When I was a little girl I wanted to be just like my mother. She was beautiful and wise, gentle and understanding. Nobody could sing like she could, or read stories the way she did. No one else smelled as good or laughed as sweetly. She gave the best hugs. She was entirely perfect. And for most of my childhood, I couldn’t be with her.
My parents had an excessively acrimonious divorce. In a move that was pretty much unprecedented at the time, my father was given custody of me. For over a decade, I only saw my mother every other weekend and for two weeks of the holidays. At some point it was permitted that I spend Wednesday afternoons with her, naturally Wednesday became my favourite day of the week.
There was also a period during which she wasn’t allowed to take me out of my father’s house at all. She would come and visit me, with my dog on a leash and a snack in a box. We would sit, on the steps of the house that she was too afraid to step into, and we would talk. At other times we would sit on a swing in the garden and she would read to me. If I had pictures of that time I would burn them. Not because these stolen moments weren’t incredibly precious to me, but because when I think of them now, as a full grown, mostly rational person, I am nauseated that she and I had to accept all that separation as normal; that we had to adapt to life without each other, that every time I desperately wanted her to stay, I had to watch her leave instead.
Learning to live without my mother was the most pivotal lesson of my life. It broke, and changed me. Today, more than 30 years later, with the benefit of hindsight firmly in place, I see myself and my relationships through the lens of this first heartbreak. My stellar ability to adapt to deeply uncomfortable situations, to love people without needing them, and to box up my feelings and put them away (often never to be unboxed), all stem from childhood. I spent a lot of time being the girl anyone could leave behind, after all I had been left before, I was used to it.
In the end, my mother and I spent too much time apart. I have tried to make that time up as an adult, but life has often got in the way. I have not remained an adoring little girl who sees only brilliance, I am a guarded and often cynical creature, and though I love my mother intensely, it is against her that I have built my best defenses.
There are only two people in the world to whom these self defense mechanisms do not apply. Two people I definitely couldn’t, and can’t, live without - my children.
During this time of quarantine and curfew, I can’t help but think that had Covid 19 raged during my childhood, I would not have seen my mother at all. My father would have never permitted it, and she and I would have been parted indefinitely. I imagine the days dragging by with my father refusing to let me go to her house and the curfew preventing her from visiting. I feel panic stricken for every parent and child who find themselves separated at this time, with no end in sight. I am grateful to the technology that might help these people see and talk to each other. I am very thankful that my husband and I are together, and that neither of us has to sit in an empty house and wonder what our children are doing. I take great comfort in the fact that my children don’t have to miss and long for one or other of their parents.
For most of us, this time at home with our families has been incredibly revealing. We have nowhere to go and hardly a schedule or routine to hide behind. We have learned more about our children, ourselves, and how we choose to build our relationships.
Most of us parent based on how we were raised. We seek to replicate the good, and avoid the bad; but it is never as simple as that. Parenting is not just what we do, it is who we are, and we are all, the people our parents made us. We parent because of our parents, and despite them; with the natures they combined in us, and the nurture their choices inflicted on us.
As a parent, I wanted to be all the wonderful things my mother was, but most of all I wanted to be the thing she wasn’t able to be - the one who is always there.
In achieving this, I have lost the magical sheen my mother possessed, that elusive loveliness that was so much a part of my childhood. As a parent I am real and human, always tired, often grumpy, and increasingly flawed.
When my daughter says that she wants to be just like me, I know this is impermanent. One great certainty of motherhood is that we will be judged by our children. We will tumble from our pedestals, and develop a list of cons that may well outweigh our pros.
I know that one day she will stop thinking of me as perfect. She will keep the bits of me that she likes, but she will truly embrace the parts she thinks I lack. She will speak out, and demand more, she will not shy away from conflict or confrontation, she will not hide behind walls or box up her feelings, she won’t sit meekly by while people leave her.
On this Mother’s day, during this strange and scary time, I say to my mother - I love you mama, even though I am not you, and I am not who you thought I would be. I am still obsessed by all the time we lost, and am very grateful for all the time we share.
And to my children I say – I love you, more than anyone or anything. As long as I am on this earth, you need only look for me, and I will be there.