“So sorry for your loss”
Grieving isn’t a bad process, despite the western cultural framework that demonises it. Grief is needed emotional relief, release and reflection.
The last few weeks have been dominated by legal and government processes associated with my mothers death. It’s brought up some deep thinking about what we expect of the humans we birth.
I’ve chosen to actively try and separate the bureaucracy of death from my own version of grief. It seems to me, it’s not the grief, it’s the treating of people like numbers and economy that makes it more difficult. It’s also the idea that grief is always bad that I want to challenge.
It’s also the idea that I should be devastated at the loss of my mother that is also problematic. Because this loss to me is not what some people think it ‘should’ be.
I’m not grieving the loss of my mother, I’m grieving the loss of the mother I never had. Not everyone has a positive relationship with their mothers, many have abusive and harmful ones. In my case, it was only the last two years that there was some healing in that relationship, but it was there. So for me there is no crying and I appear okay, but there is much sitting in quiet, much focusing on the basics of life, about what is really important.
I’m grieving that my mother never got to access the help she needed to be healthier and happier when her life was dominated by tropes about her role as mother – so I am determined not to repeat that history. My Mum laboured over ideas that her role as a mother and wife was foremost and in my view, that destroyed her ability to seek happiness for herself. And she could never quite feel happy about happiness for me, as I didn’t conform to her idea of woman or motherhood. And this was reflected in her own reflections later in life. However, she was not offered what I was in the world, history simply did not afford it to her.
She experienced an intense jealousy that she directed at me in some very cruel ways and none of that was her fault. My father chose to live vicariously through me, he cheered on the things I got to do that he couldn’t. But the reality was, that for him, he knew he had more access to opportunities than Mum did, and male privilege afforded this positivity.
I don’t want to dwell in the disappointed parent narrative of the past that shames young people into following paths constructed for them by their parents and a society obsessed with the worship of authority. I want young people to dismantle systems of oppression (rather than collude with them), from within those systems or outside of those systems.
When some people say our youth are entitled, I say they are en-passioned. And more to the point, wasn’t it some gen X and some baby boomers who said “I just don’t want them to go through what I did”?
For the most part, as an adult I offered Mum my compassion and tried to understand where her very destructive thinking came from. I couldn’t do this as a child and no child should experience that expectation.
Mum believed that her reproductive value was the only value worth aspiring to. Part of my reflection in grief means that now I want to continue to model healthy ideas to offspring (see clarification at bottom of post for my use of this word). I have aimed not to get mired down in traditional ideas about the legacy of reproduction, death, grief or motherhood.
I’ve always tried to be a good human to offspring and I’ve actively resisted what I call “perfect motherhood discourse”. That the perfect mother is <insert shame based communication here> – does not appeal to me. There is no perfect anything. It’s more important to me that the human I merely birthed (folks every species does this! human birth is not superior or special) has critical thinking skills.
And before the ‘as a mother’ chorus begins, you are a parent too. I chose parenting rather than mothering, it is the term I am most comfortable with.
The only thing I want for adult offspring is an ability to follow their own way, not what I want for them. My own Mum mostly shamed and rarely celebrated my status as a ‘career woman’ in a way that constituted a kind of sabotage of my own agency, and I felt as though I could never be good enough for her. For adult offspring, I’ll always be their Mum and they choose that, but I am me first. I am proud that they know and can articulate clearly that the kind of martyrdom that society often expects of me “as a mother” can manifest as a form of oppression that I (and that they) do not want to partake in.
I do not subscribe to some mythical concept of motherhood that is rooted in women being confined to their reproductive value, that has let men off the parenting expectation hook. A good example of this is when you hear a man say they are stuck babysitting their own child while ‘the wife/partner’ goes out, rather than call it what it is – parenting.
The old political economy trope that men can depend on the women in their lives to do all the parenting labor has left a world divided and burning, in my humble opinion. Parenting labor is work, and for women it remains largely unpaid and undervalued. Women’s unpaid work can be measured, and what most women do in traditional relationships can represents a greater value than the wages of the ‘male breadwinner’ model of old.
Throughout the weeks since Mum died, I’m reminded of just how many ways there are to grieve and that grief is valuable, like any emotional state.
If you are experiencing grief, not just the kind of grief that is associated with death, but the loss of someone or something important – it’s okay to feel that.
Grief allows us to take time to examine what is important and what is not. There will be people everywhere telling you how to grieve, don’t pay too much attention to them if you think it’s not useful for you. You have a right to grieve in your own way.
Some folks will be genuinely offering comfort. Some will want the old you back because it is inconvenient for them that you are grieving. Some people are offering skills and strategies for harnessing the change.
In world obsessed with freedom from any kind of upset and the pursuit of happy and positive states often to the reverse impact; learning to sit with discomfort and learn from it is becoming more and more overlooked, but even more necessary.
I am okay with grief, and it is okay with me.
*Clarifications for the pendants:
- I use offspring as a gender neutral way to refer to the human I birthed, who I chose not to define by their sex or gender. I am aware offspring has problematic etymology and origin and I am reinventing and reclaiming it as I see fit. This is in the absence of other language that I am yet to find that better meets my understanding of what it is to parent in a modern context.
- I also choose not to permanently infantilise them by using words like ‘child’ when they have been an adult for some time. I also reject that when I use ‘offspring’ that I have any kind of ownership over them and that they are not extensions of me, but they are their own person. The humans we birth are not possession or chattels and their success or failure in life and the arbitrary way this is defined as monetary or career projections – is not and was never the reason for them being.
- I’m gay and non-binary and I took a long time to come out. It doesn’t mean I can’t have experienced heteronormative relationships and given birth and experienced discrimination for the 42 years prior to coming out. It doesn’t make me less qualified to comment, it makes me more qualified – along with the fact I am a social scientist who has a couple of decades studying and talking about gendered discourse. If you’ve never stepped outside of heteronormative thinking, you simply can’t tell me that I don’t get it – because heteronormativity is a dominant form of social conditioning. You’re stuck, not me.
- We do not have the power over the humans we birth that we think we do. Letting go of that is an exercise in self worth for the humans we birth and in empowering those humans to be who they define themselves to be. You do not make these humans better humans as extending your economic and social values on them or replicating rigid religious and social institutions upon them. You do not set the bar for their lives, the complexity of life does, thinking you can shape their future is futile, controlling and a form of cultural narcissism. There is no planet B. It’s time to stop thinking we can create CEO’s or celebrities or famous people by birthing them and thinking we can shape them; but work towards a sense of collective well being that means young people can create meaningful change. It’s their future, not ours.