Every day I look at my daughters and think of bones. Their mitochondrial DNA goes back in time, a chain from daughter to mother to mother to mother, unbroken to a year no one remembers. Back to bones found in museums or unfound in caves. Forward in time their bones grow, they lift up their bodies, they become brittle and bend. I put these two people in this world, and I hope it will be good to them. But I also want them to be good to it. What kind of women will they be in their lifespans?
Of course, that question is misleading. Who knows if they will be women at all? After all, it's not only biology that makes us women – it's a sense of belonging, too. Biology is a game of chance; biology can be changed. By kindergarten, most of us find a gender that feels like home (https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/gradeschool/Pages/Gender-Identity-and- Gender-Confusion- In-Children.aspx). For cues on how to express that gender, we look to those around us.
As Judith Butler famously claimed, gender is a performance. We each construct our own version: “We act and walk and speak and talk in ways that consolidate an impression of being a man or being a woman.” We all watch each other from childhood, playing at being one person, then another.
I know my daughters watch me and their many grandmothers. They watch their father and his father. They watch our friends and the people in shops and playgrounds and schools. All different versions of the same performance, building upon one another, pushing away from one another. Intertwined. I wonder what new performances they will craft?
I'm sure I'll be surprised. My mother certainly was, but more on that in a moment. First I want to tell you what performance I saw from her—its complexity, flaws, and beauty. Mom grew up in the American West. Her parents are intelligent and strong-willed. Together they fix broken things, grow flowers and food. Nana is outspoken and Papa often defers to her. However, his thoughtful opinions sway her. They're well-matched. Growing up, Mom saw nuanced gender performances.
Mom herself is stubborn, diplomatic, kind, and bright. She was co-valedictorian upon graduating high school, and attended college on scholarship. Her ambition is matched by her dedication to family. She married young, and badly. My father is brilliant and charismatic, but where she is organized and practical, my father is impulsive, a dreamer. Instead of balancing each other out, they were in conflict. She stifled him; he forced her to carry too much responsibility. For more than twenty years, they drove that broken machine together.
I didn't meet her until she was thirty, the age I am now. She'd had fast, bright career success in her twenties before moving to the Atlantic's edge. Dad had gotten a job there in computer programming. Gaining their footing once more after a period of poverty, they decided it was time to have children. I was the first. By the time I remember much, my brother Joseph was a toddler, a chubby hellion topped with white-blond fluff. While he climbed the furniture, I clung to Mom's leg. We were a challenging pair, even for her. But Mom had made herself a space apart from us. She'd banded together a group of Christian women in an organization called Aglow. It was aptly named. Every Thursday, they'd pool their money for a sitter and spend the morning praying and building each other up. When Mom returned, she was glowing. Leadership suited her.
So imagine the culture shock when we moved to Texas and found out that in our new church women weren't allowed to speak before the congregation. Their husbands, we were told, should speak for them. But over time, Mom broke them down. She established rapport with the pastor, befriended the deacons, showed them her knowledge of Scripture and her way with words. Months later, women were allowed to stand alone at the pulpit and speak. Strangely, about this time, we were becoming part of the very subculture Mom was fighting. Since she homeschooled my brothers and me, she sought out a group of fellow homeschoolers—but they had rather different values. Like my mother, they were earnest Biblical scholars and devoted to their families. However, they followed very traditional gender roles and isolated themselves from outsiders, claiming popular culture and music was Satanic.
They revered the teachings of Focus on the Family and James Dobson. Although never ordained, Dobson held sway for years as a top leader of religious conservatism in North America; he has since resigned amid accusations of corruption. He spoke prolifically and passionately against same-sex marriage and abortion, praising male-female marriages and subservient women. My parents, my mother especially, became more and more politically conservative in that ideological echo chamber. Years later, reflecting on that time, my father and I agreed it felt oppressive; something dark was closing in on us.
My parent's marriage fell apart as I approached puberty. I watched as a dour, drab version of my mother finally gave up after yet another of my father's infidelities. Her pastor and some of our homeschooling friends insisted it was a wife's duty to forgive and to pray and to submit to her husband's leadership. Mom revolted. She filed for divorce. She began to work longer hours at the accounting firm. She hired her good friend Maria as a part-time nanny. She gathered about her a tighter circle of women friends. They gave her a makeover. They made tea and talked for hours. Mom was back to community-building. This time she'd had to fight for it; it was in spite of a religious patriarchy that had permeated nearly every part of our lives. I was inspired. It was as though she had stood to her full height after years of stooping.
She didn't know it, but I was standing on a precipice. I'd always had brief fascinations with female friends, much as I did with boys, but since I had no words to express this to myself, I gave little thought to it. However, as we all grew older, some of the girls softened. Their bodies curved and plunged, and I caught myself staring. At first I told myself it was part of my visual curiosity. I'm an artist, after all. I want to know how everything and everyone looks. But I knew better. This is a test of your faith, I thought to myself. It's a temptation to be bested. I was supposed to be a man's counterpart one day. That's what womanhood was, as I understood it: not to be less, but to be different, to be a half to a whole. Without an eventual husband, what was I? A failure? And with a wife—that was unthinkable.
I prayed, confessing my fantasies and wandering gaze. But unlike the other sins I struggled with, this one did not subside. I could look away, I could busy my mind with other things, but the magnetic pull remained. I prayed harder, berating myself, weeping as quietly as I could at night. I felt flawed. I read theological arguments about the possibility of God making mistakes. I read about pre-destination and free choice, how Calvin claimed that some of us are not destined for salvation and there's not a damn thing we can do about it. I felt monstrous. I was Grendel, hideously deformed and a danger to everyone. I cannot remember why I did not kill myself.
I didn't officially come out to myself until I was 22, when I had little left to lose. I flunked out of college, defeated by brutal mental and physical illness. I botched the opportunity I'd spent years to earn. Within the span of 9 months, I had been proposed to and then dumped by my boyfriend. He said I'd never been good enough for him. With my spirit broken and my body covered in sores, I retreated. My mother kindly took me back in and paid for treatments our insurance scoffed at. They worked, slowly. I could walk a whole block again, and I no longer stopped breathing in my sleep. But I was a pale imitation of the self I'd been a couple of years before, who joyfully hiked miles through the Tennesseean forests, snuck onto rooftops to sleep under the stars, or stayed up til dawn studying. So once I thought I could stay alive without help, I told my truth.
I told a few friends right away. Most were supportive, though a couple had things to say about the future of my immortal soul. They still loved me here and now, so I swallowed that grain of salt with their words. When I started dating again, I told my partners. They didn't mind.
Eventually I told my mother. She was angry, but composed. She loved me, she said. But society is built upon family units: father, mother, children. I was frustrated. Hadn't we been over this before? Sometimes those don't work. There are other ways, I said. But she had made up her mind. I called my father. He didn't care.
It's easy for us to define ourselves with labels. We do it while shaking hands with a new acquaintance, or filling out an online profile. We have to. It takes years to really know someone, and we need to be able to communicate quickly. But I think the truest measure is not what you are, but how you are. I am a scholar because of my curiosity, despite my spotty college transcript. I'm a writer though I don't have a Master's degree. I'm an artist because I’m dedicated to making beautiful things, a mother though I don't always get it right, mentally ill but mostly functional, a wife though not very domestic, a queer though I'm married to a man. A listener, a teller of stories, a protector, a friend. There has to be room for flaw and nuance in our self-definitions, and in the way we see those we love.
My daughters are watching. I'm sure they're already getting mixed signals about what a family can be, and whether a woman has to build one. I hope they'll feel they're good enough on their own. They're not incomplete parts of a unit. They're human beings—beautiful and whole. But we do need to be part of something. We need belonging. Sometimes, like my mother and myself, we end up in places we don't fit and we have to make a community ourselves, bringing people together and helping them grow. That's what womanhood means to me—making something bloom from the spaces in between.
Tammy Bendetti writes and paints on Colorado's Western Slope, where she lives with her husband and two little girls. In her spare time she enjoys dancing badly and drinking dangerous amounts of coffee.