preface this next bit by saying that I absolutely adore my mother. She lights up a room, can make me laugh when I am at my most angry and ridiculous, is always on my side, respects my privacy, loves to sing, is a competent mimic, and can tell a great story. These are things I love about my mother, some of these things I share with her and am happy to. The thing is though, when we say “I’m becoming my mother” it’s not usually because we’ve noticed something we are proud of about our mothers and ourselves, it’s when we notice something negative, a trap that we’ve fallen into. Part of me becoming my own person and being able to take on the mantle of responsibility for mistakes my parents made, and will likely make myself, is seeing the pattern that my matriarchal line made/was subject to, and setting out a way to break that pattern. I don’t see this as blaming my mother, but rather coming into a consciousness of the real tragic elements that played out in these women’s lives. As for my father, do I have a fraught relationship with him? Yes, he was violent with me for years and about this I have no real sustaining anger, which I find troubling. Perhaps it is because my relationship with him has evolved more organically; I know he will always be there for me and is, paradoxically, a very tender person despite his being continually punished for his tenderness, more than I can say for many fathers. There are all kinds of reasons we let our fathers off the hook that I don’t want to get into right now. Fundamentally, it just doesn’t feel as knife-to-throat.

Here is a pattern that my great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother share that terrifies me: frustrated-artist escapism in the form of giving up their art, moving to the suburbs and becoming outcast which led to depression, bitterness, alcoholism/drug abuse and in the case of my great-grandmother, who was a vaudeville performer, suicide. Did I mention I mostly grew up in the same house that my mother grew up in?

This is why I genuinely don’t feel it is possible to become my mother if I want to become myself. In my family at least, this particular kind of female surrender leads to apathy, erosion of the spirit, deterioration and psychic death.

Blind acceptance of what is ‘inevitably’ to come on the part of young women my age also terrifies me.  Some of us, like my roommate, might not have any real beef with our mothers, the ones who have successfully managed to become autonomous human beings in their own rite despite the constant tide of patriarchal thought and action, and those mothers should be applauded, but I suspect that this is not the story for the majority of us. The quick, smack-you-in-the-face directness with which my friend insisted upon inevitability, and the futility of resistance certainly suggests otherwise. I find this line of thinking suspect and a trap that leads to depression instead of enabling thought and courageous action.

A little while ago, while reading The Journals of Susan Sontag I came upon a particularly moving passage in which a seventeen year old Sontag speaks about her mother, who is, according to her, trapped in a loveless marriage, stuck and unwilling to act, to break free. It starts in teenagery, moping, contemptuous tones. “What rotten, dreary, miserable lives they lead ” But then she goes on to say “how can I hurt her more, beaten as she is, never resisting? How can I help me? Make me cruel?” It’s a mature moment of separation for Sontag. She is deciding to spare her mother and turn her cruelty outwards to the world, so that she may survive in it, be of it.  So it isn’t just about self-preservation, it is also in kindness to her mother that she separate. Kind in that hard way. To stop putting her own expectations on her mother, a step towards ending the psychic merge (that lays the groundwork for physical replacement) that’s so easy and so destructive between mothers and daughters. She does not have to become her mother, but can, in fact, side-step the process, if she so chooses. But she has to choose it. It’s not going to come naturally. The path of surrender will land her exactly where her mother is. It is as life-and-death as her angst makes it seem. She must act courageously. And she does. She becomes Susan Sontag, critic, author, mother, lesbian.

One of the dangerous things mother-daughter replacement does is falsely collapse the existing differences between women who are kin. Be they generational, sexual, class-related, characterological, ethnic/racial, etc. This collapse blinds us to the particularities of each woman’s situation and prevents us from individuating them, individuation being a process that would make mother-daughter replacement more difficult. It is important to highlight, for example, that my mother and grandmother did not kill themselves. That my mother is of a different class than her mother (something she silently struggles with), that while they are all Irish and heterosexual, I am Irish-French-Jewish-Algerian and lesbian. This last difference is what glares up at me when I think about the American family-unit. The stark differences in a lesbian perspective on family versus a heterosexual perspective, if tended to and cultivated, make it more possible to individuate. Individuation from the nuclear family is a process of grief.

*

Denial. On my fourteenth birthday, we were out to dinner, and a glorious cake was brought to the table. I felt foolish and awkward (read: big) in the candle glow with all those diners watching me, singing happy birthday and smiling. But I also really wanted the cake, and the attention, despite feeling too old and somehow not pretty enough. As my mother sliced up pieces of birthday cake and handed them out, she said off-hand “You know, I’d have a really hard time if it turned out you were a lesbian. I really would,”. She didn’t look at me, just continued slicing and plating, as if she had said “You know, I really don’t like the color turquoise” or “You know, I’m just not that into shrimp”.  I’m really not into the idea of you being a lesbian. Have some cake. No one said anything. The shock I remember feeling came from her having both pulled up a ridiculous topic out of nowhere in front of everyone, and somehow managing to flash my most secret inside and turn me red with it. I was cut at the knees.

“Well… so would I,” I sputtered, trying to control my voice, keep calm, and look her in the eyes with scout’s honor “Because, I’m not. I’m so not,”.

Anger. I confessed to having my first female lover in that same off-handed manner I cultivated from her “You knew Karine and I were together, right? That we were a couple?”

“You WHAT? WHAT??” There was much pacing and dramatic intonation in her voice “I had no idea, absolutely no idea!”  I didn’t believe that for a second and reminded her of the many things she said over the years, including the cake incident, that indicated she found homosexuality unnaceptable, “I said those things? I don’t remember that at all!”and finally, heartbreakingly, “Don’t ever bring another girl here. I can’t handle it. I don’t want to see that.” I couldn’t shrug off-handedly to that one. I couldn’t move at all.

Bargaining. Oh, wait, back to Anger. When I actually told my mother I was going to live my life as a lesbian and she had two months to ask me all the weird questions she had and then she had to get over it. There was a lot of crying over the phone, but by this time, I was done with my tears, and it was my mother’s that I weathered. I held my shitty cell phone slightly away from my ear as she blubbered “I just always thought I’d have a s-s-on. You know? S-someone who’d help your father around the house and be sweet to me, and to you. Someone y-you’d make babies with so I could h-have grandchildren. I’m not even sure I believe you, how can I be sure you’ll be a lesbian in 10 years?” The entire time I was literally pulling a shield out of that deep redness I had long been ashamed of. Do not feel sorry for her I thought. Your job is not to coddle or lie to her, your job is to live your life honestly. She will get over it. “I don’t know Mom, maybe you should see a shrink, or talk to a friend about why this is disappointing to you. If you have real questions to ask me, you can ask them,” Sensing the distance in my voice, she became angry.

“Hey, this is hard for me! If it were me telling my parents this I would have been out on my ass! They would never have accepted it! Don’t I get credit for not throwing you out of the family?”

“No,” I said simply. “You get credit when you accept and support me. I have to go, the phone is hot,” that is our code for getting off the phone when we don’t feel like talking anymore. Either that or I have a pie in the oven.  I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that my little red shield had withstood the fury of battle yet again.

Many things happened between those conversations. I had to finish school; move cities; cross oceans; navigate strange languages; find and be fired from jobs; connect with and re-estrange myself from a lost family; woo, fuck, fight, and fallout with lovers male and female; and finally send many, many fraught letters; before I could have that conversation with my mother.

*

Later in Sontag’s journals, young Susan, having freed herself from the reality of becoming her mother, describes coming to terms with her lesbianism. The excitement, passion and delight of transformation heat up the page:

And what am I now as I write this? Nothing less than an entirely different person… The experience of this weekend could not have been more perfectly timed—and I was so close to completely negating myself, of surrendering altogether…  when I became fully conscious that I desired her, she knew it, too… Everything that was so tight, that hurt so in the pit of my stomach, was vanquished in the straining against her, the weight of her body on top of mine, the caress of her mouth and her hands…The only thing I resign is the power to resign, to retreat: the acceptance of sameness and the intellect. I am alive… I am beautiful… what else is there?

Irene came very close to ruining me—congealing the incipient guilt I have always felt about my lesbianism—making me ugly to myself—

I know the truth now—I know how good and right it is to love—I have, in some part been given permission to live—Everything begins from now—I am reborn

Only in rejecting the path towards becoming her mother, rejecting those endless mistakes, could such a sparkling awakening take place. It is only in having taken that decision to “make herself cruel” i.e. harden herself so that she could find the strength to venture down an unknown path, that Sontag was able to delight in her sexuality, her particular beauty and that of another’s. It is this kind of rebirth that I chase after. Perhaps certain things are inevitable, but how can I be sure if I don’t resist? And it is accounts like Sontag’s that make me suspicious of how much of our repetition is inevitability instead of habit and failure to think creatively. Why become my mother when there is so much else that beckons? How many times can a person be reborn?