My mum was a single working mother, a divorcee, in rural towns in the 1970s and 80s. I never really considered, until I had a child of my own, what that must have meant. She was talked about, certainly (Loretta Lynn was characteristically accurate about what it was to be ‘Rated X’ back then) and she was patronised — and sleazed on — by men who felt they were doing her a great favour. She was judged by other parents, discriminated against by landlords, and my brother was pitied for being a latch-key kid but rarely invited over to play.
I wonder, now, how much of her identity as a mother was about the fighting-for, the missing-out, the trauma. And whether that might explain, in some small measure, how she was able finally to give up mothering altogether.
Bean’s father moved out a few weeks ago. Unlike my mother’s relationship breakdowns, our split is what they call amicable. It’s a useful word: in my imagined etymology it means able to be kind to each other. The anger has evapourated. The drive, for both of us, is to protect Bean as much as we can as we try to start anew, apart.
But there were, as there always must be, some difficult moments. For me there was the wrenching fear of losing my child. Divorce meant the termination of my mother’s parental rights and that is some dark baggage to carry into my own custody negotiations.
I am quite comfortable being apart from Bean. I do paid work full time and she is well cared for at kindergarten. She has a loving and competent father. But I realised, in setting down my baggage and riffling through, that I don’t know who I am, if not foremost a mother. I don’t know who I would be, without my child. The thought of no longer having ‘Bean’s primary carer’ at the core of my position description for life gives me vertigo.
The loss of self that our culture promotes as inevitable for parents is, it’s possible, at work here.
But isn’t it also possible that the narrative of loss is entirely inappropriate? Only if one favours individualism above connection could it seem that being transformed by parental love is equivalent to losing one’s self. I rather think my self, in this mother-love, has been found.
In shedding some anchoring points — wife/partner — my identity clearly has to shift and grow. But lately I have felt more centred and confident in the knowledge that I am, that I will always be, a mother, a friend, a teacher, a writer.
My own mother inadvertently gave me significant gifts: a strong desire for independence and the requisite resilience. So I think in this next chapter, Bean and I are going to be fine.
I’m still writing.