I’ve been reading, again, Terry Tempest Williams’ book, “When Women Were Birds.” She tells the story of her mother’s death and subsequent reading her mother’s journals. She reflects on the impact they had on her. William’s writes:
In Mormon culture, women are expected to do two things: keep a journal and bear children. Both gestures are a participatory bow to the past and the future. In telling a story, personal knowledge and continuity are maintained.
“When Women Were Birds” tells an engaging story of voice; silence and finding one’s voice. She reflects on these from the lens feminism within Mormon culture, a perspective that was unknown to me in my experience of growing up in the Mormon Church. The women in my family, although Mormon for generations since it’s origin in the early 1800’s did not keep journals. A few of the women have done genealogy and written stories about our foremothers and father’s. But neither my mother nor my grandmothers kept journals.
I have not been a practicing Mormon for 43 years. I often wonder, though, if we had stayed in Utah, if I would have remained Mormon? Would I be the non-practicing sort, like many in my family? Or would I be faithful, like others in my family? Would I have found my way to feminist thinking within the Mormon church? I loved my church as a child and can only imagine that I might have stayed with it. Instead I like to think that I have returned to the “mother church” since all of my family came from England, Wales, or Scotland. Becoming Episcopalian realigns me with my early ancestors who were members of the Church of England, many of my family from the Manchester area who were married in the Cathedral.
My life has taken quite a different path than it might have. I look back over the intersections of decisions – “this?” or “that?” and wonder how it might have played out if I had made other decisions. Now, almost sixty years old, I cast my gaze over the years of my life, what was, what is, what never will be.
I’m sad that my life has included so many disconnections from my family of origin. Even now, making an effort to stay in touch with my long distant family is a challenge. We don’t call one another. At best we might text or “like” something on Facebook. This is not a criticism, it is just an observation.
I come from a long stock of pioneer women who were disconnected from their families of origin. Women who left their parents and siblings in England and travelled across water and land for five months, to Utah to practice their faith. But, at what cost? I wonder how they felt? I wonder if that kind of disconnection was replaced by another family comprised of friends and children in their new home? I have no idea, since the women in my family did not keep journals – or if they did I don’t have any of them.
I am grateful that my life has included a family of my own, with a husband of nearly thirty years, and two great children. This life, of being a wife and mother, has not been easy. But the primary effort has been to stay together, while each being their own person. I raised my kids to be their own person, but to be in relationship with their family. My children, now in their twenties, are growing into themselves, learning how to be healthy adults in a demanding world. I’m learning how to be a mother of grown children, including how to be a mother-in-law to our daughter’s husband, and in-laws with his parents. Thankfully I really like our son-in-law and his family, so navigating this new aspect of our family is not difficult. Rather it’s wonderful to have our family expand in such a delightful way.
On the other hand, I have observed some interesting emotions inside of me now that my daughter is married. It has hit me quite hard that she changed her name and that she is shifting from being our “little girl” to being an independent married woman with an entire side of her life that has less to do with us and more to do with her husband and his family and friends. This is how it should be. I did the same thing – made that shift. But given my history of disconnected relationships this has stirred up in me a lot of emotion. These emotions are not rational -by nature emotions never are – but they do reveal my fears, anxieties, and hopes. I worry about “losing” my daughter to her new family. This worry is a challenge and requires me to be fully aware and careful about my ability to be mature and give her room to mature as well. This means that I don’t make efforts to keep her in a dependent role with me, mother and daughter, but that we stay in relationship in a new way. I can’t solve or fix her problems like I might have when she was little. I can, however, listen and honor her struggles and her strengths. I can ask questions that might lead her to think about her life with greater insight so she can make her own decisions. I can remind her of the strengths in her character that I admire. I can tell her that I love her and the woman she has become.
This is one of the aspects of “When Women Were Birds” that I most resonate with – the letters and notes that Williams’ mother wrote to her. My mother never did that, never reflected back to me who I am, nor is she was proud of me, nor if she loved me. To my mother I was always an extension of her, she struggled to see me as an independent person, which is a reflection of the brokenness of her life. But I love how William’s mother was able to do this and what a treasure it is to have your mother’s mirror of you put into written words, to reflect on throughout one’s life. I hope to do this for my daughter, so she has a mirror of herself from my perspective, one that fully honors her as a woman in her own right.
Yesterday I watched the final episode of season three of “Call the Midwife.” I won’t offer any spoilers here, except to say that it had a very powerful mother-daughter dynamic between Chummy and her mother. It reminded me of the challenges with my mother, albeit in different ways. My mother’s death has not left me with remorse over what might have been. I felt that remorse while she was still living, and knew too well the limitations of our ability to create a healthier relationship. Sometimes we humans are too damaged from life’s trauma to every really heal. I navigated a relationship with my mother that was tenuous at best – sometimes good and then quickly and for no apparent (to me) reason, she cut me off – and then, in time, we’d be back in relationship. The tide always turned on her ability to be in relationship or not. I just had to be there, be present, and be willing. I had to be able to manage my feelings to not take hers too personally. It was a lot of work and very sad. I grieved for years that she and I did not, could not, have a better mother-daughter relationship. As an adult woman, with a husband and children, and many years of therapy, losing myself in my mother was no longer an option. I grieved what might have been. In her death that grief was resurrected but it was not new. Now I live with little regret. She and I each did the best we could.
When I launched this blog in 2006 I was struggling mightily with my “voice.” I struggled with my preaching voice, with being heard in the wider church, and even with my voice as a mother of teen-agers. Much of that struggle had to do with my feelings of inadequacy and an in ability to be comfortable in my own skin. In the last eight years I have grown and matured and my voice has become more confident. I have become comfortable with who I am and more confident too. That has come from a lot of hard work, interior work to know myself and trust myself.
I have from time to time considered changing the name of this blog, but it continues to resonate with me. I am, may always be, seeking authentic voice, in some form or another.
I recently read a definition of “authenticity” as being true to one’s self in relationship. My grandmothers of generations past may have written journals about their lives, but I don’t have them. I don’t know what they thought or worried about or hoped for. I can only imagine, given some of the details of their lives, what these might have been. For me I see them as strong women of faith who made the best of challenging circumstances. I hope they felt some joy and peace in their lives but that may have evaded them. Life had to be difficult in foreign land without family near by.
It occurs to me that this blog is one way I am connecting to the energy of my female ancestors. Reflecting on my life here is one way I strive to be connected to the people in my life, family and friends. This blog is like my journal, the telling of my story as I seek my voice, strive to be my truest self, and work at being in relationship with those I know, love, and work with. Here are eight years of my story of faith and hope, a love story of self.