I have spent some time reflecting on my mother and trying to integrate the knowledge that she was sexually abused by her stepfather in my life. Recently, I have been thinking about the fact that I take on difficult topics, and make difficult decisions rather than opting for the more prudent road. I dive right in and say what I think needs to be said and do what I think needs to be done. I have talked before about how people will whisper their thanks in my ear at conferences. At the conference last May, someone came up to me after my talk and said "that was a very brave paper, Sheila".
Recently someone said this (that was very brave of you) to me about something that I had done and that started me thinking about "walking the walk". I sometimes don't think about how apparently rare it is that people do the difficult or right thing particularly if there are potential negative consequences. I won't say that I am unaware of potential negative consequences when I take a stance or make a difficult decision but given everything that I have written and what I believe, I would be a hypocrite to not "walk the walk" instead of just "talking the talk". [I retain the teenager's absolute hatred of hypocrisy] While I cannot discuss what has brought me to writing this post, I can say that academia is full of people who "talk the talk", but when it comes to putting the talk into practice, they devolve into self-interest mode. There is truth to the old adage of Kissinger's: "academic politics is so vicious because the stakes are so small".
To get back to my mother. Since I have learned last year that she was sexually abused by her stepfather and that this was the genesis of her refusal to ever speak to her mother, I have begun to realize that that has something to do with the way that I handle the world. It may not be genetic but it certainly feels like it was "bred in the bone". When my mother was fourteen years old, she was kicked out of her family for telling the truth. AND SHE SURVIVED. That set a pattern for the rest of her life, mostly for the better no matter how difficult things may have been for her. I will tell one story that I understand so much better now. She worked as Head Nurse and Supervisor (and teacher) of the Psychiatric Ward at the General Hospital (Grey Nuns) in Sault Ste Marie. There were issues that negatively affected the patient care and she had finally had enough and was going to resign. I was 18 at the time and she came down to the University of Waterloo to visit me. While she was there, we had a long talk about everything that was happening in the Psych Ward and why she was resigning. However, what she also wanted was advice. She didn't know whether she should make an appointment with Mother Superior and tell exactly what was happening in the ward and why she was resigning (she could have come with a phony reason, of course), which would have been extremely difficult for her. I now understand just how difficult that would have been given her past, something that I didn't understand at the time. My reply was essentially "damn the torpedoes. You are going to resign in any event, so why not just tell the truth". Now I don't know whether my mother wanted my approval or as I used to just see it as part of her dependency on me as the smart one and mother substitute. Today, I understand it a little differently. My mother needed someone to talk to. She probably already knew that she was going to have that talk with Mother Superior because that was the right thing to do no matter what the consequences. She already had my father's support. What she needed was to talk about it and mull it over and get another point of view. This is something that I have done time and time again when I have had to do those difficult things - my psychotherapist, my best friend, my youngest son (these days). I already know what I have to do - I just need to convince myself and it helps to work it out with someone else who can ask questions, offer advice and just help me coalesce my ideas. This is what my mother was doing with me - for better or worse, I was the one that she turned to when she needed to work out the how of the difficult path. She walked the walk and it turned out just fine. She took the summer off and they were banging down her door with job offers. She didn't even have to send out a resume (those were the days!). She finally decided to work for Public Health and stayed there until she retired.
I had always thought that it was my father who taught us to walk the walk - I could tell stories there as well but this post is about my mother. I now realize that my mother taught us that lesson as well - it was her greatest legacy to me, even if I didn't understand it at the time and I never knew from whence it came.