As the daughter to Russian immigrants, my upbringing revolved around rules. The spoken: Do not receive below an A on any assignment; do not use swear words or Americanisms like “whatever” (essentially a swear word in my house); do not leave my room without first making my bed in the morning. And the more unspoken: Listen closely when my grandmother explains the proper way to keep house; be more like my mother than my father; and, for the love of god, be quiet at least sometimes. The latter were all, of course, intended to help me one day find my golden goose: a good husband.
Rules were how I learned to be, first, a girl, and later, a woman. I learned that there were certain ways to do things, even if others in my life weren’t following suit. For example, there was my mother — always made up, an incredible cook, a hostess of fancy parties and dinners (all good), but often away from home at work or on business (bad). My maternal grandmother — a surgeon most skilled in quiet confidence (respectable), who cooked dinner when she visited the US during summers (good) but spent most of them in an old house dress and slippers (bad). And her mother, my great-grandmother, who lived with me until I was in middle school, raised our whole family single-handedly, but who I can only remember ever looking old (undetermined?).
Growing up meant being cut apart and stitched back together the correct way, becoming a feminine Frankenstein hellbent on walking dead towards the stove and the arms of a husband (and a good college, of course. It’s the 21st century, after all.) All three were constantly talking about my future marriage prospects — my great-grandmother even gave me an intricately crocheted dining room tablecloth when I was 10 or 11, a “future wedding gift” — despite my mother being the only one married.
This is not uncommon in Russia, where strict gender roles and sexism prevail even though mothers and grandmothers tend to hold more power in the household in one finger than fathers do as a whole social class. This, to the women in my home, was the only acceptable form of feminism. Raising families, while being blatantly disrespected — on an interpersonal and/or societal level. Getting a good job, but still doing hours of housework daily. Ostensibly making their own rules at home, while still following the rules made for them by others (read: men).
When I look outside of my upbringing, at the Modern American Woman (something I was told was absolutely not an option for me), I don’t find much I aspire or relate to, either. I cringe equally hard at the idea of being the stay-at-home wife and full-time homemaker, a feminist simply because she is a woman who chooses to revolve her schedule around her husband’s, and at the modern girlboss, the chosen spokesperson of: “Yes, really, finally, truly, women can have it all — as long as ‘all’ means wearing a $2,000 power suit, abusing employees, and being a good subject of both capitalist and patriarchal ideology.” Neither liberates woman as a class, nor does either allow for a woman’s existence to be just that, rather than a loaded “statement,” a false trope of empowerment meant to uplift the white and wealthy.
I wish I could say that I rebuke all of these examples of womanhood, and will be none of them. That I am simply an enigma, an ethereal being free from my strict upbringing and capitalist expectations. That it isn’t so natural for me to fall back on what I know best, which is cooking and cleaning and caring and comforting. Working and then working more.
But there’s more layers here than are easy to admit. Every day, the timeline between my last trip to Moscow and the present day grows longer. My Russian grows weaker, my relationship with my still-living grandmother more reliant on Skype. As I grow older, like everyone else, I lose people, too — specifically, Russian people, who used to surround me and remind me of my culture, once such a critical part of my identity.
This is where the ropes get frayed. When I do talk to my grandmother or even my mother, it’s mostly about food, and sometimes my relationship with my boyfriend — this is where we overlap, in the traditionally “feminine” pursuits. This is how I still know how to be Russian enough for my grandmother, how I bring a sigh of relief to this person who devoted half her life to protecting and taking care of me, whom I love so fiercely that I would even act like some sort of Perfect Woman Robot if it meant making her happy. This is how I tell her: “Look, I may mangle my words with mistakes that you corrected a million times, I may not go to the Orthodox church or recite Pushkin from memory like you wanted me to, but I still to this day only use your borscht recipe.”
I am still figuring out all the ways that my relationship to the often toxic ideals of traditional femininity has been knotted up with the things I enjoy doing (elephant in the room: this is a cooking newsletter, for crying out loud!). I realize how extremely privileged I am to even be able to reflect on this, to grow into what I was told was the “ideal woman” as a white, cisgender, straight person.
But how do you go about untying the strings that hold you together, that make up who you are? Does realizing that you are a puppet mean anything, especially if you continue on acting like one? What if you do it ironically?
I am still looking for some example of unwinding, of someone who stretched their space in the world enough to be authentic.
The only one that comes close in my mind is my great-grandmother. Somehow, I grew up never fully realizing that she was a woman (she was more hurricane than person). Nor did I ever think of her as feminine. Yes, in her youth, she raised a family without a husband, worked her way out of near-death-level poverty, and old photos of her show a striking dark-haired beauty. However, I do not know that woman.
Instead, I know someone who sometimes smoked cigarettes in the house and started each morning with a shot of vodka; entered screaming matches, leaving mid-shout when she got tired; told people she was blind when they bored her, and then finished a crossword puzzle directly in front of them minutes later. Someone who smashed plates and only occasionally cleaned them up.
In her old age, she was complicated and herself entirely — a loose cannon often treated accordingly by family, who acted in a way that was very, very different from how she taught me to act. When I think back on all the time we spent together, all of the things she told me I had to do when I was younger, I wonder: Was she teaching me a lesson, or issuing me some sort of secret dare?
You may have noticed I’ve switched over my newsletter from Substack to Revue. This was a conscious decision made in solidarity with all the other writers leaving the platform, due to Substack’s discriminatory business model and support of hate speech. You can learn more in Jude Ellison Sady Doyle’s piece “Substack Is Not a Neutral Platform.”
As always, thank you for reading, and thank you to Gabrielle Hickmon
for recommending Revue as an alternative!