I was not meant to be corseted. What is truly feral should never be made to feel trapped. But beloved, I have spent interminable years binding myself so tightly the skin ’round my ribs was raw and the heart their cage protected thrashed wildly against its constraints. This, I mused, was womanhood: a submission to cords and strictures, a wriggling rawness, an escape artist’s act.
Once an adult, I went into the world with shuffling steps, with halted breath and a scandalous, reveling circuit of hopes scrawled in the tiniest of fonts, in the most clandestine of diaries.
A woman who shuffles takes twice as long to find her footing. She is the late-blooming crocus. She is not taught to run with her breasts unbound through meadows where it makes more sense to be shoeless than shod. When she runs, if she runs, the air itself becomes admonition: Your heels will turn black and no one will think you were raised.
But oh, how painstakingly I was raised, told to lead and not to follow, yet also taught that the house where I lived belonged to a man bound by matrimony not blood, a man who did not know what it meant to love us. Tread lightly, always. It is his house, not ours. But you will always be welcome, my mother would whisper, wherever I live.
We were no Grandma Moses women, not particularly brave, neither freedom-seeking. We could’ve left him, before he left us. But it is the one who is left, and rarely the one who leaves, who gets to be viewed as “respectable.”
At the time — and we were 12 years younger then — we needed edicts, needed pushing, someone’s approval — certainly each other’s, if no one else’s. Even now, we seem locked in a prism, demanding each other’s light. My mother has forgotten the feel of her corset; she has lived in it so long, born that pain that yields traditional beauty for too many years to be rid of it. But she is braver now, stronger, even as she asks: Am I doing this well? Can I do this well? Is wellness still attainable?
Always, always, beneath any question, I hear: do you believe in me more than I believe in myself? (Is this not what daughters are for?)
My own questions cool on my lips. A mother’s belief in her child should be beyond investigation. Bound women owe their mothers silence. Or perhaps we are simply too short of breath to trust our lungs and tongues as couriers.
(But does she believe in me, more than I believe in myself?)
(Is this not what mothers are for?)
When you were born, your shoulders twisted and you launched yourself free well before I was prepared for a final push. I had been naked for hours by then, under an inadequate and starchy gown. Everything I’d been taught to keep under lock and key for all these years — in order to appear “respectable” — was being pilfered and prodded, tugged taut with needles and stitches. A different kind of corseting, and yet: an untold freedom.
Pregnancy is the great liberator. One looks at a woman’s filling womb and understands just how many things about herself she will not and cannot reveal. Somewhere, perhaps in a room lit with laughter or darkened with apologies, someone has likely known her in ways that you won’t, though he also may never quite know her at all.
If he is not her husband, she is secretly considered — by some — to be salacious. And if she is unapologetic, she’s informed that she deserves to be brought low. Respectable folks then levy what they believe is their greatest of barbs: you have lost your virtue and, if we’re honest, our respect.
But a child shifts a bound woman’s gravity. No longer able to shuffle, she must widen her stance. If that child is to survive her, she cannot remain in bonds. Before long, it becomes quite clear how little the earth will move if she bares her body or soul.
Do you understand what I’m telling you, child? Respectability is a burden, bigger than any one woman should bear. And poor impulse control is not only acting on every desire; it is also believing you must never succumb to any at all. It is subscribing to the belief that the only men worth having are the ones who care too much about how many men you’ve had. It is being deceived about God Himself and how He looks at women who govern themselves as though they do not know when to say when. It is this idea that education and career make you respectable, but only if both yield you enough income never to need the kind of help that requires deep humility.
Poor impulse control is your mother, writing: always confiding to so many strangers and still, still, struggling to look her intimates in the eye. (And even myself in the mirror, child, even my own reflection…) I am not sure I have ever made an unapologetic decision in my life.
And some days, I am stiff, both muscle and mind still uncertain of just how far they are able to stretch without a respectable exoskeleton ever tightening around them.
This is what mothers are for: rawness and rules to be read, to be broken. We are no more meant to be fully understood than our daughters. But here is our upperhand: you — your life, its freedoms, its unmarked skin, its unimprinted ribs — are the parts of ourselves we’ve gnawed loose.
You, walking outside of us, are the evidence: we can both be free of these traps.