On International Women’s Day I find myself pondering over what defines womanhood. What does being a woman mean for me? One image emerges before my eyes - assured, confident and powerful. The image of my mother. It is she who laid the foundation of my identity as a woman.
Since I lost my mother decades ago when I was a teenager, I am cognisant of the fact that I have partly constructed her story in my head. I have filled in the story gaps all the unasked and unanswered questions have left by revisiting well-groomed memories, absorbing my father’s and sister’s accounts of her, as well as the work I did in counselling.
Without a shadow of a doubt my mother was the best mother I could have ever asked for. She was loving, devoted, hugely empathetic, optimistic, fun, intellectually stimulating, and caring. Nonetheless and perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, I do sometimes wonder whether being a mother was what she really wanted.
I remember my mother’s ongoing longing for professional fulfilment. She longed to develop her career as a music editor in radio and to create an intellectual outlet for her deep-thinking nature. An outlet she only found in the numerous books she read. My mother had paid an additional womanhood penalty for being the Ambassador’s wife. As the Ambassador’s wife, she was not allowed to work when my father was posted abroad. A rule that defies any logic from where I stand today, but one that shaped the last decade of my mother’s life. My mother felt trapped. She felt trapped in a life that did not allow her to have an identity beyond that of a mother and a wife.
My mother revered the professional achievements of my father, whom she supported unwaveringly. She also revered her brother’s accomplishments as a prominent broadcast journalist in Bulgaria. She frequently shared her faith in my bright future which she saw manifested in me becoming a professor in academia. The future, I now realise, she most probably wished for herself. She had decided to abandon many of her own dreams, needs and desires to fulfil what she knew society and her family expected of her – to be a devoted wife and mother. In her case, the price for fitting the mould was higher, given that her professional career was hindered by being a diplomat’s wife. Luckily, this price was discounted heavily by the deep love and respect my parents felt for one another.
What I find most devastating about my mother’s story is the fact that she ended up not valuing her breathtakingly positive, generous and accomplished femininity. She overlooked most of her amazing qualities - traditionally defined as feminine - that we desperately need more of in our battered and overly competitive world today. My mother’s unparalleled empathy and kindness, compassion, exuberant love, and genuine interest in other people’s lives made the world around her infinitely better. Yet, her internal gaze lingered with her perceived deficit of success, defined as professional accomplishments, rather than towards her talent to create harmony.
My mother died not valuing enough the amazing mother she had been to me and to my sister, and the great life partner she had been to my father. She was so focused on admiring the achievements of the successful men around her that she failed to recognise her own brilliance and light. But I do. I recognise her brilliance, her light, her extraordinary success at making our world a safer place, at bringing up two children who love life and are grateful to have been given a shot at it.
So, what does being a woman mean to me? It means recognising the many splendid facets of womanhood. Today I celebrate being a mother, being a writer, being a wife, being a researcher, a thinker, a friend, a volunteer, a co-founder, a campaigner, a human being. I celebrate my mother – who she was and who she wanted to be. I celebrate all human beings that define themselves as women and I thank them for all the love they spread in the world. May they feel free to embody womanhood unshackled from restrictive social norms and burdensome expectations of what it is or is not.