Our first understanding of “how-things-are” comes from our first family. Yes, people grow up and form their own opinions of “how-things-are”, but I believe our “insignificant” auto-pilot behavior is learned early on in life. We learned it from our parents, who learned it from their parents.
I sat down today and drew a family tree. The first thing that jumped at me was that except for my paternal grandfather, everyone is a first born. My mother and both my grandmothers are. I’d describe them all as supportive sacrificing maternal figures. I hate to say it but they all, even with their starkly different personalities, really fit the first-daughter stereotype. I truly feel they put themselves last on a virtual priority list, compromised their own needs and wishes and endured a lot of personal sacrifice. Both my grandfathers where quite imposing men with a very patriarchal attitude to “how-things-are”. They had the last word in their household. Decision-making, money and control is the man’s territory.
To be fair, I’ve never seen Dad boss Mom around and till this day, I am not sure how the decision making went in our family. But my mother reflected very clearly her own up-bringing, referring to my father as the figure of authority in our family. From my point of view, he was the final reference point so to speak. Reflecting back on this, I do not see my Dad really as the one aggressively demanding this role, it seems more like they just both fell into it. This makes sense, seeing they both came from families where the man called the big shots.
My grandfather (Mom’s Dad) believed strongly in his daughters’ higher education. I always found this very admirable, particularly because he had 7 daughters to feed, and was living in a period where not many women went to universities. It IS admirable but now, as an adult, many of the statements I remember him saying strike me in a different way. He wanted his daughters to get degrees not just for the education itself, but as a protection in case they end up with, well, an asshole. With a higher education they will be able to fend for themselves in case he could not. He went as far as dictating in his will that his youngest daughter should not marry before finishing her degree.
He was also extremely protective of his daughters, in a suffocating manner. They were allowed very little freedoms, and he was the designated chauffeur whenever they needed a drive anywhere. This was happening in to an utterly ridiculous extent. I clearly remember him waiting entire days as he drove my youngest aunt back and forth (an hour drive each way) to her university in a different city.
Literally speaking, he did not want to let them out of his sight. And I imagine my mother and grandmother suffered greatly in such over-protection. I have no idea if fights broke out and they attempted to break free. I know at least my mother failed to break free. She remained extremely scared of unknown situations and worried excessively about what should be mundane interactions with other people. I regret so much never having had the chance to ask her about this. I was too young and self-absorbed to realize where she is coming from.
I also regret not knowing why my grandfather was so protective and scared for his girls. When in a pleasant mood, he was a friendly and warm man, very perceptive of other people. I do know that his own father died young and he (my grandpa) had to quit his own education as a physician, get a job as an Arabic teacher, to support his mother and sisters. It does explain why he valued education so highly but why the fear that his daughters must be protected at all times. Perhaps he resented having to quit his education and support his first family and wanted that his daughters never suffer the same fate as his own mother. It still does not shed light on the over-protectiveness issue.
Mom never ever told me that as a woman, I am weaker or in need of a man. She was proud of my self-assertiveness and rebellious disposition. The way she lived her own life was a different story. And try as one can, you cannot escape the messages your parents sent you in everyday life.
Many times I felt that I am rebelling not just for myself, but for my mother. I don’t want this to sound as some sort of noble effort on my part. The way I rebelled was not noble at all. But I rebelled against that image of “how-things-are”. I rebelled against the idea that as a woman, I am inherently weaker and in need of protection. But my rebellion has been haphazard and without direction. Unconscious rebellion one might say. The anger led and I followed blindly. I want to change course. I want to use the anger to understand why, then carve out a path out of it.