What does it mean that the women in my family lose their memory as they age? This is something I’ve thought about a lot as my mother struggles with this problem, just as my grandmother did.
An ex- boyfriend's mom was going through the same, while we dated. And I recently met another friend’s mother who’s experience echoes my mother’s. These women are all about the same age and I was reminded of a discussion my ex and I had. He had a theory that our moms were losing their memory because they had lost their voice - in a culture that refused to hear them. That is not to say that these women don't speak... they do... plenty... but are they heard?
I find myself frequently frustrated by this problem. I'll say something but it isn't heard until a few seconds later when someone else repeats it. Suddenly my idea is not mine. Is it the tenor of my voice? Is it that I doubt my words? Is it a systemic problem, so deep in our subconscious that we women are unaware of it and at the same time, participate in it?
I read this article yesterday. It talks about the silencing of senior women in academia. Instead of being sought out for advise or assistance, women of a certain status or age are silenced and marginalized. And not just by men. These things have happened to me. A young woman in my building told me recently that everyone in the building thought I was "crazy" after I had chosen to expose a problem that involved her. It happened in grad school too. A deliberate undermining by some young women in my class... Why? I was stepping outside of my boundaries? Had too much to say? Needed to be brought down a few pegs? It was ironic in an academic setting, designed to help us find our voice and open our minds. It was my teacher, a man, and the Chair of our program who recognized the pattern and brought it to my attention. I was grateful for the wake-up call.
I worked as an RN for 13 years before having the opportunity to be a full-time mom, sort of, (I also ran several successful cottage industries and eventually found art while working at home). But the kids were my primary focus and the center of my universe. I managed everything. I bought into the myth that I could do it all, be super woman but I always worried I wasn't doing enough.
I made sure they felt loved and let them know that they were being watched, that someone knew where they were at all times. Yes, this is where the trouble started. I was that helicopter mom. I feared I would miss something significant, that at a pivotal moment, looking the other way, something tragic would happen. They would agree that I was a bit much and I was systematically shut out... "Mom!" "Give me a break!" "Can I have some money? :)) " "Stay out of my business?" "You don't know anything!"
Or something like that... I said much the same to my mother. It was a necessary part of becoming an individual. The breaking of the bond that held us so close that I felt like they were part of my skin. Everything that happened to them, good or bad, happened in my body. They had to shed me. Or more accurately, chop me out... with sharp instruments. Layer by layer, they shattered and discarded my protective coating. And the silence. NO! You can't know what I think, how I feel, what I'm doing, you don't know anything!
It was traumatic. I'm sure you've heard the saying ... Motherhood is the only job where, if you succeed, you are fired, become obsolete. What happens to mom when the kids go off to college and never return to the nest? Fortunately in the early 2000's, that wasn't a problem. My fellow mom-friends and I had all gone to college before children. This was a privileged position I found myself in. Each of us found work outside of the home.
For many in my mom's generation, working outside home did not happen, for a number of reasons. What were their choices? My mom had been a secretary before marrying. She was literally and routinely chased around the desk by her boss. (Think Mad Men). Sexual harassment was rampant, expected and tolerated. Put up with it, or years of school were wasted and she would not have a job. There was no going back to that kind of work and she didn't have to. My dad made enough money and they continued their pursuit of a middle-class lifestyle. Both had grown up in Dorchester, an "Irish Slum" south of Boston, with no money, huge families, white skin and hope for an easier future. (I mention white skin in recognition that these transitions and choices weren't as easy, or even possible for some people of color.) They experienced the American Dream of the 1950's - nice home, nice car, successful offspring, ordered lifestyle, everyone in their place.
These women stayed in the home, caring for their households and husbands. But they were frustrated. The 60's happened under their feet... and Women's Lib. They were a generation wedged between tradition and shifting cultural expectations. A necessary critique of the domestic was underway and in its wake, those who occupied that space were now being diminished, by women as well.
"If you don't use it, you lose it" is an adage I remember hearing from a Gerontologist I worked with in Boston. The idea had to do with maintaining bodily functions and memory. If you don't walk every day, your muscles deteriorate and then you can't walk. If you don't continue to learn something new or stretch yourself with new ideas, your mental capacity diminishes. We hear a lot about neuroplasticity in popular culture. It's the brain's ability to develop new neural connections through work that challenges the mind.
But what happens if you are silenced, if your ideas aren't heard?
My mother has railed against the silence the same way she fights memory loss. It makes her angry. I have watched her struggle to express herself my entire life. I can remember thinking when I was younger, that she had nothing important to say. I dismissed her. Her tears welled up when she spoke, especially when the words were significant. Her throat, constricted, made speaking near impossible. She shut herself down, cut off her own voice, silenced. I often do the same. It's brainwashing. It comes from that diminishing that still lives in my body, despite years living outside of it, despite awareness. My body "knows" that what I have to say is not important, even when my brain says "YES IT IS!"... it shuts me down.
In this lifetime, there will be men who talk over us, diminish us, men who refused to engage in the tough conversations or run away when they start but what responsibility do we bear as women? Will we hear the stories of our mothers, our elders, the sage, the wise woman? Who will hear our stories?
My mom recently told me that this is my life's work, figuring out the silence and the memory loss that accompanies it. I would say it is the work of our generation. Or memory loss is our future.
The art I make honors the domestic space and the wise women of my family. Studying herbalism has allowed me to retrieve the knowledge of my Irish ancestors- powerful women, enmeshed in the domestic and the community - the healer, shaman, wild woman, witch. But herbalism is not just about medicine, it is about looking at the issues we face as individuals and as a culture. Our bodies mirror our thoughts. My hearing has started to go. I have tinnitus, a ringing in my ears. I'm having trouble hearing...
I don't listen to my mother enough. Perhaps it also comes from the tendency to silence myself. Or maybe knowing that I am not heard.
I hope it's not too late.