Perspectives: ‘You’re suddenly painfully aware of the fragility of all that is being asked of you as a mother’
The sometimes complicated relationship between mothers and daughters.
When I was five, in the schoolyard of my primary school in Co Kildare, I ran head-first into a wall during a particularly vigorous game of chasing. It was the first time I tasted my own blood – a salty, throbby trickle that stuck to my fingers as I instinctively placed my hand over the streaming wound.
A teacher scooped me up and walked the 200 meters to my house – the local pub in the tiny rural town. I remember her telling me to be a brave girl so I didn’t make a sound.
My father plucked me quickly and quietly from the teacher’s arms. A panicker by nature, my mother was above the bar in the three-bedroom apartment where I lived with my sister and two brothers. You can still see our Tom and Jerry curtains from the street.
She heard the commotion that Tuesday morning and ran down the steep stairs, through the keg storage area and into the pub lounge where I was curled up among the red cushions on the worn leather couch. My fingers tracing the seams of its perfectly straight lines.
Her immediate yelp of concern activated all my stored up tears. She fell over me, protectively, pushing the others away, shushing my sobs and dabbing at the crimson stain now covering one side of my face. Everything will be alright she told me. And I believed her. I always believed her when she said that.
A doctor came to inspect my injury but told my parents that the cut that jutted out from the corner of my eye was simply too jagged to stitch. It made me imagine my skin like the edges of the pinking shears that she kept in her sewing basket – a zig-zag of ridges that refused to knit back together. Disconnected.
When we moved county, into a ‘real’ house two years later, the scar had already been absorbed into my face, a little depression on the left side that girls at my new school asked about shyly. For some reason when I think of my childhood, I always remember that injury. It stands out.
Not only because it was my first experience of understanding pain and fear, but because it marked the first conscious memory I have of being minded, of feeling safe when I needed help most. Did I have a happy childhood? I’m sure I did, yes.
I think what came after made me question some of it. But when I remember those early moments now, there is no white-washing, no uncertainty when it came to feeling absolutely secure.
I see remnants of a shared history with my own children now. I rub their noses like my mother did to me, croon over their bad dreams with the same soft voice she used, and kiss-cut knees on gangly legs with pizazz. I learnt how to be a mother from her.
But being told I am like her now comes with complications – for I loved and lost and am still searching for that lost thing.
Motherhood is complex. And we don’t talk about that enough. The emotions that come with that responsibility can frighten. A tiny person is placed in your arms and it’s down to you to raise them up. With love, yes, but also with integrity, clean nails, a good education.
It’s a never-ending project, like incomplete homework, an eternal project you can never study for…all wrapped into one whirlpool of a life in your hands. And you are painfully aware of the fragility of all that is being asked of you.
In some parts of the animal kingdom, once you have reproduced and taught your young to fend for themselves, your job is done – you are redundant. As a living creature, your time is up. Perhaps the complicated part of the human motherhood bond is when adult children try to reconcile their grown-up relationship with their parents in all their uncomfortable fallibility.
No longer so vulnerable, the bond becomes untethered, unsecured from the mooring of hero worship.
Or maybe that’s just alcoholism.
Alcohol was what eroded the glue of my relationship. But for others, it is depression or betrayal or abandonment. Problems like these can permeate into the cracks of our lives as we grow, pushing apart the foundations of all that we’ve known. Crumbling even the strongest of bonds.
I want to find the blueprint on which she based that time in her life so I don’t build a crooked house.
I look at my daughters as they sleep at night. Identical in every way except for how they sleep. Youngest girl looks as if she is an advertisement for bedlinen, her face serene and peaceful, hair flowed out neatly over the pink patchwork pillow, barely shifting her position even once in the night.
Oldest sleeps as if it is a sport, her body arched out, taking up every available morsel of her bed, hair inevitably strung across her open mouth, Olympic-medal-worthy snores.
I see myself in them – the same heart-shaped face, similar oval eyes. And I try to trace back the exact moment, that shift when my own mother leaned away from nurture and towards self-destruction.
When do you swap rubbing little noses for refilling a glass? As if knowing this point on a map can ensure I take the opposite path. I want to find the blueprint on which she based that time in her life so I don’t build a crooked house.
But the pragmatist in me knows that we will never understand the pain that leads to someone else’s choices. Just like nobody who hasn’t been the child of an alcoholic understands the futility of pouring bottles down the sink.
But you wonder, naturally, how this will affect your own mothering. You try to reconcile, by absorbing your daughter’s sleeping faces, how it all got so complicated, how any mother could choose drinking over this pure love?
And I can’t. And I’m sure she probably didn’t.
But that’s the other scar I will continue to carry, the one buried too-deep down.
Simply too jagged to heal.