the complexity of female relationships
From Claire: This post is by my dear friend Corrie Purcell, and I think it's an incredibly important and beautiful read.
When I first approached Claire about doing an article for O&O, I had this idea: I wanted to talk about the complexity of female relationships, specifically the difficulty of mother/daughter relationships. Most importantly, I wanted to share an essay I wrote about my own mother and the widening and closing of the gaps and valleys in our relationship.
But I also want to talk about the beauty of a strong group of female friends, and the simplicity that is female friendship. Because for so long, I have been told that friendships among women are fraught with complexity and nuances, that women don’t know how to simply support each other (like men).
This was something I believed for a long time too. I liked the idea of being the ~cool~ girl, the one that was mostly friends with guys, you know, because it was easier.
When I was fourteen, I attended the summer camp I had always attended. Camp was very special to me, partly because of the camp romances that always occurred. I was generally right in the middle of them, either supporting my friends in the drama, or finding my own cute boy, and stealing little moments away from everyone else. I had my first crush at camp, my first kiss.
But at fourteen, I was horrified to find out that I was in an adventure group with all girls. Horrified to learn that our many camping trips would now be punctuated with the whines and complaints of twelve girls in close quarters for two weeks. I cringed, imagining the small fights the other girls would pick, the way they would do their makeup in the fogged up, cracked mirrors.
I’m sure you can all guess where this story is going. That was my favorite year at camp. It was the year I had the most fun, where I canoed with reckless abandon, sang at the top of my lungs, was truly silly in a way that I had never known. Having this time with so many close-knit girls in an incredibly isolated location felt special, something to be treasured. That camp experience taught me about the beauty of being friends with a large group of girls, of the value in deeply ingrained shared experiences, of the importance in building a place apart for girls, of the sense of comfort and safety women can share together.
It’s disturbing to me, to see other women talk about female friendship as being drama filled and complicated, when to me, other women are often the most empathetic and enthusiastic cheerleaders. I hate seeing this stereotype perpetuated, especially because it comes in so many other forms that are more destructive to marginalized women: that women of color are overly sensitive and angry, that queer women are to be feared.
This is not to say that I don’t have meaningful relationships with men: I do. And those meaningful relationships are not complicated either. But the majority of my friends are women, women who I trust wholeheartedly, women I love and love supporting in all that they do.
And this is also not to say that all my relationships with women are this perfect, easy thing. My friends are all humans and humans interact with each other to a degree of complexity. I do however, argue, that women have a baseline and a shared experience that can provide for less complicated friendships, that women are not any more dramatic and petty than men are in their close friendships, that female friendship is not widely and accurately portrayed in the wide range of media outlets.
The first place most of us learn about relationships with women is through our mothers. And while I believe that female friendships are simple, I recognize that mother and daughter relationships are almost never simple.
I think our mothers understand exactly what it’s like to be us. I know that’s something that feels weird to read, it’s something that feels weird to write. But sometimes, I look at twelve year old girls in my life, see the things at which they lash out, and remember exactly what it felt like to be twelve, how paper thin my skin was, how raw my emotions were.
When my mother saw me at sixteen, snarling at her and lying about minutia of daily life, I can’t help but think she remembered exactly what it was like to be on the cusp of adulthood, but so mundanely trapped by the restrains of school and family, the remnants of childhood. When I came home sobbing after destructive fights with people I loved at age seventeen, I think she always knew exactly what was wrong, even as I made up some story about messing up a question on a test.
But then, my mother is put in the worst position, of extreme empathy, but ultimate authority. Of having to balance a careful line of understanding my feelings exactly, but attempting to keep me from mistakes that cause me bodily (or mental) harm.
I can’t imagine the balancing act of being a mother. She puts on so many different roles over the course of a day. She is always my mother, but she is also always a wife, a pastor, a friend, a daughter. And sometimes, she is my mother while she pastors me and offers friendly advice that reflects her experiences as a daughter.
I wrote this essay earlier this year. I tried to include all my feelings about my mother, all the respect and joy I have for her, all the hope I have for the future. I left out a lot of the hard things: the way we fight when we are tired, the way we raise our voices in the heat of long car rides.
But my hope is that my view of a mother daughter relationship in the future, a simpler future, is an achievable goal. I do believe that time is an incredible equalizer, and that it deepens and expands many aspects of life; I can only pray that it does the same for my mother and I.
Mother’s Day 2017
On my seventeenth birthday, I went by myself to the city of my mother’s birth. It is a city that rings of the women that raised me, of my mother and my grandmother and my great grandmother. I scaled abandoned red brick buildings and looked out over the rushing James River and the skyline of the looming downtown; past Carytown and the Byrd theater and the outdoor ice rink across from the throbbing nightclub.
I have always loved Richmond: for all the times I thought of it as my mother’s city, to now when I consider it my own.
When my mother and I briefly lived in Richmond, we would go on long walks: down streets where old oaks crossed branches up above us, past houses built by slaves, on sidewalks that cracked and filled with yellow crocuses in early spring. Her grandmother’s old house was at the end of one of these streets, a three story house with a wrap around porch, tiny windows and turrets that melded into the architecture.
It was a quiet neighborhood that ached with traditions of the past. Children biked up and down the streets in small packs, neighbors sat on their porches with their ceiling fans on as dusk settled in each summer evening, called out greeting to each other and each other’s children. It was, in a word, quaint. Those quiet after-dinner walks always felt a little ethereal: the way the fireflies blinked above in trees much taller than the Arkansan maples I was so used to, the way music and hushed conversation perfumed the thick Virginian air.
My mother called her grandmother Grandmother. Grandmother, to me, is the most formal and formidable of the grandmother titles. It seems deeply matriarchal, like periods and polished walking canes and the many uses of baby powder. Grandmother Bowers was my mother’s mother, and her home was always the center of my mother’s stories of summer. The butter colored house held piles of cousins and grandchildren, noise and chaos through the heaviness of Richmond’s heat.
I wonder now, what it was like for her then, to walk past the home with different owners; I wonder what it was like to hold my hand and talk about the generations of women that came before us, looking at new cars in the driveway as she and I debated the new owners’ landscaping decisions. Did she resent the owners of Grandmother Bowers’ home? For occupying a sacred space, one with a history they would never know?
My mother is not a resentful woman. She loves easily and deeply, and I imagine that she thinks of her grandmother’s home fondly and sentimentally. I often think about my mother as a teenager in that home, visiting for the weekend. I like to imagine what she was like. Factually, I know she was beautiful: she had thick brown hair that fell in a heavy line down to her waist. But I imagine that she was also funny, maybe a little vulgar. I love the idea of my mother young and a little wild; ideally, she would have driven a little too recklessly, laughed a little too loudly, cursed a little too much.
I’ve always thought that my mother and I would have been friends if we grew up at the same time. It’s something to do with the way she laughs with her whole body, her mouth wide open, her head tilted back, shaking with tangible joy. I wish we were the same age so that I could be the friend she would take on family reunion weekends; we could sit out on my great grandmother’s wrap around porch at night, her tanned legs matching mine, both of us in crop tops and sandals.
But I imagine we will only become peers as we age together. I like to think we will watch television shows together over the phone, eating fancy cheese with crackers on either end of the line. I look forward to the days that my brothers and I return to our family home as adults and sit around the dinner table as equals, feeling something akin to friendship as we pass wine and share laughter.
Sometimes I think back to my early days, walking hot concrete sidewalks holding my mother’s hand. I only loved Richmond back then because summer in Richmond meant Z’s white sauce pizza and late nights watching PG-13 movies after we spent hours at the neighborhood pool.
I have come to love Richmond on my own terms now. Through all the summers, the ones I spent as a child, and the ones I now spend as an adult, it’s comforting to think of the city as the home of the women in my life. As I sit by the James River, I think of my grandmother spending her own days tanning on slippery rocks. I imagine my great grandmother, biking through Carytown, watching cheap operas in the Byrd. On the first day of my seventeenth year as I looked out over the buildings that raised the women that raised me, I realized I didn’t know in which neighborhood my mother was borne. Was I standing on her old home, above a nursery my grandmother painted, where my mother once lay in a crib bought by my mother’s grandmother?
I like to imagine I tiptoed over her old room, that my feet touched on walls and ceilings that knew the rhythm of my genes.