Month: November 2018

Re-Evaluation of a Memory

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So aesthetic pretty wall to remind you of rustic old places. Location: Poet’s Seat Tower, Greenfield, MA. Credits: Me

I do a type of counseling where I am encouraged to look at a lot of my early memories, and I recently had a re-evaluation (what, in other counseling methods, may be called a “breakthrough”) in a very important place. I felt like putting it here because maybe this would be helpful to someone.

My early memories indicate that my father was a very happy person who made it clear that he wanted me very much. Every day, he came home from work and was eager to play with me. He was the one I asked to push me on the swings and let me run around outside and play games with me. He was a lot of fun! Oftentimes, when I have a crush on someone, it is frequently because they remind me of my dad. The thing is, they often have his shortcomings as well. He left every day for work, often before I was even awake. I spent most of my mornings and afternoons without him. I spent that time with my mom.

I don’t remember my mom well from that period and that told me something about my relationship with her (this is before my brother was born, so before I was 3 years old. Most people are shocked I can remember that far back in my life, but I can). At first, I thought it was because she didn’t want me. I thought she was upset about the career she did not get to have. Or perhaps because she had immigrated to the United States. But neither of these explanations really made much sense. She had me 3 years after she moved to the country. I have seen photos of her from before my birth, and she looks happy. She and my father used to travel a lot. They went to lots of theme parks, had many friends, and visited many states. It is only after I was born that I remember my mother sleeping for long periods of time in the middle of the day, which is what initially made me think she didn’t want me.

I have worked on this memory dozens of times, and it never made much sense to me until recently, when a few important things happened. First, I recently broke the crush I have had on my math professor for the last two months. A counselor of mine said precisely what I forgot was true: it is nice to focus on a crush when everything else is going wrong. It provides escape. And I realized something else when she said that. I feel as though he (my crush) gives me something that few other people are giving me right now: he is not asking anything of me. And that is why I have fallen so in love with him. My father was not asking anything of me either, all those years ago.

Yesterday, I also got a good direction from a counselor that helped me figure out the other half of the puzzle with my mom. My counselor said “she was doing the best she could.” I was also working on other family matters at the time, talking about my cousins, who all live very far away. I was talking about how I wish I knew them more intimately, and I was thinking about how well I now know my math professor. I know what he likes, I know what he smells like, I know that he likes to dance. I don’t know any of those things about my cousins. That is why it is sometimes hard for me to understand why my mother thinks those relationships are important. My cousins are strangers to me, and I know I could change that, but I just don’t believe the internet is enough for me to really feel their presence.

I then had to connect that feeling with the time when I was pregnant. In the weeks leading to my abortion, I really wanted to carry my child to term, but every time I asked myself how I would make it work financially, I knew I couldn’t do it. I got an abortion. I thought about mom being pregnant 27 years ago, and what it must have felt like to realize that her baby girl would grow up with none of the people or things that she was familiar with. I would not have my cousins, aunts, uncles, or grandparents. It would take a much greater effort for me to learn and maintain speaking Assamese. I would know nothing but what she taught me about the place where my ancestors are from.

I imagine all those things weighing on the mind of a 29-year-old immigrant woman. And I realized the reason why I cannot remember my mother from all those years ago is not because she didn’t want me. She wanted me very, very much. She was sad after I was born, but I was not the problem. The problem existed long before I did. She was sad, is probably sad still, because every time she looks at me, she thinks of all the things her little girl had to grow up without. My counselor said, if anything, this is a gift. My mom loved me so supernaturally that she is sad she cannot give me the things she really wants to give me.

And the thing I have to keep in mind is that I cannot give her what she wants. It is something I want so badly to do even now. When someone senses my hyper-responsiveness and latches on, draining me of all my energy, I still think I will be the one to give them what they want. I couldn’t make sense of what was missing as a child, and I thought I had the power to give my mother what she wanted. Again and again I would try. Her responses never made any sense. If I was doing well, the activity was too easy. If I wasn’t doing well, it was my own fault. She was impossible to satisfy. Eventually, I learned to shrug her off, to cut her off even, because after a good amount of time, I could identify her duality for myself. It still confused me. I have spent years trying to figure out what she could possibly want.

I love her, and it is not my responsibility to fill that gaping hole for her. I know now that the reason I could feel my father’s happiness is because somehow, he sees what I have, and what I am. I don’t know if it makes sense to hope for that from my mother. On a physical, material plane, I know she will retire some time in the next 10-15 years and perhaps after that her mind will settle enough to lead her to what she wants. In the spirit realm, who knows how to fill that abyss of hers. It comes out of her in every way, especially toward me. If anything, without knowing it, every time I pull away, every time I reject her, I make it worse for her by reminding her strongly that I am not like her. What I am making of my life here is not at all what she made of hers, nor is it something she ever could have made of hers. How many years of counseling would it take for her to unravel over twenty years of feeling inadequate, of feeling she couldn’t provide, of feeling I should have had more that she could never give me?

That I wasn’t asking for.

That I don’t know, and will never know.

I wonder which is better, having the mother that wanted me to know, and therefore told me everything, setting expectations I could never reach, or the mother that chose to never tell, bottle the truth, and let her child continue in blissful ignorance.

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Thoughts on an Event: Women in STEM Fields

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credits: Jenna Reyes, 22 News

I feel that, perhaps out of a selfish desire to seem a little better than I actually am, I ought to preface this commentary a little. If the friend of mine who invited me to this event were ever to read this post, I feel she would be rather hurt, or that her opinion of me might change for the worse. Maybe at best, she might think I’m a little judgmental. I do care about her opinion to some degree. But you have to understand, this was my first introduction to people who are pursuing jobs in the same field as me and face some of the same challenges. I could not possibly spare them my critical lens at such an opportune moment.

Last Wednesday, I went to an event for women in STEM fields. The guest of honor was Prasha Dutra, who started the blog Her STEM Story to connect women in STEM fields all over the world. Dutra interviewed three women on a panel about their experiences in STEM fields (I arrived an hour late, so I missed a lot of the panel, but managed to catch the last 20 minutes or so). I think the purpose of the event was to give the attending women a sense that they are not alone and to get a chance to network a little. For me, however, it was far more interesting as a sociological study of The STEM Field Woman. She is a fascinating species, not one to disappoint at all if I am to dissect her critically.

(It should be noted, there was a comment made at some point during the event that women in STEM fields have a tendency to “bring each other down”. I would frame that observation entirely differently. I believe women in any field bring each other down. Women who don’t even work bring each other down. This is a result of living in a sexist society: the oppressed perpetuate their own oppression. Anyway, I am also aware that in this commentary, it will seem as though I am doing precisely this–I am “bringing other women down” by judging their idiosyncracies. In my defense, I would argue that if women in STEM fields, or any field for that matter, are brought down by something so flimsy as the commentary of a first-year, community college student, they didn’t have much power to begin with. And the latter is not true–women have power, as much as any human being does, but that is for a whole other post. I would say the problem is, they have been told lies their whole life, which they now believe to be true.)

Anyway, I found most of the advice and/or concerns expressed by the women present to be rather boring. It was the kind of surface-level, “how do I life?” stuff that (condescendingly, I know) I am either good at or if I am not, I choose not to be for specific reasons. It was interesting to compare this crowd to the social activist crowd. At this point, I have attended so many gather-ins, seminars, rallies, and events centered on social justice issues that the discourse that takes place in them tends to bore me as well. The questions are all “This gargantuan, systemic institution sucks. How do we powerless students make it better?” And the answer is always, “with hope and charisma!” Gag. But there’s a pattern present there, is there not? I feel like people at social-justice related events feel they have a right to complain about how much society sucks. They feel the because institutions do very little to address identity politics (or validate them), they ought to be condemned, and that their condemning of institutional politics is a Very Good Solution.

Not this crowd. Oh no. Women in STEM fields often start their stories very similarly to the social justice crowd: with We Are At The Bottom. The pattern takes a very different trajectory, though. Soon, we hear the person in question’s illustrious school career (first I was failing, but then I went to all the tutors and all the TAs and all the office hours, and then I passed! And I passed again! I got all the good grades!). You will note the lack of vulnerability in this story. We completely skip over the pain and embarrassment of being a struggling student, which so many people in STEM fields are, and where I think the true potential of community building lies. So many STEM students are international, speak tons of different languages, and come from working class backgrounds. No one takes the opportunity to bring that to the forefront of the conversation, nor do they talk about the challenges of assimilating (or, perhaps not assimilating as the case may be) to the American workforce as an educated professional.

The women would then typically progress to talking about overcoming all odds and landing a great job with a good company. Then they talk about how even though they seem confident and sparkly, they still have gaping self-esteem holes that they “still struggle” with to this day. They also give the impression of being very, very type A–they may not have been consciously aware of it, but the amount that coffee is talked about (not to mention the amount of wine being consumed in the room, or the number of times I have walked into a class and smelled cigarette smoke) indicates a tendency to be workaholics. I get the impression that even if a woman in a STEM field acknowledges she has struggles–whether they are career-related or social–she either self-medicates in order to cope or ignores it by throwing herself at her work.

And I have to admit, that makes me more than a little sad. I want better for my fellow women in STEM fields. I forget sometimes that I have access to an incredibly supportive community in RC that would not allow me to wallow in self-doubt even if I wanted to. I wish every woman working in STEM had that. Maybe she wouldn’t be so transparent to me, then.

I suppose I could go on. There were a few irksome dynamics in the room, such as the way white women address the concerns of Asian immigrants in the room. I could tell I was also in a very straight crowd by the amount people talk about having supportive “boyfriends and husbands”. But I honestly feel like even those concerns go right back to the root that I was talking about earlier–none of these women want to be honest with each other. None of them wants to talk about how it is hard to speak up in a classroom of mostly men. It is hard as hell to feel confident asking questions when you’re scared of being judged and there is an overwhelming power dynamic in the room. And it is sad that women feel they need partnership with a man in order to overcome obstacles. It was obvious to me that the women who were single felt they had some kind of shortcoming–they kept talking about how they are used to being alone, comfortable even, being alone. But when someone talks about being alone a lot, to me it usually means it is something they think about a lot, and why should that take up so much of anyone’s focus? Would a man focus on it that much?

I don’t have the answers to those questions. I do think that adequate support for women in STEM fields requires a psychological component: women need to believe in their brilliance and creativity. I think people ought to be able to talk about when things are truly challenging without feeling as though admitting to mistakes will define who they are. I want for all women to be able to do that.