I have never been able to see myself in the male narratives of existentialism. The question of my existence is a far more futile one than they write about. The human condition is for men. I reside in the female condition. The philosophical concerns are our bodies, our wrinkles. The men who will love us, hurt us, desire us. You see for women there are two deaths to consider. There is of course the physical decaying. There is just also the death of you. The you who is the object. The you who is gazed upon. The female existence centres around your attractibility. This death is not an end. Merely a change in the state, a move in the lifecycle.
Fear is looking in a mirror. Watching the value seep out of your face. A life determined by the composition of your features and the state of your thyroid slipping away before your eyes. It’s about that existential crumbling of your unconscious purpose. No matter how much we hate this fact, it hurts too to not be looked at. When your whole life has been underpinned by this pressure to be a thing that is looked at. Who are you when no one looks anymore?
The actress lives only as long as she is beautiful. Does whatever she can to keep performing. The cost is the lines on her face. I grow up watching her fade from the screen. My mid-life crisis comes at 20. I know my face will begin to fade. The wrinkles will come in. Fear that my body will just continue to grow. I will never be of this value again; I must do all I can with it now. The proof of the inevitability of this all around. It’s the suffocatingly warm hand around the nape of your neck as you leave for school. The old photos hanging on the mantle. Your grandma coming to visit.
Lately all I do is sit and think of my mother. Is she in mourning for the person she used to be? Or the one she never got to be? Does she feel like she’s carrying a shroud around the local office she roams? The office where she gets paid less than her male counterparts and works twice as hard in. Does she think of the young woman working at IBM? Ever in her weaker moments regret the choice. Think of the old mini skirt she wore to the office and her heels. Think now of her flat shoes and long skirts. Feel liberated in her getup. Miss the lingering looks or covert the absence of them. I imagine strangely its somewhere in the middle. A murky grey.
She met my father at 21. The age I’m turning in a month. Married at 24. Kids a few years later. Career halted till her late 30s. Her main company is my father. The boy she babied into a man. The man perpetually on the night shift. Day in day out just her and the babies. The small breathing lumps in the mattress. What did she think would come of them? Did she have time in the midst of her exhaustion to grabble with the existential fear of moulding these small lives. Us mimicking her behaviour. Her mini mirrors. I wonder if I scared her more than my brothers. The only of my kind. Felt a different kind of fear watching me grow. Was I her proof that she wasn’t her own mother? That what she had done was so different to what her mother had done before her.
She never thought of herself as beautiful, I look at the old pictures wonder how that’s possible. She looks at me and thinks the same thing. Consciously and unconsciously, we roam each other’s faces for traces of ourselves. The shape of the eyes, the line of the nose. Look at the twin moles on our cheeks. The ones which sprout thick dark hairs that must be plucked from the face. Her flaws disposed onto my face. Does it bring them into a new light, looking from a different angle?
I think of the throwaway comments she makes about her body and the food she consumes. The body that made me. The body she feels failed her. That kept the years as pounds around her stomach. Years she never wanted so intimately displayed. Me and my brothers clung onto her hips even though she can no longer hold us up against them. Does she think about the night she cried to me in the kitchen to end my drawn-out form of suicide. Did she feel like it would be her death too? Think of those years she too stuck her fingers down her throat. Hers apparently nothing more than a phase, something she grew out of, she tells me. Unaware it would inherit down to me. I would climb into her old clothes. Try them on for size. Cinch them on my teen body with my childhood belt. Did she not fear that this was inevitable? A built-in design flaw in the female condition. Do you have to rot yourself from the inside to keep yourself alive? Shrink to not fade from view. Destroy yourself to stay.
I continuously fail at being the companion she wants me to be. I am too scared to take on all of her pain. Fear it like a prophecy of what’s to come. Try not to see the similarities, look away from her as my mirror. I wonder if she’s scared of my pain too. Worries about the state of my heart, my lack of place in the world. The ways I destroy myself to prevent having to die. The cigarettes she pretends not to know about that rot my lungs. A habit clung on from a stupid act of teen rebellion, quitting them seems like accepting I am no longer young and foolish.
I imagine we could talk, create actual words instead of my fiction. I could pull the flesh onto the bones of these ideas. Touch something instead of cold glass. We’d sit at the wooden dinner table, or maybe the kitchen, her domain. She’d be in the seat opposite me, my reflection looking back. The sounds of my father snoring in the background, the tv still playing his show would drift into the room. A beer clutched in his hand. His neck slumped into his shoulder, spine unaligned on the sofa. I would alternate between saying too much and too little. Too scared to let all the truth tumble from my lips. Too impatient for the silence. The years of not knowing thick and heavy in the air. Creating lumps in my throat. Flick my eyes back up to hers in my moments of daring and then pull them back down. Hands fidgeting in my lap. Tears in her eyes, disguising our shared mix of blue and green. My mother has always been the kind of woman who can’t help but cry.
It is so easy to think of your parent as all those moments of perceived failure. It’s so much harder to think of her as a person, a woman. Think of how you too have stung her with those barbed words. The ones that my lips were too slow to close around. Know she is so much more than the image you hold of your mother. All of this will only be fantasy. I’m a coward. I can only admire her from a distance. Fear her up close.
As she leaves her young adult womanhood I grow into mine. I worry it is too soon for me to understand her as she is. That the fear is the only thing keeping me young. Starving off the inevitable. Can she see me now as a woman instead of her baby? The project she constructed, put her life on hold for, now removed from her. Out there wobbling on my two feet. Do I make her life flash before her eyes? Make her question what it’s all been about, how every choice comes so quickly. I told her I doubted I’d have kids for a while, she tells me these things just happen sometimes and everything changes before you know it. Her children are now all but grown. Her purpose is once again put on hold. Her nest is empty.
My birthday inches closer, day by day. 21’s just around the corner. I’m so close and so far from her at that age. I know I can’t fight the days as they move into years. Is fighting this fighting my mother? Curling back up in that suffocating yet safe blanket of teenage fights and resentment. Is giving in becoming my mother. I can’t see myself in her shoes finding a death do us part at this tender age, yet I look at her and see myself everywhere else. Whist the years may take my face, they give me new eyes to look at everything. I know I will spend my whole life considering the philosophy of my mother, each year looking differently at my reflection.
Tia Slavin is a recent graduate trying to break into the creative world.