On Christmas Day, my mother and I had a brief spat. The point of friction was that I was enjoying a re-run of Mean Girls and, as the time approached 7.20pm, I hadn’t turned over to the ABC yet.
“Can’t I just get it up on YouTube for you later, Mum?”
“But it’s the QUEEN! We’re missing THE QUEEN’S CHRISTMAS MESSAGE!”
This illustrates the clash of cultures between a mother and daughter separated by 45 years of age. My Mum seriously still cares about the Queen.
I was an accident. At 45, my Mum had two sons (aged 20 and 23) who were somewhat on the cusp of leaving home. Then, the surprise of her lifetime happened. At her age, she was discouraged from continuing the pregnancy: the risk of my being disabled was 1 in 5 and Mum found herself negotiating for my life based on hypothetical scenarios. But with the fierce determination she is often underestimated as having, she signed up for the commitment of bringing up another human.
Her own mother had passed away a few years earlier, and had apparently mused that she always thought my mother would have a little girl. A demure, sweet and shy little girl.
I asked my Mum yesterday how she would describe me. Impetuous. Headstrong. Driven. Bossy.
It’s ironic that my name’s Hebrew meaning is the pleasant one.
I feel like we both love each other very much but there’s some invisible elephant between us, preventing the truth and honesty that comes from vulnerability. I feel that this might revolve around the question of “what it is to be a good girl”. Can I explore this with you?
– Email to Mum, January 2018
I decided to sit down with Mum and talk about the gap between us – not only of generations but of social norms.
We talked for hours. Primly, with pen and paper readied and having messaged me at least five times in advance of our ‘casual chat’ asking how she could prepare, Mum sat with excellent posture warily bracing for the inquisition. We talked about growing up in a big country town in the fifties, marrying in the early sixties and raising children for the next forty years.
Did Mada (my family’s name for my maternal grandmother) enjoy being a housewife?
Oh no, she hated it. Absolutely hated it.
How did you decide upon your career?
I was told to do (a course of useful secretarial skills, like shorthand, typing and accounting) and I cried myself to sleep.
But there was no resistance?
No, we just accepted it.
Her posh girls’ school seems to have emphasised ladylike behaviour as much as it did education. Demureness and deference is how Mum describes it. She still tuts disapprovingly at female presenters sitting crossed-legged – a 1950s reflex she can’t shake. She still pathologically puts herself second to her husband and her children.
I can think of at least a dozen opportunities I have missed in life because I didn’t want to offend . A job at the Grammar, teaching music… I guess I didn’t want to make a fuss.
Mum mentioned being terribly aware of the toll the Depression and World War II had taken on her family – a father fighting in PNG, a mother raising children alone terrified of invasion, of having to share an egg, a luxury, with her brother – I wonder if the vividness and immediacy of that parental sacrifice made it harder to challenge the set course of social expectation.
So many stories Mum told were laden with heaviness of duty, of lost opportunity, of barely concealed sadness. Of female teachers, ‘spinsters’, who had never married when so many men didn’t return after the Great War. Of insecurity from illness – deadly influenzas, the commonness of death in childhood. Of accepting, and getting on with it.
How did second wave feminism and the sexual revolution affect your life?
I wasn’t terribly aware of it. If it wasn’t in the Women’s Weekly I didn’t hear about it.
Have you read Simone de Beauvoir’s the Second Sex?
No. I don’t think that came to Rockhampton.
When we turned to talking about me, Mum’s internal conflict became clearer. She yearned to give me the education, freedom and confidence that she was denied, yet the impact of these things scared her. She was a product of her time, and had found safety and comfort in the roles she was given.
What worries Mum most is my anger.
In her life, if someone caused her offence, if someone did something to her that she didn’t like, she felt she had little recourse but to sit and fume. In an era where women teachers were only offered temporary contracts after marriage, in an era before No Fault Divorce, many women held very precarious positions. She wouldn’t want to be unladylike (that would lower her social worth), she wouldn’t want to make things difficult for my father. So whenever I challenge ideas, engage with controversy, speak up about disenfranchisement and inequality, demand respect for myself and my body, Mum worries. She worries I’ll be punched. She worries what people will think. She worries that I’ll make things difficult for my husband. These worries tell me everything about life in country Queensland in the 1960s.
After our talk, I pulled out my copy of The Second Sex. I underlined phrases that mirrored my Mum’s matter of fact description of the expectations of womanhood during her life. That marriage was to be a woman’s fundamental project. That, unlike men, women were unable to choose personal liberty (or, not without significant personal cost). That society chose for her (and she felt she had no recourse but to accept) her place as a deferential woman.
For as long as I can remember, my Mother has been the person who has given me most love, who I perhaps care about the most, and yet from whom I feel a profound separation; as though we were two animals of different species staring blankly at each other, marvelling at each other’s oddities. I have come to realise that it is not merely our 45 year age gap that causes this curious distance, but the inevitable generational conflict between competing ideas of womanhood. What Mum made it her life’s mission to be, is precisely what I rail against.
Mum, I feel as though your lifetime has been weighed by the mantle of a very different expectation of womanhood, and that I challenge that. And you worry for me, and try to reign me in.
I guess I should also say: As you caution me, you trigger the societal judgement that I try so hard to writhe free from, and make me doubt myself. I know I try to drag you forward, and that terrifies you. For who are you without being Dad’s second? Who could you have been had you not been forced to do Commercial when you were a musician in your heart? My impatience is born from seeing your potential, and the potential of all women, when that cloak can be shed. But equally, what you have achieved has been incredible and inspirational. You – like many women of your era – carry the emotional burden for entire families, for a generation of men who can’t express themselves. You have nursed and carried and cared. You are resilient and inexhaustible.
How are we similar?
Well, we’ve always had the music in common.
Mum started teaching me to play the piano as soon as I could hold myself upright. She has the discipline and patience to still practice carefully every day, to have spent 18 years collecting the music I had flung across the room in a frustrated tantrum.
At Christmas I gave my mother a book about the forgotten women of music. She would appear intermittently to give impassioned summaries of the chapter she had just read, still stewing over the injustices and losses to music of erasing women performers and composers.
I smile. I love that she shares this with me. That when we catch up she’ll always have a story that starts with “did you see/read about … [something to do with feminism]”.
She’s reaching across the chasm to me, and in sitting down to interview my Mother, I am reaching out too.
Image: Anete Lusina
Naomi Barnbaum is a Canberra-based public servant, having fled more humid climes in 2009 with a Bachelor of Arts in History and International Relations (First Class Honours) from the University of Queensland. Naomi’s writing has appeared in Feminartsy, and she musters her musings on www.naomibarnbaum.com. Outside of writing, Naomi loves dogs, books, music (both as performer and spectator), and truly terrible television.