"The women of Bikini Kill let guitarist Billy Karren be in their feminist punk band, but only if he's willing to just "do some shit." Being a feminist dude is like that. We may ask you to "do some shit" for the band, but you don't get to be Kathleen Hannah."--@heatherurehere

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Mama's Boy: Accidentally Raised as a Feminist Man, part II

Once again, I'm sharing with y'all something I wrote for Shira Tarrant's upcoming book, though my piece didn't make it in the book. Last time I talked about some of the very first smatterings of feminism in my life. In this installment, I talk a bit more about where my feminism comes from:

Fertile Ground

I suppose my life was sort of fertile ground for feminism to take root in, though the choice of ground can also be attributed to my mother, and the way she chose to live her life, the way she chose for us to live our lives. I was born out of wedlock, a fact that likely bothered my grandparents-but if it did, I never picked up on it. My mother was young, but not very young, when I was born. Being young, however, she wasn't particularly financially secure at the time. And I have a lot of respect for her that she managed to raise me in such a way that I don't have strong memories of being poor, though we were, for a time. I remember living in 'government housing' for a short while, but I mostly remember it because I remember moving in and then moving out, remember the friends I made and then had to move away from. I think I knew we were poor, but I don't have many memories of wanting. But I think being a 'single mother' in the first years of the 70's meant that my mother made her way through the world in the way she did in part because of the feminist movement. And yet, at the time she found herself pregnant, society--and perhaps her family--was pressuring her to, if she couldn't marry my father, find somebody, at least, to marry.

My mother both resisted and embraced this pressure, I think, marrying several times as I was growing up--but divorcing several times, too, when she recognized that the price to be paid for relative financial and emotional security was too great--though she might not appreciate the reference, my mother was very much set on having a room of her own. The time was perhaps ripe for her to find her way in the world in the way that she chose--if I had been born in 1950 instead of 1970, who's to say if she would have more easily (yet still grudgingly!) chosen to get married and stay that way, whatever may have come. But it was always important to my mother that she stand independently; my mother worked hard, took care of me, endured financial hardship in a way that will forever make me proud to be her son. And, whether she considers herself a feminist or not, she stood up for herself in ways that I probably only saw glimpses of, and in ways that I consider indicative of feminism.

But I do remember seeing glimpses. The Lego Incident, as I like to call it, was one of those times when she came straight out and showed me something that I needed to know, something that shaped me. I'm not sure how much of it she knew she was doing, but she gave me a lens with which to see the world. My mom and I remember the whole thing very strongly, and likely it gets embellished each time it gets talked about--but the fact is, even if she only had a few words to say about it to me, they stuck with me. From then on out, I not only noticed that the woman held the broom on the box but that all too often, women held the broom out there in real life, too--and that there was no good reason why.

Father Figures

My mom, even with a kid who didn't make it easy for her, got married twice while I was still a kid. And I didn't make it easy. By the time I was 7 and she married for the second time, I was something of a brat to my step dad and my poor stepbrother. She was in love, so in love that we moved from where I was pretty darn happy in Colorado, to what I considered to be a podunk rural town in California--Livermore. I was pretty angry, for a short time. I had met the guy, but didn't like him much. He tried way too hard, I thought. And he didn't try hard enough. Plus, the first night I met him, my lips were windburned and chapped from the cold, and yet he took us to an Italian restaurant, where I proceeded to order spaghetti in red sauce which, of course, burnt my chapped lips. And all of that, was, in no uncertain terms to my seven year old mind, absolutely his fault. So was taking me from my best friend Jason out to California where I was to start behind in school (California had the 2nd best school system in the country at that time--it was a long time ago), have to make new friends, and deal with not only a new stepbrother, but also a neighborhood bully. All my stepfather's fault, of course, in my mind.

The funny thing was, my mother never really corrected me on that point. It was all of his fault, in a way, and she didn't try to fight me on it. She set down some strict guidelines for both him and me--he wasn't allowed to discipline me in the ways that he wanted to; he wasn't allowed to spank me, for instance. Fact was, I hardly needed spanking. I was already such a straight arrow--already such a mama's boy, perhaps--that the worst I could do, really, was take advantage of the fact that my mother was protecting me from my stepfather, without, perhaps, there being an explicit need for it. And take advantage of it I did. I teased my stepbrother mercilessly, and when he would retaliate, he would get spanked while I would get a stern reprimand for driving him to violence. I didn't understand it at the time, but I certainly was being the shittiest little step kid that one could ask for, really.

But I have a lot of respect for the way my mother treated me. She treated me like a person--a person who meant as much to her as her new husband did. And she made it known that she wouldn't settle for him treating me any less, either. Being seven, of course, I wasn't expected to come to the table with quite as much, but she also encouraged me to treat him better, and for the most part, I did. As an adult, hearing some of my friends' stepfather (and father!) experiences, I lucked out quite a bit. But it wasn't all luck--it was my mother standing up for what she believed in, beliefs which included the belief that, while I may have needed discipline, I didn't need a spanking; that, though I was seven, she had raised me well enough to that point to work things out; that he and I should both behave...well, like adults, really.

And, eventually, when my stepfather started to treat her like she was not a person, like she was not an adult, she did something for which I will forever be thankful. She kicked the jerk to the curb. It couldn't have been an easy decision to make. Sure, it was bound to please nine year old me, but I didn't really understand the ramifications. She would be giving up a fairly stable financial situation, present and future, for...the unknown. But my mother, my mother the planner, had already put her plan into action years before, when she went back to work, after not working outside the home for a few years into the marriage. And Talking with her now about those years of marriage, the move from being a working outside the home single mom to a working at home married mom, to being a working outside the home married mom, I am struck by how much I didn't understand, consciously, at the time. My mother, faced with the prospect for the first time in her life of having the option to not work outside the home, decided to try it out.

Turns out, she hated it. She felt isolated from the world; she felt intellectually stifled (I was a smart nine-year old, sure, but I still preferred long, languorous conversations about Star Wars than much else); she felt, in a word, trapped. So she went back to work--without the emotional support of my stepfather at the time. And that brought her some happiness that she had been lacking. Her decision to go back to working outside the home couldn't have been an easy one, either. She had to fight my step dad's traditional patriarchal ideals (and her own internalized ones, likely), she had to reenter the job market after several years out of it. She had to leave behind what she knew to go back into a world that had likely changed quite a bit, into the unknown.

And I think that this propensity to jump back into the unknown in order to create a better life for herself (and for me!)also reflects some feminism. The feminisms that I tend to embrace avoid essentialisms, avoid doctrines that purport to be absolute, challenge traditional assumptions, not only about gender, but about how we all ought to live our lives. And I think, in the mid- to late-seventies when my mom decided to go back to work, she was embracing all of these ideas. She rejected my stepfather's (and to some extent, all of society's) notions of gender--the idea that all women are alike in wanting/needing to work in the home, the idea that women are 'natural nurturers', the idea that only one person ought to be financially and emotionally independent in a marriage. And, while these things may seem no-brainers to a lot of people these days, I think my mother had an early strong sense of a general need for financial and emotional equality across genders. And she passed this along to me.

Next Time: Fighting Bullies
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