In the wake of all the chatter, horror, outrage and ridicule concerning the recent US election, my mother’s remark hit me like a sledgehammer.
In shock, I politely made conversation on a different subject for a few minutes, then took my leave. There was no point in rising to the bait. I was exhausted, having just tried, with barely suppressed irritation, to explain that Hillary and Trump are not as bad as each other. (To someone who, being a foreigner all her adult life, has never voted nor ever shown much interest in politics.) I don’t like Hillary; that is not the point. I had just tried, as well, to defend Theresa May (not that I like her either) against some of the crasser, uninformed accusations my mother levelled at her. To me, it sounded as though she was just parroting the expostulations of her partner, a nice enough bloke but a more or less typical Daily Mail reader, it seems to me. Even though he reads The Times.
And then, defiantly, my mother came out with it: ‘At least he’s a man!’
Shtum! The shutters came down. I could not go there.
I’ve been afraid, even in the weeks since, to really examine this, so I am finally typing here to see what happens.
If you had asked me, before, I’d have said that I was brought up to believe without question that I could do anything a boy could do; grow up to do anything a man could do. (I had come to feel I was sold down the river, actually, as nobody ever talked about motherhood or how exactly one could have it all.) So what is this fresh input? How does it fit in, if at all?
A third daughter, I used to joke about how my little brother was the longed for and indulged son. In the context of my dad, now I come to think of it, not my mother. I was my mother’s first biological child; my sisters, though they lived with us, were from my father’s first marriage. But I don’t think that was why I never thought of my mother possibly preferring a son. Looking back, it was more that my dad was a man, and although he never said any such thing in my hearing, I think I assumed that a man would want to have a son. Which is fair enough. I felt, even when my brother came along five years after me, that I had to do the things a son might. Good at school and so on (why does this somehow seem like a masculine thing?). My sisters the same. Not because we were wannabe boys. Because being clever and good at school was something to be lauded, irrespective of gender.
So where does my mother come from, now I am in my 50s, with this ‘at least he’s a man’?
She does like to provoke, but if this is how she really feels and has maybe always felt, how has that affected me growing up?
I’ve avoided thinking too much about this.
My mother was always in awe of my dad, who was older, educated, divorced, travelled and relatively wealthy. (Not to mention that she had no father and for much of her childhood, effectively no mother. She left school, went out to work and supported her younger brother through university. ‘At least he’s a man?’) She must have felt inferior the whole time. We children probably didn’t help. There was, as I mentioned before, very much an atmosphere of academic snobbery, and my mother came out worst. I think she found us alien; quite likely (it occurs to me for the first time), she envied us. Our education, our careers, our opportunities. I think she has been frustrated and depressed her whole life.
My dad, as I have said before, was a difficult man. And my mother was set up to be in awe of him. He died almost 30 years ago. Before long my mother had this new partner. He is not a bit like my dad. But my mother has fallen into a similar pattern. Perhaps exacerbated by her increasing poor health and frailty, possibly fearing his leaving her; while appearing increasingly frustrated by him, she struggles to her feet to put mean meals in front of him and, like a martyr, iron his shirts, while he lives in her home. (I’m not saying he contributes nothing.) Yes, as I write this, I do recognise myself as wife – though we had someone to do the ironing and housework, which only contributed to my feelings of redundancy.
If I was unknowingly, subconsciously and by the back door subjected to misogyny from my own mother, while believing myself to be such an emancipated, modern girl, then…
Well, apart from anything else, it makes much more sense that I hero-worshipped a man. It would go some way to explaining why I nailed my colours to his mast and did not assert my own beliefs and fears when they conflicted with his.
Donald Trump, from what I have seen of him, is a grotesque, overgrown toddler, petulant and greedy (as my toddlers, by the way, never were). I have found it impossible to imagine what anyone can see in him other than their own furthering in some way or other. Yet somehow I can begin to see a possible irrational explanation why such a great many women might have voted for him. They may not admit it to themselves, they may kid themselves, as part of the deal, and because of the way they were brought up, that he must be smarter than they are. Because he tells them so. And because at least he’s a man.
It is hardly news to suggest that sexism was largely to blame for the result, but until now I didn’t get it. Didn’t realise the extent to which women collude, and to which I might also be guilty of similar collusion.
One of the first things that the couples counsellor said to us was ‘You are both colluding in a lie: that [he] is clever and [me] is stupid’. I was told this four years ago. There has, God knows, been plenty of evidence since of his not being the full ticket. In the face of which I still somehow persist in trying to mould things to maintain the belief that he must be clever and I must be stupid. How stupid of me.
I have been wondering why, when I was encouraged at home, and went on to prove myself in many ways, I grew up thinking I was stupid and clung to the notion. It did not occur to me that it might have been simply a question of gender.
And what about my children?
Image: a card sent by a friend: support bras.