This week, I'm thinking a lot about the shifting of paradigms that I've been experiencing over the past couple years, as a result of my studies in philosophy, and particularly in feminist philosophy. It's all sort of culminating in an interesting awakening that is affecting the way I understand and interact with my mother. If you don't mind a mixture of personal and theoretical, I'd like to write a bit about both.I've always had a difficult relationship with my mother. I always felt she was trying to control me, keep me from doing things I wanted to do, criticise me, repress my spirit, cleave me to her, etc. I was always a very independent child, and I couldn't stand the way she was raising me. I felt like I was always struggling to breathe, to move freely, to express myself and my ideas. For many years, I privately called her my Smother.
Surprisingly, I am a fairly private person. It's a wonder I'm divulging this information and disseminating my views publicly on this blog, but whatever. I always felt my mother was prying into my life, trying to get inside my head, and that she wanted to control me. So I always felt as though I had to hide myself from her; it was the only way I wasn't going to end up brainwashed! I know it sounds silly, but to a young girl, it makes perfect sense. I also thought she was trying to poison me: she was always feeding me food I hated and that made me feel sick. (I think I'm allergic to milk, which she made me drink a lot.)
When I was a teenager, my mother read my diary, and then confronted me about a crush I had on a boy she thought was inappropriate. She lied about where she learned the information, but I knew better; my next journal entry was all about what a nasty bitch my mother was. My diary soon disappeared.
So, invasions of privacy and control games were the underlying themes of my childhood and adolescence. I hated her, for other reasons too. It drove me crazy that she didn't work outside the home. I hated that she was always there; it felt like I had no space of my own, like there wasn't a moment of my life that wasn't supervised. At least my friends had some time to themselves when they went home from school; if I was too long walking home, my mother questioned me as to where I had been. I hated it.
I also hated that my mother seemed to not DO anything productive. She didn't work, but she volunteered with my choir; there again, I saw that as a way she could supervise me rather than as something she did because she enjoyed it. When she continued to volunteer with the choir long after I left it, I began to realize that she loved to hear the music and be a small part of that.
My mother always complained about money. I didn't understand why she didn't get a job if she was so concerned about finances. My father had a series of jobs he hated that didn't make a lot of money, and my mother complained about it all the time. Yet, when my father had a chance for a promotion in the military, she didn't want him to take it because it would mean moving, and she didn't want to do that because her parents weren't well. So dad left the military, and I think we both blamed Mom for that. If she didn't want to move, she shouldn't have married a service man.
My mom has always been overweight. She has arthritis, and complains constantly about the pain she is in. I always thought she exaggerated her discomfort for attention; it seemed any time I was sick, she had the same cold but worse. After I had a car accident that gave me severe whiplash, my mother still tried to one-up my pain. It became hard to believe her constant complaints – like the boy who called wolf. My sympathies hardened toward her. The best thing for arthritis is to be active and keep the joints moving, and to watch out for excess weight that puts more pressure on the joint. My mother has never exercised, and has never been able to stick to a diet – instead she has gained more and more weight over the years. I blamed her for being complicent in her health situation.
My ideas about my mother were in large part based on basic socio-political ideas of liberal individualism. Liberal individualism puts blame and praise on individuals for their actions, and is based on libertarian ideas of free will, autonomy, and equality. Liberal individualism holds that all people are equal, like blank slates, and have the same opportunities, and all have the ability to succeed through personal autonomy (self-rule), and therefore any failure to achieve success falls on a lack of motivation, lack of effort, lack of desire. Anyone can achieve anything if they only try hard enough.
Thanks to feminism, and in particular relational autonomy theory (I'll explain soon what I mean by this), these basic principles on which prevailing Western political thought is founded have become tired and cold in my mind. I have learned that liberal individualism simply isn't true – it is a myth perpetuated by a powerful minority to keep themselves in power. It simply isn't true that if you try hard enough, you will achieve success. The dice are loaded, the table is tilted, the cards are stacked – all in favour of the powerful minority, all against you, right from the start. Some people have more obstacles to overcome than others, and sometimes those obstacles are too challenging.
Oppression is built into the very social structures upon which Western society is founded: the law, the political system, cultural "tradition", religion, education, the institution of (heterosexual) marriage, science, and capitalism. Society talks out both sides of its mouth: on one side it says everyone is given the same opportunities and we can achieve anyhting we put our minds to, and on the other it says women must get married and have children and raise them. On one side, it says we are all equal, and on the other it says that Black people are violent criminals and that Jewish people are tight with money and that Native people are lazy alcoholics and that women are sluts. Oppression of all sorts prevents people from being able to reach their full potential by declaring some groups of people to be inherently inferior, but liberal individualism says every one is equal and blames individuals for their failings. Something is wrong with this picture.
Relational autonomy theory replaces emphasis on the individual with emphasis on social relationships. These theorists – one of whom, Susan Sherwin, I am lucky enough to have as a professor, and who just won a prestigious award for her work – claim that humans are not isolated individuals, but social creatures whose autonomy is affected by the relationships they have with other people. They see autonomy not as absolute, but as a matter of degrees, and as a set of skills that must be developed – and can only be developed within the context of social relationships. They also see relational autonomy as ongoing – we continue to have ongoing relationships that affect the way we view ourselves and continue to develop and grow. They argue that traditional accounts of autonomy are male-centred, celebrating masculine qualities such as independence and rational thought processes, and that this leaves out the possiblity for autonomy for many women, who are associated with dependence (on husbands, children and families) and emotion. While traditional accounts of autonomy seem to view autonomous persons as free from the influences of others, relational autonomy takes those influences into account and accepts that people (mostly women) often make decisions for themselves with the welfare of others in mind. Traditional accounts of autonomy would deem a mother who puts off her own needs for that of her children as non-autonomous, relational autonomy sees this as an autonomous decision. Conversely, traditional accounts of autonomy often overlook circumstances of oppression to deem a person's choice autonomous: for example, a common belief held about women who earn a living in the pornography industry is that it is their free choice to do that particular work and if they didn't want to they would find another job. Relational autonomy takes into consideration that people are subject to oppressive conditions, and would argue that the woman who makes a living making pornography likely has little other choice because of poor socio-economic positioning in society.
So, what does this stuff have to do with my mother? Well, I have really begun to look at my mother in a different light. Shortly after they were married, my father took a posting to Germany to advance his career, without consulting my mother. Because divorce was taboo in their christian atmosphere, and she didn't want to start her life over as a divorcee, my mom was forced to "choose" to move with him and gave up her promising career as a manager with IBM to move to Germany where she couldn't work because of language barriers. Then I was born. When we came back to Canada, my mom "chose" to stay at home to raise me – a long-standing cultural dictate for women. The longer she was out of the workforce, the more her skills became less useful/less marketable, and the harder it would have been to re-enter the workforce. So she stayed at home with me, an ungrateful child who didn't share her religious beliefs and wanted to be independent. I'm sure she felt displaced entirely. Because her parents became sick, and her sister had no intention of participating in their care (she lives in the U.S.), the affairs of her parents fell to my mother as well, and the common cultural expectation that women should care for their ailing relatives took hold. Mom wasn't able to move with Dad's posting/promotion, and so he made the "choice" to leave the military. Because their economic prospects were not the greatest, my mom didn't have access to a car to get around and run errands – although the bus stops outside our door, her arthritis made it difficult for her to get around. Being stuck in the house all day can't be fun.
I'm beginning to understand my mother a bit better, and my sympathies have shifted. She has lived for years under oppressive social norms and relationships that have kept her from living a life of her own. She feels powerless: she has contributed no "real" dollars to the household – never mind the unpaid house- and care-work she has done for 30 years. But money=power in a capitalist system, and her poor socio-economic status keeps her reliant on my father for everything since her marketable skills have deteriorated so much. I'm sure depression also plays a part, and her poor health is no help either.
I've learned to be more forgiving of my mother, and stop looking at her as an individual who has made her own bed and doesn't want to change. I've begun to see her as a woman who has been forced into a role that makes her feel powerless to change. So, all this theory really does have some practical use – I've begun to see my mother in a different light, and I have more respect for her than before. I also want to help support her in developing autonomy skills, although I'm less sure how to go about doing that. In any case, I feel more kindly toward my mother than I have in years, and I have feminism and relational autonomy theory to thank.