A Mother/Daughter Journey: Connecting Girls at a Time of Risk

Nonfiction by | March 11, 2012

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Month in UP Mindanao is “Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures.” It is quite an honor for me to have been given this opportunity to deliver the keynote address. Yet, like Adrienne Rich, “I did not choose this subject; it had long ago chosen me” (15). This task has brought me face to face with my own disconnected, alienated girlhood, and forced me to think about how I shaped my futuredespite the betrayal of my mother.

Even though I lived with my mother in our ancestral house in Pasay City until I was 27, I have no fond memories of her. There were no bedtime stories, no lullabies. She was not a source of nurturing or comfort or validation, the way we are socialized to believe mothers should be. She had always been a career woman because my father had left her even before I was born. I always believed that she was simply too busy trying to be a father that she forgot the whole “motherhood” thing. And yet I know now that it was more than that. For how can motherhood be reduced to an algebraic equation? Rich notes that “motherhood is earned, first through an intense physical and psychic rite of passage—pregnancy and childbirth—then through learning to nurture, which does not come by instinct” (12). I remember feeling sorry for myself every time my grandfather told me the story of the first time I ran away from home.

I was eight years old then, with the Vilma Santos haircut that my mother forced on me. She had dragged me to the beauty parlor and had my hair permed. I was crying the whole time, convinced that I would end up looking like a mangy poodle. Which I did. I was very thin at that time, because I was having great difficulty expressing my pain at the attention being lavished on my cute little baby brother. The fatter he got, the less I ate, and by the time he was two, I was skin, bones, and poison.

That evening, feeling extra lethal, I picked on my brother, who was feeding in his crib. I took his milk bottle and replaced it with my rag doll, trying to suffocate him. I remember so vividly how his arms flailed under my doll, and how loudly he cried. My mother, who was trying to install a wall clock shaped like a frying pan, did not see this but she got irritated by the crying and rushed to where I was, hitting my head with the clock, shouting, “Get out! Lumayas ka! I don’t want to see your face here again!” She pushed me out the door and I, still numbed by the pain on the side of my head and deafened by the curses, ran to my grandparents’ house, two blocks away.

This was when I lost Lisa, my favorite yellow-polka-dot-dress ragdoll. Running and crying, I took the shortcut through the dark side streets of Pasay City. Taking out my fear and anger on her, I hurled Lisa against the asphalt, promising myself that I would never ever return to my mother’s house. “You’ll see. You’ll see. I hate you!”

Many years later, Grandfather told me what happened after that, after Mommy sent Yaya Belen to take me home and I refused. He said he talked to my mom and asked her why she hated me so. Mommy said it was because I was such a spoiled brat. Grandpa then asked her, “Tell me, Becky, when did you last hug your daughter?” Then she broke into tears, Grandpa used to tell me proudly.

But I was not convinced that Mommy was contrite. She hit me many times after that, with a slipper, a belt buckle, a broom’s wooden handle. I heard more curses and tirades about my stupidity and ingratitude. I had to learn that every time she cursed at me, she was really cursing herself. Soon enough, I learned that her rage was not because of something I had done, but because of what my father had done to her— abandon her while she was pregnant with me. I thought, at that time, that I reminded her of my father, and so she wanted to destroy me.

I promised myself I will not let my mother have what she wanted. I wasn’t going to let her break me. As I entered into adolescence, I realized that if I were to survive my mother, I would have to wage war against her. So I learned to disobey her as much as I could, which created more enmity and violence between us. I hated her for the choices she made in her life; I viewed her as a failure; and I vowed to never become like her. It is calledmatrophobia; not the fear of motherhood, but as Adrienne Rich explains, “the fear of becoming one’s own mother”(235). She explains that it “can be seen as a womanly splitting of the self, in the desire to become purged once and for all of our mothers’ bondage, to become individuated and free” (236). It was a terrible process that saw me through adolescence and that fateful day when my mother slapped me for the last time because I had finally grown bold enough to tell her, “I will not allow you to hurt me again anymore.” What I really meant was I was going to achieve my dreams for myself DESPITE her. I was eighteen.

When my bookWomen Loving was published in 2010, one of my students noted that I had not thanked my mother in my acknowledgements, and only then did I realize the oversight. I suddenly felt guilty about it, but I recognized it as my old wounds—it was my way of (subconsciously) punishing my mother for having failed me. I am hoping that my experience with my mother isn’t commonplace. The truth is, I AM grateful to her because if it weren’t for the way she treated me, I wouldn’t be the woman that I am today.

But I cannot help but wonder too, how I would have turned out if I were mothered differently.

When I decided to have a baby, I was determined to be a perfect mother; that is, to be everything that my mother was not. I didn’t think it would be easy, but I knew it would be wrong not to try. Because of our absolute oneness, my baby suspended in my womb, I had to give up all my self-destructive habits – smoking, drinking alcohol and coffee. At that time I thought that the worst was over. I was on my way to salvation and super motherhood.

I did not yet realize that being a mother required larger sacrifices. When I gave birth, I was determined to do it naturally, no anesthesia, just a flow-with-the-pain attitude. But my daughter had other ideas. She refused to turn face down and so had to be pulled out with forceps. Not even a day old and she was already making me scream, “Ayoko na, ayoko na!” (I don’t want to do this anymore!)

But there was no turning back. I had given myself over to a force greater than I am and my mother’s curse resounded in my head: “One day you will have a daughter just like you and you will see!” As if it were my fault that she hit me even when I was sick, as if I deserved it all.

The days following the birth were terrible. My perineum was torn and I was sore all over, especially in the places where I used to feel pleasure that I was convinced that this was the modus operandi against women. It was not curse enough to be born female, one had to become a mother. It was my punishment for having sex, for having pleasure, for wanting it.

But at least I have my daughter, my own.At my breast, she would feed, she would be nourished with unconditional love, unlike me. According to Diane Ackerman, “Mother herself is food, is warmth, is safety. A soft, fragrant reservoir of life, her breast seems but an extension of the baby’s body. The baby continues to be attached to her by the umbilical of its need.” But the reality is that breast-feeding does not come naturally and painlessly to mothers.I could not smile at the pain of engorgement and the pain of letdown, which felt like my veins were being pulled out. I realized then why the coming of milk was called such a disappointing name. And how could I keep waking up every two hours to feed the baby? After two weeks of this and a blocked breast duct, I wanted to return the baby to sender. I kept crying, “Ayoko na. Hindi ko na kaya!” (I give up. I can’t do this!)

It was not just the physical torture; I was terrified by the responsibility of being a mother. I was not certain anymore if I could live up to my own expectations of motherhood. How could I do right by her when all I could think of was, “When do I get a good night’s rest again?” If I couldn’t even get the baby to stop crying now, how could I deal with the rest of her life and mine?

In the bookMother Daughter Revolution. From Betrayal to Power by Elizabeth Debold, Marie Wilson, and Idelisse Malave, they explain that “raising a daughter is an extremely political act” (xv). A woman who gives birth to a daughter must confront “her own unresolved conflicts from the past and her hopes and dreams for the future” (5). I realize now that this, in fact, was the true source of my despair at that time. I didn’t have confidence in my mothering skills because I didn’t see any when I was a child. Debold, Wilson, and Malave add that “only an understanding of the political context surrounding mother daughter relationships will begin to heal the wounds between and within generations of women” (6). I needed to see my mother and myself within the context of the patriarchy, which has victimized both of us. I need to see myself as empowered to give my daughter a more inspired future.

We cannot overstress the importance of connecting girls, especially when they approach puberty. In 1992, findings from the Harvard project on Women’s Psychology and Girls’ Development led by Carol Gilligan revealed that “while younger girls are strong, outspoken, and clear about themselves, at the edge of adolescence they begin taking in what they are told about how girlsshould be and come to see how women are treated in this society” (xiv). Adolescence is “a time of risk,” (xv) not just from the horrors of sexual molestation, which we all agree we need to keep our children safe from, but from the system that does not value intelligence and strength and uniqueness in girls. Gilligan has described girls’ adolescence as a “crisis of connection” (11). When the girls come up against the demands of patriarchy, they “trade in parts of themselves in order to become women within this culture” (10). For instance, they become less outspoken about what they want and deserve; they become self-conscious about the changes in their bodies because they start experiencing attention and harassment from males; they learn to use their physical appearance and charm (prettiness) to get what they want, especially from their fathers; they become aware that people do not like it when they excel in areas that are not feminine, like sports or even academics; they begin to see their own best friends as competitors. In short, they are forced to disconnect from what they know to be true about themselves as girls, and even from each other.

When my daughter was eight years old, I was teaching her to use chopsticks. I served tuna sashimi and she tried to pick up the slippery sliver of fish with her wooden chopsticks, but she kept failing, so finally, she put down the sticks and picked up the fish with her fingers, deftly putting it in her mouth and then licking the soy sauce on her fingers. I told her, “Sachi, that’s not the way to eat sashimi!” She looked me square in the eye and said, “Nanay, I am not you. I will eat it the way I want to. I am free to do what I want.” I was dumbfounded. On the one hand, I heard my mother’s curse resounding in my head: “See, your daughter is just like you!” On the other hand, I couldn’t help but recognize the simple truth in what my daughter had just said. It wasnot a battle waiting to be waged between us. She was indeed free. And she knew it. That she would never forget it is a battle I should help fightfor her.

Today she is 11 years old and I fear for her. I tremble at the adolescent crisis that is looming in the horizon. Yet I also know that I am being given quite the opportunity to fight for my daughter’s future, as well as for the girl that is inside me still. Debold, Wilson, and Malave propose the creation of “revolutionary cells… The first cell is the family…’Othermothers’ from the second cell…The third cell is a circle of mothers who organize for mutual support and joint action” (224). At the heart of the concept is RESISTANCE.

Family is obviously the first cell because it is where a girl first learns about gender relations. Debold et al explain that “the prerequisite for the family to be asafe house is that it be safe from violence and abuse.” But it is definitely more than that. Parents must consciously struggle against perpetuating sexism in the family and “ally with each other and their children to struggle for equality” (225). I know that my daughter is observing me and how I treat her and her brother, as well as how I relate with men. I know that she is learning from me how to be a woman. So it is crucial for me to achieve my goals to show her that a woman can. It is a daunting task, one that is fraught with many pitfalls. But Debold et al assure me that “the meeting between women and girls leads to the transformation of mothering into truth telling” (31). Perhaps the most important step is having the courage to tell our daughters the truth about our own lives, and in the process reclaim what we have lost. Sometimes it is even the daughter that teaches the mother to pay attention to her own needs. I know my daughter does, and she doesn’t mince her words!

Fathers, of course, play a central role as well in the revolution. A girl’s first relationship with a man is with her father. Debold et al recognize that “how he treats her is a key lesson that a daughter carries into her future relationships with men” (230). Thus, it is important to raise feminist fathers too! Fathers who donot treat their daughters like little princesses, and who appreciate daughters for their “competence, assertiveness, or independence” (231). Fathers have to learn to “truly pay attention to their daughters, listening to what they have to say, and most importantly, trying to understand what they mean” (233).

The second revolutionary cell is composed of “Othermothers,” other women who share the happy responsibility of child care: yayas, relatives, godmothers, teachers, church workers, etc. Debold et al explain that “othermothers…love girls by choice, bring fresh eyes to the mother daughter relationship, and teach voice by embodying different ways of being women than a daughter has available in her mother” (237). Moreover, we know from our own experiences as women that often, it is easier to confide in an othermother than in our own. I am eternally grateful, for instance, to my teacher, the writer Marjorie Evasco, who othermothered me through college and introduced feminism to me through the course Women in Literature. I do not know how I could have survived my teenage life without her. She, I thank profusely in my book. Today some of my students in UP Mindanao call meNanay, and I do appreciate the honor and significance of the role.

The third revolutionary cell is the circle of mothers. This is the role that feminist activism must play in the care of our daughters. We must recognize that “mothering is powerful and political work and that, by developing a critical political awareness, we as mothers can claim and assert that power on behalf of ourselves and our daughters” (241). You are not alone. And it is not enough to have a best friend who listens to your womanly travails over drinks. You must join a circle of solidarity among different women from different social backgrounds that regularly meet to share stories. Debold et al suggest that the women “don’t give advice to each other or comment on another’s experience” because “the power of a circle of mothers comes from personal experience guiding political awareness leading to joint action” (244-245). The plan for action can be viewed as simply as “continuing resistance” to the demands of patriarchy, or in a more organized manner as joining mass actions for the empowerment of women. The essence of the circle is to provide our daughters a community that they can join as co-revolutionaries who are trying to change the world. I used to have this kind of involvement in Manila and in Baguio, as a member of Gabriela. But sadly, I have not found it here in Davao yet.

To conclude, let me say that I now understand that my mother only wanted the best for me, as every mother does for her children. I am happy to note that she has finally apologized (by text message) for her failings as a mother, which doesn’t change my childhood trauma, but opens a path to healing. As for my daughter, last week she asked to play a game in which we each drew a card and answered the question in the card. Sachi drew the question, “What is the best advice you can give yourself today?” She thought for a second and announced, “Believe in yourself.” I smiled, knowing that it is the perfect place to start.

Works cited:
Debold, Elizabeth, Marie Wilson and Idelisse Malave. Mother Daughter Revolution. From Betrayal to Power. Mass: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1993.

Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born. Motherhood as Experience and Institution. New York: W.W.Norton & Co.,Inc., 1976.

Jhoanna Lynn B. Cruz is a professor at the Humanities Department of UP Mindanao. She is the president of the Davao Writers Guild, Inc. This keynote address was delivered at the opening of International Women’s Month in UP Mindanao on March 5, 2012.

5 thoughts on “A Mother/Daughter Journey: Connecting Girls at a Time of Risk”

  1. If I may, I want to relate to this. On the lighter side, how this matrophobia gave me a different way of looking at the world, how the sense of independence was felt at a young age. Somehow I have an othermother regard to my sister, maybe this comes from understanding my mother’s ways.

    Yes, self-trust.

    A truly felt write, Mam Jo.

  2. you write with so much honesty, that it scares me…and amuse me at the same time, who so?

  3. Your writings remind ‘s of the book “the Second Sex” by Simone D’Bevoire, Surely you belong to Women Lib. This is what Gabrela is about. Women’s liberation is men liberation. The problem is taking it to extreme. It would wrong to fault men like the feminist do.
    A mother or a father has nothing to do with sanctity of marriage but a duty. On the other hand institution like government and religions ride on this universality of parenthood and complicate things to serve certain class rules while in fact parenthood is what we mammals do

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