I’ve been trudging around in the swampland of Reconciliation lately. Different parts of me stuck at different places, flailing around in various ways. And feminism, my feminism has helped me find my way.
Thirty years ago my mom left. This is how I’ve always understood what happened and how we speak of it in my family, two simple words: mom left. I was nine years old at the time, my brother six. And thirty years later, a mother to three children myself, this truth continues to shape me and my relationships in deep and haunting ways. Even now.
I am still surprised and frustrated at the constant work involved in making sense of my mom’s leaving and all that meant and continues to mean. So often I have thought that I have reconciled these feelings. Worked through them, overcame. And yet, I am constantly reminded that this is a process. Reconciliation is a verb.
And so here I am, a mother, a child. Still trudging.
A few days ago I was beckoned to my swamplands once again; I knew it had been coming. I was sitting across the dinner table from my mom (who now lives nearby) and teenage daughter, watching the two of them argue. They both glanced at me periodically, eyes rolling at each other and yet I could offer nothing. I was gone, lost in myself. So in those moments as I watched the heated scene unfold, these two people morphed from my mother and daughter into strangers whom I did not know or understand. Who did not know or understand me. I could feel nothing for them.
In my earliest days of motherhood, I remember cradling my firstborn (now my thirteen-year old) and vehemently vowing to her—amidst her wails that I would not ever, ever leave her. I actually recall feeling self-righteous as I whispered into her tiny ear, “I’ll stay here forever. I’ll always be here. You can count on me.” Half an hour or so later, while she was still crying, I was compelled to try another approach. I laid her down, in her crib. She immediately quieted. Calm. I learned in that instance that she was her own person. I had been telling her the truth I needed to hear. In doing so, I couldn’t hear her’s.
I understand that I must continuously revisit my own pain and grief so that I might work through it, and disrupt its hold on me. Otherwise, it defines me. Otherwise, I cannot act as my whole self. Otherwise, my actions are driven by my darkness. This is difficult and exhausting. It means that I’ll never be done with my stuff. It means that I’ve got to work to be honest with myself about the baggage I bring to each moment so that I might experience it fully, receiving all that moment offers. Otherwise, I fail to see, hear, love an other.
Thirteen years after attempting to hush my baby with my own reassurances, I am still learning so much about myself as I parent. Honestly, it’s a lot harder these days. My baby, now a thirteen year-old, has learned how to push my buttons with skilled expertise and it takes so much energy and care to not react blindly. The authors of “Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting” put it beautifully:
“Being a parent is particularly intense and demanding in part because our children can ask things of us no one else could or would, in ways that no one else could or would. They see us up close as no one else does, and constantly hold mirrors up for us to look into. In doing so, they give us over and over again the chance to see ourselves in new ways, and to work at consciously asking what we can learn from any and every situation that comes up with them. We can then make choices out of this awareness that will nurture both our children’s inner growth and our own at one and the same time.” (p26)
I do firmly believe that if I can be present and open, I can love in revolutionary and transformational ways. That kind of love changes the world. That kind of love changes everything.
Feminism taught me this. Feminism taught me that in working against oppressive systems that silence, marginalize, dehumanize that we must first be present with ourselves. We cannot see others fully unless we work out our own stuff. We must be whole. We must be open. We must be nonjudgmental. Otherwise, our actions will perpetuate our own pain and hurt for we are acting from that dark place.
Feminism has also taught me that this work is a process. Like reconciliation, presence and feminism are verbs. So in efforts to disrupt oppressive forces, to join with others in ending injustice, we must be vigilant in our self-critique. I’ve thought a lot about this lately, in my attempts to practice intersectional feminism, in my attempts to be an ally.
On allyship: Mia McKenzie (Black Girl Dangerous) makes this point beautifully:
“The work of an ally is never ceasing. As long as the isms are functioning–and they are functioning at full capacity every hour of every day–then the action of allyship must function just as perpetually, just as fully, just as tirelessly. “Ally” cannot be a label that someone stamps onto you–or, god forbid, that you stamp on to yourself—so you can then go around claiming it as some kind of identity. It’s not an identity. It’s a practice. It’s an active thing that must be done over and over again, in the largest and smallest ways, every day.”
Unfortunately, too often this is not how allyship and/or feminism operate. While feminism has helped me make sense of my world and how to be in it differently, feminism has also failed me, fails me. As a static identity or framework, feminism becomes a shell of itself, distracting from and undermining its social change efforts. As someone who is a professional feminist working in a campus-based women’s center, I experience (and perpetuate) this betrayal all too often. And it makes sense since feminism is born out of pain and injustice. Many times, this pain is personal. Therefore, there’s a good chance—without some trudging around in those swamplands—that this practice will be self-serving. No need to spend more time on this here, read this criticism of current mainstream feminism by Trudy in Gradient Lair.
Because of my feminism, I am committed to routinely returning to my swampland; feminism helps me realize when I need to do some work. Feminism also creates for me a roadmap while I’m “in it”, drawing connections between my personal experiences and political ones. So as I make sense of how to be present as a parent, I also consider how to be present as an ally, as a feminist. And these considerations are as political and revolutionary as they get.
So as I’ve been trudging through Reconciliation, I knew a conversation with my mom was necessary for me to actually move. A couple of nights ago, I shared with her that I was working through some of this. I told her I was still angry and hurt that she left. And as I sit here writing this, I have to admit that I’m feeling pretty proud of myself.
And that is exactly why I have to keep writing.