My mother considered herself a feminist. (She’s not dead, I just don’t talk to her any more and she might as well be.) She was also bipolar and had a difficult time communicating things in a way that made sense, even though she was intelligent and thoughtful about a lot of things.
Looking back on my childhood, I realize that there were messages she sort of tried to teach me, but didn’t effectively teach me at all. To me, it just looked like more things fitting into her patterns of erratic behavior, but now I understand why she behaved the way she did about me wanting to shave my legs and wear makeup, and why she didn’t mind walking around the house naked after a shower. A lot of my opinions were (unbeknownst to me) influenced by popular culture, so I looked down on her for some of it.
I first wanted to shave my legs and armpits when I was about 12. She stubbornly refused to let me for about a year, and I never just went and did it because she was abusive and generally I feared what would happen if I went against her directly, even if it had to do with my own body. All she ever said was that I was “too young” and that I “didn’t need to” shave my legs. It was never articulated, but now I think I understand her reasoning.
I wish she had been able to say, “Look, the reason you want to shave your legs is because that’s what you’ve learned is expected of women. It’s not considered normal or okay for women (even young teenagers) to have body hair, and you’ve absorbed that message from popular culture. I support you exploring what you like on your journey to adulthood, but please don’t feel like you have to change your body to meet anybody’s standards but your own.”
Note: I’m not a woman but I was AFAB and hadn’t yet figured out that I was trans, so our relationship operated as though she were raising a young woman.
When I wanted to wear makeup, the story went pretty much the same way. Even though I mainly just wanted to wear eyeliner because I was really into manga/anime and a lot of my favorite characters wore eyeliner, and I was just hitting my “emo” phase. She didn’t want me to dye my hair either, the reason being that it would “reflect poorly” on her and the other things I was doing at the time, namely my participation in Job’s Daughters. My dad let me dye my hair because he was actually supportive of me exploring my identity. I wish she had asked why I wanted to do those things and helped me understand how they fit into expectations of beauty standards for women. Alas, I was just told No.
It always really bothered me that she would be naked in the house, in front of me and/or my brother. That, combined with her serial monogamy, led me to label her a Slut and grew the hatred I felt toward her. Didn’t she understand boundaries? Didn’t she understand that I didn’t want to see my mom naked? Any of the conversations we had about it basically ended with “I gave birth to you, you came out of me and you shouldn’t be bothered by it.” We never discussed how you shouldn’t be ashamed of nudity or of the way your body looks. I wish she had been able to tell me that that was a message I absorbed from a sex-negative culture. (But also it would be cool if she understood boundaries or cared about what made me uncomfortable.)
Now that I’m an adult and poly, I realize that she probably ought to have been poly. She cheated on people and said things like “I love him but I’m not in love with him.” I hated her for it, because she was promiscuous and betraying people’s trust. I wish that she had at least explained that having a lot of sexual partners doesn’t devalue who you are as a person. I think she might have exchanged sexual favors for drugs a few times, and I looked down on her for that, too. I wish she had ever talked about sex work with me.
One time, I took a shower in her bathroom and freaked the hell out when I saw her vibrator in there. I thought it was dirty, I thought she was dirty, because of the number of her sexual partners. Again, I wish we had ever talked about sexual desire and the health of masturbation and how you don’t have to stick with one or two sexual partners over the course of a lifetime.
Straying from the feminist messages, she also didn’t let me or my brother play with toy guns or knives. Which, unfortunately, means I never had Nerf guns or anything like that. At the time it just seemed like draconian fun-ruining, but now I get that she didn’t want us to treat violence lightly. (Although I remember watching her play Grand Theft Auto on plenty of occasions…)
She didn’t let us call each other “stupid,” which I now understand is because she didn’t want us to put each other down over our intelligence. She had bipolar and obviously knew how painful it could be to have your brain not work the right way. However, she did let us call each other “retarded,” which is a hypocrisy I can’t understand now that I’m more knowledgeable about ableism and neurological phenomenon like autism.
Above all, I wish we ever had a real conversation about her illness and how it affected her behavior. At the time, I just labelled her “crazy” and called her Satan behind her back. I knew that she was often noncompliant with her prescription medication and that she self-medicated with marijuana. I was a child being abused and I couldn’t understand why she was the way she was.
There are a lot of things I wish had gone differently over the course of my childhood, but I’m trying to recognize that I still ended up a pretty cool person. I understand now how important body image is, and how stupid society can be about that stuff, and how awful it is to label someone a slut because of how many people they’ve had sex with. I understand now that people with mental illnesses aren’t entirely responsible for their behavior. And I’m learning to love myself even though I have depression and sometimes my instabilities mirror hers.
Sorry for the length and personal nature of the post, but thanks for sticking it out with me. Does anyone else have similar experiences with parents who tried to teach good messages but didn’t quite manage to?