LOUISE O'NEILL: Thank you mum, for believing in me when I couldn’t even believe in myself

In a study released in 2013, scientists found that when they applied an electric shock to mice as they were exposed to the smell of cherry blossoms, the mice were, in time, trained to fear that scent. 

After the affected mice bred, they tested their children and their grandchildren and found that they too demonstrated a fear of cherry blossoms. 

That fear was not their own, it was something that had been passed down from generations before, embedded in their DNA without their knowledge.

It is something that I have been thinking about recently as I wonder about my own fears, the dark webbed secrets I spin when everyone else sleeps and I like awake, counting my failings. 

Are they my own or am I carrying the burden of another woman’s worries, a woman I have never met but who is connected to me through blood? 

Are her memories pulsing inside me, beating in my chest like a second heart? 

Am I simply a composition of all the women who have come before me?

I think of those women whose genes make up my own, a jagged jigsaw of flaws and overwhelming love. 

My father’s mother, my Granny O’ Neill, one of the most formidable women I have ever met. She was clear-eyed and sharp of tongue, an honesty about her that blasted light through polite shadows. 

She would have none of that. She was transparent and direct; she had no time for the wily manipulations that too many women of her generation were taught to perform in order to have their voice be heard.

Granny O’ Neill spoke and people had to listen. Remembering her, I think of silk scarves and delicate perfume and a glass of Rose with lunch. 

She taught me good manners and self restraint; she taught me to be as proud and particular as she was. 

She was strong when the other women in my life were soft and I am so grateful to her for filling my spine with iron and telling me to go and take my rightful place in the world, no, to demand it.

If I had to use one word to describe my maternal grandmother, my Granny Murphy, it would be this - ‘home’. 

My sister and I spent a great deal of time there when we were younger, an idyllic childhood of climbing trees and collecting eggs from the hens and jumping over streams that seem to expand exponentially in my memory.

Unlike our house in Clonakilty, my grandparents’ home was full of men, my grandfather and my uncles coming in from the farm for their tea, shucking wellies and overalls off in the outhouse before sitting at the table. Despite this, my grandmother seemed to always be at the centre. 

In her quiet way, she felt like the most important person in the room at any given time; the most intelligent, the kindest, the one with the most wisdom to offer. 

She never got annoyed with us, answering annoying question after annoying question with indefatigable patience. 

She was ever steady, a touchstone, a place of certainty no matter how chaotic the world became. 

She was home and love and warmth. She was my favourite person in the world.

If my grandmothers were two sides of one coin, so were my parents. 

Where my father was calm, my mother was passionate; when my father was composed, my mother cared twice as much to make up for the deficit. 

People often say that I am like my mother and I can see why - she is outgoing, vivacious in a way that I find easy to imitate.

But I have inherited my father’s tendency to enforce exacting standards on myself, to expect myself to achieve and to perform, and I often look at my mother’s ease with her place in the world in awe. 

She is content in a way that I am never quite sure that I will ever be able to attain, a capacity to accept things the way they are which the Dali Lama would envy. 

I remember when she woke me up in the dead of night and carried me into a spare bedroom, sitting on the window sill with me nestled in her lap. 

“Look,” she said, pointing out the window. “It’s snowing.” She kissed me. 

“Tomorrow everyone will see that it’s snowed but I wanted this moment to be just for the two of us.” 

And I felt utterly safe. I knew that she would always protect me.

It must be difficult, sometimes, to be a mother of a daughter. We want to love each other all the time, to understand one another, to see each other. 

Sometimes it’s difficult to get there, pushing through a lifetime of tiny hurts and careless words you wish you could take back, buttons pushed that you didn’t even know you had. Yet, the love is still there. 

“I can’t believe you’re mine,” my mother will say. “I can’t believe we created you.” 

And I feel the same way about her. I look at her face and see echoes of mine, foreshadows of what mine will become, and I feel at peace with that future. 

I want to tell her that I am grateful to her for all that she has done for me. All the meals cooked and the books read and the support given. Years of tales about spiteful friends and men who didn’t call back, when she told me I deserved more. 

Then the emails arriving to tell me that my dreams were coming true and she laughed with joy, and held me close, whispering that she was so proud of me.

A lifetime of care easily dismissed sometimes. Too easily. 

The bad feminist part of me expects that unconditional love from her in a way I do not from my father, merely by virtue of her being a woman. 

I am sorry for that. I am trying to unlearn the social conditioning that made me expect her to be perfect and I am sorry that I have not shown her more grace for thirty-two years of trying to keep me safe and happy. 

For Mother’s Day, I want to say thank you to her and to all the women who have come before me. Thank you, Marie O’ Neill. Thank you for believing in me when I couldn’t even believe in myself.


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