Wednesday, September 14, 2016

you gave me backbone

and if I could I'd go back further
to the times before I knew you
to the pictures that sometimes scream inside my head
as if there are some kinds of sadness even you cannot contain
I'd hold your hand there in that shadowy darkness
whisper that it will be ok
we'll be together soon
--Mother, by Alvy Carragher

My "field research" over the entire year has been the relationship between mothers and daughters. As I witness interactions between friends and their mothers, my sisters and our mothers, or other mother-daughter pairs in general, I have been jotting down mental notes.

The relationship of mothers and daughters is anything but easy. There is, it seems, a toxic but inevitable play of resentment and guilt that colors the deep intimacy of mother and daughters.

As a daughter, you know that you have inherited the world from someone. This world is given to you from a certain perspective, we come into the world already carrying our parents' baggage, and the sins of our parents certainly bear fruit in us. How could they not? We do not experience the world as an impersonal laboratory or a pleasant vacuum of nature. Our world is, quite literally, the people we are born to. We first enter the world contained inside the body of another. How could we not be affected by her beating heart, her nightmares, her laughter, the food she eats, the emotions that run through her fingers and her spine, and the stories that she carries with her each day. We are captive to this person. We cannot ask or choose our parents, we are given to them, and from the very beginning of our journey, our course is marked by particularities we cannot control.

How can you not resent these imperfect creatures for being imperfect? How can you not despise their scars, because you see them reflected so clearly in your own heart?

From all my research, I have found that mothers feel immense guilt for not being perfect. It makes so much sense. We see our anxieties and imperfections begin to mark our children; how could we not hate ourselves for being absolutely, vitally perfect?

But we inherit so much more than a set of qualities from our mothers. We do not simply inherit blue eyes and genetic predispositions for anxiety. We inherit from them a story, a living story that we are part of. We are born into a narrative. Like all stories, it is full of pain and imperfections. It is full of scars, wounds, and sadnesses. And we are born into a wound. Our very birth creates a wound inside our mother's body. Our arrival in the world is marked from the start with woundedness.

But how miraculous that our arrival is not into a company we must earn to keep. We are born into a web of relationship even as we breach. From birth, our identities are etched with a character we did not ask for. Our very self is fraught with meanings we never intended, but were born into.

We are born into the world our mothers made for us.

Even in the hurt, the family bickering, and the pain, there is something beautiful in all that.

My mother would say little on the way home,
her eyes now and then filling with tears.
Perhaps she was thinking of that garden,
the one she tried to replicate year after year,
every last pole bean and zinnia,
the one she left to me.
--Mothers and Daughters, Jo McDougall

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