Thursday, November 29, 2018

Forward Only

How does each generation live up to its promise?

I'm a lucky woman in that I have close relationships with multiple generations of women. My grandmother was born in '26, my mother in '59; I followed in '86 and my sister came along in 2000. I've had many conversations, both mundane and in-depth, with each of these family members, and coming away from our discourse I am struck by the differences between not our numerical ages but our cultural gestalts.

So much progress has been made in my grandmother's lifetime. Looking back at everything that happened in our country over the past 90 years, I'm in awe of everything she has witnessed. Grandmere still keeps abreast of current events, an active observer, an engaged listener.

My mother, too, was a part of huge cultural shifts - she's a staunch feminist, and her understanding of politics and social justice has evolved and grown, and continues to deepen. Her first daughter - that's me - has pushed and pushed boundaries, asking questions, rebelling in tiny ways, forcing more than a few issues. My conversations with my mother are some of my greatest gifts.

And my life has been a product of a specific time period, too. I came out as bisexual in high school, when there was even less understanding of anything other than the binary of hetero- and homosexuality, but I felt safe enough to do so. What was missing was any understanding or exploration of gender, and I feel that my generation in its emerging maturity is now able to deconstruct that binary.

My sister's generation, from what I can observe, is even more compassionate, engaged, questioning. Through my sister I have been in my mother's place, learning more and more about topics which were off-limits when I was a kid. I'm so impressed by the openness of my sister's classmates, friends, contemporaries, and I find that their complexity opens doors for me. I never got to consider my gender, even though my teen idols were those who challenged gender entirely. I never got to ask why I liked the performative trappings of gender while having no particular innate concept of what kind of human being I was.

But there are other topics, too, which have needed deconstruction, which have begged for critical thought. Some of those topics seem small, some large, and all of them are weaved into our cultural consciousness. And it's those little things which have been itching in the back of my brain - things which seem obvious to me, born in '86, but which manage to challenge an established status quo.

Discipline, specifically spanking, is one of those topics. And, unfortunately, it widens the divide between older and newer generations.

When the American Academy of Pediatrics stated, clearly and definitively, that physical discipline was bad for children, I felt that it was entirely obvious. An "of course," rather than any kind of shock. I've known my whole life that harming a child for any reason is just plain wrong. Would you hit an adult? Would you even call them names, berate them, use emotional forms of punishment? Of course not. And children are even more vulnerable than adults; it is our duty to protect them.

My mother's generation grew up with parents who didn't consider that obvious, for whom spanking was a normal way to discipline a child. Her mission with me was to do better, to work harder at being an understanding parent; in the parlance of special education, my mother strove to respond to me, not to react. But I see friction, now, between people my age who are young parents and parents who didn't know any better. There's a defensiveness - a fear, I think, that those who used spanking are being called bad parents.

Similarly, I think there is a strong reaction in some to young women who demand the same respect as men. Who demand a better life; who advocate for themselves. Many women of earlier generations lived with the expectation that they sublimate their desires to their husband's wishes and requirements. From little things, like having dinner on the table at the right time, to big things, like bearing children, many women didn't have a choice. And I think, if those lives and experiences are questioned, it might make those women uncomfortable. It might make them feel unheard and disrespected. 

Some of our elders might be deeply uncomfortable with the kind of pride both my generation, and in a greater way, my sister's generation, feel free to display. When I was eighteen I went to my first Baltimore Pride and I felt nervous, giddy, and delighted, a joyful laugh at the back of my throat; when I went with my sister this year I noticed all of the families, kids in strollers, moms, dads, teenagers in bright colors and glitter. Our culture is shifting - we are more able to be out and proud - and perhaps that might appear off-putting, vulgar, frightening.

The secrets held in those quiet lives of years past are being confronted by today's openness. And that's scary. We talk about the bad stuff in hopes it might get better; other women might not have had that choice.

We have been listening, talking, learning, and that exploration is going to continue. Even I, still a young woman, find myself confused by a lot of the terminology which exists as obvious for my sister's generation. I didn't know until recently that the word for me is pansexual; it doesn't make that much of a difference at this point, but I think it makes a big difference if young people can find words with which they identify. I didn't have the knowledge, didn't have the benefit of new information - and that doesn't scare me. It makes me happy that the world is getting better.

And when it comes to other things, harmful things like spanking - I would hope that our combined reaction might be, thank goodness, we know better, now. Even if it happened to us, even if it happened to our parents, we have been told that there are better ways to raise children. And what a miracle it is, to evolve, to learn more, to make each generation happier than that which came before.

And for women like me, for people like my sister - what a joy that we can stand up and become something other than a lifestyle accessory for someone else. Does this invalidate our parents' or grandparents' marriages? No! And I would never attempt to criticize the necessary choices that other woman have had to make. But our openness - too often seen as selfishness - means that our relationships with others and our identities within ourselves will be richer. Might be more joyful. We might be working towards a more equitable world. We might say no, sometimes, and that might make our yeses even more powerful.

There's a sense of ugliness which comes with independence. We've been taught to value others even to our own detriment. We've been taught to keep quiet about who we are, lest we offend, and we've been taught to respect our parents' methods even if they have harmed us. It's a culture of silence and a culture of secrets; it's not dissimilar from the way I dress up, the performative feminine, to hide my mental illnesses or my chronic pain.

I'll leave you here with a silly image, one suited for the holiday season. In 1964, the Rankin-Bass "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was released. Beyond Mrs. Claus trying to fatten up her skinny Santa, beyond the silver and gold, it was a deeply subversive film. It was a movie about people who didn't fit in, who were innately different no matter how much the world wanted them to submit, to assimilate. Rudolph is physically other, and Hermey is drawn to an unacceptable career - one might even say, lifestyle.

We see the film through a modern lens, now - it's obvious to us that "Rudolph" is a work of fiction designed to challenge discrimination and bigotry. But that message has been bubbling away, near to boiling over, since 1964, and it's a gift that so many of us can now openly identify with the misfits. Can identify with a demand to be recognized. Can identify with the beauty within all people. With kindness. With compassion.

I don't know what the world will look like for my niece and nephews, for the children of my sister's contemporaries. I think it will get even better - I think it will live up to the promise of all the things we wish for, now. And I want to keep improving, to keep questioning, and I think that whatever new words or concepts or identities emerge will help me become a more complete person. And that evolution won't negate my life, just as our modern understanding of parenting doesn't harm our parents or grandparents, just as a new word for who I am doesn't erase who I've been, just as my dedication to intersectional feminism doesn't erase my mother's early experiences with an emerging political consciousness.

We are designed to move forward, only. And I can't wait to see what comes next.   

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