Do the sacrifices of our parents, our ancestors, and our culture constitute obligations? I get that question in one form or another every semester in my women’s history class; my answer is always the same: a qualified but firm no. Rather, personal happiness is gratitude made manifest.
In a comment below last Friday’s post about virginity and expectations, a wonderful former student of mine named Connie writes:
Hugo, my question is this, how do we deal with the pressure of knowing our parents sacrifice so much so that we can succeed?
My parents have always given me everything I ask for and expect nothing in return except that I excel in my academics so that I can be successful, live a good life and help them out when they get old. What frustrates me is that this seems like such a simple request that I should be able to fulfill it with ease. Yet, because the notion seems so simple, there is more pressure and if I can’t do something as simple as studying and getting good grades, I am a failure. Having an education is simply not enough. I have to be at the top of my class. Sometimes I wonder if that’s part of my parents’ paradigm or mine because I am always striving to be the best. I guess I fear letting my parents down if I settle for average and as a result, I let myself down. I just want to be happy but I can’t be unless my parents are. I love my parents immensely and am forever grateful for everything they’ve sacrificed for me, I would just like to prove that to them and give them something in return.
Connie fits into the same demographic of many of the students I’m writing about: the child of Asian immigrants, raised with one foot firmly in this culture and another elsewhere, trying so hard to live up to what are, as she makes clear, intense and sometimes overwhelming expectations.
I’ve thought a lot about what it means to teach feminism to a classroom filled with young women whose parents believe that their daughters owe them something. It took me a long time to come to grips with just how crushing those expectations are that women like Connie describe. (I was fortunate: my parents told me that while they hoped I would do well, they would be perfectly satisfied if I merely earned the "gentlemen’s C". Yes, when I was at Cal in the late-80s, some folks still used that expression without a trace of irony!) And while male students from certain working-class or immigrant backgrounds also are hit with the burden of parental expectations for success, they usually get to escape the simultaneous requirement that they be virginal while earning straight As!
For so many young women from these backgrounds, sexual purity is less about a private spiritual decision and more about honoring an obligation to a mother and father who have invariably sacrificed so much so that their daughter could have a "better life." Most of my first-generation students at the community college are acutely aware of just how hard their parents have worked to give them the chance at an education and a promising career. Though their parents may or may not have strong religious beliefs, they almost always teach their girls that pre-marital sex represents a threat not merely to their daughter’s personal success but to the well-being of the entire family. Just as in the most tradition-bound of societies, a daughter’s virginity is still all- too-often powerfully connected to the hopes and dreams and sacrifices of a mother and father who have come so very far and worked so very hard for a better life.
And virginity is also of course a symbol for all of the other things a dutiful and hard-working daughter owes to her parents. In most traditional cultures, daughters and daughters-in-law will be the primary providers of elder care. Connie writes that her parents expect her to take care of them when they get old. Of course, they’d probably like her to get married and give them grandchildren. And if she marries a man from a similar background, his parents may expect their daughter-in-law to care for them when they become elderly. And she’ll do this while holding down a terrific job of which her parents can be suitably proud, and being an excellent mother to their grandkids. And somehow, women like Connie describe this as "a simple request"!
So you deny your sexuality through your entire adolescence, and put off sexual relationships until you’re finished with college. Ideally, you find the husband (whom the ‘rents hope will be from the same ethnic group) just as you begin to climb the corporate (or medical) ladder. You have kids while somehow holding down the job. You prepare marvelous meals that reflect the best traditions of your ancestral cuisine, your hair and makeup are immaculate, your body is trim, your husband is kept happy, and two sets of doting grandparents are given well-behaved children. You then begin to care for those grandparents while still holding down the job, still raising the kids, still cooking the superb whatever from the old recipes, still keeping your husband happy. Sister, ain’t nothing simple about it! From a feminist perspective, it looks like one long litany of sacrifice, one long list of obligations, one long reminder that as a dutiful daughter, wife, and mother, one’s happiness is always contingent on the joy one brings to others.
I think I’m fairly close to accurately describing the pressures with which so many of my students contend. But identifying the problem, and enumerating the pressures, is not the same as offering a workable solution. And of course, there isn’t an easy solution. Just as many folks have told me this week that when it comes to my comment policy I can’t please everyone, so too many of my students will have to make the hard choice to either continue to exhaust and deny themselves or to choose to rebel. And it’s my explicit hope that they will choose the latter.
In advocating rebellion, I am not advocating dropping out. I’m not advocating reckless or self-destructive personal behavior. I am advocating that these young women begin to ask themselves the hard question: what do I want? I want them to begin the immensely difficult task of silencing those nagging internal (and external) voices that urge self-denial, endless sacrifice, endless sublimation. I want them to talk to each other, to seek support from other young women in similar straits — to plot strategy, share family war stories, and offer encouragement to take the first tentative steps of feminist rebellion. This "feminist rebellion" will look different for different women. For one, it might involve telling Mom and Dad she wants to major in history rather than chemistry or business. For another, it might involve learning to masturbate — without guilt. For another, it might involve choosing to move out rather than stay at home as her parents expect. For another, it might involve bringing home a young man from a different ethnicity. Or bringing home a girl. If the parents are Catholic, it might involve becoming a Pentecostal. Or if parents are Presbyterian, it might involve becoming a Buddhist. The one thing all of these rebellions will have in common is that they will be small steps towards self-discovery and towards personal growth and joy.
Usually at this point, the young women to whom I’m directing this interrupt me:
Hugo, it’s so easy for you to say all of this! You’re a man, you’re white, you have no idea just how hard it is to ‘rebel’! You don’t understand the consequences of what you’re saying; you don’t have any idea of how much guilt I’ll feel if I disappoint my parents!
In one sense, they’re right. I can’t truly know what it’s like to be a first-generation female college student, carrying the hopes and dreams of my parents and my ancestors on my shoulders, on my heart –or on my hymen. Sure, I’m privileged in ways that I probably don’t even fully understand. But I do believe that at the heart of the feminist project is this: women ought to have the right to pursue happiness. That happiness will manifest differently in the lives of different women; some will find their most sublime joy in marriage and motherhood while others will find it in on an archaeological dig while others will find it in the arms of another woman. And if feminists can agree on one thing, it’s this: the collective sacrifices of your parents, ancestors, and culture do not trump your own personal right to be happy.
I do not hold this belief in contradiction to my Christian faith. Rather, it is reinforced by it. In Matthew 10:35, Jesus makes it clear that service to God is always more important than duty to family:
For I have come to turn a man against his father,a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law — a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.
While Jesus is referring specifically to what it will cost to follow Him, the broader implication is clear: in the final analysis, there are things that matter more than loyalty to one’s parents. Honoring mom and dad is indeed one of the commandments, but honor is not a synonym for obedience. The Christian journey is partly about discovering the unique purpose for which we each were made, own’s own unique role in building the Kingdom; the feminist journey is about essentially the same process. Though both feminism and Christianity are about building community, they are also about an ultimately solitary journey of transformation and joy. As a Christian and a pro-feminist, a teacher and a youth leader, I want to build community while encouraging young folks to set out on their own personal journeys.
I have no illusions that the feminist project will be an easy one for most of my students. But the choice, ultimately, is often a stark one: a lifetime trying to live up to a crushing set of obligations or a series of difficult but ultimately liberating confrontations with one’s family. Those confrontations don’t have to take place all at once; some rebellions will be private and small and secret while others will be major and dramatic. But in the end, big or small, these rebellions need to happen. And we who care about feminism, who care about the lives and the happiness of young women, have to not only encourage rebellion, we have to walk with them through it and be with them as they cope with the fallout of telling the truth about their own wants, hopes and desires. To the best of my ability, that’s what I’m trying to do.
In the end. we can comfort ourselves with this: the greatest way we can honor our parents may not be through living up to their hopes and expectations. The greatest way in which we can honor them is to choose to live lives of personal happiness and public service. Their sacrifices, like the sacrifices of their parents before them, were not in vain if we reject their values: our personal choice to be happy, even if it scandalizes and bewilders our family, is nonetheless a testament to all that they gave up for us. Whether our parents accept that or not, we can use that thought to encourage and reassure those who are tormented with guilt or doubt about claiming their own happiness on their own terms.
But it still isn’t easy.