Sunday, January 29, 2012

Om Ali: Womanhood, Redefined

Over the past few days, some very talented and thoughtful bloggers have posted their thoughts about defining womanhood.  I've been giving their posts, and the topic, a lot of thought.  You should go read them first.

But I wanted to respond, too, and here's what I've come up with so far.

Today we went to the annual winter festival in a town not far from ours.  They have a host of fun events like ice carving and concerts and puppet shows, and the highlight (for us, anyway) is a parade that crosses the bridge between two states.  It's a pretty spectacular parade for the middle of the winter: there are girl scouts, of course, and people in classic cars, but there are also lots of bands, and performing arts groups, a guy on stilts, mummers, even a guy playing George Washington (because the river they're crossing is the Delaware).  And almost every group that passes has something to give away, whether it's candy (thrown at you from the floats), or caribeeners, or bubble pens, or magnetic clips, or flags.

While we were waiting for the parade, we happened to run into a family from I's school whom we see everywhere, it seems (they live around the corner from us and my husband plays poker with the father of the family, so it's not entirely strange that they circle through our lives so often), and even though they aren't in the same class or grade, I. sat and watched the parade with his schoolmate, giggling and waving his flag and pretty much ignoring us until the end, unless it was to hand over loot for us to hold.  N. watched the parade with some interest, too, "woooowww"ing at appropriate moments, and pretty much ignoring me.

It occurred to me, as I was watching my children watching the parade, that these little beings who depended on me for everything will need me less and less as time goes on, at least for the day-to-day things.  I won't need to entertain them any more, because they will want to entertain themselves with their peers.  I won't need to feed them snacks any more, because they will go rummaging through my cabinets.  Maybe they'll eventually do their own laundry and clean their rooms.  And then they'll go off to college, or out into the world, orbiting me with a larger and larger radius.

And yet, I will have spent the better part of my life defining myself in relation to them.  Which is not a bad thing, per se, but and interesting observation about the nature of womanhood.  Because despite what the Virginia Slims ads of my adolescence proclaimed, I feel like women are so often defined in relation to: in relation to their kids, in relation to their spouses, in relation to their parents.  Are we good daughters?  Good partners?  Good mothers?  Good career women (and, it should be added here, good career women who put others first?  Who use our careers to further others?  Because you know what they say about a woman furthering her own professional interests, don't you)?  These are the yardsticks that are used to measure women.  And if we fall short in any of those measures, or (heaven forbid) one of those measures can't be used at all, people are at a loss for what to do with us.

Mel asks: "when we write the definition for ourselves and state emphatically in our hearts what we do or don’t want to become, are we staying strong and following our dreams, or are we being sidetracked by self-doubt when others voice their opinions on our choices?  How can we tune out the judgment; which when we boil down judgment to its essence is simply other people trying to define our lives for us, to write the dictionary of our selves"?

As someone raised in a house with one parent whose first language was not English, I am particularly sensitive to the vagaries of translation.  I happened upon this recipe this week, trying to figure out how to use orange flower water (which has another story itself), and began to play with the words.

According to most websites, Om Ali literally translates to "Ali's Mother."  Woman in relation to.  But the "OM" that we chant at the beginning of yoga is made up of three Sanskrit letters, aa, au and ma which, when combined together, is believed to be the basic sound of the world, and to contain all other sounds.  It's said to be the sound of the universe vibrating, always moving and changing.  Chanting Aum is supposed to remind us about this movement of the universe, through the movement of our breath and the vibration we feel in our bodies.

And "Ali" means "exalted."

I don't know Arabic.  And perhaps I have no right to make my own translations.  And yes, there will always be families, and partners, and careers that help us to figure out our places in the universe.  But wouldn't it be interesting to redefine womanhood as the exalted movement of the universe?  As change itself?  As individual as we all really are?

Om Ali : Egyptian Bread Pudding
adapted liberally from here
The traditional way of making this dessert is with phyllo instead of bread.  I used bread because that's what I had.  It'll turn out a bit less solid with the pastry; don't be alarmed!

1/2 lb. day-old bread (or 6 sheets phyllo or puff pastry, baked/toasted; some people even use day-old croissants)
1/4 c. raisins
1/2 c. coarsely chopped nuts (I used roasted almonds)
1/2 c. sugar
1 T. orange blossom water (optional)
pinch of salt
4 c. milk
1/2 c. cream
ground cinnamon, for dusting on top

Preheat the oven to 425F. Lightly butter a 2-qt (2L) baking dish.

Trim the crusts from the bread into ½ inch (12mm) cubes or crush the phyllo into a bowl.  In the prepared baking dish, alternate layers of bread or phyllo with raisins and nuts.

In a medium pot, whisk together the sugar, salt, and orange blossom water until blended, then whisk in the milk. Bring to a boil. Pour the mixture over the bread, dust with the cinnamon.  (If you're using bread, set aside for 20 minutes to moisten well. Tilt the dish occasionally to keep the bread evenly covered with the liquid.)

Place the baking dish in a bigger pan and pour hot water into the pan to reach halfway up the sides of the dish. Bake until golden brown, about 30 minutes. Carefully remove the baking dish from the water bath and let cool completely on a wire rack. Serve warm or chilled.
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  1. One of the better blog posts I have read in a long time. Thank you, from another New Jersey mom.

  2. Beautiful, Justine. I think that I often define myself in relation to other people because it seems like everything in my life comes down to relationships. Relationships with other people - family, friends, co-workers, neighbours, acquaintances - give meaning to my world, so it makes sense that I would define myself in relation to them. I often wonder if there can even be a "me" that exists outside of all relationships. I'm not sure that there is...and I'm not sure that that's a bad thing.

    1. Stephanie, I completely agree ... I think that humans are fundamentally relational beings. But I think when all people see us as are "X's mom" or "Y's wife" or "Z's teacher," we can potentially lose the things that make us unique: she makes awesome clay baboons, for example. ;)

      And the "in relation to" can be limiting, I think, when it plays into the stereotype of what people think those relationships should look like ... if that makes any sense?

  3. It's interesting to use term exalted -- and to sort of look at motherhood as the salt of the earth -- and yet in reality, how much is mothering looked down upon? From the idea that a self-sufficient adult should be completely separate from their mother (I remember teasing a boy in college because he brought his laundry home to his mother every other week -- which is a little bit sad on the self-sufficiency front, but also speaks volumes to his need to still be cared for and her need to still care for him. I don't think we necessarily need to hit a wall that we go over and become completely separate entities) to the term "just" in front of stay-at-home mum. We don't honour mothers, except to throw them a Hallmark holiday. We also don't scorn mothers as much as people vent about. But we don't revere them as we do basketball players.

    1. Mel, I love the point you make about the way we preface talk about SAHMs with "just," as if that work was not enough. I feel both ways about it, I guess: that in the one sense, defining ourselves only in terms of the mother-child relationship can underrepresent who we are ... AND that in another sense, mothering -- even as its manifestation changes over time -- does shape our personhood. One thing that has been made clear to me, though, again and again, is how all of us do this mothering thing differently ... even though if we find our "tribes" of women to whom we can relate in that experience.

    2. I think, Mel, that we (as a culture) "exalt" a very particular IDEAL of motherhood: a 25-35 year old married woman actively mothering 2 or 3 young, healthy, children. Being older or younger, single, or with a same-sex partner, having a child with a physical or mental disability, having an only or more than what is considered a "normal" number of children, parenting an older teen or adult child (who should, if we do our jobs right, be "self-sufficient" & not need mommy anymore)...none of those fit in the "ideal".

    3. None of us are "just" anything, no matter how we spend our days, or if we are we're denying something essential about ourselves.

    4. JeCaThRe, I agree ... but I've heard women talk about other women that way. Not only does that word allow us to deny something essential about ourselves, but about each other.

  4. I love this post. And I would love for womanhood to be defined as the exalted movement of the universe, of change, of redefinition.

    I think it's true that people are relational beings and that it makes sense for us to be defined in terms of our relationships to others, but I think this happens to women so much more than it happens to men. We are our mother's daughters, our children's mothers, our husband's wives. I mean, most women still take their husband's name, and in doing so are more than just figuratively defined by their relationship to that person. I'm sure there are many reason's for this, one being women's historical place, and power, in our culture. For hundreds upon hundreds of years women were given from their father to a man to be his wife. Another is that many women, as Stephanie touched on above, feel fulfilled when they are defined in relationship to others.

    But, as you said, what of women who are missing some of those relations? Are women who are not someone's wife or not someone's mother less than other women who are? And if that woman is also an author or a chef or a lawyer, when is that noted? I am mother's daughter and my daughter's mother and my husband's partner and my students' teacher but I'm also a woman who loves to write, who wants to illustrate a book, who hopes to own a home, who puts her thoughts out into the world and receives a response. I am all of those things and they have nothing to do with anyone else but me. Well, it's not that they have nothing to do with anyone else, because those things are of course touched by the people in my life, but they are MINE, they are ME, they make me distinct, unique, from the people I'm usually defined by and from other women in the world.

    1. Great point about name-taking, Esperanza. And yes, the other apirations you describe are exactly what I'm talking about ... the parts of us that are unique and creative. Sometimes those parts have nothing to do with the traditional roles of women.

      I'm thinking, too, about the women who are childless not by choice, or who are single because they never found the right person to pair off with ... they define womanhood as much as those of us with children and spouses do.

  5. Interesting post..and topic. The way we define ourselves through our relationships can be rewarding and wonderful, and also be stressful and sad...especially when things change and we must change as a result. I remember when my sister graduated from high school, and mom talked about how she had worked on preparing herself for that moment for a long time. She knew the event was changing her life too---she had to become someone new because she now had a "grown-up" child. Later, when my sister passed away, I watched my mom have to adjust again--to being a mother of non-living child. Sometimes, like with graduation, it was an underlying good thing. As it also was when my sister got married and then later got pregnant. We have this saying---transitions are bumpy, even when they're good. At the same time, my mom also says that in order to have the ultimate wonderful things in life (like those mother-child relationships) there is risk involved.
    Lots of speculation :)

    1. Thanks for this, Lisa. Your mom sounds like she is an amazing person (I love what you say in your blog about running over to her house to chat in bed). I wonder if part of my resistance to being defined in relation to my children is how I felt my mom never truly had a voice of her own when I was growing up ... she seemed subsumed by the things she did for other people. But those relationships can also be life-affirming, as they seemed to be for your mom.

      And yes, definitely ... the part of ourselves that is defined by our relationships is particularly vulnerable ... both for better and for worse.

  6. While I agree that relationships and connections are a very important (crucial) part of life, the danger in defining ourselves solely by our relationships is the fact that relationships change over time & sometimes very abruptly & unexpectedly (as Lisa points out). I've seen women cling so so tightly to an old definition of themselves as a mother that they never develop a life for themselves once their children grow up; by clinging to being the caretaker or being in charge, they can also jeopardize relationships with their adult children & spouses. Yes once you are a mother, you are always a mother, and I don't think that ends abruptly at age 18, but it DOES need to evolve over the years and mellow into a different role. By nurturing some aspects of YOURSELF, that are not related to your children or spouse, or even your job (because that can end abruptly, too) I think you can foster an easier (still bumpy but hopefully not devastating) transition. When you think about it, most of us were non-mothers for much longer than we've been mothers, and the time that we're mothers of young, constantly needy children is a very short time indeed. It is odd to define our entire lives by that 5-6 year role. I say this, but its hard to remember to put myself first some times, to prioritize things that are solely for ME and MY future and not for my family.

    1. Ana, I think I've seen some of this as part of your resolutions for this year? :) I agree that women need to find time for themselves, too, to cultivate a part of their identity that isn't just about motherhood or being a spouse or being at work (even if you love all of those aspects of yourself, and they consume you) ... I think it was easier for me to do so when I worked outside the home, but that may be just personal. And great point about your professional identity changing abruptly, too ... that happened to me, and it was an interesting lesson about how I create my own identity.

      My husband's grandmother was a master at word games. Though her family was her life, she was a voracious reader and could beat anyone at scrabble even when she was working in the kitchen, and came out to take her turn. :)

  7. It's so true what you say about women always being judged "in relation" to something else. I think that's why infertility is especially cruel. We are told growing up that we will be judged most importantly as a mother in relation to our kids and then to find out that you not only don't measure up, but can't even get in the game is so heartbreaking. What a great observation for you to make. Rest assured though, I am, well, lets just say I'm getting old, and still call my mom three times a day. They will always need you. :)

    1. Manymanymoons, this is exactly what I mean ... the measures of womanhood are outdated and unfair, especially to women who don't, either by chance or by choice, have children ... or who never settle down with a long-term partner ... or even, sometimes, who don't try to juggle a career with family responsibilities.

      I am older than you are, and I don't call my mom much, but she jokes that she's our shoestring babysitter. ;)

  8. I have loved this series of posts and this one is no exception. I agree about the tendency to define women "in relation to" and I feel that we have a deep responsibility to work to alter this. First and foremost, we owe it to ourselves and each other. And yes, I absolutely believe that we face an incredibly difficult challenge of finding ways to simultaneously raise motherhood to it's proper place i society and extricate ourselves from it's tendency to consume us whole.


  9. Great post. Someone just commented on one of my posts that women are often invisible in their middle years BECAUSE they have so much to do in relation to being parents or caring for their parents or the grind of work. And so we have very few visible women. I thought this was very interesting, and really built on what you said.

    I saw a sign for a big real estate magnate around here who is a woman, and it took me aback because a) She's a visible woman in our community over the age of 50 and b) She really is one of a handful that I know of.

    That realization didn't make me very happy.


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