My mother turns 90 today. Last weekend all six of her children, some of our partners, many of our kids and her youngest great-grandchild gathered to celebrate with her. It was a bittersweet occasion; while we were all happy to commemorate her reaching such a notable age, dementia and a fall down a flight of stairs just a couple of weeks ago have diminished her considerably.
I think all of us were close to tears more than once as we looked at photos of our mother and recollected the stories that went with those images.
As I drove home, I found myself thinking about what it would have been like for a woman to live through the past 90 years in this country; a period of time in which the realities of women’s lives were transformed in ways both large and small.
Starting out as a person
Born in the year the British Privy Council determined that women in Canada were persons, my mother has seen women gain the right to vote in provincial elections, the introduction of paid maternity leave and family allowance (which gave some women the first and only income of their lives), the establishment of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women and the implementation of pay equity (although women continue to experience a 32% gendered wage gap). Women working outside the home have become the norm rather than the exception. Women have entered the political realm in leadership positions; women have gone into outer space.
Sexual orientation and gender identity have moved from the shadows into the light, even though much remains to be done to entrench legal rights and full social inclusion.
Some of the biggest advances in women’s rights in my mother’s lifetime have come in the areas of reproductive rights and the violence done to women by men. When Canada’s first family planning clinic opened in Hamilton in the early 1930s, it was illegal. Nurses who distributed birth control were arrested, charged and sent to jail.
Thirty years later, in 1960, the birth control pill began to be publicly marketed. In 1970, abortion in some circumstances and when approved by a panel of doctors was legalized and, in the 1980s, it was fully decriminalized, although access remains a challenge for women in many parts of Canada.
The 1970s saw the development of the anti-violence against women movement in Canada, as the first shelters and rape crisis centres/telephone crisis lines opened and Take Back the Night marches began. Despite this, misogyny and violence against women thrived: in 1989, Mark Lepine gunned down 14 women at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique; in 2018, 148 women and girls in Canada were killed by men.
Through it all, women of my mother’s generation carried on, as they had been raised to do, often wondering, no doubt, at the very different choices their daughters have been able to make for their lives than they had the opportunity to consider for theirs. It can’t have been easy for them.
Determination and cheerfulness
My mother’s childhood was pretty tough, with an abusive alcoholic mother who abandoned the family when my mum was a young teenager. In a time when fathers did not step in to keep the family and household running, it was left to my mother to raise her four brothers and manage the house, even though this meant her own formal education had to come to a temporary end.
Despite this difficult beginning and a marriage that was not a happy one for either of my parents, my mother has always had an indomitably optimistic personality. Coupled with great common sense, determination and a strong belief in personal responsibility, she has made her way through nine decades of change and challenges with a generally cheerful attitude.
She could be a hard mother. She did not suffer fools, and she did not believe in public, or even family, displays of tears – not an easy path to walk through those adolescent years when everything seemed to be cause for an outburst of sobbing.
She saw illness of any kind as a sign of weakness that was not to be indulged. Stuck at home with measles and a quarantine sign on the door? What a great opportunity to learn how to darn socks or to clean out that messy dresser. No daughter of hers would get a permission letter to sit out gym class because of menstrual cramps. A fever or cold? Nothing better for it than to get up and about. Frustrating at the time – who doesn’t like the odd sick day? – we all seem to have survived with our health intact.
Living up to expectations
Her expectations of us – whether about our performance at school, our treatment of others or following through on commitments – at times felt onerous. However, no matter how high her expectations of us, her expectations of herself were always higher. She strove always to be the best, the fastest, the first and, eventually, the oldest, in everything she did: being a mother and, later, a grandmother, her mid-life return to work in child protection, Scottish country dancing, hiking, skiing, canoeing.
This endless competitiveness and her focus on respectability, or at least the appearance of it, coupled with her pride (some would say arrogance) could be extremely frustrating to live with.
She and I went head to head often as I became an adult because I failed to understand that it was these qualities that let her prove to herself and the world that she had made herself and her family into people worthy of respect.
For all of this, my mother has never been a dour or severe person. She has always loved to have a good time. She loved to socialize, to play, to dance, to be silly and, above all, to laugh.
Our relationship was not one of open or easy affection. We did not have much in common and, frankly, I think we got under one another’s skin, each of us feeling that we were a disappointment to the other.
Despite that, I know that some of my best qualities come from my mother and have helped me become the person I am today.
Happy birthday, mum!