I recently read A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum.
It’s a semi-autobiographical novel about three generations of Palestinian women living in the U.S. and the (in some cases deadly) generational shame passed down consciously and unconsciously from mother to daughter in toxic patriarchal societies.
“Fareeda knew her granddaughter could never understand how shame could grow and morph and swallow someone until she had no choice but to pass it along so that she wasn’t forced to bear it alone. … She saw the chain of shame passed from one woman to the next so clearly now, saw her place in the cycle so vividly. … She was seized to confess, at last, the fear that circled her brain in endless loops: that she would do the same thing to her daughters that Mama had done to her. That she would force them to repeat her life.”
The story centers on girls and women who are in an unsatisfying, uncomfortable, and sometimes terrifying dynamic…one that knows no cultural or racial or religious bounds:
EITHER you’re an angry/mean/selfish/bad daughter who betrays your mother/family and maybe never speaks to them again…
…who risks her wrath (and the accompanying fear that she brought you into the world…and she will TAKE YOU OUT!)…
…or her sadness and disappointment (and the accompanying guilt that feels like a heavy, wet, suffocating blanket)…
OR you’re a good girl who does exactly what your mother wants you to do even if it goes against everything you want for yourself…
…and it costs you your integrity, dignity, and self-expression (and in some cases your life). You betray and abandon yourself. And you seethe with resentment.
I can’t stop thinking about the story and the powerful decision one of the characters, Deya, makes in regards to herself and her family. She chooses not to run away nor to cave into the shaming.
She chooses a brave middle path.
She chooses herself.
So often women are told that choosing themselves causes someone else to suffer…and they internalize that poison.
This is never, ever true.
There are many, many paths forward between the EITHER and the OR.
You don’t have to go no-contact AND you can have healthy, mature boundaries AND you can do something that wasn’t modeled by the women in your family.
You can choose to bravely say: ”This is who I am, separate from you and your expectations of me. Are you willing to accept me as I am? If you can’t or won’t, that’s okay. I am clear about who I am and what I want and I’m letting you off the hook for approving of me and my choices. I love you.”
Is there a risk involved? Hell yes.
Might your mother reject you? Yes.
I have been there and I know that pain. I started doing my own work and above five years ago she told me she didn’t see the point of getting together because I made her uncomfortable.
I watched myself cycle through thoughts and emotions:
It felt like she’d stabbed me in the heart. I cried.
Then I got angry.
I pretended I was above it all.
And then I summoned my grown-ass-womanhood and said, “let me know if you change your mind.”
And she did.
Just as did I when I had cut ties with her at the end of 2010 and thought I’d never speak to her again.
As the French writer Marcel Proust said, “All our final decisions are made in a state of mind that is not going to last.”
So yes. There’s risk and pain. But the pain of rejecting yourself hurts more.
I’ll say it again. You can choose the brave, middle path.