Sometime during my senior year of high school, my mother went on a laundry strike. Her goal, as I understood it, was to get my father to pick his underwear up off the bathroom floor, carry them to the hamper, and eventually wash them. She made my brother and I promise not to help him.
At the time, I naively thought this activist intervention would work. Strike! It was simple and direct. My father, like many fathers of that baby boomer generation, made double what my mother made, and did very little if any housework. He occasionally mowed the lawn and shoveled the snow, but mostly my brother did those chores for his allowance.
The fact that this was the mode of problem solving between my parents says a lot about the state of their marriage. Did my mother see herself as a worker at my father’s company, our family? Had negotiations broken down so totally that striking was my mother’s only option? I had stopped talking at the dinner table, though at the time I thought of it less as a form of protest than as a coping mechanism. At night, my brother drank beer on the deck and threw the empty cans into the yard. After the snow melted in the spring, the muddy grass revealed cases worth of them. Maybe we were all just biding our time—striking, drinking, or not talking until we could get out.
The strike was a failure. My father held out for longer than any of us could have imagined. When he ran out of clean underwear he drove to the mall and bought several packages of new Fruit of the Looms. The dirty underwear piled up so high behind the bathroom door that we couldn’t open it. My father never acknowledged the strike and he never complained about his dirty underwear. He simply refused to wash them.
My mother eventually gave in. I remember her standing in front of the mouth of the washing machine.
“There’s something wrong with your father.”
I’m sure I agreed. In the war that was my parents’ marriage I’d taken my mother’s side, and like the second-wave feminist she’d raised me to be, I decided that our problems with my father were both personal and political.
My mother always worked. We had babysitters and went to daycare. After school we had more babysitters, until middle school, when we stayed home by ourselves. For years, she was a secretary. She practiced for typing tests, took shorthand, and disliked most of her bosses, but bore it in the way that all secretaries and assistants must. After that she became a job counselor for the state of New York, which led to a position in our local Boys Club. Once there, she was eventually promoted to Assistant Executive Director, then Executive Director positions. Once she became the Executive Director, she was one of a handful of female directors nationally. When she returned from the yearly national conferences for the Boys Clubs of America, which would later become the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, she spoke of the insults she had to endure from the male directors who ignored her and/or didn’t believe she could be a director. She, too, was sometimes surprised by her position. She had an associate’s degree, and spent several years working on her BA through Empire State College before realizing she didn’t care enough to complete it.
During a brief six-month period of unemployment just before she was hired at the Boys Club, my brother and I begged her to stop working altogether. We longed for a mom who made cookies and picked us up after school, and we were total jerks about it. For those six months, she walked us dutifully back and forth to school, tried out new brownie recipes, and finished a complicated needlepoint project. Then she found a job at the place that would employ her for the rest of her working life.
The women in my family have always worked. It was an economic necessity and a way to have freedom from the largely shitty choices they made in marriage. Your own job meant your husband had less control over you. Your own money meant a small degree of freedom in marriage. A job meant you could leave the house and have your own friends. It was an antidote to boredom. A vocation shaped your sense of self.
My grandmother survived her marriage to an abusive second husband because she worked at the post office. She described taking the civil service exam and getting the top score as one of the proudest moments of her life. When she started working at her tiny town’s post office, she said of her husband, my step-grandfather, “What could he say? I was bringing home a paycheck.”
My grandmother should have left him, but since she couldn’t bring herself to do that she got a job instead. My mother should have left my father much sooner into their almost 20-year marriage. They probably never should have gotten married. They were both 24. In 1970, that was late to marry. My mother has admitted to me that she cried on her wedding day. Not tears of joy.
My mother and I don’t always agree on what it’s like to be a single, divorced woman. I get lonely sometimes and I miss having a partner, but I like my freedom and am determined more than ever to take care of my daughter and myself. I don’t ever want to be dependent on a man again. For me, it’s a feminist issue.
I felt sorry for my dad. I loved him. I hated him. I had occasionally wished him dead.
I know, too, that there is something hard and broken in this stance. I am afraid to depend on anyone, especially a man I love. Anyone who knows me well understands that some of this stance is because of my father, who has been emotionally, and, when we were children, physically abusive. My therapist would remind me that everyone needs to attach, and he’d be right. But how to attach without dependency? How to love like an adult and not a little girl? How to believe in men when your father was, and has remained, wholly unbelievable in his actions toward his children? What if you love men dearly, but find them somewhat lacking in the stepping-up department? Sometimes my therapist annoys me by telling me that he believes there are good men out there for me, and that he wants me to believe too. I find this Disneyfication of the “good man” objectionable. Are they like Tinker Bell and her fairy crew? If I believe enough, will one appear? Sometimes I don’t even want a man, but a woman, or someone who, like me, is less interested in gender binaries.
My mother, who is now married to another man, struggles, like all married couples do, and is fearful about the future. I don’t think her fears are real (she owns her home outright, is on social security, and has a small pension), but I must acknowledge them as real to her. Losing her house. Living alone. Dying alone.
In America right now—with its shitty social welfare policy, lack of family leave, and patched-together health-care system—it’s pretty hard to not be afraid. I know of a couple of women who stay married because they don’t believe that financially they can make it on their own in this country. They might be right. According to a 2014 CNN Money article by Melanie Hicken, “On average, women 65 years and older rely on a median income of around $16,000 a year—roughly $11,000 less than men of the same age, according to a Congressional analysis of Census data. And many elderly women rely exclusively on Social Security benefits.”
At this stage in my grand plan for female autonomy and emancipation, I still live paycheck to paycheck, have no plans for future housing, and no savings whatsoever (for myself, or for my daughter to go to college). I own no property, nor do I have money for a down payment on anything. I also know that I’m lucky—to have housing, to send my daughter to a good public school, and to be able to pay most of my bills. Still, like most Americans, I have my get-rich-quick schemes. I’ll sell my novel for six figures! Then, once I sell that novel, I’ll be able to leave my long-term contract faculty job and get a tenured position somewhere! My father—who, according to my brother, is hoarding a cool million—and I will patch things up and he’ll leave me an inheritance! One day, I’ll meet someone and fall in love again and we’ll decide to live together, and he or she will be rich and generous!
These last two are particularly vexing fantasies for me because they rely on the idea of a savior, and so lately I try to resist them. I don’t want to be saved anymore. That was a girlhood ideology that slunk into most of my adult life. I suspect I’m not the only woman in the world who has fallen for this one. We can’t be too hard on ourselves for falling for ideology. Ideology works because it’s unconscious. It’s a thread we can use to hold together the fabric of our thoughts.
Though my relationship with my mother is a complicated one, she has given me many gifts. She taught me to work and to scheme and to dream. In the early ’70s, my mother and her best friend S. formed the local chapter of the National Organization for Women in our small upstate New York town. Several years later, my brother and I, along with S.’s two sons, waved them off as they drove to Chicago to march for the Equal Rights Amendment. I remember how defeated they were when it didn’t pass.
The background noise of much of my childhood was listening in on their schemes. S.’s husband sometimes called them Lucy and Ethel. Lucille Ball was from my hometown, and there was something zany about them when they were together. They had endless ideas, they gossiped, and they made each other laugh. We, the children, were in their orbit. Or we were upstairs beating the shit out of each other.
There was a draft of a feminist cookbook for husbands who didn’t know how to cook and a store that S. opened called Cheese and Crafters that sold local cheeses, croissants, and handmade crafts. The store folded after a year, not long after us kids ate our weight in cheese curds. My mother and S. had long talks in the kitchen about the sewing projects they were working on, how to get a better job, and how to change their husbands.
But first there was the NOW chapter, which my mother claims to have grown bored with when someone brought in mirrors so that they could examine their vaginas. “Not for me,” my mother shrugged when she told me this story, a faint look of disgust on her face. She said the same thing recently when I told her to start watching Broad City. I am often unsure which kinds of sexual things will disgust my mother. I guess Ilana, my favorite character on Broad City and pretty much any television show ever, is, in her own way, the modern-day equivalent to the 1970s group vaginal self-examination. Ilana is, after all, all about the pussy.
From my mother and S. I learned that feminism is a dream for the future, a fantasy you talk about but never quite grasp. I wonder if many third-wave daughters of second-wave mothers think this. Or maybe many activists and feminists in particular feel this way because change is slow, and our government is woefully behind in providing the things the majority of feminists and liberals in this country want: affordable birth control and access to abortions, paid parental leave, a $15 minimum wage, and stricter gun control, to name a few.
In college I read the work of black, brown, and queer feminists, and I learned that feminism was about making your own path, utopian spaces, and a deeply exciting, witchy sexuality. I tripped out on Gloria Anzaldúa’s idea of “la conciencia de la Mestiza” (the mestiza consciousness). I went to a Bikini Kill concert in London when I was studying abroad in Madrid and felt the thrill of being invited to the front of the hall. I left the man I was with in the back, and he complained afterward that it wasn’t fair. I didn’t care. In graduate school I read bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress, I started consulting for Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking, and I began to work toward creating an inclusive, democratic classroom, where everyone could work and play together. The child psychologist and grandfather of play theory, D. W. Winnicott, called it “serious play.”
OUR PROBLEMS WITH MY FATHER WERE BOTH PERSONAL AND POLITICAL
In my favorite course that I taught this academic year, Youth in Revolt: Case Studies in Global Activism, we studied subculture theory and style as a system of readable signs, and then we delved into the Weather Underground, the Black Panther Party, Tiananmen Square, riot grrrl, Tahrir Square, and Pussy Riot. One day I made a riot grrrl playlist and we listened to it while making zines about the things in our lives that pissed us off and wanted to change. The class before we’d read Sara Marcus’s history of the riot grrrl movement, Girls to the Front, and Jack Halberstam’s Gaga Feminism. The theory and history of zines and DIY movements underpinned our making of a tangible object. As Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy and Nicki Minaj (of course she’s a latter-day riot grrrl) screamed and groaned in the background, we wrote, sketched, and collaged. Inside the zine were our stories about the world and ourselves.
From this class, and these students in particular, I learned that I prefer a messy, improvisational feminism, where the theory and history sit comfortably underneath or alongside the making and doing, and become the background chatter and noise to our lives: writing, art making, cooking, sewing, fucking, and taking care of children and friends. What makes me happiest in the classroom is when we manage that kitchen-table feeling I saw in my mother and S. when I was a little girl. Politics, love, laughter, sadness, and schemes—all stewing together on the stove top.
Perhaps this is why I’m drawn to photographer Carrie Mae Weems’s groundbreaking “Kitchen Table Series” (1990). In these black-and-white photographs, the kitchen, and more specifically Weems and her own kitchen table, center the frame. Children, lovers, and friends revolve around the table, but the constant is the woman, who, according to Weems, claims the domestic space as political, not just for African American women, but for all women.
I left for college the same year that Weems released these photographs, desperate to escape the domestic cage of my parents’ disintegrating marriage, convinced that the only way to be political was to march in the streets and to sit and stand in solidarity at rallies and protests.
If I could get one of those cosmic work-arounds that we all sometimes crave and go back in time, I’d fire up my flux capacitor, zip back to the mid-’80s, and ask my parents to redo their divorce.
My big joke about my parents’ divorce is that they started talking about it when I was 10, but didn’t make it stick until I was 18. Ha.
“I’m divorcing your father,” I remember my mother saying to me as she cried on her bed after a particularly horrible argument. She was making a pro and con list on a yellow legal pad for whether she should stay or go. Like the copies of Penthouse, Playboy, and Hustler my father kept on the coffee table, she left it out on the nightstand. Later, I read it. I was 14 or 15. I don’t know if my brother saw it. I don’t know where my brother was; probably in his room, re-working the elaborate system of ropes and pulleys he’d rigged to make it impenetrable. His closet was attached to the crawl space, which he’d made into a lair for playing video games and sneaking beers. These were our early roles. I was over-involved and he was hiding.
“I am the enemy of this family,” my father said around the same time, in the middle of a typically gray and freezing upstate New York winter. We’d all been fighting about something—maybe it was what to order for delivery. My mom had stopped cooking out of sheer exhaustion, but we could never agree about what local fast-food fare to order because for this one moment of every day, we were each determined to have our desires met, and dug in.
“I want a cheeseburger and baked potato from Wendy’s.”
“I want Taco Hut.”
“I want chicken nuggets from McDonald’s.”
“I am the enemy of this family,” he possibly repeated. Perhaps my mother gave him one of her withering looks. I can’t remember. Their fights bled together, and like many unhappily married couples, they had the same fight over and over again. I heard them so often they felt scripted. Now’s the part where mom says she can’t take it anymore. Here’s the part where dad says fuck off.
My father stood up. He was crying. He did that sometimes. Usually after he’d done something particularly mean, and he felt guilty about it. “It’s really hard to have your father die and your family hate you,” he shouted back at us as he slammed the front door. We listened to the garage door open and his car drive down the snowy street.
I’m not sure what the rest of us did. We probably talked about him behind his back. Or ordered the food we wanted. I know I felt an impossible sadness and rage in my stomach. I wanted to comfort him because I had no idea what it felt like for your father to die, but I knew it must be horrible. But if his own father beat him, wasn’t he glad he was dead? I knew from eavesdropping on rare phone calls and from the stories my father told about his childhood that their relationship was distant and brutal.
I felt sorry for my dad. I loved him. I hated him. I had occasionally wished him dead. Mostly, I wanted him to be a better dad, more like the TV dads I was obsessed with—Pa from Little House on the Prairie or Dr. Huxtable from The Cosby Show. But I needed my mother more because she took better care of me, so I sided with her, not understanding until I was much older and in therapy that my brother and I should never have been involved in the drama of their marriage.
One day, the August before I went away to college, my father and I were both packing. I have an image of him putting some of his books in a box while standing in his office. He is surrounded by his guitars, his most cherished possessions. I am walking to the bathroom, which is just past his office. I am ignoring him. I say nothing, I make no eye contact, but I see that he is moving slowly, as if underwater. Each book, each object is an opportunity for contemplation, for staying put, and for going slow. My father is the master of passive resistance.
That summer before college I was completely off the rails. My first boyfriend, the love of my 18-year-old life, dumped me for a blonde who called herself a performance artist. This was too much for me to bear, so I started sleeping with an alcoholic football player from the next town over, who was occasionally so drunk he fell asleep on top of me. I went to his house whenever I could and a couple of times I sniffed poppers with him, his sister, and his best friend. To do this day I recall those afternoons of sniffing poppers as some of the best of my life. Pure pleasure. Bliss. Giggling until I fell off the bed. I was kind of in love with his sister, but I told no one. Instead, I made out with the best friend in my mother’s car in the woods. One of my closest old friends, who had spent the year mostly not talking to me, came back into my life, and told me she’d been in a cult and had to get deprogrammed by experts who showed her videos of Hitler youth and refused her a shower until she would listen. I was ecstatic to have her back. I’d missed her so much, but I was also confused. I didn’t know how to process what had happened to her. Another close friend decided not to go away to college as planned. I thought this was a big mistake, but I didn’t say so. I felt betrayed in our pact to get out of our small town, no matter what.
That summer I was also doing a lot of acid. I came home tripping one night to find my father awake and chatty in the family room. I tried to sneak past so that I could hide in my room and stare at myself in the mirror until the acid wore off.
“Sit with me?” he asked.
I nodded yes and kept my head down, afraid that my father would see my giant dilated pupils. I was carrying a tub of French onion dip and a bag of chips, which I wasn’t sure I could eat in my fucked-up state, but was determined to have in my room. I’d learned that the proper supplies are an important part of any good trip.
The room was dark, the TV on, to what I don’t know. My father was saying things, but I didn’t quite understand what they were, so I said yes and murmured a lot. My father hates interruptions, so this usually works just fine. Or maybe we talked about something real. Maybe I managed to have a conversation with him. I can’t remember. I tried to eat the chips and dip, but the texture was all wrong and felt thick and heavy on my tripping tongue. I couldn’t swallow.
In the flux-capacitor version of this story, I tell him I’m tripping and that I started taking acid after he gave me Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I want him to understand that part of my dream for my own future is to become like the Merry Pranksters, but without the complicated sexual politics. Maybe I tell him that I love him and that I hate him, and that these feelings I have for him are the strongest feelings of my life so far. I demand that he grow up and move on and move out and start a new life because that’s what I plan to do, and in my 18-year-old righteousness I cannot understand why my parents won’t do the same. I cannot bear their lingering. Their slow pace. Their endless marriage. But I can’t go back. I said none of this. I had no language. This is why I took acid. To become more fully the mute, stupid animal I longed to and imagined myself to be.
I see now that this conversation is the blueprint for many of our future conversations. My father saying a lot and me saying very little until I can escape. His monologues. My silence. This is the arrangement he prefers, because when I talk I confuse him. I don’t make sense. He says I mumble. He says I am purposely difficult, and that I enjoy it.
Now that I have gone through my own divorce and separation, I can better appreciate what a radical re-alignment it is—the self must be re-worked. The first year of separation is vastly different from the third year, when you sign the divorce papers. I want to forgive my parents for their messy ’80s divorce. I want to say it went down like many divorces of that era. I’m glad too that the children of these messy divorces, my brother and myself included, are trying to do it differently. More co-parenting. Less litigation. More therapy. Less fighting over the kids.
Still, my parents’ divorce is the wound that has marked us all. I missed the mother I had before my parents split; in some ways she felt more together. She knew who her enemy was, at least. It was even harder to get to know the man who is my father. My mother tried to protect us from him. She’d been a shield. Now I had to face him alone. Once I’d gone to graduate school my mother slid into a deep depression. She’d escaped my father, but there were still problems. She wanted a partner. Dating in my small town was no picnic. I remember her sad phone calls and my trips home when she would spend big chunks of time after work and on weekends in bed. Her work kept her grounded then. She felt needed there.
I wonder about the work we do to shape our lives—for money, on the self, with our friends, lovers, and children.
Working through. A work-around. Work it. Get to work. All work and no play. You need to work on your shit. Busy work. Work it out. Dirty work. A nasty piece of work. Piecework. Women’s work.
Lately, as one of the many metaphorical possibilities I offer my students for thinking about the structure of essays, I tell them that the essay is a quilt. I’m stealing this from my dear graduate school mentor, Darlene Forrest, who taught me some of the smartest and best things I know about teaching, learning, and writing.
Sometimes, when I’m writing, I pull the thread and the essay unravels. Mostly, if I try hard enough, I can stitch the pieces together, and find the thread. Essays are the only sewing I do these days.
I worry that I’ll make a shoddy quilt. My mother is a precision quilter. I’m in awe of the small bits of math, the piecing and the patterns that go into even a small quilt. My daughter and I each have quilts she made us hanging in our rooms.
I remember an exhibition of the Gee’s Bend quilters I saw in my late 20s at a museum. These quilts, made by African American women (many of them descendants of slaves) starting in the 1920s in Alabama, are improvisational, and in a style the women call “my way.” Made from old clothes and blankets and leftover Sears, Roebuck corduroy, these quilts are riffs on patterns that subvert the very idea of patterns and precision. They take flight into their own design and iteration, and they are the most beautiful quilts I’ve ever seen.
When I was in elementary school I was in 4-H. I sewed and quilted. I made a small wooden bench for my dolls, my initials stenciled on it, from a kit. I won a ribbon after walking down a runway made out of hay bales in a pleated sleeveless drop-waist dress I’d sewn. In my 20s and 30s, my sewing skills turned me into the unofficial tailor for my friends and husband. I found sewing dull—I don’t know why—and the garment I envisioned was never what I wound up making. Mending was even more tedious. But I quit sewing because I couldn’t bear the seam ripper—that little tool with the hook claw that rips out the thread. I couldn’t stand to admit that I made such a mistake, one that has to be entirely undone. I remember my mother saying, “Looks like you might have to rip it out,” and my dismay at those words. But, sometimes, the garment is too messed up. You have to accept that, start over, and make new stitches over the holes of the previous ones.
My mother often ripped the seams out for me because she knew I found it tedious and depressing. Then, she’d help me thread the needle of the sewing machine and we’d start again.