An ode to my mother

The problem with 'product of her time'

Molly Murch, Co-Editor-In-Chief

I recall my mother’s conservative upbringing and her subsequent homophobia, and I sigh. “She’s just a product of her time,” some will say. I cannot disagree, and yet, I am left unsatisfied with the response; it offers an explanation but in no way a justification. 

This argument claims that one’s surroundings during childhood are largely responsible for their beliefs decades later, a claim that I stand by. The issue emerges when the claim is used to excuse inexcusable beliefs, homophobia in the case of my mother. ‘Explanation’ and ‘justification’ are not interchangeable, and while the former may reveal the reason behind beliefs or actions, it cannot provide rationalization as the latter does. 

Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie comments on the significance of society’s influence, in this case on the perception of women and marriage, in her 2014 book essay We Should All Be Feminists.

“It is easy to say, ‘But women can just say no to all this [sexist standards for women].’ But the reality is more difficult, more complex,” Adichie said. “We are all social beings. We internalize ideas from our socialization.”

Replace “women” with any minority group and “this” with any form of discrimination, and the message becomes clear. To escape society’s strong grasp is difficult, the very reason beliefs like my mother’s develop but never dissipate.

However, as historian John Charles Chasteen admits in his 2001 book Born in Blood and Fire, we are unqualified to judge our ancestors, as we operate by our current social norms, just as they operated by theirs. 

“It makes little sense for us to judge their moral quality as human beings because they merely lived the logic of the world as they understood it, just as we do,” Chasteen said. 

This reveals a predicament, because I, too, am a product of my time and live my life based on the societal “logic” of the time. The city I live in, the people I surround myself with, and the media I absorb have all instilled in me beliefs inconsistent with my mother’s. 

And so, just as I find her beliefs to be unacceptable, mine may be too. Who knows? In 100 years, the product of another time may condemn my beliefs, wondering how I could feel such a way, but knowing that I was just a product of my time. 

It appears then, that none of us are safe from judgement. However, this in no way means we should not defend our beliefs. In fact, we should stand by them wholeheartedly. 

Confidence in our convictions is what prompts conversations and eventual progress. Throughout such conversations, we must remain curious about others’ beliefs, skeptical of our own, and willing to change our minds. Only then can we hold ourselves accountable to our ever-changing moral code. 

As long as the clock is still ticking, we will always be a product of our time. Nonetheless, I uphold my conviction that a parent’s unconditional love should supersede any prior nurturing. While I continue to stand by my beliefs, I respect my mother all the same for standing by hers. All I ask for from her is an open mind to open conversations. Maybe then we’ll come across some answers.