Mothers’ Day tastes of grief, to me.
I went to a teeny rural school. The other kids came from conservative families, traditional, married parents in stereotypical gender roles. My family was likewise conservative but there was one stark difference: my parents were divorced and I did not have — at least visibly, for the purposes of tuckshop duty and sports day cheering or even braiding my hair — a ‘real’ mother. I was teased for it.
Ours was a thrown-together family; my stepmother and father married suddenly when I was barely five years old and it never really felt like she fit into a maternal-shaped space in my life. So each year when we crafted glittery cards and picked chrysanthemums from the school garden for our mummies in that first week of May there was a hollowness in it, for me. Not that I didn’t love and appreciate the woman who fed and clothed me and administered band-aids; of course I did. But it was ambivalent love.
A wounded child needs her love to be unflinchingly returned. That is what we mean by the unconditional love of good mothers: it is not just that they love but that they know and accept children in all their faltering fragility, and that they know, most of all, that affection offered however ungracefully by a child is not a thing you should swat away. I saw my stepmother extend openness and warmth to her biological children but not to me, and that is how I learned to feel a little bitter about the chrysanthemums. (It was only recently when I saw how my own daughter was embraced by my partner in a starkly different way — different because my partner is consistently open and kind and loving with Bean — that I understood more fully the pithy root of that bitterness.)
When I was a child pretending to be normal at school, making a Mothers’ Day card was not optional. Ambivalence was not tolerated. Compounding the hurt was the failure of those around me to acknowledge that I had suffered any meaningful loss. My biological mother had wrenched herself from having a permanent presence in my life with such brutal surprise that there had never been time, or permission, to grieve. Everyone around us had rallied behind my father; they had pitied him in his imprudent first marriage and I grew up with the implicit knowledge that my dad was a good person and therefore my mother must have, somehow, been bad. I was not meant to cry over a bad person.
It’s not so simple. If she was, is, anything, it’s closer to broken than bad.
As an adult I became more cynical about Mothers’ Day. It’s a commercial invention. It makes money from the perpetuation of the myth of the perfect mother and the infuriating pinkification of everything. If you watch the TV commercials, it’s apparently about receiving slippers and nightgowns — or worse, domestic appliances — as if they magically compensate for being the designated toilet-cleaner for most of one’s life.
Of course, there are families for whom Mothers’ Day is an opportunity for genuine expressions of love; the kind that could come on any day but so often get lost in the rush. These are families I have struggled not to envy, pushing down the unbearable feeling of missing-out with critique and yes, cynicism.
It’s a hard day for a lot of women, certainly for anyone coping with infertility or pregnancy loss. When I desperately wanted a baby and was facing month after month of negative pregnancy tests, Mothers’ Day ads with images of fresh-faced children offering burnt-toast breakfasts in bed had me sobbing. It pretty much felt like a conspiracy designed to torment people like me: not only motherless, or childless, but both.
I guess I thought that a baby of my own would anesthetise me against the pain of past Sundays in May. And don’t mistake my meaning: Bean and the day she was born and everything about her is my Best Thing. Mothers’ Day gifts and cuddles are blessings like gifts and cuddles on any day are. And tomorrow I will steal a little of her weekend with her dad to smoosh her to my chest and catch a bit of joy.
But the joy of mothering, though healing, cannot really compensate for motherlessness.
I have a maternal shadow over my life: shadow, because it is absence more than presence that causes the greatest pain (although both of my mothers have inflicted pain more directly, too). It is hard to write about this loss, about the way it seeps into everything, the way it never fully recedes, without sounding ungrateful for the blessings I do have. It is difficult to admit the depth of my pain without seeming melodramatic. But I persist in trying to express it because I know there are others feeling it too.
On social media at this time of year, we motherless women huddle together in a wary kind of sisterhood.
I wish there more spaces for us to carve out alternative narratives to counter the nauseating Hallmark celebration of mundane maternal stereotypes. And mostly I wish there was safe harbour for those of us who find the bombardment of reminders of what we lost, or never had, particularly cruel. I am thinking of the abused and abandoned, the aching and bereaved. I am thinking of the lonely and bitter and grief-stricken ones. Lost girls. Adult orphans. Cast-offs from a would-be chain of maternal inheritance.