She just stood there, not moving, staring at a closed door.
I was standing behind her, having come to the same complete stop as she did. I was confused as to why she wasn’t moving anymore. I was seven.
Then it dawned on me: she was waiting for me to open that door for her. She didn’t tell me as such; she showed me. That was my mom.
The household I grew up in placed a high premium on manners. There was a way things worked, and it was not to be fucked with. That last sentence, for example, would not have flown in my house. My sister and I were taught all about elbows and tables and sir and ma’am and eye contact and, of course, door holding. Though we resided below the Mason Dixon line, barely (Bethesda, Maryland), this all had nothing to do with Southern concepts of proper behavior. In fact, it had more to do with feminism.
I am a feminist. I have been one my whole life, though I didn’t realize that until I was about 11. Let me explain:
The household I grew up in, the one with the premium on manners, was a household headed by a single mom, Martha Lockwood.
My mom did the day-to-day raising of my sister and I, and she worked inside the Beltway — pantsuits and all. My parents separated when I was seven, at which point my sister and I were relied upon to double down on household duties. I was taught (once) how to do my laundry. I knew where the vacuum was, because I used it on a regular basis. Windex and I were well acquainted. We all pitched in and made the place work because we had to, because when parents work, kids have to assume more responsibility, and when parent (singular) works, kids actually have to learn how to cook.
While mother has taught me a great many things, in particular about raising children, the single greatest lesson she ever taught me was that you do not raise children, you raise adults.
So it was in that spirit, as I approached 11, that my mother began to speak to me about her actual life, about the realities of her workplace existence. I became familiar with the concept of a glass ceiling. 69 cents for every dollar was a topic at our elbow-less dinner table. I learned that men would actually hold conversations while not looking at my Mom. These were things I understood to happen — to my mom.
So there I was at 11, having real conversations with an adult, doing laundry, cooking, stuff like that, when I realized, somehow, that I wasn’t a typical kid. I don’t recall how that realization came to be. Perhaps it was because of that kid Jayson who said something like, “why are you doing that? That’s what moms do.” I was confused as to why this was considered the kind of stuff that a woman was supposed to do. To me, this was just household work, the necessary drag that existed between me and time with my skateboard.
I guess that is when I became a feminist. I wasn’t necessarily defining myself in accordance with Steinem or adhering to the tenants of radical feminism, I just thought it was bullshit that what my sister and I were doing by helping structure the home was considered women’s work. The woman in our house was out working for dollars. And that very thought was the initial moment I advocated women’s rights on the grounds of political, social and economic equality to men. Because if Jayson was telling me my mom should be doing my laundry, I could only imagine what the boys inside the Beltway were saying.
My wife and I have two daughters. I am openly biased and very happy that there are more women in my life because frankly, I consider them smarter and less prone to being assholes like Jayson. Our eldest, Frieda, is seven now. She is just about at the age where someday soon, I’ll plant myself in front of a closed door and wait, share a silent moment with her and hope she takes the initiative to offer help.
I used to think that my mom made her stand when I was seven in order to teach me to be a gentleman, a concept laden with the trappings of chivalry, often landing at odds with the equality demanded by feminism. Now I realize that she was actually teaching me that it was my job to show respect, keep my head up and look at the world through the lens of others. She was teaching me to be a gentle human, and that equality of expectation is what feminism is all about.
Mac Premo is an American artist, stuffmaker, commercial director, and NYFA fellow. He has exhibited in New York, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Miami, London, and PS1 MOMA in Queens, and has initiated and participated in several public art projects in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Mac has won 7 New York Emmy Awards for his video and animation work. He currently makes art, video, illustration, wooden things, noises, and dinner, most nights. Mac lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two totally radical daughters.
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