My Mother, Myself
As Greek women, we have grown up intimately attached to our mothers. Our mother is our greatest role model. They feed us both body and soul, and we become Hellenes through the transmission of such time-honored traditions such as baking koulourakia, cooking pastitsgio, and doing our cross, the Orthodox way, before we have dinner. Let’s face it—we owe them our life and our way of living. But, when you grow up in another culture, and you are given a different cultural perspective from which to view the world, you become more critical of the roles handed down to you. With some of us in the second, third, or even fourth generation of living in an adopted culture, a generational gap exists between daughters and their mothers. Some mores and ways of thinking we have borrowed from the dominant culture and some we have retained from the old. For this month’s issue, we take a good look in the cultural mirror and analyze, how similar are we to our mothers and how different. How much should we emulate our mothers and how much should we reject?
Think about it. In the course of one minute, list the ways you resemble your mother and ways you do not. Once you are done, review your list. Is the list of the ways you are different longer? What five things in the list of ways you are like her are the most important for you? On a scale of 1 to 10, how similar are you to your mom? In what ways would you prefer NOT to resemble her? What ways would you not like to change?
Personality differences aside, I believe most Greek-American, Greek-Australian, Greek-slash-anything women would have a list similar to mine:
Of course, there are ways I adore my mother and want to be just like her. Yes, I want to have such a big heart that it burns with love not only for the members of my family but for those outside it. Yes, I would love to be able to cook a killer pastitgio and make koulourakia that makes your mouth water. I would love to be an excellent homemaker that keeps things clean, beautiful and hand-made in the house. I would love to be an active member of my church and take part in all sorts of philanthropic causes. I admire the drive, the charisma, the dynamism of my mother—who takes care of everyone, is so wise that she can avert a fight between two members of the house by knowing exactly what to say so diplomatically. I love my mom, the hearth of the home, who keeps the kandilaki, the vigil lamp, always lit with her prayers. She is the force of goodness and affection. I could not have grown up sane without her everyday sacrifices—her packing our lunches at 6 am every day, her waiting for us in the rain with a baby in the belly and another in the carriage for early dismissal, her saving every penny of her part-time job to stash away in our college fund. God knows—if there is anything close to a heaven on earth it has to be the warmth in the arms and the heart of a Greek mother.
HOWEVER, in many ways I would NOT ever want to be like my mother. I would not like to see myself as a passive victim of circumstance defined by fate. “Och, Christe kai Panagia mou,” I can see her now doing her cross whenever something beyond what she was able to handle came around (and there were many things she could not handle, like paying the electric bill or writing out a check). I do not want to be limited in my career aspirations. I do not want my natural curiosity and lust for adventure to be curbed by old-fashioned “what would the neighbor’s say” or “what might happen to a defenseless girl like you” arguments. I do not want to be defined through my relationships with men or the family, even if they can be wonderful things in themselves. I do want to have to be the one everyone turns to when giagia or pappou gets sick and needs an escort to the hospital. I do not want everyone in the extended familieis during birthday parties, tsk-tsk and feel sorry that I have not found a husband yet and am already in my 30s. I do not want to act as if I am inferior in relationship to my husband, the head of the house(no, I do not even want the cute metaphor of being the “neck” that turns the head this way and that.) Most of all, I want to be financially independent, something my mother could not be. In fact, in comparison to my mother, I am much more independent—financially, emotionally, and socially. My mother would cringe at my having coffee with my gay and lesbian friends. I would not like to have her restricted (constricted) view of the world. I definitely do not want to be obsessed with my marital status as with my son. (I think that would be sick! Freud knew enough to name the Oedipal complex from the crazy dynamic that exists between a Greek mother and her son). I definitely would NEVER tolerate the emotional or physical abuse from my husband that she endured.
Now if you try to step back and pick up the general thread responsible for the major differences it would have to do with the fact that because you were raised in a less-patriarchal society, where sex roles are not as rigidly defined, you are more liberal and more independent in your thoughts and actions. Here is where we as women can reap the rewards of being bi-cultural. We have more options and more possibilities of realizing our life’s choices by virtue of living in more progressive, more diverse societies. As Americans, Australians, Brits, Belgians and the like, we are free of the social shackles that women in the home country are still bound by. We are freer to circulate than our Greek cousins; we can carve out our own destinies without having to cave in to family pressure (at least to some extent). Yes, it is good to be a hybrid Greek because you CAN have the best of both worlds.
But there is a slight catch. Because women (and men) are socialized differently in the home, and because mothers are the means of the transmission of culture, it is harder to go against your mother because in a sense, you would be rejecting your culture. And to be left cultureless in a pluralistic society would mean an identity crisis or worse, something along the lines of anomie (a vague sense of not belonging anywhere and not really having an existence; just a free-floating being without ties or roots of any kind, which can give rise to depression and even delinquency according to some social psychologists.)
To finish up, I think it is important to be conscious of the cultural dynamic that goes on between Greek mothers and daughters. And while as daughters we can praise, admire, and cherish our mothers for who they are, we should be free to carve a different cultural destiny for ourselves and not feel guilty for doing so.