In the end, it was just the two of us. I held my mum’s hand and watched her die in the depths of a dark, winter night. Before I called the others to the room, I whispered something to her that I’d found too difficult to say in life. I told her that if I could be even half as good a mother as she had been, I would be happy. Three years later, I gave birth to my daughter on the other side of the world, in the thick, monsoonal heat of the Tropics. For me, the journey into motherhood was a bittersweet one. I have mourned my mum’s absence at every step of the way, yet I’ve come to realise that if it weren’t for her death, my life might be very different.
While I enjoyed all the physical changes of pregnancy, mine was not without its challenges. Raging hormones, the stress of moving to the other side of the world, and the psychological upheaval of impending motherhood did their best to render me overwrought and paranoid. When my husband went to Zambia for 6 weeks, I convinced myself that he would not return; when I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes, I felt betrayed by my body; and all the time I longed for and was haunted by my mum. I wanted to ask her so many questions; dad just couldn’t tell me how it felt to grow a baby, to give birth, to be a mother. There were practical things that I could learn from books and magazines, but which I’d love to have discussed with her. Other more complicated issues – the never-ending guilt, the opposing pull of artistic ambition and maternal instinct, the weight of responsibility, the all-consuming love – had never been of interest to me before. They just weren’t on my radar back then, but now I was desperate to compare notes.
Seeing my mother-in-law with her granddaughter was both wonderful and sad. I mourned the relationship that had been lost, both for my mum and my daughter. My mum loved babies; she always threatened to become an eccentric old lady, and she could make absolutely anything fun. She would have been a fabulous grandmother, relishing every moment. I do not look forward to having to explain to my daughter why she has only one grandma, not two.
When my daughter was about 3 months old, it suddenly occurred to me that my mum would never know what happened to me, where I was now, who I had become. The realisation bowled me over, but then it occurred to me that no mother would ever want to know the entirety of their child’s story because that would mean it had ended before their own. To give birth, to bring another life into the world, is to begin a tale that you hope never to see end. To do so, is to go against the natural order. My mother died too soon and that was extremely sad, but I no longer saw it in tragic terms.
My motherless state has meant that I’ve been free to find my own route into motherhood. Of course, I’m influenced by how I was raised and there are some aspects of my childhood I seek to emulate. Still, I’ve never had to deal with a mother’s disapproving look or unwanted advice. I navigate my own way and this has been very liberating in that it has evolved into a natural, instinctual style of parenting. I’m not sure it would have been possible to achieve this if my mother was alive. I know she would have found it impossible not to tell me what she thought at every opportunity!
I’ve found it incredibly insightful to see the formative relationship between mother and daughter from another angle. Would becoming a mother have changed the bond between us? Yes, I think it would have. It has certainly shifted my perception of my mum and the decisions she made. I do not understand everything, and in some ways, having experienced them first-hand, certain aspects have become more complicated to grasp. Above all, motherhood has led me to see her as an individual in her own right, not purely as my mum. I appreciate her so much more for all the dedication she showed us, and for the grace with which she approached motherhood.
Mum’s death made me who I am today. Yes, I wish she was alive; I’d love for her to have seen me get married to someone she adored; watch as my belly grew full and round; met her spirited granddaughter. Of course, I would rather she had not died, but I’ve also come to conclude that if she hadn’t, I might not be where I am today. Her death focussed everything for me, in the same sense that my daughter’s birth separated those things I care deeply about from those that really aren’t worth expending precious reserves of energy on. I am living my life in my own way and, whatever kind of mother I am, I know that she would be proud of me for forging this distinct path. While it might not have been possible for motherhood to bring us closer together, I am growing to understand my mum in ways I never expected. I hope that I can be even half as good as she was.