Mothering as a Brief Timeline of Overarching Disappointment
Being a mother was something I always wanted, despite (or because of?) my own childhood. Let’s just say my own mother was less than nurturing and had a violent, nasty streak that meant my psyche was hammered out on an anvil of fear, forged in survival. I knew I could do better, and I did. I wasn’t perfect, mind you, but damn near good enough.
My daughter is striking. Olive skin, blue eyes, tall. Taller than I. Her lineage is indigenous Australian, but it’s a heritage that’s hard to pinpoint just by looking at her. She could be Greek, Italian, Spanish. While I celebrated her bloodline, she is ashamed and does not want to know her history. Australia is racist country and Aboriginal people are, unfortunately, not highly regarded. When she met her boyfriend, now fiancée, she gave me strict instructions to “not tell him what I am”.
I often wonder whether that feeling of deep shame, an internalised reflection of how Australian society views her Aboriginality and hence her, has somehow been projected onto her relationship with me. Except the shame has been twisted into a diluted form of contempt. Contempt of me, and what I represent. According to my daughter’s world view, I am not the kind of mother she should have. She wanted a mother that was not me. Someone who wasn’t adventurous, free-spirited, unmarried.
I met my daughter’s father at a karaoke bar one Friday night after work. I was almost my daughter’s age now. He was dark and handsome, but not so tall. Fit and lean. I discovered, later, that he was a sportsman, and a good one. I also discovered, when I was pregnant, that he gambled, drank and was involved with at least two other women. One of them called me to tell me what kind of man I was involved with. I suspect it was to win him back, to persuade me to give him up. I didn’t tell her he had fathered my child. I was sick to my stomach and it wasn’t because of morning sickness.
Once I made the decision, my pregnancy was one of peace, although I was concerned he’d reappear, and he did. But only one time, when my daughter was a few weeks old. I stood strong in the doorway, protective of the tiny baby that needed me to shield her from any kind of danger, and refused to let him into my apartment, her life. He left, suitably cowed, and did not return. A few years later, I changed my surname, and that of my daughter’s. We moved house a number of times. Facebook tells me that some thirty years later, he is still dark and handsome, fit and lean. He changes women every few years.
I built a life for my daughter and I, or so I believed. I went back to university to study teaching so I could work a job with child friendly hours. I bought an apartment so she would always have a home. I rarely dated because I was careful about the men I associated with, not for me, but for her. I was tough but fair with my discipline, mindful that I wanted to raise an independent woman who knew that she always had a choice, but that choices always had consequences.
Her twenty-first birthday was not supposed to be celebrated with a party. I had given her a passport and plane tickets to Thailand, and that was instead of and better than. But she wanted to be made a fuss of, so a party was also had, mostly at her expense, with me making a contribution. That party was the first time my daughter swore at me, embarrassed that I would even contemplate partying on with her friends once the venue had closed and things were winding up at the end of the evening. You’re not fucking going with us, she said. Just go fucking home. What could I do?
The weeks following her birthday celebration were awful, but this was not an isolated incident. I was shocked by her words and actions at that time and in that place, but here had been a slow build-up over her teenage years. Like an erupting volcano, she vomited the lava of contempt, the ash of loathing all over me once she was twenty-one. It was as if once she came of age, she gave herself permission to erupt, to damage, to maim.
I went to Vietnam when my daughter was twenty-three. She was working, in a stable relationship, and an adult by all accounts. Responsible. She had many friends, a vibrant social life. I went because at fifty-three, I had an urgent need to challenge myself, so I quit my job for a gap year. A midlife crisis, according to my daughter. That year turned into four of the best of times, worst of times years. My relationship with my daughter was still strained, but it had been even before her she ordered me to just go fucking home. The geographical distance between us was a relief.
When my mother died, I received a small inheritance. I was surprised, because I didn’t know I was in her will. I hadn’t talked to her for years. I called my inheritance compensation, and I’m grateful for it. It has given me the gift of freedom to choose. My daughter, always good with money, decided that it was time to stretch out her hand. I gave her a small amount to help with the house she was building. Then she came back for more. For her wedding reception. I said no. She didn’t speak to me for months. I was hurt but grateful for the eerie peace. A relationship with my lover had ended abruptly, and I needed to heal.
She called me, which was unusual. I would go months without hearing from her, especially after I had said no to her very kind offer of me giving her more money. Her boyfriend was by her side as she wept. She was pregnant with twins, it was ectopic and the pregnancy needed to be terminated. I asked if she wanted me to come back to Australia. I could get on the next plane. No, was the reply. Her boyfriend and his parents would make look after her and there was nothing I could do, really, so I should just stay there. I called every day, twice per day for a week, making sure she was ok. She was. We slipped back into our comfortable routine of sporadic contact, punctuated by news of her engagement and my return to Australia.
She asked me to give her away at her wedding. This came after three months of silence, broken by this conciliatory offer that must have been difficult for her. She thought only in terms of how things looked, what people would say, and she had always said that her fiancée’s father would give her away. Why, I had asked, when he didn’t birth you or raise you? He’s only come in at the tail end, I’d said. She is now supervising my attire for the day, suggesting suitable styles, texting me pictures of navy or green wrap dresses, long and flowing in soft material. Fortunately, we agree.
I have been back in Australia for three months, homeless while I wait for my tenants to vacate my apartment. I’m staying at my sister’s house in the country. I have no transport. There are no cafes. I have seen my daughter once during that time, and only because my sister and I went to the city, and we arranged to meet for dinner. Two hours all up. My daughter said she couldn’t possibly see me when I return because she’s so, so busy with her house. And the wedding. And work. And Christmas.
What it is clear to me now is that my daughter views me as peripheral to her life. When she was younger, I performed a utilitarian function of shelter, money, food, transport. Now, I am an annoyance, an annotation, an alien being to be tolerated, barely. She is twenty-eight, so this is unlikely to change. I often wonder why this particular dance became the way we operated as a family. I can’t put my finger on when or how. All I know is that this is not how I imagined motherhood at all. It’s this withered tree-like thing, so loaded with disappointment that the bough is bent, almost broken. I can’t seem to get it right, no matter how I try.
This essay was first published on Medium.
Image by Public Co from Pixabay
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