Louise O'Neill: Of motherhood and personhood

Louise O'Neill: Of motherhood and personhood

I read The Awakening by Kate Chopin in first year of college. Published in 1899, it’s set in New Orleans and tells the story of Edna Pontellier.

Edna is struggling with her role as a wife and mother, and how that impacts her sense of herself as a woman. She says she is “not a mother-woman”, not “some sensuous Madonna”.

She was “fond of her children in an uneven, impulsive way. She would sometimes gather them passionately to her heart; she would sometimes forget them.”

The book scandalised polite society at the time; the act of ‘forgetting’ one’s children, no matter how temporarily, was seen as utterly transgressive, and it’s interesting to think how little has changed in the last 121 years. How being a mother is still seen as an essential experience for women, and the sacrifice that is expected once you do.

There was a line in the novel that has stayed with me since I first read it – “I would give up the unessential;” Edna says. “I would give up my money, I would give up my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself.

I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me.”

I rarely spoke in tutorial groups when I was at university, always feeling out of my depth. and as if everyone there was much smarter than I was. But I had plenty to say when we discussed The Awakening.

That one line, where Edna says she would die for her children but she wouldn’t give up herself – in a strange way, it reminded me of my own mother. My mother was fierce in her love for me and my sister, it was clear that she would readily die, and kill, for us.

But she wasn’t consumed by us either. I knew that she was her own person, that she had autonomy outside of her role as our mother. She would sign my birthday cards with “Mike and Marie”, a tiny rebellion, a reminder that she wasn’t just a ‘Mammy’. She had an identity that she wouldn’t relinquish. She would not give herself.

When I spoke about her in that tutorial class, I felt proud of my mother. Beneath her ever-ready smile and eagerness to laugh, I could sense a certain subversiveness. Unlike many women of her generation, she seemed to emerge unscathed from her Catholic education.

She held little truck with shame or guilt, had a healthy amount of scepticism about religious dogma, and believed life was to be enjoyed, not suffered through.

These were all characteristics I would adore in someone else’s mother, but I must admit to begrudging in my own. I harboured resentment for years, simmering just below the surface, and for what, I could not tell you.

She hadn’t done anything wrong – she had been supportive and fun and non-judgemental; she had tried her best everyday to make us happy – and yet every word she said seemed to infuriate me, pressing invisible buttons I didn’t even know existed. I remember her asking, many years ago, why I was so angry with her and I told her that she hadn’t protected me. It was nonsense of course, because how could she have protected me?

It was the world which had hurt me, telling me I needed to be thin to be loveable, telling me it was my fault if someone took something from me that wasn’t theirs to take. I felt like a small child, looking to her to make things better, to kiss the booboo away, and I felt furious when she couldn’t. My dad said then – “why aren’t you angry with me? Why didn’t you expect me to protect you?”

And I realised it was because I didn’t expect such things from him because he was only a father. I had internalised the idea that it was mothers who were supposed to sacrifice everything, not fathers. He was allowed to be himself, wonderful, kind, but flawed, as all humans are. But she had to be perfect.

But a funny thing happened after my grandmother died – I forgave my mother for not being perfect. I sat on a hard-backed chair in that hospital, and I held Granny’s hand as she died. Her breath slowing, her face so peaceful. It was so simple, in the end. And as her soul left her body, I felt as if something had left me too. The inessential stripped away and, in that moment, everything became so clear. I’d loved my grandmother, and now she was gone.

Perhaps one day I would sit at my mother’s bedside and watch her leave this world too, just as she had been there when I had entered it. And I would want her to know I loved her, that the reason why I had been so awful to her at times was because of that love, not despite it. I would want her to know that I thought she was funny and kind, incredibly warm and loving. I would want her to know that I was proud to call her my mother.

It’s been over a year since Granny died and my relationship with my mother has been transformed in that time, deepening into something more tender than I could ever have imagined. Maybe that was my grandmother’s gift to us. I hope it makes her happy to see, wherever she is.

Louise Says:

READ: Our Little Cruelties by Liz Nugent. This is a deliciously dark book; gripping and compelling. It’s full of terrible people doing terrible things and I could not have enjoyed it more. It might be my favourite of all her novels.

WATCH: Maeve Higgins' new film, Extra Ordinary, is available on Netflix now. Offbeat, charming, and funny, it was a joy to watch.

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