The image that comes to mind when I hear the word matriarch is that of an old dowager, hunched in her throne. She is powerful, domineering and manipulative. She is almost certainly evil and cunning. This image probably dates back across generations of patriarchal narratives that vilify powerful women leaders. Because the idea of women as leaders is threatening and doesn’t seem right.
It might be time to question that collective narrative.
When I think about my grandma Nai Nai, there’s no question that she is the matriarch. At the age of 105, she is the great grandmother of a clan numbering in the thirties. But even as a child, I remember her hosting large gatherings of extended family. No distant cousin or relation would be left out of a warm welcome at her table.
And as a result, I grew up in a kind of extended family village with relationships that persist today. I remember going to my great auntie 大舅婆 Dajubu’s home after school sometimes - she would cut oranges in a way that made them especially delicious. Another third cousin twice removed 姨婆 Yibu was famous for her Shanghainese wonton parties. My BFF Auntie Nancy is a second cousin once removed and also my daughter Erin’s godmother.
Her gatherings of the family village, gave us bonding time and space
I’ve learned that the natural energy of families is to drift apart, there is an innate entropy at work as kids grow up. After all, they have their own identities and aspirations. As mothers, we want our children to be independent and to find their way in the world, but we also secretly want them to stay close by. When I see my kids after a long hiatus, I feel a palpable sense of relief as I release the breath that I didn’t even know I’d been holding.
Nai Nai probably never thought of herself as a matriarch nor even a leader. She simply loved having family around her, the more the better. No one made her do it and certainly not on the scale that she did. I realize now that her gatherings were a kind of container for the family village, giving us a space and time together that was bonding. We didn’t have to become friends, and to be honest there was probably often subtle if not overt hostility across family factions that I simply wasn’t aware of, as a child.
Nai Nai provided a cohesive energy to counteract the entropic forces that usually cause families to scatter and disperse. She reminded us that we had shared experiences of people, places and events that were memorable, if not meaningful. My Auntie Nancy and I often joke that we as teens bonded over being tortured by the boredom and awkwardness of having to attend so many multi-course banquets in our youth.
As the eldest of seven siblings, my mom carried much of the burden of raising her younger siblings. She became a matriarch-in-training at an early age under the tutelage of Nai Nai, but also her grandmas, Nai Nai’s mom 太婆 Tabu, and 太太 Tata. Her role as deputy mom continued even after she left home for college in the US, because each subsequent sibling spent months to years staying in her home, as they each left the nest for school.
My aunties are each matriarchs in their own ways, by cooking and sharing food, by remembering birthdays and anniversaries, and by bringing family members together for trips and activities. Whether or not they have children or grandchildren of their own, they have chosen to engage with family in ways that promote love and unity. And that kind of bonding can exist in “chosen family” groups or tribes as well. We humans have a biological need for social support, so it makes sense that we would appreciate and value those with the kind of bonding energy that keeps us together.
The Confucian patriarchal model taught us that children are simply extensions of their parents or even ancestors, that our only function was to serve the family’s interests with loyalty and obedience. And this family leadership style was perpetuated for millennia exactly because it helped clans and dynasties to survive and remain powerful. But the mandates of tradition and the patriarchy are softening in the modern era, and so new approaches to family leadership are emerging.
I would argue that the matriarch tradition has coexisted alongside patriarchal values buttressing, augmenting and nurturing each generation. My mom would describe Nai Nai’s mom 太婆 Tabu as the kindest and most generous person she has ever known. 太婆 Tabu had suffered untold trauma from having borne 16 pregnancies on her tiny bound feet, only to lose 11 as infants. And yet she would offer what help or compassion she could to any that came her way, with open heart and hand.
The new matriarchs
No two families are alike, but they all need people with cohesive energy to counteract the entropy. These are often, but not always the women. Matriarchs serve as a kind of intergenerational glue, some love their families as a whole and others care more about individuals within those families. They have the capacity to love unconditionally, but can also judge and be divisive.
Women are socialized from birth with a set of rules or expectations that I call “should- scripts.” Such scripts may have been directly taught to us, learned through experience, or inferred through story, culture and community. They describe how daughters and sisters are expected to behave, depending on birth order and age. And how mothers are expected to parent, and how wives should speak or dress. They even extend beyond the family setting to include scripts to dictate expectations in the workplace or our broader communities.
Matriarchs serve as a kind of intergenerational glue
Girls in different cultures are held to varying degrees of strictness to such scripts from an early age. They learn that they risk disapproval, rejection and shame when they don’t conform to expectations for beauty or compliance. Censure can come from adults or peers, but quickly becomes incorporated into their inner critic voice, becoming harsher and louder with each subsequent experience.
My earliest should-scripts mostly involved unquestioning obedience. Do what you’re told. Eat what’s in front of you. Clean your plate. Don’t ask questions. Don’t you dare complain. You should be grateful for those hand-me-downs. You should sit with your knees together. You shouldn’t roll your eyes. It’s okay to be cutesy, but not a smart-aleck. It’s shameful to cry. It’s never okay for you to be angry. If someone else is angry it’s your fault, and your duty to fix it. My stress response still goes on full alert whenever I encounter anger.
New matriarchs are those women who are willing to take a stand against the dictates of should-scripts. It takes tremendous courage to be willing to defy the supposed wisdom of generations, and to open themselves up to criticism. But such women are most often driven by their mothering instinct to show up as a better mom for their children, because they see a better approach than what the should-scripts are telling them to do.
Princess Diana was a new matriarch whose story began as a fairy tale, but she soon found out that her prince was not so charming. She did try to meet the expectations of the Royal Firm, but ended up defying specific mandates that violated her own beliefs. Like when she took her boys to have a taste of the real pedestrian world, and when she showed the world how compassion could look in a modern monarchy that was relatable to its citizens. Of course she was human and therefore imperfect, but her very willingness to be vulnerable was what endeared to so many of us.
New matriarchs are willing to take a stand against the dictates of should-scripts
It’s not that I don’t believe in the importance of teaching children our family values or traditions. There are definitely parts of my should-scripts that I want to keep because I believe they serve my family well, like teaching my children respect for their grandparents’ wisdom and experience. But I’ve learned that I also get to rewrite “shoulds” to “coulds.” Like when I told myself that I could wear something red to visit Nai Nai because she and I would both like that, instead of making it an absolute must.
Loving what is
When considering what I admire most about the matriarchs in my life, it comes down to a willingness to accept their families for what they are. Like when they’re sitting on the sidewalk next to their toddler when she’s throwing a tantrum, because it’s what that child needs in that moment, no matter what other people may be thinking or saying.
Because families are messy. They don’t actually follow the rules, should-scripts or otherwise. We want to believe that we can control the messiness, but the reality is that kids predictably act up at bedtimes, teenagers get in trouble, and couples fight about money. Our childhood minds learned a measure of control by following should-scripts, but that’s not how adulthood works. And if you believe in family, you have to be willing to accept that there will be some chaos and uncertainty.
The new matriarch believes in family and protects unity with a quiet determination that is as fierce as it is kind. She chooses not to engage in judgment or gossip, gently defending Uncle Bob’s awkward or embarrassing moments. Her actions are understated, yet significant, serving as a cohesive force even in times of grief or strife. She allows her family to see that she is human, role modeling what it looks like to apologize when she makes mistakes.
Saying “No” gently but firmly, is an act of self care
I wish I could say that I never let my should-scripts get in the way of my brain care and self care, but the reality is that they quite often do. Even when I have scheduled in time to paint, I end up taking zoom calls at the studio because I tell myself that I should attend that meeting. In fact, whenever I’m painting, my inner critic Milly scolds me for being selfish and irresponsible by doing something that only matters to me - she’s always telling me that I “should” be doing something else.
It’s a work in progress, but I’m learning to reframe painting as a guilty pleasure that’s good for my brain. Because my doctor mind knows that art or any creative work stimulates neuroplasticity and strengthens connections to the hippocampus.
And as a new matriarch, I’m committed to taking care of my brain because it’s the best way I know how to protect my clan from being burdened by my elder care in the future. So I get to remind myself that saying “No” gently but firmly, is an act of self care and respect. This is what it looks like when I mom my brain.
Dr Em Coaching Tips
Who do you know in your family/tribe who brings others together? (could be family of origin or chosen family/tribe)
What specific qualities do they have, or what do they do, that serves as to bring a cohesive energy in the group dynamic?
Are there others in that group or another group, whom you appreciate for their contributions to the collective?
What qualities do you have, or what do you do to bring others together?