I want to write about my mum.
So much is written about mothers generally in the run up to Mothers Day, and about mother-daughter relationships, and about theories of mothering, and about so-called good mothers and so-called bad mothers and what they are and aren’t responsible for. And there’s stuff about “biological” motherhood, and adoptive motherhood, and step-motherhood, and what society expects of mothers and what partners expect of mothers and what children need from mothers. And what it feels like to have no mother, or two mothers, or more. And if mothers really exist as a separate thing, or whether we’re all undifferentiated parents now?
But (unsurprisingly) nobody writes about my mum. So I will.
The Pram Years
I have a mental image of my mother, roundly pregnant, naked in the bath, like a floating fertility goddess. Another, of her leaning over me with her long hair hanging like a curtain in front of my eyes as though I was inside a dark waterfall. She created in my psyche an ideal of physical motherhood, with its ripe roundness and softness; of emotional motherhood, with its boundless willingness to connect with and nurture all the souls who found themselves in her orbit; of magical motherhood full of spell-casting, story-weaving and totem-collecting. She cooked and the house smelled wonderful; she sang – wistfully – the songs that made me; she moved softly and calmly through washing-machine floods, and Dad setting fire to the back-door mat, and me getting stung by a bumble-bee and one brother scalding his fingers while she was busy giving birth to another one. And always the house was full of babies laughing and babies crying.
The War Years
I can remember her reading Little Women to us, nodding solemnly as Marmee tells Jo, after Amy burns her book, “Never let the sun go down on your anger.” As an older sister to troublesome siblings who were taking and breaking my stuff, my anger was often up and the sun seemed to go down fast. And she read to us and read to us; books that gently moralised; poetry that stirred her, and which she knew by heart. She had high expectations of me, made me own up to and apologise for all the stuff I did that I shouldn’t have done. I was rebellious and this happened often. There was sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll. And I puked on her carpets. For my eighteenth birthday she gave me this poem: What can I Say?
Though we were at war with each other, when the school wanted to expel me, she closed ranks round me like a mafia Mama. She always had an open door for my friends. I left home at eighteen, and then smoked, ungraciously, in her non-smoking house whenever I came back to visit. And she never once failed to come in and kiss me goodnight.
The Frosty “Peace”
Very suddenly, or so it seemed, I had a degree, and a house and a husband, and a job and it all felt very, very real. The little boys were becoming men. Their passage to manhood seemed enviably peaceful compared with mine to womanhood. She missed us all as we left; the noise and the laughter, the messiness of youth, and the bad jokes. So she opened her home and her heart to other young people. Some had run away from home. Or there were overseas students who couldn’t go home for Christmas. Then I ran away from my home. Which was a bad thing. I think that very nearly broke her. She could not bring herself to phone me, but if I called her, she would answer. And I called because the spell-casting and the story-weaving and the totem-collecting has its own kind of magic that lasts and lasts. She didn’t come to my next wedding.
What it took to fully reconnect us was me becoming a mother.
So suddenly, there he was, my beautiful boy. Early, but perfect. And she was there as soon as we came home. She drew him (above) as she had once drawn me (below). And she tidied round us, or brought a meal, or cake.
She and my dad came on holiday with us so I could have a rest. And we were regular visitors at my childhood home once more, which always had room for the next baby, and the next, and the next. And then my brothers’ wives, and their children. And she is there, in the middle of the grandchildren casting the same spells, weaving the same stories, writing and illustrating a book for each grandchild with him or herself as the central character. And she writes them letters, and carefully chooses their birthday presents, and learns to Skype so she can see their faces, and always cooks my husband his favourite cake, and babysits.
What Mothers Do
I hope by now it’s clear how much I cherish my mum, but I can’t mother like she did. I don’t have the same magic. I don’t have as much time. With the real generosity that comes from deep love, she never chides me for this, or acts as though it’s an affront to her parenting. She lets me be. And very, very occasionally she tells me I need a rest. She lets the kind of mother I am be about the kind of children I have, and not the kind of mother she was. Lucky me.
She gave me the very lovely book “What Mothers Do (Even When it Looks Like Nothing)”, which is a wonderful recognition of the everyday practical acts of love that carry us safely through childhood. It told me “Your way is fine.” It’s hard to think of a more generous gift.
Thank you mum.