A feeling slams into me every now and again. Usually when I am walking home from the office on a Friday evening, my arms and shoulders heavy with bags toting the week’s detritus of rinsed lunch containers, shoes, damp yoga clothes. notebooks. “Forever schlepping”, I think. No different than my grandmother and her sisters, who carried bundles down steep paths to the village wash basin and bales up even steeper paths to the grazing pastures. “How did I inherit this,” I wonder as the handles of one bag begin to roll down my arm.
Because despite my best efforts, I am still not all-that-far from the women who came before me.
It was my mother who taught me, from a very young age, to be nice, to compromise and to please. To put the needs of others first, always. My mother, aunts, cousins, grandmothers and every woman before that were given that same message. After all, the responsibility was all on them to make a home and to raise children, to save money and keep nosy neighbours at bay. There was no room for inconvenient personal desires. The last to sit down to dinner, only once the rest of the family had been served, her plate a composition of what everyone else didn’t want. Eating the over-ripe fruit, so that we could eat the fresh fruit. Waking up before everyone else to get the laundry folded and staying up late to make pasta, the reh-reh-reh of the roller ushering the rest of us into sleep.
While they kept husbands happy and fed, the children clean and obedient, they desperately craved love and affection — of course they did — but it would have been selfish to ask for it, indulgent to expect it. Husbands were not taught to be attentive, they were trained to provide. With no perceived separation between their bodies and the bodies of their children, our mothers tried to levy that affection from us, smothering us with the attention they craved, wailing when we begged for air. They learned to live on crumbs, to suffocate need with more work, and there was always more work to be had.
Even though my genes were carried to another continent, this legacy could not be broken.
Currently, I am 45 years old and although I never married, never had children, my nervous system is also attuned to the pleasure of others, sparking yellow spherics when someone else’s burden is lifted. My teacher in grade six once told my mother, “Adriana is very intelligent, but she spends way too much time helping others and not enough time on her own work.” Everyone always chased me for my notes, structured with arrows and colours, the main ideas prominently framed. I could always be counted on to remember pet names, stories about exes and proofread CVs. I have dated beautiful, gregarious men who delighted me with their big personalities, but who did not know how to take care of another person. They just wanted a cheerleader. So I bent, i compromised and I pleased, learned to live with less attention, filled up on crumbs while I fed them cake. And I worked. When all else failed, I could work and there was never any lack of that. Because when you put the needs the others first, all it does is generate more work. And it feels like noble work.
While I may have learned how to ask for what I want, how to say “no”, how to carve my own path, the inherited need to serve others at any price was stronger. To be honest, it feels good to receive gratitude when you give others the love and attention they crave, but the effort, I eventually realized, was not sustainable. I spent decades continuously stepping back, enabling others to shine and absorbing their disappointment, resentment and pain as if it were my own. There I was, repeating my mother’s gentle, but oblivious parenting style, always giving others what they wanted (not to be mistaken with what they needed), but underneath it all, my wells of compassion were constantly running dry. Although I could appreciate the beautiful aspects of my life and be nourished by my work, somehow I still found myself feeling alone and broken by the time Friday night rolled around. Buoyed up by the unrelenting support of my friends and colleagues, but occasionally also starved for affection, longing for a haven where I can rest, but finding none at hand.
I see this strain in the faces of my cousins too, in my community. So many of us educated in an environment that pushed us to develop self esteem and have pride in what we do, we work hard to find a place in the New World, but are still undermined by the reflex to bend and bend and bend. Yes, we may have the ability to articulate our needs and desires, the capacity to take care of our needs, to navigate so many different choices, so many new ways of being, and yet, we find it hard to build a home of our own. Our fingers still reaching to help feather your home and your home and yours too…
The first time I stepped away from what was expected of me was in 1998, when I broke up with my first long-term boyfriend. The nice Italian boy I was supposed to marry and build a home with, the one who promised to buy me a red Audi station wagon for the kids, an automatic engine because he didn’t want me burning through the clutch. My maternal grandmother died around that same time. Since then, I have been single for long periods of time. I used to wonder if my grandmother was magically keeping her granddaughters single to protect us from the hardships she endured in her marriage. That maybe my grandmother, or even an older ancestor, was keeping us single so that one of us will break this karmic chain. Of course, there’s also the simpler explanation that so many of us shun marriage because we have never seen a healthy one. This would also explain why my past grief over singlehood was always so visceral, overwhelming and painful — my desire to be in a relationship pushing against an unrecognized fear of relationships. Like a boat banging against something in the dark, terrifying, unknown, but definitely happening.
Not long ago, my mother dreamt of her mother. In the dream, my grandmother said to her, “We’ve lost Adriana.”. When my mother first reported it to me, I was shaken. Spiritually ejected from my family? Was my grandmother angry that I was trying to break the old ways? Was I lost? In the year after that, I worked harder than ever to evolve, to learn how to be a role model, to focus on what’s important to me, to focus on my work, to stop saying sorry, to step away from an emotional inheritance that threatened to swallow me whole. It took me a full year to consider the possibility that, maybe, my grandmother was telling my mother, in that backwards way women in my family communicate, that I have already shaken off that burden. That the work I’ve been doing in the past year is not to free myself, but the work of a free woman.