It’s my mam’s birthday today and she would have been 85. Already I am older than she was when she died and it’s quite a sobering thought. All that life left unlived, all those things she never got to do, people she never met. She and I had a difficult relationship that wasn’t softened by us both being stubborn. But in the later years, after I had my own children, we talked a lot more and I discovered a lot of things that then made sense to me about how she was and why she did the things she did. Which is probably why there’s at least one character in my novels who has mother/daughter problems.
The middle child of three girls my mother always felt unloved. The eldest girl got to leave home and work in London, whereas mam had to stay at home and help around the house. The youngest girl always got new clothes because the hand-me-downs from the eldest were worn out by the time they were to be passed on to her. My mam wanted to go to secretarial college but there was no money to send her; by the time her younger sister wanted to go, there was enough money because both my mam and the elder sister were married and no longer living at home. And what really hurt was that the younger sister never worked or used the secretarial skills she’d learnt whereas my mam had to take cleaning and factory jobs after she was married because she wasn’t qualified to do anything else. No wonder she pushed me so hard.
Emotionally there were lots of scars too. She was never told about babies or how you got them until her wedding night. She fell pregnant with me and dind’t know the first thing about what to expect or what was happening to her body. After a very long labour in hospital I was delivered by forceps, taken away and put in isolation. She never held or even saw me till I was brought back to her almost 48 hours later. She thought I had died, despite everyone’s reassurances, and when she saw me with my cut eye, pointy head and purple wizened body that resembled a skinned rabbit, she was sure some unmarried mother had given birth to me; her beautiful chubby girl with blonde curls was definitely dead, or stolen. And to top it all, my overpossessive paternal grandmother registered my birth and gave me the name of Christine, not Julie as my mam had wanted. No wonder it was difficult for her to bond with me or know how to raise me. She did the best she could and I’m grateful for everything she taught me, but I have issues. Residues of childhood that appear on the edges of my self-confidence can sometimes, without warning, incapacitate me.
Growing up I had the selective memory of any child. I remembered the smacks, rejections and cruel remarks, unable to see the fact I having clothes on my back and food to eat were signs of being loved. My mother was unable to ever say sorry and after she died I found a letter she’d written to my father apologizing for not being able to say ‘I love you’ but assuring him that she did. The story of my birth and how I was the ugliest child she’d ever seen was a well-worn family ‘joke’ that I embraced, believing this was the reason I was unloveable. Needless to say that has had disastrous repercussions all my life. Even today, I’m still unable to see in the mirror what other people see but know my worth as a person goes much deeper than how I look.
When she was dying in hospital from kidney failure I had a few weeks to get rid of my abrasiveness and the past disappeared for both of us. At last we were able to express what we really felt and to make amends. I remember one time I was massaging her feet and moistening her mouth, trying to make her comfortable. My son was in the room and and later he told me that he was very moved by the way she looked at me, with unmistakeable love in her eyes, as if in that moment nothing and no-one existed but me.
I have a younger brother who I believed right up till mam was ill that was loved more than me. He was a perfect child – didn’t cry, did as he was told, didn’t answer back and was cuddly. It took me till we had to organize rotas for hospital visits that I finally acknowledged that we were loved equally but differently. We also had a lot in common. Because we moved round a lot – I went to 8 different schools – we both have control issues. We don’t like other people’s rules but where I would bully everyone into playing my rules, he’d withdraw and play by himself.
It has taken a lot of time to re-love my brother. I used to love him when he was born, but my paternal grandmother’s way of punishing me was to tell me she didn’t love me, she loved him because he wasn’t naughty like me. Yet she, too, was another mother, a victim of her times. Unable to loosen the stranglehold on my father, her precious only child she’d given birth to late in life 3 months early and kept alive with an eyedropper when he was less than 2lbs in weight, she caused problems for him all his life with her suffocating love.
I read a blog yesterday questioning the idea that being a mother was the most important job in the world. It was mainly raging against the statement because it excluded fathers and other care givers and queried the semantics of what is a mother anyway – biology, situation or emotional connection? And whether their jobs are more important than surgeons who save lives or politicians who have the power to annihilate the human race. It was very interesting and I don’t discount the intellectual arguments it posited. However, when I look at my girls and see the wonderful jobs they are doing raising their children and compare that to how I raised mine and how I was raised, I believe that mothers, good, bad or indifferent, impact on their children’s lives in ways that differentiate them from other care givers. Maybe it’s the umbilical cord, I don’t know, but rejection by my mother hurt much more than by my father who was equally guilty of not having read child pyschology. So today I’m celebrating mothers everywhere, and mine in particular, for the amazing jobs they do despite all the odds.
One of my favourite books is The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer. I leave you with a quote that resonates with me and connects me to all the people in the world who are doing the best they can, especially in the many areas of conflict we see on our tv screens.
It doesn’t interest me where you live or how much money you have. I want to know if you can get up, after a night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone, and do what needs to be done to feed the children