This morning in the shower I was talking to Dan (yes, I know we’re unnatural that way, but it’s often the only time we have for conversation. Used to be the only place the boys couldn’t follow to interrupt us) about identity, loss of identity and loss of self.
Part of this was that we’re in the (Please, Lord) final push to get the boys out and on their own. While Robert isn’t out, he’s effectively off our hands by Summer and off our responsibility completely by Summer next year. Marshall… well, because of stupid scheduling tricks, he won’t graduate till Summer next year and he’s actually expensive. We’ll see if he succeeds in finding something for the summer, something (part time) for next year, or just gets his typesetting off the ground. But one way or another, he’s an adult, and so our work is more or less done, save for a final trailing off of financial support.
The point being — since we’d just referenced the days when we couldn’t go to the grocery store without one of the boys at least — that our role as parents is coming to an end. I mean, we’ll always be the boys’ parents, but it can’t be our identity anymore, unless we want to drive them and us insane.
I’m also, as some of you know, making a huge change in my professional identity. Which I had to explain to Dan (because it’s not intuitive) has always been a great part of my self image, because I grew up convinced no one would ever be stupid enough to marry me. Therefore, like males, I built my identity around what I can do and my career. (Which caused me massive problems while motherhood was eating my life, because I felt like a lazy bum.)
The comment about marrying always brings people up short. I know (now) that I’m still not incredibly ugly, (with weight loss I’m becoming downright comely. Maybe even cute for my age) and was very pretty as a young woman. So why would it require a man to be stupid to marry me…
The answer ties in with Portuguese society and the fact I used to make most Portuguese young men run screaming into the night. (In fact, I never dated a Portuguese male. Ever. I came close a couple of times, if I’d known how to read signals, which I didn’t, but never in a relationship.)
The reason is… complicated.
First, opinions on whether or not I’m on the autistic spectrum vary. Some people are vehemently sure I’m not, just as others are sure I am. One of the people who knows me best and has knowledge of the neurological issue thinks I am, but I became REALLY good at faking, to the point it’s hard to tell.
Me? I don’t have an opinion, because I can’t see myself from outside. OTOH I incline (slightly) to “I’m not, I’m just WEIRD.”
Here’s the thing: Portugal is a highly gendered society and even in these ‘enlightened’ days reflexively patriarchal.
What I mean is despite all the “women’s lib” and a loosening of sexual behavior norms (and more on that, because it’s not the “liberation” it’s preached to be) things like women riding in the back of the car if there’s a male in the group who will obviously get the front passenger side, or women being naturally accorded less weight in decisions, or… it’s there. It’s reflexive. It’s so deep no one thinks about it.
Portugal is still so patriarchal that the frail blossoms who think the US is a patriarchy would have a mental breakdown if transported to Portugal and forced to live the way normal people (not tourists) live. (They’d probably explode on contact in most Arab countries. That’s something else.)
In my day, now almost half a century in the past (from when I became aware of it) it was more obvious, in your face and completely unapologetic.
Things like the fact I wore pants as a kid (mostly because mom was convinced cold air on my legs would make me sick, since I was so sickly. Yes, I know, never mind) or didn’t have pierced ears made people very uncomfortable. This despite the fact that I had hair down to my behind and wore braids. Because women and PARTICULARLY girls had to absolutely fit the standard image. No take backs, no excuses, no variations.
Of course, this also had to do with the fact that Portugal was a country under economic and social stress pretty much the whole time I lived there. Countries and societies under stress enforce conformity.
It wasn’t that I rebelled against the role of women. Or the rules for girls. That I think they could have understood. The rebel is part of the panoply of compliance. Some go along, some rebel. Completely understandable.
It’s more that I never bothered paying attention to the rules and never knew were the boundaries were. Or if I knew it never occurred to me, not for a moment, that any of that applied to me. Yeah, sure, I knew the rules, in theory. But what the heck did any of that have to do with my LIFE and who I was?
Part of it was that my family was already fairly odd. It never occurred to me till enough remarks from strangers pierced through the shell, that women who read were weird. Sure, mom hated my reading. But dad and grandma were cool with it, my brother thought it was normal, and why would anyone mind? In the same way, it never occurred to me I shouldn’t read science fiction. My brother did and I found it fascinating, so I read it. Sure, I read my cousin’s romances, too. But they weren’t as much fun, and had a marked lack of spaceships and other planets, which was a downcheck against them, of course.
The fact that most women and girls spent their time making lace or embroidering or something struck me as downright weird. Now, part of this might have been that I had the same sensory issues younger son had (only at the time no one could/would diagnose them.) I remember it was hard to write on a line till 14 or so. And I had taste and touch anomalies (including being convinced any knit fabric was “prickly.”) It wasn’t until I saw son’s issues that I realized I’d probably had them. And girls grow out of them earlier. So most handicrafts women did were impossible to me till about 14. At which point I started doing cross stitch and making stuffed animals. But I did that because I enjoyed them. Not for my trousseau.
I completely missed that handicrafts are such a part (or were) of Portuguese womanhood that mom was left with nothing to brag on to the other matrons of the village. I mean, sure, I was in college, had won a couple of writing contests, had a poetry chapbook published, but where was my lace? my embroidery? my exquisitely made apron or kitchen adornment?
Meh. Even when I started doing handicrafts, I usually did them while reading and watching TV or talking. And I was as likely to make a tablecloth for a friend’s wedding gift as to make a batch of “lucky frogs” (I should post a picture of Carlos, who was my first stuffed animal and has been with me my whole life. In fact, when I’m sick Dan brings it to the hospital to look after me.) Including the famous yellow polkadotted one with a pink tongue that caused my brother to ask me if I was drunk.
In the same way in my interaction with people I tended to think of me as me, not a frail flower of femininity. Or even a woman who either complied or rebelled against the standard.
Then there was school. It took a few times of teachers being surprised I had the highest test score, or exhorting the boys to come up to snuff, because obviously it wasn’t that difficult since I could do it for me to get that girls were supposed to do worse than boys. Not that I cared. I mean, it might make me smirk a bit, but that was it.
Because I was born competitive. And grades were competition. Frankly, if you’re competing with anyone and at some level you don’t want to rip out their heart and eat it raw, you’re hampering yourself. And I never saw any point in doing anything that COULD be competitive and not competing.
Was the game rigged against me? Probably. I just never noticed. I was too busy barreling through life in general and learning in particular.
Humans are great apes. Not signaling right confuses people. Scares some people. Most Portuguese males, used to clear signaling, were completely puzzled as to what to make of me.
In my late teens and early twenties, the dime dropped to an extent. To an extent. I.e. I realized that by wearing certain types of clothes and acting in a certain way I could get away with murder with a side of mayhem. And I did. Oooh, boy, did I. Even if half the time I wore impeccable 30s style costumes, complete with lace silk stockings and stiletto heels. Honestly, those seemed to mess with people’s heads even more, and men became unable to think rationally around me dressed like that.
But I still remained unconvinced that being a woman should in any way curb what I wanted to do or who I was. Playing with makeup, shoes and hair was fun. As were clothes. But they were not who I was.
I still remain unconvinced. Sure, I do realize there are things I can’t do/can’t do as well because the brain is in a female body. By and large I don’t have the strength (upper body strength is more or less gone. Look, I’m working on it.) or force or size to, say, fight a man or lift as much as they can. So, if I need any of that done, I ask a male. Nicely.
But in terms of who I really am, my life inside my skull, I don’t see why I should care what sex the body I’m in is. Sure. Okay. I’ve been affected by menopause and its attending ills. Yeah. It’s not as though men don’t have their own hormonal ramp ups and cool downs and their own challenges. And yeah, I’m very happy I’m female because my husband likes that. And it makes life much easier. And of course, being female allowed me to be a mother.
But in my day to day, in what I am and do… why should I care what people think women can and can’t do?
Are there people who think I should do this or that because I’m a woman? Sure. There are. And I care for their opinions about as much as I care for the opinions of the village matrons who knew I was useless because I couldn’t embroider pillowcases.
It’s not rebellion.
Most of the things I WANT to do are either female or genderless. I love cooking. I love writing. I even like sewing. I also like refinishing furniture (which these days is mostly female.) And I like long, involved debates (preferably over something alcoholic) with friends of a philosophical disposition. I like natural history. I like walks with my husband. I’m not 100% sure I like (most of) the cats, but they’re mine to look after, so…
I just refuse to live the only life I have according to someone else’s expectations, be they the expectations of the left, who thinks I should feel oppressed by being born female, or see patriarchy under every stone, or of the right who (at least a segment. Mostly not the American right) thinks I should defer to greater male wisdom and fulfill the calm and sweet role of a wife and mother.
I neither feel the need to comply nor to rebel. I am myself alone, and to me alone do I owe any kind of consistency. I take in account the opinions of those I love, but that’s because I love them.
I will not be a Marxist just because I happen to have a vagina. (That is not where my brain is.) Nor do I feel the need to be promiscuous to prove I’m free. That’s just another type of shackle. (Or as Pratchett put it in Good Omens, it’s just like the homemaking magazines, just a different spin.) I don’t speak as a woman, read as a woman or… okay, I write as a woman, but that’s neurological, not intentional. I.e. my writing tends to be heavy with relationships, (not romance, in my case, mostly) which is a hallmark of female writing. In my defense I do try and work really hard at having action in there too.
And I will not consider my life over because my work “as a woman” is done.
Which is kind of interesting for that detached being behind my eyes, who observes me experiencing things. What I mean is, I have no role model for this.
Part of it is that life expectancy has gotten longer. (For some reason there is a determined campaign mostly from the left against this idea, but guys, I grew up in the village. People in their sixties were OLD.) Part of it is that the type of jobs we do is different form the mostly physical ones in the village. Part of it is we have fewer kids.
I remember in the village when the kids moved out you basically shuttered yourself in and concentrated on being old an preparing to die. Church became a major component of your life. You gave up on interests and activities and turned inward.
My parents didn’t do that — well, not as much — but I wasn’t there to see it.
The model inside my head is that my life should be over now, which is what I’ve been fighting for a year plus.
But it’s nonsense. And I’d just get bored with that program.
I think I’ll just continue being myself as hard as I can.
Who I will be and where it will lead, I have no idea. But it will probably be interesting. Perhaps under “may you live in interesting times” even.
All I know is that this delicate flower of femininity (with the spikes and the poisonous pollen) is finally ready to figure out what comes next.