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How Women's Storytelling Shapes Family Narratives.

By Arantza Asali


There’s a particular page from my year 3 history textbook I will always remember. It dealt with the early humans, the ways they organised; showing an early man holding a rudimentary weapon and a woman with a pile of berries in her hands. The textbook stated: ‘men hunt, women gather’. The teacher echoed the words in the lesson.


Little did I know that line was not only true when it came to families in the early stages of human history, but in the keeping and care of entire histories themselves, the ones that matter most within the family. There again men hunt, women gather. 


Family histories are a tapestry- threads of identity, humour, love, wisdom, and even resilience woven through generations, passed down from one voice to another. For many, the figure of the grandfather, telling stories to the gathered children around his feet, is common. But in my family, as in many latin and hispanic families, women gather. It’s in the realm of the Abuelas and Mamás that histories live. They expand around their unrecognised labour in the family home, their central presence in gatherings, or the peaceful escapes they built under pillow and blanket forts for my brother and I as children. 


Grandmothers and mothers, like all women, have a particular approach to storytelling, one that centres feelings and relationships. A study in psychology, carried out in Dickinson College, looked at the differences in personal storytelling across gender. They found that women tell stories that are both more elaborate and emotional in subject matter, and more emotional for them to reminisce about than men. Why? Not because women are emotional and men logical, but because emotion is built into the narrative model women use, and storytelling is built into the way women build relationships. Meaning, to a woman, a story that doesn't make you feel, is no story at all. 


When I was a little girl, my grandmother lived with us. On most days I came home from school, she would ask me questions about my day:

“Did you have a nice day?”, 

“What did you do in school?”, 

“Who did you play with?”


She would listen to me and laugh or mime her shock. To this day my grandmother can name all my closest friends and tell you about them without a problem. I didn’t realise it then, but my grandmother was gathering her stories. Through her questions, she collected the details she would weave into the blankets and tea cosies she gifted the family throughout the years. But she didn’t only keep my stories. 


Almost all the anecdotes about my mum and her siblings, my aunties and uncles, even the great grandparents I never met, come from my Abuela. If my brother and I can sketch a line between our lives and the lives of the people before us, it is because she told us about them. What they liked, disliked, the games they played, and places they visited, she knows it all. Every trinket in my Abuela’s rose-scented bedroom has a story she will happily launch into without any prompting. My favourite stories are about her as a girl- wild, witty, loyal to no end. Just like she is now. The sense of who our family is, the core narrative stretching from Europe to the North of Mexico down to our generational family home in Mexico City, is fully shaped by the way my grandmother presented her characters and their stories. She was the bridge between the family that was and the family that is. 


Three generations of women stand around a table. A dark-haired mother looks directly at the camera while braiding her young daughter's hair. Beside them, an older dark-haired woman with glasses is painting.
Three generations of women, bound together by stories

My mother’s narrative education was even more thorough when it came to me. Everyday she picked me up from kindergarten, we would wait a few hours for my brother and the older kids to come out of school. In the front seat of her car, she would tell me a unique version of the story of Sleeping Beauty- my favourite.  If I close my eyes, I can see her resting her head against the car seat, her hands flying wildly before her as they do whenever she speaks. She’d boop my nose and go “no no no” as I bounced on her knee when we got to the part of the story where the Queen lets the fairies take Sleeping Beauty to the forest to keep her safe from Maleficent's curse. 

“The Queen is coming with Sleeping Beauty. No one can keep her as safe as she can.” The look on her perfect face would turn serious then. Again, I was too small to notice, but everyday her story taught me what it was to be family, and how love felt.


My mother told me many stories like that in my life. Not about Princesses and Queens, but all of them equally engaging and important. They taught me about who she was as both human and mother, who I was and could be, and who we were as a family. I know them all by heart.

These days, on weekends, unless life throws some engagement in, my mum and I hop on a virtual call, a direct line between Mexico and Scotland. The exact face I remember from the car in front of kindergarten appears on screen and says “cuéntame” (tell me), which in Spanish bears a close resemblance to ‘cuento’ (story). We talk for hours and hours and hours. 


Women have communicated with each other through stories for too many generations to count. We shape and keep the histories of family members and units by giving memories a new life in our voices. We gather details and feelings carefully, using them to build that endless tapestry, so you can walk into any room, see it hanging, and know who a family is. 


Like other pieces of women’s labour in the home and out, we don’t talk about women’s role as story keepers enough. Society celebrates the men, who in the public space, stamp their family name on buildings or roads, hunting new territory to name after themselves. And we forget the quiet, hardworking gatherers holding golden histories in their hands. I remember them. 




Sources: 


Bohanek, J. G., Fivush, R., Zaman, W., Lepore, C. E., Merchant, S., & Duke, M. P. (2009). Narrative interaction in family dinnertime conversations. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly (Wayne State University. Press), 55(4), 488.


Grysman, A., Fivush, R., Merrill, N. A., & Graci, M. (2016). The influence of gender and gender typicality on autobiographical memory across event types and age groups. Memory & cognition, 44(6), 856-868.


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