Women as Translators

At our embassy here in Tashkent, there is an active Federal Women’s Program group that meets once a month for a brown bag lunch discussion. The group is inclusive, made up of Americans and Uzbeks, men and women – usually embassy staff but sometimes spouses, too. Participants take turns facilitating discussions on topics we want to deconstruct or bring more awareness to, like maternal and gender bias in the workplace, perceptions of power, communication, diversity, work-life balance, leadership and management, and more.

Besides the topics being guaranteed to provoke cross-cultural discussion, the group is almost always attended by either our Ambassador or our Deputy Chief of Mission. Participation provides a forum in which newer diplomats can sharpen facilitation, oral communication, public-speaking, and consensus-building skills. Not to mention for me specifically: a commitment to leave the busy hum of the somewhat sequestered consular section and participate in the broader mission.

Last week during the group’s monthly lunch, we talked about the effect of mothers on daughters and how a mother’s wishes for her daughter are shaped into life lessons, including in the workplace. Two of the discussion points that resonated most with me were: (1) If and how mothers’ wishes for their daughters are different across American and Uzbek cultures, and (2) The concept of a mother as the first and formulative translator of the world for her child.

One woman shared that her mother had put a lot of pressure on her when she was a child to succeed academically. Another said that she had felt strong gender roles applied to her and her brother, with her parents expecting very different things from each. Another woman said that her mother-in-law hadn’t initally been supportive of her son marrying a woman her age with an advanced education, but had later become her staunch supporter. A fourth woman explained somewhat ruefully that her mother had let her know from a young age that she expected grandchildren, stat. All of these women were heavily influenced by what these female figures in their lives wanted for them, and how those messages translated values.

Others talked about how they received strong support growing up from family members other than their mothers, and that it was a father, an aunt, or a grandparent whose wishes and encouragement had most shaped their life choices and direction as women. Some women even talked about their wishes for their own daughters, living or planned, and how they intended to transfer their own wisdom and know-how to perhaps give their daughters something they hadn’t themselves had.

I sat there and reflected on the things that my parents, and that my mother in particular, had wanted for me while I was growing up, and how those messages were conveyed, and found myself at a surprising loss to articulate my thoughts. I eventually shared that my mother had encouraged me to explore what career options were really out there. I still remember being surprised when she told me that her high school guidance counselor had told her something along the lines of: “You can be a nurse, a teacher or a receptionist.” Other women my age nodded as I spoke. They’d heard it too. We were probably thinking: Imagine that happening in the United States in 2016.

Since I’ve been an adult, my family has been supportive of my personal and professional goals and endeavors. I rarely felt growing up that my parents were disappointed with my choices or worried that I wouldn’t become a self-sufficient adult, something valued in my family. The exception would be those times where I legitimately made errors in judgment, performed below my capabilities, or procrastinated finishing something time-sensitive. Luckily, those instances weren’t prevalent and frankly, while I never felt that failure was an option, succeeding was always more about finding my own path and being happy rather than living a pre-planned life.

I suppose I’m fortunate. However, I’ve also chosen a less traditional path and one that I feel society questions, and in a sense, even shuns. In my late twenties and early thirties I prioritized education and career-building over motherhood, spending many years in the office early, late, and everything in between. I’d moved far away from my small town for college, then I joined the Peace Corps, traveled, went to grad school, traveled some more, and then I spent almost a decade working in DC. I built a strong professional reputation, and on top of that I laid brick after brick of innovation, resilience, financial security, and of course, layers of backup plans.

I waited to marry until my mid-thirties, and have spent all of the last dozen-plus years living literally thousands of miles from my family. Through all of this my parents cheered me on and let me know how proud they were of my accomplishments.

I was listening to one of my favorite NPR podcasts recently, “Death, Sex & Money”.  A guest on the show was talking about her choice to marry early and have two children, and her perception that it had been a “safe choice” for which society had rewarded her. She had made this choice irrespective of her true wishes, and I admit that I shuddered while listening to this thinking how unhappy I would be to just let everything fall where it may.

How to spend your finite time, resources and energy is something that every daughter, and indeed every person, must decide for him or herself. The “consequences” for disappointing family, or society, with one’s choices are felt more keenly by some than others.

I become aware of how different I am from the typical Uzbek woman when I see visa applicants about my age standing before me who already have young adult children who are themselves married or pregnant. I catch myself thinking, in a mostly non-judgmental way, about all the things in life I would have never done had I married in my late teens or early twenties. But that is my story, and my path.

My paternal grandmother’s path was quite different. She was raised in Illinois in a strict Catholic home. She married young, and was widowed less than three years later, pregnant and with a toddler. She went on to remarry and bear five more children. She never worked outside the home, and spent the majority of her years raising her children and being involved in church and community activities. She was supported all of those years by her steadfast husband, who provided for the large family on an accountant’s income.

In her later years, she often expressed bitter regret that she hadn’t seen more of the world. It confused me because she had always made such a point about how she had lived the life she had wanted, in accordance with her beliefs. In fact many choices about birth control and career options were a luxury totally unknown to her generation, born in the shadow of the Great Depression, coming to adulthood in the Great War, a war in which all my grandfathers donned proud uniforms and took up arms.

In 2002, when I told my grandma that I had been accepted to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer, she raised her eyebrow. She asked me lots of questions about the place I was going, what language I would learn, what kind of work I would do.

My dad threw a family reunion/going-away party at his home several weeks before my departure. I was visiting with my cousins, aunts, uncles and answering tons of questions about my upcoming adventure. At a certain point, I had stepped into my dad’s empty study where my grandmother suddenly appeared and asked me if I had a moment.

I was surprised by the intensity of her watery blue eyes as she came near and grasped my arm. In my family, people tend to be non-emotional and direct, but also restrained in a sense; certain things just aren’t really discussed openly. She told me something to the effect of, “It’s all well and fine to travel around the world and serve your country, but you’re not to forget that your real duty is to come home and settle down to marriage and family. There should be nothing more important to you than that. Motherhood is God’s highest calling for you, and it’s your responsibility to fulfill.”  She ended her pronouncement with a firm nod.

My grandmother had this incredible knack for knocking me down a peg or ten, and making me feel guilty even when I’d done nothing wrong. As I’d become an adult I’d found ways to mitigate it, yet she’d had many more years than I to become formidable. Although her frankness was nothing new, I was surprised that she would bring up such a sensitive issue. I met her gaze evenly. For a moment I considered saying, “I’m only 23,” or “I want to go to grad school after this. I’ve got a whole plan.”

Instead I said, “I hear you. Thanks for sharing how you feel with me.” She looked at me sternly, unsure how to take my response. It was the only sincere thing I could say at that moment, because I knew how unusual broaching that kind of topic must have felt for her and I wasn’t looking for a fight. In the same moment that I felt slighted and invisible, I also felt a tenderness towards her that I couldn’t even articulate until several years later.

My dad appeared in the doorway and, always wishing to appear circumspect and dignified, she gave me a knowing look and quickly turned to engage him in conversation. They walked out as if nothing had happened while I stood there feeling like the wind had been knocked out of me. There it was: the great unspoken thing. Do what I did, or else.

After I’d cogitated on it a while, I mentioned the conversation to my parents. Their responses were different, but ultimately arrived at the same conclusion: your grandmother is working from a different frame of reference, and you will pursue what’s right for you. And yet I still remember the interaction so vividly, less than a minute though it took.

My grandmother passed away in 2005 after a long illness. My grandfather followed in 2007. They were married for more than 55 years. I wonder sometimes if she were still here, would she be proud of the things I have done, or would she have taken my career-focused road as a personal affront. Within her blunt directive there was no room for inquiry, no room for my response to reflect my own thoughts without making a scene.

 I hold no grudge against her for that, or anything else. I wasn’t even in a place at that point in my life at 23 where such serious decisions seemed possible. In the end, I took her statement as an expression of something she wanted to get across and was afraid she might not have another opportunity to do. She did in fact die less than one year after I finished my Peace Corps service and returned stateside.

I’ve been fortunate to have so many women as my translators of the female experience. How far my grandmother and my mother carried the torch so that I could live in this world we’re continuing to shape. Although it may not always be recognizable, I carry bits and pieces of their interpreted hopes and dreams, whether they were meant for me, or for themselves.

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3 thoughts on “Women as Translators

  1. The pressure is just incredible, isn’t it? I’m excited to learn more about the way other cultures see motherhood and women’s issues as we leave for our first post this summer. Also, have you read Rebecca Traister’s new book All the Single Ladies? Check it out.

    Liked by 1 person

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