On the Far Shores of Motherhood
Last night I had a long catch-up chat with a friend, a single woman in her 40s. She’s been on quite a ride lately: over the past couple of years, she suffered a concussion, her mother suddenly took ill and died, and she herself recently had a skin cancer scare. She told me that she had spent the past few days managing logistics of state-funded healthcare and childcare support in her country, as she has decided to have a baby.
So that’s what we talked about: my friend, as a single mom.
Actually, we talked about her doubts, and her concerns. Her worries about the stress, the lack of support she would normally have from a partner, from her mother. And she told me that she wonders, sometimes, if her desire to have a baby isn’t because her mother died.
She and her mother were very close — she told me that it had been remarked to her from time to time that her relationship with her mother was unhealthy. “So what?” she would reply. “It feels good.” It felt good to have that deep bond with someone, to have a language all your own, to have shared valued she said they could recognize in each other as tiny stars each emitting their own light, and that only the other could see.
And she told me that if her mother were still alive, she wouldn’t be thinking about having a baby at all. Her mother was enough.
But, she observed, now she wants to build a family of her own. Her mother is gone, she is estranged from her father, and her only sibling, a brother to whom she grew closer when their mother died, hardly talks to his sister anymore, now that he has a girlfriend. She realized she has no family of her own anymore, so it’s up to her build one for herself.
Earlier in the week, I received an email from my brother, informing me and the rest of our family that a distant cousin had died. She was an elderly woman, and her only daughter had come to stay to help her recover from a scheduled hip surgery. But the cousin had fallen ill and the hip surgery was delayed, and then the pandemic hit and what was supposed to be a 3-week visit for the daughter turned into an 18-month saga of nursing her mother through her deterioration all the way to death.
I’ve been sitting with this news for a week now, unable to even offer condolences to the daughter I vaguely remember meeting many years ago. Because this was my story with my mother, too. It’s overwhelmed me, and it has brought up old anger and sorrow, and I haven’t been able to process it.
My mother died 11 years ago, so none of this is new to me. As I said, it’s old anger and sorrow, only a fraction of what it once was when my grief was fresh, when my relief was new. But it’s unpleasant to be reminded of it.
And it was only at that moment that I understood I was completely free.
“My mother sucked the blood of out of me,” my friend on the phone said, talking about her year she spent by her mother’s bedside as she lay dying. “Like a vampire, almost like she wanted to take me with her or something.” Yes, I said, I had that experience too.
My mother was in and out of the hospital in the final year of her life. During one of her hospital stays, a neighbor of hers was also admitted, also entering the final year of her life. This neighbor had a daughter who I had never met but who, I was told, was just a sullen, bitter, unhappy person. She had been her mother’s caretaker for years; her only brother off somewhere living his life, delighting their mother with every rare phone call and even rarer visit, while she — the daughter — was going grey, the color literally draining from her skin, her hair, her life as her mother sucked the blood out of her too.
When we finally did meet, there in the hospital (because our two mothers — roomed in opposite wings — used us as carrier pigeons to take messages back and forth until we both got sick of it and went on strike), we barely exchanged words. We barely needed to. We were mirrors of each other.
(A playwright friend in Paris, who had a similar relationship with her mother, said she’d like to write a play about these mother-daughter relationships one day. I told her it would be more appropriate as a burlesque.)
I repeated the story of my distant cousin to my friend on the phone — she already knew the story of me taking care of my mom — and my friend said, “so all women are just the left hands of their mothers?” My friend’s native language is not English, and sometimes her expressions are more on point than any native speaker’s could be.
We only get a reprieve when we marry…
More than the left hand, I said. The Little Mother. In our traditional, patriarchal families, we are groomed to support her, and step into her place when she’s gone. We only get a reprieve when we marry and our care and support and identity is invested in building a new family; but that reprieve is lifted when the parents get old and sick and need our help again.
I told my friend on the phone, I only understood after my dad died — my second parent to pass away, a death more recent than my mom’s — that the reason I never married was because I wanted the members of my family to see me as a fully realized, individual human being in my own right; not as an extension of my husband, not as the producer of a child, but me.
(I’m reminded of this heartbreaking scene in John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence:
But I also realized, after my dad died, that in my traditional patriarchal family, this would never actually happen unless I was married and/or had children. And it was only at that moment that I understood I was completely free.
I told my friend about a woman I met here in Berlin when I first arrived, who’s father had been diagnosed with cancer the same time mine was. We bonded over this, and I asked this woman if she didn’t feel guilty for not being with her dad. She told me that many of her friends and family back in her home country would the same thing of her: don’t you feel guilty? Aren’t you ashamed? And she replied to me, and to anyone who asked, “I’m really sad he’s dying. But it’s my life.”
“Wow!” my friend on the phone breathed out, full of admiration. “How did she do that?” I said I didn’t know, but I had never met a woman stronger than her.