Blue Ivy flicks her wrists, her hands waving wildly– she woke up like this, too.
Since birth, we’ve absorbed our mothers’ influences, perhaps without intending to. Our mothers are our first models for being women – we use their lives and choices as faded road maps for our futures. We copy their beauty routines, we adopt their policies on how to maintain our homes. How many times has a friend asked you, “why do you keep cereal in the fridge?” Or, “why have I never seen you without earrings on?” And your answer is, “is that weird? Well, that’s how my mom always did it.”
But when we reach our twenties or even thirties, it’s imperative to become conscious of these inherited traits. This is when we begin the selection process: what qualities and practices am I going to continue carrying on, and what am I going to let go of? We can’t blindly accept (or blindly reject) everything they’ve done. On Gilmore Girls, Lorelai rejects everything her mother, Emily, tries to instill in her, while her daughter, Rory, drinks in everything Lorelai says.
We have to pick and choose which decisions to follow and which missteps to avoid in order to find what’s right for us. There are both positive and negative kinds of baggage we carry with us from past generations, but we don’t have to carry all of it forever, especially if it hurts.
When I was young and didn’t have control over my movements, my mom dragged me to Publix every few days. When those sliding glass doors swung open, I usually begged her for a quarter to get a shiny sticker or a necklace made of aluminum and black string. Then, we’d line up at the scale and weigh ourselves before starting to shop. I remember weighing the same as my mom by the time I was 12 or 13. By the time I reached high school, I was beyond her 135-pound frame. And I remember thinking that now I must be fat. My mom weighed less than me and was constantly talking about the need to lose weight and her dissatisfaction with the way her clothes fit. So if I weigh more than her, shouldn’t I have these same worries? Though she reminded me I was built like my father and therefore made of kryptonite, it still seemed to me that loving my body was near impossible.
My mom’s hang-ups about weight and appearing tiny were probably passed down to her from her mother, another even smaller woman. But do we have to perpetuate these negative body images? When I put on a little weight, I don’t have to punish myself in the aisles of Publix. I can forgive my body for its fluctuations. And I can forgive my mother for unconsciously passing these feelings onto me.
Our mothers were once young, scared girls just like us. And for many, they turned into women in a time when women weren’t given equal rights and freedoms. Their role models were valued for the way they kept up appearances, both of their homes and their bodies. Today we’re lucky enough that multiple waves of feminism have already rolled through and shaped our culture. And we use what we’ve learned to make informed decisions about what traits from our mothers we can leave behind.
Of course not everything our mothers pass down must be thrown aside. My mother has taught me more about how to become an adult than anyone else in my life. She taught me the value of money and the importance of self-reliance. She’s an expert on Russian literature and French cinema and I pass her recommendations onto friends as if they’re fact.
She is also an unrelenting source of support for me when times are toughest. Who else is going to listen to you cry about things that make you sound like a spoiled brat, without telling you you’re a spoiled brat? And when she does tell you you’re being a spoiled brat, why does it feel more like a compliment than an insult? Because you’re her spoiled brat. She created you out of her own body, and she loves you more than anyone else ever can or will.
I often find myself thinking, I’m almost 26 now. My mother met my father when they were 25. Where is my great love? As Robin Pecknold sang in the Fleet Foxes song Montezuma, “So now I am older than my mother and father when they had their daughter. Now what does that say about me?” But then I remember that I cannot walk in their footsteps any longer; I must make my own path.
I regard my mother’s timeline with caution, and I make decisions about my own that run at times both parallel and counter to hers. I do want to meet a man and travel the country with him like my parents did, but I do not want to center my life around a man. I do want to make enough money to support myself independently, but I do not want the coming and going of money to become a source of emotional pain and strife. I do want to value intelligence over physical appearance, but I don’t want to deny myself trips to the salon and mall to make myself feel good. I do want to appear attractive, but I don’t want to abide by standards of attractiveness set by men and magazines around me.
The relationship between mother and daughter is one of the strongest bonds. The older we become, the more often we look in our mirrors and at photographs and realize we look and sound just like our mothers. There is joy and comfort in that realization, like we belong to a tribe of people who instinctively understand us. But what about learning from their mistakes, shaking off their worries and continuing on our completely new, completely unique path in life?
There is joy in that, too.
(Photo by Emily Long)