Rona Maynard Let's Talk

Letters from Rona

A better life than hers

RM
SEP
17

Every generation of women aspires to what mom didn't have. Now it's baby boomers' turn to be told that our frantic lives didn't cut it.

Kerry Clare is 28, with domestic gifts that have always escaped me. She bakes a mean strawberry pie, grows gorgeous vegetables and knits her own socks in eye-popping stripes. She also writes and blogs about books, which is how I discovered her.

Kerry has just read My Mother's Daughter. She enjoyed it—somewhat to her surprise, it seems. She didn't identify at all with my story of the conflict between me, a have-it-all baby boomer, and my mother, who lost her academic career for daring to get pregnant in the heyday of Tupperware parties. "That lack of identification is the very point," she says in her blog. "It's important that women my age know what not to take for granted."

Exactly.

I didn't set out to write a book about why feminism matters. I just wanted to capture the passion and pain that bound three generations of strong, ambitious women determined to excel. In fact, the clashes that drive my tale have as much to do with culture as with character. All three of us wanted extraordinary lives. All three of us hoped to fly higher than our mothers could do. All three of us collided with the shocking reality of barriers based on our gender. So there you have it: a feminist book.

My mother raised me on hard-luck stories in which she and my grandmother, a Jewish immigrant, played starring roles. Long before the old boys' club took her teaching job away, there was Grandma's even crueler fate in the Russian shtetl where she was raped by a Cossack at age nine—and then beaten by her mother (Damaged goods! Who would want her?).

SlobinskysI felt sorry for Grandma, but surely her life had nothing to do with mine. We had a faded old photo from Grandma's childhood, in which her peasant boots and embroidered blouse suggest an old folk tale handed down from mother to daughter. She looks positively quaint, except for the fear in her eyes.

Maynard Fredelle Child (3)My My mother's own childhood on the Canadian prairies seemed only slightly less remote than Grandma's. After all, Mother had lived in a house with dirt floors; she remembered when the King of England gave up his throne for love. Her family had no indoor toilet, let alone a TV. She'd had it tough all her life. As I saw it, her travails in the workplace were the sad but unsurprising result of being born in the silent-movie era.

I was a modern girl. The world was waiting for me and my whole post-war generation; I'd read this over and over in Life magazine. Grownups couldn't hustle fast enough to meet our needs. Spanking-new cinderblock schools, TV alter egos like Beaver Cleaver, the arrival of Barbie, the first doll in history with style and sex appeal...it was all about us.

I came of age as feminists declared, "The personal is political." This was back around the time that a glamorous young journalist named Gloria Steinem was going undercover at the Playboy Club by getting hired as a bunny. Her piece had spirit and courage, but I didn't see its relevance to me, a thinking woman who scorned the Playboy crowd. My grasp of daily life as political struggle extended not much further than the piled-up dishes in the kitchen sink. I waged a heated campaign to divide the housework with my husband.

We eventually called a truce the easy way. We bought a dishwasher and hired a cleaning lady. Gardening, for us, meant once over lightly with the lawn mower, once in a great while. No tomatoes and peppers for us; we were too busy working.

I thought the workplace would be eager to win my loyalty, just as Mattel and the networks had been. I became the first woman in my family with an office and an expense account. With hard work and talent, I could soar just as high as I pleased. Then I found myself fighting to be paid what I was worth. I had entered a world where men made the rules.

They still do. And young women, for the most part, still haven't noticed.

They haven't seen the isolation of women in corner-office jobs, who are so often the lone woman at the boardroom table.

They don't know how it feels to suppress your true self for fear of looking "soft" to the guys.

They haven't asked themselves why the range of acceptable behaviours for a woman remains so dismayingly narrow that women can't win (if we're tough-minded, we must be bitches).

I can't say I'm surprised. That women pay a price for being born female is a profoundly threatening idea. It negates our dearly held belief that we can be and do whatever we want. It challenges our view of human history as a march of progress. It tells us that our privileged modern lives, so brimful of options, may not be entirely different from the lives our mothers led.

This heritage of pain holds the potential to bring mothers and daughters together, but it can also drive them apart. I've never known a daughter who didn't want a better life than her mother's. I've never known a mother who didn't want her daughter's wish to come true. Yet mothers, unlike daughters, have a job to do—perhaps the hardest one they'll ever face. They must prepare their beloved daughters for the hazards of real life. They are keepers of hopes, but also of warnings rooted in their own experience. Their daughters, far from being grateful, may come to see them as killjoys.

Guitar TeenageThat's what happened between my mother and me. I knew it wasn't fair that she had lost her teaching job to a man with inferior credentials. But I detected something shameful in her humiliation, as if it might contaminate me. So I kept my mother's pain at arm's length. (Meanwhile, I raged daily and loudly at the humiliation of black Americans who simply wanted to vote, go to school and ride the bus like everyone else. Speaking out for black people felt safe. What was happening to them could never happen to a white girl like me.)

I never had a daughter, but I've found a few surrogate daughters while mentoring younger women. Toward the end of my editing career, I noticed something new. Talented women in their 20s did not want lives like mine. Although they didn't say so directly, they thought their mothers' generation had missed a beat. We had worked too hard for dubious returns. So they resolved to leave the office at 5 o'clock sharp and cook a low-fat dinner from scratch. Their ideal job was part-time.

In spite of myself, I felt a twinge of dismay that these terrific young women would question the choices of women like me. Without us, where would they be?

One of them has since left the work force. From time to time I wonder if she's made the right choice. A divorced woman with a couple of kids and a 10-year-old resume will need retraining, not to mention luck, if she hopes to pick up where she left off. But why torture myself? It's her life, not mine, so I wish her well. I wish her challenge, joy and homemade strawberry pie, if that's her pleasure.

Most of all, I wish for an end to the barriers that still restrict women. Then she'll have a better life than I did.

My understanding of the mother/daughter bond owes much to Paula J. Caplan's rich and provocative book Don't Blame Mother: Mending the Mother-Daughter Relationship. And speaking of books, you'll find lots of good reading ideas at Kerry Clare's blog, Pickle Me This.

Posted by Rona September 17, 2007 @ 3:10 AM. File in Mothers and daughters, On my mind, Women

 
 

Your comments

Number of Comments  5 responses to "A better life than hers"

 
Comment
Kerry
September 18, 2007 at 5:05PM
 
Hello Rona,

Thank you for such a thoughtful and thought-provoking post, though I must say you overstate my "domestic gifts". Rather I've come to terms with my limitations, and take joy in creating things no matter how imperfectly they turn out (oh and how imperfectly they usually do).

Amidst all this pie-making merriment, however, I do take both writing and feminism very seriously, which is the reason I was drawn to your book. I am not so naive to think that things have changed so much that your story has nothing to do with mine. I am very well aware that without women like you, where would we be? (And it bothers me that so many of my contemporaries are lacking this awareness).

I should be so lucky to say we need feminism no longer. When internationally the status of women is abysmal, and women are stalked in their beds in our own city, clearly something is awry. More close to home, I am never going to have the option of giving up full time work, particularly if I have children to support, and so it is going to continue to be important to me to have opportunities to achieve and be fulfilled at my job, and also to be accommodated in the future as a woman with children.

But I have no wish to spend my life fighting. If I "can't win", do I really want to play? Couldn't I play another game? I hold the phrase "how we spend our days is how we spend our lives" so close to my heart, and I want to spend mine in a way that makes me happy. Which is just it, and a luxury I know-- your generation made this possible, that I can decide how my days shall be filled, and how my life shall be defined. No predetermined idea of womanhood will do so, and even if it tries, there's a fight I will fight. And won't win, I wonder? Because I can't win, and so it goes and goes.

It does help that I have married the son of a woman who, though I'm not sure she's ever called herself a feminist, certainly embodies its politics, and instilled her son with its values. In my marriage I've never had to grapple with predetermined ideas of wifedom, and I have her to thank for that. Do note also that my tomatoes and peppers were the fruit of both our labours. And that though I am the pie crust expert, but my husband always makes the filling.

I look forward to reading more of your work,

Kerry

 
Reply
Rona Maynard
September 19, 2007 at 3:03 AM
 
I like Kerry's comment for its honesty and open-heartedness. The hardest thing about writing is saying what you mean, and she's shown me (no doubt unintentionally) that I didn't quite nail it in "A better life than hers." My concern was not that Kerry doesn't "get" feminism, but that so many younger women don't. In some respects, I'm only now grasping it myself. With many years of tough choices to look back on, I'm starting to see the cultural forces that were always exerting an influence. I wanted to believe I was the master of my fate, just as my mother did before me. No question, I had more options than she did (that was the great challenge of our relationship). But I didn't have quite the power to shape my own destiny that I thought I did. And I believe this is still true today.
 
Comment
Charlene Smith
October 01, 2007 at 9:09AM
 
I am going to agree and disagree with you.
We are shaped by what we know,experience and perceive.
I don't think being a bitch is the answer though for women.
I live by the old adage,you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.
I also believe that WOMEN themselves are the main problem.
Women are becoming their male counterparts that they bitch so much about.
They are demanding respect and consideration because they are women.
I don't agree with that at all. I respect people on their merits as a person,male or female.
You have to earn my respect,it's not given lightly.
I do have a daughter and granddaughter.
I am forever cautioning them about their own behaviour to wards boys and men.
It's a two way street.
If women want equality,then they need to earn it on their merit rather than just because they are a woman.
I am 44 and I can remember fighting for pay equity,equal pay for equal work[for anyone who doesn't know what it means].The problem I am having and many others is that woman are abusing all the things so many of us fought for.
Violence is a good example.All you hear is women being the victims of men's violence.Why are we not hearing about women's violence on men, other women or children?Why aren't we hearing about the effect's on their kids?
Being a step-mom of six boys from two different relationships and mom of 1 girl,I have watched the damage be done to too many kids.
In our new world of SELF first,we have destroyed the very foundations of commitment to others such as husbands and kids.
We have taught younger women that relationships are disposable.
So now we have a whole generation of unhappy people that don't have any of the skills they need to have a relationship with anybody other than theirselves and even then they aren't happy.
It is okay to want kids to have lives better than ours but I also believe we need to be cautious with what we are teaching them.
 
Comment
Sarah
February 07, 2008 at 10:10AM
 
"I am very well aware that without women like you, where would we be? (And it bothers me that so many of my contemporaries are lacking this awareness). "

Kerry, I loved your post. I think the above line in particular quite hit the proverbial nail right on the head. I really have enjoyed reading all of the responses in this thread.

I think that there are a lot of ironies of womanhood these days -- of life in general.

Women like Rona indeed paved the way for younger women (even us ladies in our 40s!). And they had to work harder and often at the expense of their children/families in order to advance in their respective careers, I think. I have an older sibling who will certainly attest to this.

I also see many career-oriented women who seem to be kind of demeaning themselves (I am trying to choose my words carefully here) in terms of public dress and verbal and non-verbal behaviour. I am not quite understanding this perception of mine however perhaps I should chalk it up to too much television and other media influences telling us what women should be. But that's another topic unto itself, I suppose.

 
Reply
Rona Maynard
February 07, 2008 at 2:02 PM
 
A lively thread, indeed. It catches me in a humble mood, because I'm reading Vera Brittain's rich, almost achingly poignant autobiography, Testament of Youth, about the losses she and her entire generation suffered during World War I and how they found the strength to endure. Even if she hadn't lost her lover, her brother and several dear friends to the trenches, Brittain would still have an incredible story to tell about combatting the barriers that faced women of her time, when nice girls weren't allowed to read the newspaper lest it corrupt their morals.Undaunted, Brittain went on to become a feminist leader and a widely published author. Now, there was a role model! Must get back to the book so I can tell you all about it when I'm finished...
 
Comment
Charlene Smith
February 07, 2008 at 11:11AM
 
I think part of the problem is we wanted it all,thought we could have it all and then we do get it,we aren't satisfied because we wonder what we missed.

I don't hink that woman realize that ,having everything can in fact equate to having nothing.

I have seen women repeatly cut down men,continuously pointing out their flaws yet never once pointing out their good points.[think husbands,we can ALL be guity of this!!]

Now I think what is women who have gained ground in society don't know what to do with the power they now have,so they abuse it.

I know I for one and sick of women using the'poor me I am a woman,so I am a victim crap"

I think women and girls need role models,not the kind you see in Hollywood .

You know the pathetic part of it though?

I am sitting here and I can't think of ANY!!!


 
Comment
Sarah
February 09, 2008 at 4:04AM
 
Rona,

I am ordering Vera Brittain's book as I write! Something my 15-year-old daughter can read after I finish it! Thank you.
 
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