It was one of those shared posts and re-posts that came up on Facebook insisting it must be read. I’m a sucker for those things.
In it, a young woman performing at a slam poetry session is lamenting about how her mother is aging. The older her mother got, the young woman said, the less space she took up. She ate less — mostly cereal — and grew thinner. She grew so small that the house around her loomed larger.
And the father? Well, he was going great guns, thank you very much. Stomach expanding right along with his fast new social life featuring a younger girlfriend. Bigger and better and louder. No shrinkage at his end. You get the picture.
But it was her mother’s example the young woman struggled with — of course. It was a legacy handed down and dutifully absorbed by generation after generation of women: Don’t ask for much for yourself! Everyone else first! Don’t take up much space!
I listened to the performance and related to it and re-posted it. I accompanied the re-post with some kind of cringing remark about how I hoped I wasn’t this kind of shrinking, aging mother who was a horrible example to the world and more specifically to her kids (although, of course, being a mother, I am highly susceptible to guilt and figured I was probably guilty on all counts).
Performance re-posted, mea culpa issued, guilt wallowing going full throttle.
Hold on, sister.
After a little wallowing, I slowly changed my mind (an ability I think women are better at than men, but let’s talk about that next year).
Oh, sure, I know I haven’t been a perfect role model to my children — but that really isn’t the point. The point is, I had once again fallen into the same kneejerk reaction to the way the world worked. If men were expanding with age, this must be good. If women were contracting, this must be bad. As usual, women should be more like men — our default example of all that’s right in the world.
What are we — crazy? That kind of thinking led to those wretched little junior men suits business women wore in the 80s. Any idea that creeps out your wardrobe like that has got to be a mistake.
And the taking up space business? I’d read the studies on who hogged the armrests on planes. Men, of course. If you’re a woman between two men on a plane, you may well find yourself sans armrest. You’d better plan on open warfare.
This bit of wisdom once led me to sit in a middle seat between two men and weld my arms on either armrest, gritting my teeth the whole time. It was so uncomfortable, I developed a backache.
I didn’t even want both armrests, so why was I so intent on it? Because men did it automatically and it must be good, that’s why. If I got to be good at hogging armrests, then I’d probably become to the CEO of a major corporation in the near future. Wasn’t that worth a backache or two?
All of which — the junior men suits, the backaches, my failure to become a CEO — leads me to retract my whining mea culpa. Young woman: Maybe your mother, like many aging people, simply doesn’t want as much space as she used to require. Maybe she’s feeling a need to take up fewer resources, to live more thoughtfully and contemplatively at this point in life. Have you ever asked her? And have you ever questioned your tendency — and the tendency of most of the human race — to, when in doubt, blame your mother?
And speaking of blame: I don’t want to cast aspersions, but your dad sounds like the kind of guy I’d hate to sit next to on an airplane.
(Copyright 2014 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Please read Observations on Life From a Woman With a Cold