I HAVE read that a girl’s relationship with her father will predict her love life, and that with her mother will determine her relationship with herself.
It seems simplistic and heteronormative; the work of a pop psychologist flogging their new book on a morning chat show, minimising a complex bond to a sound bite. “Women become their mothers,” Oscar Wilde wrote.
“That is their tragedy.”
But perhaps it is not the becoming of our mothers that is the tragedy, but that we have been conditioned to fear it, to dread hearing our mothers’ voices emerge from our throats, our mothers’ faces forming across our own. There is an inevitability, a feeling that we have no control over our own destiny. We are born of their flesh and we become it.
I have not been afraid of becoming my mother, but I have been afraid of becoming a mother, full stop. In tutorials at university, we discussed Anna Karenina and The Awakening, and the scorn poured on the female protagonists for daring to have needs of their own, once they became mothers.
Kate Chopin, the author of The Awakening (in which Edna Pontellier leaves her husband and children behind to live in a house by herself and embarks on an affair with a younger man), was shunned by polite society, her next novel cancelled, so horrified were readers and critics by the idea that a mother could have sexual desires.
Reading that book in 2003, I thought not much had changed since 1899, and judging by the Instagram comments that accompany any photo that a scantily clad Kim Kardashian posts (‘You’re a mom now, Kim! Put some clothes on! Your kids are going to see this!’), it’s clear that we still want to neuter mothers in 2019, strip them of individuality and agency.
Many women face daily pressure to conform, to look and behave in a certain manner, to present themselves in a way that society deems acceptable, but nowhere does this seem so intense as it does in motherhood.
‘Am I a good mother?’ friends ask me, worrying if their decisions — whether to breast feed or bottle feed, to go back to work or not go back to work, etc — will somehow ‘damage’ their child irreparably.
Male friends never ask such questions, I’ve noticed. But, then, fathers rarely get blamed when children lose their way. When I was hospitalised with anorexia, no one asked me if my father had issues with food, or if he struggled with his weight.
The assumption was that this illness had come from my mother, handed to me as a present, both of us waiting for it to explode.
I have been guilty of this myself. I have expected more from Mom than I have from Dad.
I have held dear to my heart words that my father has spoken, lavished praise upon actions he has taken, but I have expected the same from my mother as my due just because she is my mother.
That’s what mothers do, isn’t it? They sacrifice. Society tells us that mothers should give up their bodies, their wombs, their hearts. They should give up their jobs, their ambitions. They should give up their lives for the good of their children.
Honestly, I have been afraid of that. In the novel Daisy Jones & The Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid, a character says, “If I knew someone else would raise it, someone else would let go of their own dreams, someone else would sacrifice and keep everything together, while I went and did what I wanted and came back on weekend… maybe then I might want a baby, too.”
I have often said that while I’m unsure about wanting to be a mother, being a father sure does look nice.
I wish that we could make life a little easier for women. It’s Mother’s Day tomorrow and while I know using a holiday invented by a greeting card company to discuss such matters seems trite, it’s a good time to re-evaluate how we talk about mothers, the assumptions we have, the constraints we place upon them.
I think about my mother, all that she has done for me, often with very little thanks, and I feel ashamed.
I think of my grandmother, a woman from a generation of Irish women who expected so little for themselves, and who often received very little in return. I look at my own face today and I cannot find it in me to hate my reflection, for I see my grandmother’s eyes now, and my mother’s smile.
My mother — one of the warmest, kindest people I know, who has taught me what unconditional love looks like, who has reached down to help me up every time I have fallen and never said, ‘I told you so’, even when she had a right to do so.
A woman whose sense of adventure is only surpassed by her sense of humour, a person who likes to laugh, but will also hold your hand when the night is dark and the dawn feels far away.
I’m not sure that she is the future self that awaits me — I am too rigid, I fear, too exacting; perhaps not becoming my mother is my particular tragedy — but I am glad to know that she is by my side, and that I have time to show her how much she means to me. I am lucky to have her.