Friday, April 11, 2008

Role Model

Hard to get through the day today -- just tired. I think the pollen is getting to me, especially since I've been sleeping with windows open the past few days.

So, as I was zoning out at my desk, the Random Thought Generator kicked in. I don't remember the exact sequence of thoughts, but I think it was two separate notions that sort of collided.

  • I haven't done much with my life, other than go from one low-paying office job to the next, and
  • My mother worked office jobs until she could quit and have a kid, and then she went back to work in a factory when I was in college.
For so long, I thought I was different from Mom.

In many ways, that's so.
  • I don't smoke
  • I don't drink...much -- certainly not like Mom. Socially only. I drive a lot and go to work 5 days a week, and have very little money, so drinking is dangerous, impractical and expensive.
  • My marriage is good
  • I'm not full of anger and bitterness (though I like to indulge occasionally)
  • I don't cling onto my child like he's a life raft
  • I'm more worldly and much less timid
  • I'm basically a WYSIWYG type of person
  • I have a social life and I get out of the house a lot more than she did.
  • My health is good (though hers started to decline at age 53, and I've still got a few years to go before I reach that mark)
But my accomplishments are few in number, and each one has made me think it was a big deal, just like my mom. She could make a trip to the grocery store, 3/4 of a mile away, sound like a trek across Mongolia. What strikes me is the word aspiration. That's where the thoughts coalesced today.

Aspiration. I don't think I have any idea what my mother wanted from her life. Although we conversed quite heavily, and she kept up a kind of stream-of-consciousness monologue when she was drinking, going on & on for hours, I don't remember her ever saying anything about wanting to "be" something. It could be her mother just cornered the market on that. She wanted my mom to be "a star." That's why she sent her down to the city right after her high school graduation. My mom was a babe in the woods in that environment, and from what she hinted, I think the wolves got to her very, very quickly. I think my dad may have started out as one of those wolves, but then turned into the Handsome Prince.

And I think that sums up my mother:

I think she wanted to be a Princess. Rescued by the handsome guy who could magically take care of everything. Take her away to live in a castle, surrounded by luxury.

I think you can get an idea of a parent's personal aspirations based on what they say to their kid. Here's a sample:

Dad: I'd love to see you become a doctor, discover a cure for'd have the world at your doorstep! But you have to be good at math! That's important!

Mom: Marry a man with money! Who can take care of you!

When she hid behind the booze, Mom seemed very unconventional. She cursed, she blasphemed, she cynically dismissed nearly every other human on the planet as being somehow beneath her. She also tried to give me very explicit information about sex at an early age, and was rather smug about this, as opposed to friends' moms who were kind of squeamish on the subject.

But deep down, Mom was ultra-traditional. Men should be men, she thought, and women should be women, and women should be delicate creatures who never did any kind of hard labor, including housework. Mom hated the word "housewife," saying it sounded too much to her like "titmouse." She did housework but grumbled about it constantly, and as I grew older, I saw more and more that she wasn't the "clean-freak perfectionist" that she liked to advertise herself as being. Here were Mom's criteria for "the perfect man":

  1. Very quiet. You could prop him up in the corner somewhere and he'd just sit and smile and listen to everyone else talk and you wouldn't know he was there. Her father and her oldest brother were very much like that.
  2. Not at all demanding about food. Whatever you "stuck in front of him" was what he'd eat. The ideal man had no food preferences and zero ability in the kitchen -- he was completely dependent on your ability to feed him and grateful for every morsel.
  3. Extremely handy around the house and indefatigable. A beast of burden.
  4. Somehow able to earn a respectable living and keep his cherished princess wife and perfect children in a beautiful house that all the neighbors would envy.
Here's a description of the man she married:

  1. Eccentric and talkative, often embarrassing her in public
  2. Not terribly fussy about food, but knowledgeable enough to express preferences (butter instead of margarine, for example).
  3. Absolutely hopeless at building or fixing anything. Dad had ADD, I'm sure, which is why he didn't finish high school. He would take something apart and leave the pieces all over. Our house was a wreck. My mother felt great contempt for him when we had to call a professional to fix things around the house.
  4. Dad never earned more than $15,000 a year on his job. Still, we did have a house, a car, and various things we needed, even though Mom was strictly a stay-at-homer. Our house was small and plain, with new furniture coming in at 25-year intervals and new decor maybe once every 10 years.
I came of age at the time of the feminist movement, and in view of my mother's bitterness toward her role as a housewife, I went and assumed that she wanted to get out and accomplish something in the world and that my caveman father was holding her back.

Turns out, none of this was precisely true. Mom wanted to be a high-class housewife ... what do they call that? A "matron?" I went on to find some synonyms, and the closest I got was "consort." I guess that's close enough to what Mom wanted. The cherished mate of a prominent man, who has little to do other than raise the kids (successfully, of course) and oversee the servants, who do the real work in the house. I think having to do it herself made her feel like a drudge.

And now we come to subject of me. What were my aspirations?

I grew up with the sense that I was special, exceptional, and important, but this simply means that my parents were thrilled beyond belief at having finally produced a child. They were well into middle age (both past the halfway mark of their lives, as it turned out), so it really was a big deal to have me in the world. However, by the time I was in first or second grade, it was apparent to me that the rest of humanity didn't view me that way. And although my dad always did encourage me to reach as high as possible, I'm quite sure that Mom was intimidated by ambition. I never heard her urge me to get top grades, or to work extra hard, or to be competitive. Every new thing I tried was met with "Be careful! Don't take on too much!" and similar sentiments. Dad also urged caution, but it was different. I think his fears were of me experiencing physical pain or injury. Mom's fears had to do with her losing me. Big difference.

I think Mom had what people now call "a failure of the imagination." She truly could not picture the process of striving for success. She thought it "just happened" to some people. And therefore (this is something I've understood for awhile), I just went along on auto-pilot, thinking good things would happen to me, or they wouldn't, and it had little to do with anything I did myself. I saw myself in my lower middle-class existence at age 17 or 18 or so, and then saw myself with plenty of money, an interesting career and all the trimmings, but had a blank spot in my head when it came to whatever lay between.

I had a lot of blank spots in my head! For a long time I lived "in my own private Idaho." There was a big disconnect between what was just behind my eyes and what was right in front of them. It's really only the last five years or so that the two things have connected up. And of course, that means a LOT of time got wasted.

I shouldn't be so hard on myself for not having fulfilled anyone's dreams, including my own. I realize now that I didn't have the greatest role model(s).

And, I'm not at the end of the line, yet!

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