My mother, myself, my guilt

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Anywhere but here, 1999

Two weeks ago I hurt my mother. I hurt her once every three or four months when I leave after a brief visit home. The routine of the act always strikes me with its banality and repetition: I hug her and she wraps her arms around me, squeezing with so much strength, making me wonder whether she wants to break my bones so I won’t go. When I finally pull apart, she lingers for a few more seconds, clinging almost like a child. Her face is twisted in a half smile, half grimace and her voice trembles with the sound of a million held back tears as we say “goodbye”. And then, once the elevator door has slammed shut and all I can hear is the noise from the tiny wheels of my suitcase, I try to raise my chin despite that big lump of guilt blocking my throat and walk away.

A lot has changed since I first left home seven years ago. My mother still had so much of that fiery energy that mostly defined her entire life. Although fresh after a second divorce, she was strong, in control and it seemed to me that the world’s entire power was in her hands. I was off to university in a different country and preparations for my departure had begun months in advance. A car was sold so I wouldn’t have to worry about getting a job for the first semester, lists were made with everything I needed and my mum was running around buying me towels, sheets, a new pyjama, slippers and many other things I hadn’t even thought about. It felt like shipping me over was one of her projects, but it was only later that I understood she busied herself to that extent in order to keep depression at bay. I was only nineteen and she was losing me already. At the airport, she was laughing, making jokes while counting my suitcases and little did I know that was the last time we were going to say goodbye at the security gates without tears. Maybe it should have been the time for her to cry the hardest, but pain takes time to settle in.

Getting me ready for London was also part of her motherly act of always thinking about all the details and devoting her time and energy to her children. To understand oneself often means to understand one’s mother and mine used to tell my sister and I that the happiest time of her life, the time when she felt most at ease and fulfilled was when we were little and she could dedicate her time to us. She had me when she was twenty-three, after leaving my father while seven months pregnant because he told her he didn’t actually want the baby. She gave birth to me alone, carried me in her arms and out of the hospital all by herself. At that time mum was a Law School student but never graduated because I came into the world and her future career had to be sacrificed so she could feed and clothe me. She remarried when I was three and had my sister, the most wonderful gift I have ever received.

My childhood was infused with the kind of love and attention that not all kids get. Mum and I were friends and she talked to me when I was five in the same way she talks to me now, twenty years later. I was an individual, not just her offspring and she respected my personality in a way that gave me so much room to grow and explore. When she waxes nostalgic about the fact I left home so early, I remind her it was partly her fault because she raised me to be independent. My sister and I were still children when mum started telling us that we should always know who we are and what we’re worth. She taught us to love and respect ourselves and to follow our dreams. In the beginning, I thought these lectures were an echo of her regret for not making different choices. By having me at such a young age, she didn’t even get a chance to discover what her dreams might have been. But later I understood that hers was the best example of what it means to love your children more than anything, even more than yourself. She sacrificed the choice of pursuing a career in order to raise us the best she could, yet she respected us enough to know we might want something different later in life.

My generation of young feminists is all about independence, power, making our own choices and finding our path before getting married and having babies. For a while, I believed this was the right way and my mum’s the wrong one. When my adoptive father left us just before my move to London, I sat across the dining table from her and told her she should have focused on her career more than on us. She was smoking and crying, telling me how her family, the one thing she had been living for was now broken. I didn’t comprehend the enormity of her pain, nor did I understand that hers was a choice too. She could have chose not to have me or could have left me with a nanny or my grandparents while living life as a twenty-something woman with an entire future ahead of her. Instead, she chose to live for her children, to give all that was good to her family. I blamed my mother for not having something of her own, something to fill her life once her husband and daughter were gone. My suggestions were as ridiculous as encouraging her to write a book, do yoga or paint. I couldn’t see that her suffering was not about finding something to replace me with, but about the fact that she was no longer going to be an active part of my life.

Maybe I wouldn’t feel guilt for leaving home if all my mother did for me was put money in a bank account to send me off to university. To some people, a pretentious degree, a down payment for a house or receiving a car on their eighteenth birthday are the best proofs of parental love. Although smaller on the material scale, the things my mother has been doing for me are more valuable than anything else I could have wished for. It wasn’t just the piano lessons, the books she read to me or the things she taught me, but the confidence I got from being so loved. When I was four years old I started going to ballet class twice a week. She accompanied me every time, watching from the audience and never taking her eyes off me. Fifteen years later, as I unpacked my suitcases in London, hidden between my new towels I discovered a small notebook. It was filled with my mum’s thoughts, advice, anecdotes from when I was little, jokes and drawings. She had been writing it for months, pouring her heart on the blank pages and giving me a part of herself to carry wherever I went. I keep the notebook by my bed and once every few months take it out to read it from cover to cover. I always start laughing and end up crying once I reach the final pages where she wrote about the moment she held me in her arms for the first time.

It is a bittersweet irony that of reversed roles. Small children are so needy, they cling to their parents and depend on them for everything, most of all attention. The more your parent loves you, the more self-confident you become and thus stop turning to him for reassurance. But parents feed off being needed as well and once you take that from them, they grow weak. Every time I went back home I could see subtle changes in the way my mum behaved. She was more fragile, less assertive and less in control. There was no one she could scoop in her arms to make them strong again and there was no one to give her purpose on a daily basis. Friends who don’t know what to say usually make the stupid and futile remark that mother is not alone because she has my sister. But my sister is a grown-up as well and even if she wasn’t, she would still only represent one half. I suppose that if you have two kids when one of them leaves it’s like being left with just one lung. You might be able to survive, but you will never breathe the same again. During my six years in London, whenever things got rough I sensed my mother hoped I would come back. We both know that I won’t, yet she probably dismisses this idea because it would be too hard to imagine always living apart. Most of the time we play an avoidance game where we don’t talk about the future, only accept the reality of her having to live with a me-shaped hole in her heart and of myself living with a she-shaped guilt lump in my throat.

If I didn’t leave, however, I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to use all of the things she had taught me. There wouldn’t have been room to grow and to appreciate the love and support I received my entire life. And there wouldn’t have been opportunities to get a glimpse at what missing out feels like. My sister came to visit a few years back and the moment I spotted her at the airport, I burst into tears. All of the sudden she seemed so mature, so different in the way she spoke, even her gestures seemed alien. I couldn’t believe these changes had taken place in the span of a year and it made me ridiculously sad to not have been there to witness her transformation. I felt the same when earlier this summer my boyfriend left for New York for two months and I realised that what I miss most is that feeling of being a part of something bigger than myself and of taking care of someone I love. Living far from your family and on your own makes you get used to being alone. You also get used to the feeling of missing people to a point where it becomes so ingrained in your brain that you don’t acknowledge it anymore. And then guilt kicks in, working like a reminder to keep me from narrowing my focus so much that I become self-absorbed or fall down the path of selfishness.

There’s a song that says we always hurt the ones we love, the ones we shouldn’t hurt at all. I wish things were that simple in real life, I wish every decision I made was purely altruistic and had everyone’s goodwill in mind, but some things I did just for myself because my mum told me to never settle for the easiest option. It pains me to think guilt could slowly replace all the other feelings I have for her and even if I might never come back for good, distance doesn’t have to remain the uninvited guest at our family dinners. I know that someday we will be together, although right now she might not be able to picture it happening. That’s because I don’t want her to miss out on my life forever and most importantly, I don’t want to miss out on her for much longer. If there’s one thing that growing up has taught me, that’s the importance of being part of one of those few, lucky families for whom love comes before guilt.