|Manifesta by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards|
Many daughters are scared of falling prey to the indignities we witnessed our mothers suffer. This fear is a challenge to younger feminists. Young women should understand where that fear comes from, rather than simply avoiding it. Unwrapping motherhood from the swaddles of patriarchy means that we will no longer have to work so hard to be different from our mothers.
As it is, we are more likely to notice what our mothers are doing wrong than what they are doing right. We notice if Dad treats Mom like shit, if homemaking appears to be a fake job, or if Mom worked outside the home and was never there to ask us about our day. We may think that when Dad does “Mom’s chores”–picking us up or doing the dishes or cooking–he’s a hero. We notice if we look to Dad for decision making, and to Mom for love and comfort and mending. If the marriage falls apart, we notice if Mom doesn’t know how to write checks, or dates jerks, or if her lifestyle becomes markedly poorer. We notice the passive-aggressive ways that she may work around powerlessness: the boyfriends she takes on to escape her unhappy marriage, the guilt trips, or the migraine headaches that befall her just before the guests arrived every holiday. Throughout or lives, we make mental notes, and swear on our mothers’ lives not to let that happen to us or do what they did. This includes the most trivial sins: we’ll never embarrass our kids, we’ll never have our hair done every Friday at the same time, we’ll never have a comfy-but-ugly outfit that we change into every day after work.
Our expectations of our dads are so much lower than our expectations of moms that dads don’t get such a bad rap from their daughters. We also let them off the hook because their lives appear more liberated–more like how daughters are told their lives should be. (pages 208-209)
One True Thing, a Hollywood tearjerker based on a novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Anna Quindlen, successfully analyzed this generational repulsion. In this 1998 film, Renee Zellweger portrayed an ambitious New York City journalist, Ellen Gulden, who returns to her suburban home to care for her terminally ill mother. “The one thing I never wanted to do was live my mother’s life,” Ellen says. “And there I was doing it.” Meryl Streep, as Kate, zaftig and radiant in the housewife role, throws elaborate theme parties and makes a tabletop mosaic from her broken dishes. Creative and delightful as she is, Kate’s domestic achievements are nada compared to the father’s life as a sought-after English professor and would-be novelist (portrayed by William Hurt). After walking many miles (and scrubbing many toilets) in her mother’s shoes, Ellen learns that her mother’s accomplishments–her ability to bring the community together and make her family comfortable–far surpass her father’s inflated dreams of his own literary importance.
“You spend all of your life thinking about what you don’t have, and you have so much,” Kate warns her puffy-eyed ungrateful daughter just before she dies. In that moment, any daughter might be shocked (as we were) into recognizing that we view our mothers in light of what we think they lack–youthful looks, brilliant careers, respectful husbands–not what they have. Finally, Ellen learns that her mother has actually chosen and fulfilled with joy the very life that Ellen had learned to disdain. The film isn’t a call to join a kaffeeklatsch community group or bake up a storm as a one-way ticket to feminine authenticity. It’s a warning to mothers and daughters to take a clear-eyed look at each other, rather than stealing glances and making notes about what not to do. One True Thing teases out a feminist challenge: to understand the choices our mothers made, knowing they were made in a context we will never experience. For mothers, the challenge is to realize that their daughters came of age in an entirely different era, one that makes their lives fundamentally different. (pages 213-214)
The book is fabulous. Buy it.