My future daughter is haunting me. This isn’t a pregnancy announcement, more of a confession. Since going off birth control I’ve steeped myself in an introspective process to ready my mind, body, and spirit for the potential of bringing forth human life into the world. I’ve always known I wanted kids but never felt that desperate for them. It’s not as though my one true desire was to be a mother, but have more so sensed a cosmic order to help young women more generally speaking. The prospect of leading and influencing young women has motivated a lot of my creative work (though there has always been the selfish reward of sorting through my own inner clutter in the process). But the idea of raising a single young woman, a daughter, presents itself as what I would imagine to be my greatest challenge and reward as a woman.
Mother daughter relationships are complicated, so very complicated. When they are healthy and functional, she may feel she has a blood-related best friend. Many women look to their mothers as their greatest source of inspiration. Many also feel their mothers are their greatest adversaries. Or, horror of horrors, the very source of their pain and abuse.
I remain convinced that women see people ever so more clearly than men do. We fear women, as a societal generalization, because of the power we know they wield. As Adrienne Rich puts it, “Most of us first know both love and disappointment, power and tenderness, in the person of a woman.” Her book Of Woman Born was my first purchase at the outset of this prospective mothering journey. Fuck the fluff, I want the feminist, philosophical tough talk; the controversial truth. Becoming a mother is the most significant decision you could make (or decision that could be forced on you, in an unfortunate increasing number of instances). It’s not one that should be made blindly, or fool heartedly, or even optimistically for that matter. Should we not want the truth, the real truth, of the contours and texture of this transition?
In any case, that perspective lead me into the pages of Of Woman Born and to the fear of my future daughter’s judgement. Daughters can be the harshest critics of their mothers. There is no denying the stark difference between a mother-son and mother-daughter relationship, of equal magnitude and influence, but of entirely different genres.
My best friends and I all have, shall we say, Complicated Mothers. They suffer from mental illness and while on the one hand loving, radical women, they’ve each cut into our lives a deep scar. One has bipolar disorder and a wrathful tongue. More than once they have come to blows. Another anxiety and alcoholism with periods of unrelenting harassment that drags the entire family into a spiral. And finally my own; often immobilized and joyless from major depressive disorder that has also greatly contributed to her near poverty. I’ve often felt the strongest tie that bonds the three of us is our shared understanding of life with a Complicated Mother. There is an ‘us’ and ‘them’ aspect to disfunction; we speak the same language amongst us three. There is no need to explain the amalgam of equal parts love, admiration, fear, and disgust.
But as I read Adrienne Rich, and as a I grow further into “womanhood”; as I find myself with more of the societal responsibilities of a “mother” (for one can “mother” without any children at all); as the apocryphal impulse to create a comfortable living environment and happy memories seems to reach me from some perpetual and secret place; as I negotiate the awe and frustration of growing life and relinquishing the freedom of my body and time, I understand these Complicated Mothers more and more.
We induce mania in women by submitting them to the absurdity of our expectations of them. My dad says that to be Black is to never be surprised. I would add that to be a woman is to reckon with the absurd – and then be forced to say out loud that all is normal; to then wade through the fog of wanting the very things that pin you in place. It’s a house of mirrors in which it’s hard to trust your own reflection. Is that really what you look like? What you want?
In The Second Sex Simone de Beauvoir positions the purpose of human life in existential terms by saying all of life is a pursuit of freedom and that we are perpetually transcending our own experience toward greater and greater freedom, or at least attempting to. It’s what makes the question ‘what do you want’ such an apt and challenging one. Loaded into what we say we want are the societal parameters we believe to govern what we can even conceive to want. For that reason, Adrienne Rich believes, “The quality of the mother’s life – however embattled and unprotected – is her primary bequest to her daughter.” The full quote reads:
This quote has wrapped its arms around me. I’ve felt this for so long in disparate threads; small pieces of this very same idea floating unconnected over the years. It’s why I’ve always felt that, despite all the challenges I faced growing up, and all the challenges my family still faces today, the only thing I truly ever want from my mother is for her to find her own way towards happiness and fulfillment. The pressure that would release from my psyche brings me to tears. I have achieved so much to be proud of, and material accomplishments aside am rooted firmly in a life of hedonism that allows me to forsake no small pleasure on this road to larger ambitions. But my heart can expand no further than this woman’s suffering.
It is this fact that has me in fear of my future daughter. In due time, she will discern all of my mechanisms, unravel all that I have spun. She likely won’t view me the way I view myself. What part of my identity will belong only to her? What part of myself that I’m unable to see will she wear in a locket around her neck? I feel an immense pressure to be the type of woman this future, non-existent person would look to to assess her own sense of limitless possibility and be sent soaring. She haunts my days, a specter assessing my potential. Within me exists her mother, like a nesting doll. Her birth will be a passage for the both of us.
They say a woman’s body connects heaven to earth. May our daughters be our deliverance.