The Problem With No Name
Posted on Jul 30, 2017
Editor's Note: With this post, the author uses the personal narrative form to open up a conversation about losing oneself to social expectations. We hope you enjoy it, please share your feedback in the comments or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I tell my mom many times this summer that I think her mother needs to see a therapist.
“She used to see one, when I was really young, you know?” she told me when I said it for the third time.
I raise my eyebrows at her, “no way.”
“Mish therapist,” she would say, “more like a psychiatrist—bti‘rafi, the people who administer medicine.”
I can’t decide if I am surprised that my grandmother, who they used to joke floated to Jordan in a bottle from the aristocracy of 18th century France, would condescend to see a psychiatrist, or if I am impressed at how perfectly she fits the role of the 1950s American housewife.
I tell my mother this,
“You know, mamma, Teta should read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, it’s literally her life.”
“So like, the point of it is that the author went and studied this group of educated women who graduated from universities and they got married, didn’t really do anything with their education in a direct way, but they were so involved in charities and women’s clubs and such, but then, like they take 5 hours doing housework that really should take 2, and their kids and their home is their life. And then their kids grow up, and they think “is this it?”—she calls that disillusionment and that spiral into depression when you’ve realized you have nothing left for you ‘the problem with no name’—and they go see psychiatrists.”
In my grandmother’s house, after my mother and her siblings moved away and got married and had children, and she and my grandfather became too old to host people as often as they used to—the highlight of every day when we visit became the food. I can tell the currency of my grandmother’s love has become the extra work she puts into making little balls of labanih, the times she remembers to slice the salty white cheese and put it in water, the way she refuses to have someone else roast or grind her coffee beans, the extra sugar she puts in the tea, and the comments she makes when my mother or aunt forget to put ground cloves in with the dates they pit and knead for the ma‘mul, or when the mlukhiyya has less garlic than is right.
But I have become less graceful at accepting this currency of love after my grandfather died and this became the only thing my grandmother had left to give us. It tastes too much like a burden, and feels too much like consent.
On the same night that my mother told me about my grandmother’s psychiatrist visits, when I am doing the dishes after dinner, and we’ve congregated in the kitchen, my brother says something I can’t remember that makes my mother say, “she had a life before this, you know. She used to do all of these things, she was the president of the mothers’ committee for our school, and she always did all of these charity events, and she used to prepare extravagant buffets and give speeches on mother’s day—she lived for that, but now this is all she has left. I think it just turned out so differently for her that she didn’t know how to react. Ya‘ni she wasn’t expecting your grandfather to die before her.”
I responded, “Well statistically, that’s what happens, more women are widowed than men.” My brother looked at me like I was an idiot, but with none of the malice that I deserved for being a pedantic ass, “oh yeah, Teta definitely read that statistic when he died.”
My mother and aunt always told me, “Never give up everything—for anyone. There has to be something for you, no matter how much you sacrifice for your family. Never give up everything, especially not for a man. The man is never required to give up everything, and he shouldn’t have to either, but you, you can’t just lose yourself for someone else—especially not someone who isn’t willing to give up what you would for what is also his family and his house.”
This was one step you took to avoid “the problem with no name.”
My grandmother, seemingly at least, to all of us, was more interested in being a hostess than a wife or a mother, so I don’t think any of us believe she sacrificed everything for my grandfather—he would never have asked her to or felt entitled to that.
But, it isn’t just about the men.
My grandmother’s family is a family obsessed with propriety and doing things the right way. So yes, every single requirement of Amman’s 1950s upper middle-class notions of femininity is ingrained in her mind to the nth degree—because even pants are still too masculine, and "why don’t you care to crochet? And I make sure to make these at home, not like that stuff they sell in stores, and look at this dress I had tailored, look at the bow, and the pleats, there isn’t a trace of nylon in it, not like the stuff you all buy now."
Femininity, like masculinity, in my grandmother’s head, was an end, and motherhood and fatherhood and my grandfather’s career, even their social life, were but means.
It isn’t just grief and shock and guilt that keeps my grandmother from changing anything in her life now—from going back to Amman from the town she and my grandfather lived in. I think a large part of it is this idea of how she should act, after the death of her husband, the requirement to mourn that is self-imposed at this point because no one expects it of her.
What are people going to say - she couldn’t wait for him to die so she could just go out all the time?
I can’t leave the house, what if the men come to visit and find no one? No, I have to stay. What if they need something?
Friedan knew it wasn’t just about the men—or even just social expectations, but the grueling process of internalization and the guilt surrounding the lack of fulfillment women find when for privileged women like my grandmother, femininity is an end. For most women, constructs of femininity and masculinity don’t match my grandmother’s—but that isn’t even the point.
The point is that grief can be a house, and it can be lonely, as Jandy Nelson says, but guilt, and internalized and exaggerated social and familial expectations of the right way to do things
can lock you in that house, and bar the windows
and the doors
and color the air and the spices in the house
so that everything leaves an ugly taste in your mouth, so you want to stop eating altogether,
and they can fog up all the mirrors so that you can only see
glimmers of yourself inside of you, and otherwise
R.K. Almajali is the pen name of one caffeine-obsessed book hoarder who dreams of opening up a literary cafe where people can pay at least half their bill in flowers and art. She (almost consistently) writes about women, relationships, language, grief, and how the personal is always political. She can be reached at email@example.com
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