Destructiveness of identities

I am on Part 5 of Todd Haynes’ 2011 production of Mildred Pierce, a sad period piece about a woman who kicks her cheating husband out of the house leaving her struggling to care for her two daughters and herself. I watched Parts 1 through 4 last night. I am glad that I put off the final part until this morning, because I think the story needed to ferment overnight so I could process why it frustrates me so.

At the beginning of Part 5, Mildred Pierce begins a set of actions that are destructive. In frustration, I am watching her pursue a relationship with her oldest daughter even though such a relationship will be harmful to Mildred. She is driven to reinstate herself in the role of “mother” of Veda. Her very being is so closely tied to this identity that she cannot seem to live without her daughter in her life.

And that is the harm in identities that overwhelm personal identity: they are destructive. They objectify women.

I began to better understand my identity as a wife after I was no longer living that identity. It took me a good two years to disconnect from that identity. I was so traumatized by not being a wife any longer that I experienced a great sense of loss and went into mourning. Grief consumed me. It wasn’t that I wanted my husband back. Oh, not at all. I knew that our marriage was toxic to me, that our relationship was extremely harmful to me, and to him. I didn’t know what I was if I wasn’t a wife. I had been a wife for over 20 years when we separated and had allowed that identity along with motherhood to consume me.

And it is that way for Mildred Pierce. She is a successful businesswoman and somewhat controls her romantic interests and sexuality. She is an aberration for the 1930s. She cast off the idea that she needed to be provided for and took that upon herself taking back most of her power. But in one area, she cannot seem to reconcile that she is the parent of a child who rejects her because her child is deeply flawed. She cannot shake off the identity of mother, and this gives her much pain and anguish.

After disconnecting from the identity of wife, I began to disconnect from the identity of mother. I had to do this to truly find out who I was as a person. I wrote blog posts about how I am a person first, then a mother to my children. I told my children this fact. And then I acted like it was true. I began to put myself first in different ways. I didn’t neglect to see to the needs of my children (except being unavailable when they had lived with a mother who was available 24/7 without exception their entire lives). Being chronically ill had already accomplished a lot of the disconnect because I was not able to be that full-time, always present kind of mother they had known previously. This final part of the process wasn’t as difficult as it might have been for a family with a healthy, full-time mother.

Female identities, I believe, can be destructive to women. It is possible that Veda, in rejecting her mother, sees this destructive nature. While anyone who sees this miniseries will admit that Veda is flawed, that she borders on being a psychopath, Veda might be reacting to Mildred’s objectification of herself. She sees weakness in her mother, and pounces on it. She is like a hen picking the wound of another hen. Wow, that last sentence was misogynistic. But it rings with truth.

Women who are wives and mothers, who are consumed by these identities accept that they have given up their own selves. This gives others great power over them. And this is what can be destructive.

Mildred needs to accept that her daughter is toxic to her life. She needs to allow her daughter to be separate and independent, to find her own way. She needs to let her daughter go into the world without her protection because there is nothing she can do to help her daughter. She is not necessary to her daughter’s life anymore and her daughter has nothing to offer Mildred relationally. Veda had rejected Mildred as intelligent and capable when she was very young. She grew up with the idea that her mother was substandard, lowly, and flawed because she was a working woman. That makes Veda very, very flawed. Mildred’s mistake is in not allowing herself to completely emerge from identities. She fails to embrace her personal identity for herself.

Identities, when allowed to overpower a woman’s identity as a person, can be destructive.

Note: Corrected mispelling of Veda and Todd Haynes’ names after publication.



Women as counselors, conciliators, and interpreters

I had lunch last month with my estranged husband. He had a work thing so he came up to Connecticut from his southern home and decided to attempt to reconnect with his children and me. This visit was good because we were able to talk without fighting for the first time in four years. He was being heavily coached by some friends on what to do and what not to do with the goal, of course, of winning us all back to him so we can be a family again. These misguided Christian friends don’t have a clue. But I digress.

At one point my husband admitted to me that he needed me to be the go-between, the person who helps him connect with his children. I had naturally assumed that position from the moment each of our children was born, but he always resented it and eventually told me to shut up and butt out, that he didn’t need me to get involved with how he interacted with HIS children. Yes, those were almost the exact words spoken years and years ago that brought me to a place where I only intervened when I felt the children were being bullied. In all other ways I stayed out.

What was amazing was that this man finally admitted that he needed me in that role again, almost begged me to help him connect with his kids. Of course, I declined. That wasn’t my place anymore. I had been fired and wasn’t willing to consider taking on that responsibility again. He was on his own. I wasn’t this blunt with him, but basically conveyed this position.

And then this morning as I was double-checking the spelling of “Wealhtheow” from Beowulf (King Hrothgar’s queen) for an essay I was writing, I stumbled upon a wonderful work by Jennifer Michelle Gardner entitled, “The Peace Weaver: Wealhtheow in Beowulf.” The title is so telling.

In reading the introduction — never, ever skip introductions written by authors — I saw something that is probably obvious to everyone else on the planet, but had eluded me because I grew up in a single parent household with a father that was not around except a few times a year: mothers are typically the family “peace weavers.” Gardner refers to scholarly analyses she studied in researching Wealhtheow that identify the value a woman has in this position. In her novellette, she presents Wealtheow in the revered position as interpreter, conciliator, and counselor not to the other women, but to the men. What a fascinating concept. It makes so much sense, though, when you think about it. On a much smaller scale, women provide this honorable service within families every day.

Mothers assist each member of the family in relating to the others, interpreting difficult communications, conveying important information, but most importantly, aiding a father in relating to his children. Apparently, children speak a different relational language than most fathers. At least that was commonplace when patriarchal family structures were more common. I believe this is less common in families where the fathers are involved in infant care from the beginning, fathers bond deeply with their children and work at relating. For those fathers, this is less of a need until adolescence when things get dicey for fathers who typically do not like abrupt change (and adolescence is characterized by dramatic changes, often from day to day). But for the father who is fairly traditional, who sees himself as a guardian and protector, provider and overseer, and not necessarily a co-nurturer, the importance of the mother as family counselor, conveyer and interpreter of important information and situations is vital to the relational health of a family.

As amazing as this revelation is to me, it is even more amazing that my children’s father recognized this need for a go-between in relating to his children. If only he had listened to his wife. Right? (Yes, you are correctly sensing just a teensy little bit of smugness.) The great part about this whole thing is that it doesn’t hurt me anymore to think about how I had been pushed aside as inconsequential to our family welfare, as though my voice was less valued than the dog’s. I am not in that place anymore, and I don’t have that denigrating voice in my head now. I am learning the value of my own voice. The most freeing part is that I do not need to make others agree with me; I can just have my say and move on. What freedom! Getting to this place was not easy, though.

Women are faced with a multitude of roles in this world. Too often we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t, as was the case in my situation. I think we can learn a lot from the warrior cultures of the past. They were primal in nature yet possessed a delicate, almost advanced social order, one that recognized the value in women’s voices, and in some cases, their warrior hearts — cue up the scene from The Return of the King where the the shield-maiden Eowyn is standing before the Witch-King ready to take him on. Back when the fictional Wealhtheow lived men were manly men, but women were allowed to be manly women and feminine women, too. In many cases, the voices of women were valued, almost sacred, and considered integral to a well-ordered society.

Always learning in my little cubicle of academia. Always learning.