Amazons and mermaids (Forgiving Men)
My grandmother Casilda once used her seamstress scissors to cut off a doll's little penis. It was the first (and last) anatomically correct baby-boy doll my cousin Medry had. For a while, my sisters and I jokingly called our grandma “Lorena Bobbit.” (If you don't get that reference, you're way too young, or I'm getting too old. Please Google it).
Mamá Casilda's excuse that day was that she tried to put a diaper on the doll and it kept falling down. But the truth is that for her the view of a penis – even if an innocent, four-millimeter-long, plastic one – was intolerably disturbing. Anything related to sex had a similar effect. Even though one of her few pleasures in life was watching telenovelas, she'd always find an excuse to get up from her chair and do a chore to avoid looking at the kissing or sexy scenes.
I remember hearing my aunt Rosina tell my mother once, “I have no way to explain how our parents managed to conceive eight children. Knowing how much Mamá hates sex. It’s hard to imagine that she could have agreed to sleep with Papá eight times in the nearly fifty years they were married.”
It's worth clarifying that my grandmother (alive as of the writing of these lines) is one of the most admirable and intelligent women I've ever known, especially considering the little education she was allowed to receive. One time, in Medical School, I was studying fungi classifications for a microbiology exam late at night. A longterm insomniac, Mamá Casilda was awake and agreed to let me recite the class aloud to prevent myself from falling asleep.
The next day I heard her explain to a neighbor that the thrush in the baby's mouth was caused by budding yeast while the tinea infection in the skin was also fungal, but was caused instead by hyphae-producing fungus.
My jaw dropped. She had understood and memorized the class I had recited to her only once.
Yes. If Mamá Casilda would have had the privilege of formal education, she'd have gone far – and, butterfly effect, my mother and therefore I would probably have never been born. But it was not only her bright brain and incredible ability to find practical solutions that I've always admired in her. It was also her resilience.
Survivor of a tragic childhood, she was a mother by the age of 15, nine months after her marriage. In addition to caring for a house full of children and doing heavy labor my grandfather refused to do – such as chopping wood – she worked as a seamstress to supplement my grandfather’s income as a carpenter – back in the days when the idea of working women was barely reaching the United States.
I doubt anybody asked this intelligent and assertive woman for her opinion about her future husband before they got her married at age 15, but it was no secret that she couldn't stand my grandfather.
Every memory I have of my grandparents standing in the same room contains eye-rolling and loud exasperated sighing – if not loud fights. I can only imagine my poor mother's upbringing, witnessing that every day (and probably a share of subliminal messages about how unpleasant it was having to fulfill wife's duties).
My grandmother's attitude of chronic dissatisfaction with her husband was not unique. Everywhere around me, women in my culture seemed to enjoy the sport of complaining about their men.
Maybe it had something to do with the overall resentment about the unfairness of being born a woman in that country. As a small example: everybody in the DR knew that – if you could afford meat – the man in the house had first dibs and got to eat the chicken thigh and breast and the woman had to eat whatever was left after feeding the children (usually the ribcage, neck or feet of the chicken).
Or maybe the negative attitude against men had something to do with the legion of all-aged men sitting at the street corners, usually wearing sleeveless undershirts, playing dominos and drinking rum, yelling “piropos” to women and even young girls walking on the street. (The literal translation of piropo would be “compliment” or “sweet-talking,” but there was nothing sweet or flattering about that constant flood of uninvited lascivious comments about parts of your anatomy that always left you feeling uncomfortable and dirty).
Or maybe it was something as simple as witnessing your father cheat on your mother with a mistress day after day – a widely accepted cultural phenomenon in the DR.
So what does a woman in a third world country do when she grows up oppressed, devalued, denied of the opportunities she deserved, knowing herself more competent than the men ruling the world, yet still hearing she's obligated to obey them? Frank rebellion not being an option in that society, the resistance came in more subtle ways: passive-aggressiveness.
We all know the typical story of “make the man believe it was his idea,” “humor your man with some display of obedience, then do anything you want.” But the passive-aggressiveness I talk about is a deeper way of resentment-fueled-rebellion. It was the eye-rolling attitude of chronic irritation, condescension and vague disrespect against men.
Growing up, I constantly heard phrases like, “Men are like little boys, they'd be lost without us.” “Men think with their other head.” “Men are annoying” It seemed like a harmless, understandable sport: Men had all the entitlements, so they could take a little reverse sexism.
Unfortunately, that attitude was perpetuating our chains. Women also said, “Even when both spouses work jobs, men will never help cleaning around the house – they just don't have what it takes to keep going after being tired. So get used to it, we women have to do the housework.” “Both my husband and I have the flu, yet he's prostrated in bed while I'm up cooking, cleaning and taking care of him – men have a lower tolerance for pain, so watcha gonna do?” And the most common: “Get over it, men just can't be faithful – they have no self-control.”
Oops! The game of putting men down backfired and the joke was on us.
Another example? The rules about virginity.
How were my elders able to put in my brain – and the brain of so many otherwise intelligent young women – the double-standard concept of virginity-only-for-women without us realizing something didn't make sense? They convinced us that remaining a virgin was another proof that we women were superior to men. Contrary to men – poor pathetic creatures slaves of their desires – we women could live without sex. That was the one thing in which we were physically stronger than they were (that and giving birth – no wonder they also brainwashed you that you had to have children or you hadn't lived). Our freedom from the sexual need was – supposedly – our power and our pride.
So, there you go. Rejecting sex and rejecting men in general was the ultimate rebellion. In a weird way, rejecting sex was a style of feminism.
Had that something to do with my grandmother's compulsion to cut off doll's penises? (Freud would have had a field day with that!)
And now, many years later, I understand that those women lecturing me about virginity actually despised sex anyway – having spent their lives with insensitive and clueless men – and, of course, did not miss it. They had become The Mermaids. Beautiful-looking faces, but cold like a fish from the waist down.
Fast-forward to the new millennium and the new coordinates where I now lived, trying to understand the world of a modern single woman.
To my surprise, I soon identified the same men-hating pattern in some of my friends in the US. The American equivalent to the resentful third-world-country women, was the professional woman who had to claw her way to the top, facing the sexism in the work place, pressured to work harder than any male colleague in order to prove herself. They couldn't help but see men as competition and enemies instead of allies. They had become The Amazons. Those mythical female warriors who, legend says, severed their breasts in order to become better archers – They renounced their femininity in exchange for power, in a never ending war against men.
It was an eye-opener to me the day my oldest son Gabriel, eight at the time, came home upset because some girls in his school were being mean to him and the other boys. “They were chanting 'Girls rule and boys drool.' And instead of reprimanding them, the teacher kept talking about how girls 'could do anything they wanted to do.'”
I gently tried to explain that the teacher wasn't trying to put the boys down, but to encourage the girls to dream big. “Sweetie, we women haven't had an easy life in history and are still getting over it. It's only recently that we can vote. We were treated as second class citizens for millennia.”
My little boy looked at me frowning, with that incredibly serious expression he used to get even before he could talk and said, “And why are they making me pay for it? I wasn't even born then!”
That day I had an epiphany. Yes, women's history sucked– and that's still going on in many countries. Yes, men had not been nice to us for the longest time. But we had to be careful not to blame that on these poor innocent male-gender-humans sharing the planet with us now. It was not their fault. They were not born yet when all that happened.
(And you can extrapolate that to so many other instances of a human group resenting another)
If I faced the world of dating with the attitude my ancestors had about men, I was doomed. I shouldn't even bother.
How can you find a man to be your life companion (or enjoy the man you have), when you're not even sure you like men as a species?
How can you set an intention to find love when your unconscious is full of subliminal messages saying “But if I find a man then I'll have another kid to take care of – someone I'll have to clean behind, someone to feed, someone to entertain.”
I had to reprogram myself.
I had to put behind the centuries of oppression and start from scratch. I had to give men the benefit of the doubt. Only when I was willing to raise my opinion of them, would I be able to also raise my expectations about the way I wanted to be treated.
I'm happy to report that my grandmother Casilda loves my husband David – even if the language barrier doesn't allow them to communicate much. Smart as she is, she can see my happiness. She's fascinated to hear that he cleans and does laundry, that he's an excellent cook and that he treats me like a princess. (This tall, white, feminist gringo has become sort of a mythical being among women in my family).
Healing the cultural wounds against men hasn't been easy. But it was much easier for me because I didn't have to heal more intimate wounds about my father. My father was an exceptional man who always treated me, my sisters and my mother with dignity – a rarity in a country where most fathers were absent, abusive, or alcoholic womanizers.
Because recovering from a bad father…
Yikes! That's another story.