On Mothers and Daughters
This is an image of a practice in Africa known as female clitoral mutilation. It has been performed for centuries in Somalia and throughout Africa and the Middle East. It occurs when the female members of a tribe gather around a girl anywhere from infancy to 15 years of age, to essentially cut her clitoris with a razor, often not disinfected . Why? By taking away the ability to feel orgasm or any pleasure in the female, the theory goes it will lessen her urge to stray from her husband’s bed. To most Western viewers, this act is deplorable on most fronts. It displays the thick grip of patriarchy that would scar a just burgeoning woman in the flush of her sexuality from ever experiencing sexual pleasure in her life. It results in nullifying a woman’s sexuality save for her ability to bear children for her husband. She is reduced to a vessel, a container, a vagina, a place to sheathe the phallus. The practice belies the callous and cruel way the patriarchy blames women for sexual straying when the double standard bears the double-edged sword. It is men who tend to transgress sexually across societies but more so in those where the family’s honor is tied to a woman’s chastity. Never mind that this procedure unlike the Semitic practice of circumcision is extremely painful and results in more infections, can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths. (For more facts read the fact sheet https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/female-genital-mutilation)
Yet, what I find the most shocking in this practice Is that it is not men but women themselves who perpetrate it on other women. In many cases it is the girl’s own mother who yields the razor to her private parts. How does that happen? How can a mother bring pain to her own daughter? Why would a mother wound her own female child in the very epicenter of what makes her a woman?
This practice might not happen in Greek culture (you can cross yourself here). Only barbaric peoples resort to such atrocity. Not us. We are Hellenes. Civilized, logical children of the mind and the light. Yet, in many ways the patriarchy wounds Greek daughters and perpetuates cycles of conflicted motherhood in them. The Greek oppression and wounding of its daughters is less overt but just as harmful.
Growing up female in a traditional Greek house provided subtle yet screaming clues that registered a girl’s inferiority. Women are the ones who serve, not the ones served. My mother would run around like crazy taking care of the millions of details for huge family dinners. She would serve everyone first and be the last to sit down. She would always serve my little brother before my sister and I both older by far than he was. Even if I was the more educated and more mature, she would put stock in what my little brother had to say. Without words, she would not so much dismiss what I said as much as seek to reinforce it from a male’s opinion. When I was basking in my newly found independence as a young professor in Germany, she would call me hysterically on the phone guilt tripping me to come home. “There are so many dangers in the world that a young girl has no idea about,” she would cry.
Of course, mothers protect their young, but her constant prophesying for the worst made me doubt my own ability to deal with the challenges of life. The double standard was so clear in my house: my brother, a mere 12 year old, could frolic and play basketball, football and video games till midnight, while my sister and I were confined to cleaning the refrigerator. It took me till 18 to go out for a coffee with a friend. I came home at 10:30 at night to find my parents in a frantic state on the verge of calling the police because they could not get in touch with me. Yes, you can consider the family circumstances I grew up as extreme and not normal.
Yet, I do not think I am alone. Another woman of Greek descent explained that when her father was asked how many children he has, it was the custom in that rural sheepherding province to count only boys as children. “I have two children,” he would respond, “and one kopelli.” A daughter was less than a child; only sons counted.
Greek culture has praised and raised men to think they are superior to women; has raised a nation of women whose energies have fixated on child rearing and husband pleasing to the detriment of their own individuation. It rewards women who are self-sacrificing, all-giving; it elevates the icon of the good mother, the All-Holy Panagia, the vessel of a miracle. It expects its daughters to be like her.
This makes the mother-daughter relationship fraught with conflict. I have been gaining deeper insights by reading Of Woman Born, the classic feminist text on the subject by Adrienne Rich. She has taught me a new concept: matrophobia. “Matrophobia can be seen as a womanly splitting of the self, in the desire to become purged once and for all of our mothers’ bondage, to become individuated and free. The mother stands for the victim in ourselves, the unfree woman, the martyr.”
I look at my own mother. I have a love/hate relationship with her. I love her for the very same things I hate her for. She is so self-defacing, so giving, all sacrificing. She traveled to foreign countries to raise my daughter while I worked; she dutifully prepares meal after meal after meal, whether ill or tired or overwhelmed, whether we are hungry or not. She is patient and long-suffering. She was there to see me through a brutal divorce. She has been the rock, no matter what. She tried her best to shield us from the madness of my father. Yet at the same time, I hate her groveling, her victimizing herself, her tragic outlook on life. While she has provided material support basically through the basics of food and childcare, she has never been able to provide the emotional support. She has provided the schema for woman that I have internalized: to put others first even to her own detriment, to serve herself last at the dinner table. I have internalized her fatalism, her lack of self-regard and her self-hatred.
Whenever I let someone talk down to me, whenever I give up to my feelings of inferiority and helplessness, I am becoming my mother. All the parts of myself I hate I have mirrored from her. The weak defenseless vulnerable woman who is dependent on others. Whose only power lies in being needed. She suffocates with her love so that you want to cross three oceans to get away. I revolted in young adulthood by consciously and subconsciously moving as far away from the type of woman my mother modeled for me as I could. She was the dutiful homemaker; I was the wild spontaneous traveler. I swore from witnessing her negative example never to be dependent on a man for anything. I made my life harder by stubbornly refusing help.
My mother whether through her own person or the patriarchal scepter she carried in her has brutalized me. She reviles me and insults me. She scathes at my accomplishments. She has always held my brother in higher regard just on the basis of his sex, even if I was the more intelligent, the more mature and the more competent. She has eroded my confidence in myself by limiting my freedoms, by doubting my achievements. I have no real ally in her, not the kind that would genuinely support me unconditionally. She does not believe in me because she does not believe in herself, or any woman for that matter. She has been conditioned to think of herself as weak and defenseless without options. Her only way to survive is to act coy subservient to a male.
I do not like my mother because she of all people has enforced the oppression of patriarchy unto my psyche. This is the most heinous crime that a mother can inflict on her daughter: to teach her the written and unwritten codes of the patriarchy whether consciously or unconsciously. She is supposed to buttress me against the harm by a society that deems me inferior by virtue of my sex; instead she has added weight to the grinding stone of oppression. It is because of this that women grow up wary of other women. They cannot be trusted. They will betray. Like Cassiopeia she will sacrifice you to the monster.
I have so little in common with my mother. She dropped out of fourth grade; I pursued a doctorate. My matrophobia is so stark I would consider myself a failure if I turned out to be like my mother. I want nothing to do with her. I want her to be well, to live her curtailed existence of food shopping, laundry washing, food preparing. I sit with her sometimes to keep company, but there is nothing there. There is no deeper substance; I cannot say I do not love my mother. I do. She is lovable; I just am so different from her that I cannot find any connection. The type of woman I wanted her to be for me—independent, courageous, sharp-tongued, a fighter—she was not. It is this I most resent, her inability to provide an example for the type of woman that I needed to be.
But, wait, Rich explains, this is not her fault.
What Rich argues in the chapter “Motherhood and Daughterhood” is that to recognize that it is the stamp of patriarchy that damns women both as mothers and daughters. The best thing a mother can do for her daughter is love herself: “The nurture of daughters in patriarchy calls for a strong sense of self-nurture in the mother . . . a kind of strength which can only be one woman’s gift to another, the bloodstream of our inheritance. Until a strong line of love, confirmation, and example stretches from mother to daughter from woman to woman across the generations, women will still be wandering in the wilderness” (245-6).
The psychologist Rosjke Hasseldine has made a similar argument in her books The Silent Female Scream and The Mother-Daughter Puzzle. Here are snipets of her thoughts: “We see how life events, restrictive gender roles, unrealized career goals, and the expectation that women should sacrifice their needs in their caregiving role all shape how mothers and daughters view themselves and each other and how they communicate. . .In the second insight, I explain how patriarchy’s way of silencing and denying what women need is the root cause of most mother-daughter relationship conflict in different cultures around the world.”(https://ct.counseling.org/2020/01/uncovering-the-root-cause-of-mother-daughter-conflict/)
Rich explains again, “Many daughters live in rage at their mothers for having accepted, too readily and passively, “whatever comes.” A mother’s victimization does not merely humiliate her, it mutilates the daughter who watches her for clues as to what it means to be a woman. Like the traditional foot-bound Chinese woman, she passes on her own affliction. The mother’s self-hatred and low expectations are the binding rags for the psyche of the daughter . . . a daughter can feel rage at her mother’s powerlessness or lack of struggle—because of her intense identification and because in order to fight for herself she needs first to have been both loved and fought for.” (244)
Rich explains that in order to break the conflict with our mothers comes from a larger systemic splitting of the mother/daughter role in society. But mothers were daughters once and daughters will be mothers. It is not an either/or but a mirror and an organic unfolding. We have to work to accept and love both the victimized mother and the vulnerable daughter in ourselves in order to strengthen both relationships. Here is Rich again: “To accept and integrate and strengthen both the mother and the daughter in ourselves is no easy matter, because patriarchal attitudes have encouraged us to split, to polarize, these images, and to project all unwanted guilt, anger, shame, power, freedom, onto the “other” woman. But any radical vision of sisterhood demands that we reintegrate them.” (253)
“Women are made taboo to woman—in breaking this taboo, we are reuniting with our mothers; in reuniting with our mothers, we are breaking this taboo.” (255)
The older and wiser I get, the more I love my mother. I have come to terms with her, or rather the patriarchy instilled in her. I cannot expect her to be the mother I would like, that would be a wish fulfillment. I stopped expecting and started accepting. The older I get the more I have empathized with her position; she was poor, uneducated, beaten down from early on; she started working as an illegal child laborer at 11 to support her mother who was unable to work and provide for the family as she was bound by the strict roles of women as homemakers of her time. I have started to forgive my mother for not being the superwoman that I would have wanted her to be. She has been a hero in her own way. She endured. She loved in the ways she knew how.
By accepting her, I have started to accept myself. We are part of a greater systemic erosion of our psyches and by extension our lives. I have started to contextualize and not take everything so personally.
By uniting the daughter and the mother inside of us, we are breaking the taboo that no woman can be trusted; that she is an enemy disguised in nurturing clothes. By coming to terms with the deeper roots of our reactions, we can find a way to heal the mother-daughter relationship. And the mother-daughter relationship is the foundation of all relationships between one woman and another.
I am sorry to state the obvious, as I have stated many times before, the patriarchy still holds a tenacious grasp on the daughters of the Hellenes. Greek women do not support each other, really support each other and not in a superficial, scratch-my-back kind of way. They might be power brokers, they might have Hermes Birkin bags, shitloads of money, and beautiful bodies, but they do not support or aid each other (except when it can benefit their own advancement in which case it is an alliance based on masculine rules).
Until they can support each other instead of tear down each other, until they can see each other as sisters, victims of a patriarchal hierarchy that deems them inferior and only subservient to their brothers, until they look deeply within themselves to uncover the damaging effects of their own internalization of insecurity, they will never be empowered enough not to feel threatened by another woman’s achievements. They will never break the cycle of damage done to women at the hands of other women, even to their own precious daughters. As that saying that is widely circulating on the Web goes, “Empowered women empower other women.” I would add, “The daughter is mother of the woman.”