On International Women’s Day this year, I found my thoughts turning in an odd direction – to my mother. Now, I know it may seem odd for that to be odd. For many women, their mothers are at the top of the list when it comes to women who supported and inspired them.
For me, not so much.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved my mother dearly – she was my best friend growing up. But as I got older, I was able to see that it was a problematic relationship. She enabled my father’s abuse, and would often use my fear of him to manipulate me into behaving the way she wanted. Plus she wasn’t particularly supportive, instead focusing on the things I couldn’t or shouldn’t do. And as for inspiration, well – I suppose if you want to call being a living, breathing example of what choices not to make inspiring, then I guess she was inspiring.
That’s never been my take on it, though.
But on this International Women’s Day, out of nowhere, an old memory I’d not thought about in many years surfaced in my grey matter.
I’d guess I was around 12 years old when my school did a Mother/Daughter Night for my grade. Among the activities that evening, we did an aerobics workout. It was the early ’80s, and I cannot overstate how popular aerobics were at the time. Everybody was doing them.
Everybody, that is, except my mother.
So while the rest of us donned leotards and leg warmers and jumped about for 20 minutes, she held my jacket and leaned against the wall, watching. I can see her so clearly in my mind’s eye, wearing a black and grey woolen jacket, her arms folded across her chest, her face expressionless.
I wasn’t surprised. When we’d gotten the program for the evening, my mother had told me she’d be sitting that part out. It seemed perfectly reasonable to me, even when I realized she was the only one not participating. She didn’t, after all, like aerobics. I never gave it a second thought. Not even when she and I were getting sidelong looks from my classmates and their mothers.
To understand the significance of my mother’s actions, I need to explain how she moved through the world. She was absolutely convinced that everyone was watching her every move and judging her for it. Oh, and the same held for me. She drilled it into me often enough when telling me what I couldn’t or shouldn’t do, after all.
Which is why her not participating in the aerobics portion of Mother/Daughter Night was actually quite extraordinary. She had to have known it would be noted and others would look at her askance, and yet she still sat it out.
At the time, what I learned from my mother’s actions was that if you don’t want to do something, then just … don’t do it. Simple as that.
It was a valuable lesson for someone like me, who’s dreadfully uncomfortable around people, to the point that anticipating most socially constructed situations can make me feel physically ill. To feel able to simply not go to dances and parties, to weddings and funerals, to sporting events and kids’ recitals, has been both freeing and a real help to my mental health.
That’s not to say that I never go to these things. Because something else I learned from my mother that night was that sometimes, for those you truly care about, you go to events you don’t want to. I can guarantee you that she hated every second of Mother/Daughter Night, but she went for me. And I do the same for those people who are important to me. It’s just that what my participation looks like may vary from the norm a bit.
That night, my mother taught me that everybody has their lines in the sand. They draw them in different places, and some are merely scratched on the surface while others are dug deep down, but they’re there. And while you don’t have to agree with or even understand how they choose where those lines go, it’s best to respect that they’re there.