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My Mom is Not a Rib

by Mandy Osterhaus Ream about a year ago in immediate family
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A strange way to say she's a boss mom.

Author with her boss mom. Photo by author.

My mom is not a rib. Throughout my childhood, my mom would often declare, “I am not a rib.” She was definitive, certain. But I didn’t know why she said it. Now, as a mother myself, I am slowly beginning to discover all that this sentence holds.

“I am not a rib” means rebellion and bucking tradition.  It means rejecting women as subservient and deconstructing messages that reinforce this. It means being direct and speaking up even when this isn’t comfortable. It means a mother modeling for her daughter laser focus and strength, even if she feels scattered and weak.

“I am not a rib” means stepping outside the mold.

The origin of the sentence, "I am not a rib," stems from the desire to step outside the original meanings often layered over the first book of the Christian Bible, a human creation story, genesis.

God embarks on a plan to create life out of nothing. Starts with light. Land and sea next. Animals.  Then, man. But once God creates man, they see something incomplete, and so decide to create a second human out of the first. God puts the man to sleep and extracts a rib from which the second human is created. Woman.

This story then goes through a plethora of interpretations, many through a patriarchal lens that sees the woman as second, secondary, subservient; as a complement to the primary human. This creation from a rib, a lower body part, is submissive to the man as the head. 

My mom's faith is an intrinsically important part of her being. But that did not mean accepting all the layers of distorted meaning and oppression in the biblical creation story. She was clear that she was not subservient. She was not a rib. And this is how my mom, my boss-mom, raised me.  

“I am not a rib” means having combat boots.

Mom in uniform. Photo from the author's mom.

As a child, my mom had combat boots in the closet and dog tags in her jewelry box, artifacts of her time serving as a nurse in the army during the Vietnam war.  I knew everyone’s mother didn't have combat boots and dog tags. I knew it was a novel detail. But it was also so normal, like her hyper attention to detail such as beds made with literal military-grade tight corners. (A skill she unsuccessfully tried to teach me.)

It was 1966 and my mother’s high school career was coming to an end. With the arrival of her 18th birthday, she was clear about one thing, she was getting out. Her sights were set on nursing school, one of only three options in her world (nursing, teaching, mothering). With no money for college, my mom searched for a way to pay for her ticket out of her house and decided on the army. She was familiar with the army, her father having served in the army during WWII, and she thought this was the best option to cover school expenses. Myopic vision. She needed to get out.  When nursing school was completed, she headed to basic training in Texas. 

The vestiges of this time, dog tags and combat boots, signaled to me my mom was a badass. She was serious with a high threshold for tough stuff; a bulwark in crisis. A mother with combat boots means business. This awareness permeated my childhood. My mother was not a rib.

“I am not a rib” means stereotypical gender roles in marriage need not apply.

There were other very clear messages in my childhood that exemplified the “not rib” identity. If the traditional interpretation of Eve was that she was a helpmate, a person usually found in the kitchen or vacuuming (ideas that are decidedly NOT in the Christian Bible), I grew up with a mom who rejected these conventions. The daily household tasks to be completed in the normal day-to-day business of life together were continuously negotiated and divided between my parents based on factors other than gender.

Because my parents' lives were full of school and work and kids, chores were often completed based on availability and schedule. On weekends, my dad might call me into the living room where he was folding sheets, telling me to grab the other end. On Fridays, if my mom worked the late shift at the hospital, my dad cooked us dinner. (His repertoire grew over the decades from scrambled eggs or hot dogs to a delicious Brunswick stew complete with secret ingredients.)

My parents negotiated gender roles more through the lens of practicality and schedules rather than man and woman cultural expectations.

“I am not a rib” means critical media analysis... starting with popular cartoons.

Avoiding stereotypes was a theme for my mom. She rejected them in gender roles. She rejected them in media portrayals of men and women. She rejected the idea that women were supposed to be meek and pacifying while men were unchecked tyrants. She also rejected the idea of men as spineless wimps or victims. 

Enter the Flintstones and the Jetsons.  I was not allowed to watch either.  And it was clearly explained to me, even as a seven-year-old. Critical media analysis started at a young age for me.  

The early rejection of the Jetsons was simple. My mom did not like how George Jetson was a victim to his boss. She didn’t like his spinelessness. All set in the context of a very traditional, 1950s, family system. Mom was home in the kitchen (see above) with dad off to work for "the man," a tyrant. The Flintstones ban was in a similar vein. Quite simply, Fred could be an asshole; a husband who acted impulsively and unchecked towards his family and best friend, while his wife often tried to placate him. Both wives in these shows were supporting characters to the husbands, they were secondary. This was not okay with my mom.

“I am not a rib” means using your voice, even when it’s uncomfortable.

Mom as Nurse. Photo from author's mom.

For years, my mom worked in an oncology unit where she administered chemotherapy to cancer patients. It was work that required precision and attention. There was clear protocol and my mom excelled in the details needed to treat patients without error. Sometimes this meant being very direct. And, sometimes this was unpopular.

This created a lot of tension for my mom as she tried to navigate crunchy dynamics amid work that demanded exactness. She would use her voice anyway.

This was also evident when she served on a non-profit board, willing to challenge policies or ideas using direct, unapologetic language. This was sometimes met with incredulity or raised eyebrows because often women are expected to have a more nurturing supportive language style. Indirect or caretaking language is more palatable. Sometimes my mom might use a more conciliatory style of communicating. But when she is in a space where important decisions are being hashed out, she doesn’t compromise her certainty. She is not a rib. She is a boss mom.

"I am not a rib" means complexity.

These are just 5 of the many things "I am not a rib" means. There are more layers and nuance. Sometimes the meaning is so clear and other times it is ambiguous. There are times when "I am not a rib" is a confident external persona even when the internal world isn't as certain.

Sometimes I exemplify all that my mom modeled in these words and sometimes I am still trying to figure it all out. But, I continue the journey to better understand what my mom means when she says, "I am not a rib." And in so doing, I am seeking to better understand this for myself.

I want to be a boss mom too.

immediate family

About the author

Mandy Osterhaus Ream

Woman in middle age. Professor. Mom to one surfer and one kid with Down Syndrome. Fireman’s wife. Writing about all of it.


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