Reprinted with permission from Creators
A few days before my mother died, at age 62, she sat tethered to oxygen in her crowded hospital room and expressed two regrets about her life.
“If I had it to do over, I’d dye my hair red,” she said, “and I would own cats.”
Some of us laughed nervously. Her voice was uncharacteristically angry, and the target of her resentment was in the room. My father, visibly irritated by her pronouncement, stood up and walked out into the hallway. As soon as he had left, Mom added in a softer voice, “He would never let me. Why did I listen to that?”
She wasn’t talking about Clairol and pets. Her regret was so much bigger than that. She had never been all that she had wanted to be, and she was sad that she’d let someone else who was supposed to love her limit her.
I thought of my mother as I listened to Glenn Close’s speech this week after she won a Golden Globe for her starring role in “The Wife.” The movie is based on Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel of the same name, and as Close noted, its female subject may have been why it took 14 years to become a movie.
When Close started talking about her mother, it was that moment when another woman’s wisdom hits something so deep inside you that your bones start buzzing.
“To play a character is so internal, and I’m thinking of my mom, who really sublimated herself to my father her whole life. And in her 80s, she said to me, ‘I feel I haven’t accomplished anything.’ And it was so not right.
“And I feel what I’ve learned through this whole experience is that, you know, women, we’re nurturers. That’s what’s expected of us. We have our children. We have our husbands, if we’re lucky enough, and our partners — whoever. But we have to find personal fulfillment. We have to follow our dreams. We have to say, ‘I can do that, and I should be allowed to do that.'”
At 71, Glenn Close, tearfully and with great clarity, asserted her right to be everything that she is — and not the diluted version too many women of her generation were raised to be.
The women in the room, and in the world at large, erupted.
We women have always had our ambition — and by ambition, I mean wanting to do anything that runs contrary to the relentless and time-honored tradition of keeping us in the shadows of our own lives. So many of us were raised to believe there was something unfeminine and unseemly about taking seriously our own restlessness. Putting ourselves first? Ever? That’s a Lifetime movie right there, and it doesn’t end well for that selfish witch.
Are we rounding a corner? I want to think so. So many young women keep me hopeful, including the career women and mothers in our own family. Still, conversations with them fuel my worry that we are at least a generation away from women learning how to, when tending to the needs of others, add their own names to the list.
After her successful congressional race, 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announced last month on Instagram and Twitter that she was going to take a week off for “self-care” before being sworn in to Congress. Predictably, she was mocked by some as a self-indulgent millennial, but I loved her willingness to say that she needed nurturing and that she wasn’t waiting for someone else to do it. In my 61 years of life, I can count on one hand the times I’ve said out loud that I need to take care of me. Even admitting that makes me self-conscious. I worry that I sound selfish.
After my mother’s death, more than 800 people showed up for her calling hours. They stood in line for hours, waiting for the chance to share their tales of her many acts of kindness, her ability to make them feel special and important. I was moved to tears so many times, and I could recite many of their stories even now.
Twenty years later, though, I still can’t see an older woman with bright red hair without thinking of Mom. That’s part of her legacy, too, at least for restless me.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University’s school of journalism. She is the author of two books, including “…and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. To find out more about Connie Schultz (firstname.lastname@example.org) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.