The year was 2007. It was the first year I felt positive about Mothers Day. It was also my first as a fully-fledged baby-on-the-hip mother.
On my way to the movies by myself that night – my first night off since becoming a mother again, a treat from my husband to me – I was consciously aware of how calm, relaxed and fulfilled I felt. I was actually proud of myself for feeling these things. For allowing myself to feel these things, without any added tinges of guilt, regret, longing. It felt good. It felt okay to feel good too. That was in no small part Lolly’s doing. She brought that sense of value and belonging back to me.
It was different to many, many Mother’s Days of years past. Before 2007, when we first celebrated Mothers Day with our sweet Lolly in our lives, I don’t really remember a Mother’s Day where I haven’t felt awkward or belittled or just sensitive in one way or another. Becoming a mother and having your baby die might cause that. Hmm. But it was only partly the cause for my dread of the celebratory day. Becoming a mother and then losing my first child certainly helped me take a detached look at my relationship with my own mother. And it’s a whole other layer of self-healing, that one.
The last Mother’s Day I spent with my Mum was in 1998. We had invited her up to Melbourne to have a combined day with us, Steve’s parents and another couple within the family and their mother/inlaw. It was an extended family Mother’s Day celebration. It was the Mother’s Day that I was engaged to Steve. The impressions I made on his parents were still important to me. We met at their home, first ones there. I gave my mother her gift while we waited for the others to arrive before we took them out to lunch. My mother had pre-emptively requested a clock radio from her kids; she always was one to state what she wanted. A couple of my siblings had taken care of the clock radio gift, so I had bought her a very lovely set of coffee mugs. She was still using chipped, dark and stained – frankly, scary – mugs from 1960-something (nothing wrong with that, of course, but I wanted to give her something special, thinking it’d be nice for her instead of having to drink around the missing chunks in the rims of her mugs all these years).
My mother did not realise her precious clock radio was still coming. She opened my present to her, snarled and then in typical form, whined, “I didn’t ask for these. What am I going to do with these?? I wanted a clock radio.” It went on and on and on. In front of Steve, his parents and a couple of their guests who had only just met her for the first time. I downplayed it but something else in me died a little more inside. Another piece of my respect and love and care for her just… fizzled.
Mum didn’t take the cups I bought her. She thrust them back at me. It turned into her hurt for being treated “this way”. She didn’t apologise later for her behaviour, in fact, she probably either forgot or felt justified. She got her clock radio. The love and gratitude was lavished on the other siblings. And you know what? I was always deemed her favourite by the others, a fact I cannot deny. Being a “favourite” of a mentally unstable parent has its drawbacks, don’t ever doubt it.
That was a typical sort of Mothers Day when my mother was the focus. Her birthdays were similar. Like the time I was fourteen and made her a birthday cake after school as a peace offering because I’d been running late for the bus that morning and hadn’t had time to give her present before rushing to school (she came out to the bus stop and yelled at me… in front of a pile of kids). I presented the cake to her and she followed me outside and threw it to our chooks right when I was standing there, a wild-eyed smile on her face. I couldn’t comprehend, looking back on that as a satisfied and content mother myself for the first time in 2007 , the sick delight and pleasure I thought I saw that day. The point in crushing her children like that. Anything we did pretty much got thrown back in our face, no matter how much or little care we put in as youngsters.
It’s only been in recent years that I’ve finally understood: nothing we ever did was wrong, she was in the grips of a mental illness (perhaps several, it’s later been considered, and she remains untreated) so it wouldn’t have mattered what we did; if the switch had been flicked that particular day, that was it. Even she had no control over the outcome for by then, she was almost completely out of control in those moments. Of course there was no sick delight in abusing us in this way. I can imagine now that it was probably more like an addict – there’s a heady rush in the moment, but afterwards the awful self-loathing just contributes to the pattern continuing.
I don’t blame her, for how can I? I’ve gone beyond yearning for a fully-present mother, I’ve overcome the years of anger towards her in my early adulthood when her control still overshadowed my full potential. There is a wistful acceptance now, an appreciation of how hard her job really was. But also how hard it was as the child of an unchecked, unmedicated, under-assisted mentally ill parent. It seems many knew there was something “not quite right”, but it was difficult to get involved, to offer suggestions, to name it. She wouldn’t let them. To this day, she won’t let anyone even mention it as a possibility – that she may need help. And I understand that too. But my compassion has to come from a distance. I send her love from afar. I silently thank her for showing me as a child how to tie my laces, hold the tongue forward in my shoes before I put my foot in them, hold my sleeves before putting on a jumper so they don’t get all bunched up and uncomfortable. I am also better off this far out of her sphere of self-destruction, although it drags like a weight around my neck – an ongoing weight that permeates many areas of my daily life.
It is what it is. It is familiar. It is a sickness. An illness. An ingrained – partly learned, partly genetic code – one which I refuse to give in to and vow to break open and heal within myself so that it does not get passed on to another generation. God knows how many generations of my mother’s family that particular sickness has trickled down from.
It is little wonder that I am so hellbent on getting to know my ancestors. The more I know them – long after they have been gone and their influence is still felt in my cellular memory – the more I understand her.