Mothers’ Day mourning

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.

Solidarity, sisters.

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Sleep to dream

Having a baby can be a bit like falling in love; it can be quite unlike it, too. But that is a post for another time.

When Bean was a baby I spent a lot of time pacing and singing. She (and, okay, I) favoured female singer-songwriters in the wee hours, and I sang a lot of love songs to her.

One of our favourites was Kate Miller Heidke’s Space They Cannot Touch.

I wake up in the darkest night
Watch you breathe in shadow light
A perfect world lies next to me
And I don’t need to sleep to dream

I just hope I am good enough to keep you

Bean in Sling

I suppose our children don’t know that we’re still carrying their phantom sleeping selves against our breasts long after they have grown far too heavy.

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Comfy world

One of Bean’s games is to construct a pillow fort of sorts; a pile of soft furnishings and fluffy toys on which to luxuriate conspicuously. She dubs this created space Comfy World, the declaration of which is generally accompanied by the revelation that my partner and I are excluded from her world; we inhabit a whole other nation, derisively referred to as Tuchus World.

Who knows what lies beneath a child’s imaginative play? But I can’t help but wonder if Bean is really acting out her own alienation from comfort.

For the first four years of Bean’s life I was, to the casual observer, a straight woman. That is to say that for her formative years, Bean’s family fit the social norm. Her family structure — mum, dad, kid — was represented in almost every picture book, almost every television programme, and was replicated in almost all if the suburban homes around her. Our family was visible, in that we were allowed to be seen anywhere, and invisible in that we appeared so normal as to be entirely unremarkable. Obviously, her parents weren’t happy back then and things were complicated. But in any social situation, there was a level of comfort that most take for granted — that Bean experienced as a reality of her life — and it is not so surprising that she is missing that.

In dealing with homophobia in my daily life, I’m coming to see just how fiercely straight adults also hoard the soft furnishings of social ease.

I never made many friends with other childcare or kinder parents, but in the past I entered those spaces without being stared at. I walked into play centres holding hands with my partner like it was nothing. I hadn’t felt the way that people’s eyes glide around the simultaneously hyper-visible and invisible queer couple. As a kinder mum I had not experienced people try hiding from their own discomfort by a strange kind of not-looking, but now it is a palpable and constant part of any visit to Bean’s school.

Beyond these personal interactions, it is clear that queer parenting means making forays into heterosexist territory. My friend Jackie says she asks her first year students to consider why, if heterosexuality is so normal, is there so much advertising for it? And there certainly is plenty of advertising at school pick-up — the aggressively heteronormative My Family stickers proudly displayed on the back windows of mid-priced four wheel drives are emblematic of suburbia.

Certainly, not everyone is so happy to see these back-window flags of suburban pride waved: there are a number of Facebook groups dedicated to deriding them. It seems to me that if stick-figure decals on a car provoke such fierce hatred, even on aesthetic grounds, they must wield power. We associate cars with status, power, technology, freedom; there is currency in branding this most visible of possessions. But it’s worth noting that the backlash against the My Family stickers has largely been characterized by frustration with the cynical foregrounding of families with children in electoral politics, a feeling of superiority over suburbanites and, insidiously, misogyny and anti-child sentiments. Groups like ‘My Family Stickers Suck!’ are hardly founded upon queer dissent. This can feel disappointing, given how many queer couples are raising children.

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“My Family” sticker featuring a stick figure family being chased by the chainsaw-wielding horror movie character Leatherface. Caption reads “No one cares about your stick figure family.”

But as Bean shows us daily, sometimes there is strength in playfulness. My partner and I are visibly queering up the suburbs every day: why should our car not be part of that?

"My Family" sticker featuring two women, a child and a cat.

“My Family” sticker featuring two women, a child and a cat.

Reclaiming this little patch of advertising space does not feel like anything close to restoring social comfort: if anything, pushing at the boundaries of heteronormativity is more discomfiting for us than it could ever be for the straight folk we encounter, who after all remain in a world which constantly validates their relationships. But it does feel like making my family visible, displaying our My Family flag, is staking a little piece of territory. That it is one small attempt at giving Bean permission to claim a piece of the world in more than just her play.

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We should be talking about breastfeeding, in public

The blog post I wanted to write yesterday in response to the latest ‘breastfeeding debate’ wasn’t about whether people should breastfeed discreetly in public, it wasn’t about whether we need more public awareness of the challenges faced by breastfeeding mothers, it wasn’t about the value of nurse-ins as public protest and it certainly wasn’t about whether ‘breast is best’. Other writers have covered those topics admirably well over the previous few days. (I particularly liked this post from Cristy Clark.) If there is any value at all in this recurring ‘debate’ (why am I even typing the word debate how is this even a topic up for debate I don’t even) it is certainly in the opportunity not only for education on the issues but for discussion of shared experiences and analysis of what it means to undertake the work of mothering whilst encountering casual sexism.

The blog post that was clamouring to be written was rather a response to this piece by Clementine Ford which, in part, took a similar bent to much of the discussion I saw on Twitter. (The latter, if not the former, can be summarised as it’s cool to be pissed off ladies but you know breastfeeding is just not that important an issue, right?)

The post I would have written would not have been for Kochie, but for feminists and feminist allies without children.

It would have said that when you measure the work that mothers do and the limited space in which we do it and find our work, not the space, wanting, you stifle us. When you perceive our passionate response to attack and our grass-roots protests as misguided and distracting, you patronise us. When you need to be reminded that the freedom to use our bodies for birthing and breastfeeding as we wish is as central a human right as the choice not to do these things, you devalue us.

It would have said those things, and more, except that I did not write a blog post yesterday because I was parenting for fourteen hours straight.

My daughter needs me now almost as intensively as she did as an infant. This feels like a challenge and a blessing both; what it does not feel like is a non-issue. Negotiating public spaces with a spirited child feels political. Navigating the world as a queer parent with a family structure that is more unconventional than most is not well-supported and it certainly is not an experience that is discussed with enough nuance in the media. I am not a breastfeeding mother anymore but I still feel an affinity with the experience of women asked to cover up their bodies and their babies; with women and children who are asked to take up less space.

What my partner and I do each day in mothering Bean is explicitly feminist and it is explicitly devalued by much public discourse.

Motherhood is not a niche topic. Our issues, as well as our breasts, have a place in the public sphere. I for one don’t plan to be discreet about that.

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The coming out post

Things just fall apart sometimes. Things also fall in to place. Occasionally at the same moment.

Earlier in the year I had Martha Wainwright’s ‘Bloody Motherfucking Asshole’ on frequent rotation in my head. (I was angry, okay?) But my anger was not only directed outward. In that iconic song, Wainwright says

you say my time here has been some sort of joke
that I’ve been messing around
some sort of incubating period
before I really come around

I had been waiting for someone else to say this to me to save me from having to deliver the news to myself. Waiting wasn’t working for me. I sent myself a memo.

The end of a marriage is a public event. People who’d never reached out in support of the couple before suddenly wield opinions. Strangers, Centrelink workers, small-town acquaintances, parents of your child’s friends, your hairdresser, your online connections; any and all of these people might judge you, question you, probe you for weaknesses and blame. Any of them could (and some of them will) ask you, but what about the kid/s? Any or all of them could make it about them; their own pain, their own parents’ failings, their own investment in your coupledom as a kind of talisman for monogamy.

Some people, the ones who always treated you as one part of a boxed set when you were married, will struggle the most.

(Caring about their struggle whilst you’re in the middle of your own pain will register lower on the list of priorities than belting out Martha Wainwright in the shower, by the way.)

There are many reasons I’m not with Bean’s dad anymore and I’m not going to list any of them here.

But I will say what one of them isn’t.

I did not leave my marriage because I’m queer; nor am I queer because I left my marriage. There are a lot of explanations for why I didn’t take the step of talking about the ways in which I do not fit straight until now but, sure, living the Heterosexual Marriage Lifestyle often seemed like such a powerful imperative that there wasn’t much point in finding space for anything else. Wearing a wedding ring was a shibboleth, mentioning my husband when people asked about my pregnancy or later my child, a ticket to social approval. I benefited from heteronormativity even as it erased me, erases me, and people that I love.

That’s painful.

In traditional narratives of coming out, people always ask, when did you know? And the answer is, for me, that I didn’t know and I always knew. I wasn’t able to express and I was always expressing. I was hiding in plain sight and I was never hiding. Perhaps I was never in plain sight.

Critiquing our culture’s narrow way of conceptualising sexuality and gender — and love — has been one of the themes of my parenting and of my writing about parenting. And, not unhappily, it is becoming one of the themes of my life. Because queerness is not a hat I’m trying on. It’s not even about a relationship I’m trying on.

The confessional part is this: I have always been queer. I do not remember a time, from when I began to have romantic and sexual inclinations, that those were exclusively directed at boys and men. But I also do not remember a time during my childhood or teen years where I even had the words and concepts to articulate the ways that I experienced desire and love. Knowing that I liked boys was enough, given the scripts from which I had to choose, to tell me I was not a lesbian. So I wrote my story in straight lines. I’m re-imagining it now, embracing the apocryphal entries, in a mostly positive process. And I want to write the next chapter boldly, even though it’s a little embarrassing for a thirty-something feminist to be only just learning how to express her queerness.

Embarrassment is one thing. Sadness over lost time and estrangement from self is another.

I am here, writing so personally, not only because speaking soothes me, but also because I am angry. I’m angry at the motherfucking assholes who perpetuate violence – both physical and mental – against queer youth. I am angry about the lack of visibility of bisexuality which leads to the relegation of people like me to a footnote, or a punch line.

Most of all I am writing because of this: someone said to me recently that at least Bean will find it easier to come out to her parents if it turns out that she is not heterosexual.

The best we can hope for for our children is not that there will merely be safe ports in the storm for them to reveal their true selves when they have reached a certain age. We can do better than that. We can allow them to express and explore their developing gender identities and sexualities in safety from the very beginning. We can create a world where children don’t ever ‘come out’ to their parents because their parents are witness to unabashed expressions of queer orientation from whenever they emerge. Children can, quite simply, be permitted to be who they actually are. No coercion, no erasure, no shaming.

The ritual of coming out is only a product of the lucrative heteronormative trade in closets. So however Bean comes to express her sexuality in the future, I only hope she uses her wit and loving heart to undermine the closet business that trapped her mother for so long. The rest of the story is up to her.

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I, mother

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.

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The how of getting through

Telling stories matters.

Giving voice to truth counts. Refusing to allow others to frame fears and pain as private matters only, as faintly shameful, is important to me. I believe that my friends who have told me that to share how one lives and copes is to help other women, are right. And yet, I hesitate to speak freely out of respect for others and out of respect for my own need to withdraw and retreat.

I want to talk though. I want to say: here is what is cobbling my parts together, pushing me from one moment into the next, softening the tightness in my chest so that my heart may beat I am, tempting me to smile, allowing me to cry, seeing me through.

I don’t want to forget.

The first is Bean. Like her mama, she knows that creating is expressing is processing is coping. After a trying day, she will say, I need to do artwork. In her drawings and paintings she inhabits a world filled with so much love and joy that I can’t help but feel soothed too.

Bean's family: me walking Sally with Bean and her dad and a sun that fills the sky with only a smile

The second is kindness.

I had thought to write ‘communications and connections': phone calls, emails, Twitter. I had thought to pay tribute to the ways in which being simply allowed to talk have smoothed over the roughest of hours. But it is not that, really, at the core of it. What is a friendship but a promise of kindness? In the end, only kindness matters.

I am heavy (not weighed down but plumped up) with gratitude for the many kindnesses that have been extended to me — and to Bean. Loaded with provisions for the next leg.

I am grateful too for meaningful and rewarding work. For purposeful days. For the stoicism my father bequeathed to me.

One can survive on only small morsels of beauty; and so music and wonder and wise and touching words and the sheer bloody-minded livingness of life in all its forms are keeping me replete with hope.

So, probably, are you. Thank you.

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