I’m sorry I made you cry.
I’ll never forget seeing you standing under the streetlight at the end of Carols by Candlelight, wiping your eyes, while the crowds streamed around you as they walked away from the beach.
I’d just told you that I never wanted to see you again. I was scared, and I needed your help. Rather than asking you nicely, though, I demanded, and when you hesitated, just for a second, I panicked. And before we knew it, we were yelling at each other again and we haven’t spoken since Christmas.
If I was logical, which I know I’m not, especially when I’m anxious, I would realise that time spent with you is a gift. We live so far apart, and we see each other so rarely, I should try to make your visits as fun and harmonious as possible. But instead I end up making them painful, and all about the past.
As you know, my life has been a series of disasters, from my stupid and impulsive teenage marriage to a string of university courses and jobs that I didn’t have the willpower to persevere with. But when I try to justify this history to myself, I find it much easier to blame it all on you and Dad moving away when I was 19, rather than accepting any responsibility for my own actions.
Did I want you to remain in Victoria rather than move to Queensland? I have argued ‘yes’ many times. But the truth is, I was happy to see you go. I was a 19-year-old, recently-separated university student who was excited about the future and drunk on freedom and I didn’t need my mother hanging around … or, at least, that’s what I convinced myself.
‘Come with us,’ you said, while you were packing after Dad accepted his new job. ‘See it as a new adventure. We’ll have fun.”
I looked away. I didn’t want anything to do with what I thought was another one of your stupid ideas. Why would I want to live near my parents?
But fun times never last. And when I began to find things hard on my own, I started to blame my inability to cope on you. Money problems? It was because you had moved away. If I still lived at home, I wouldn’t have to pay rent, would I? Failing subjects in my course? How could I study enough when I had to work as well? Binge eating? I was lonely, and missing my family.
The biggest thing I blamed you for, though, was the fear I felt when I was pregnant and I discovered my baby was going to be a girl. I mean, how could I be expected to form a close relationship with my own daughter, when the one with my mother was in tatters?
What really killed me, in those lonely moments when I was buying baby clothes by myself, is that you really wanted a daughter. You’ve told me many times that you hoped that you were going to have a girl. But you didn’t know, of course, because it was back in the days before ultrasounds were routine in pregnancy. And when you first saw my raw, red, scrawny body you told me your voice caught.
‘It’s a girl, isn’t it?’
The doctor looked up, his face framed by your parted knees. ‘Yes,’ he said.
You started crying, because you were so happy. You had everything prepared for me at home. Lace trim on the cradle. A pram with a frilly canopy. A slew of pink teddy bears. You so longed for your little princess.
But you got me instead.
I wasn’t interested in having tea parties with you, or playing dress-ups, or making paper dolls. I was an anxious little girl immersed in her own little world and you didn’t quite know how to reach me.
And it only got worse as I got older. The harder you tried to establish an emotionally stable mother-daughter relationship, the more I pushed you away.
That is, of course, until my own daughter came along.
I had no idea, when I was trying to fall pregnant, that becoming a mother is one of the hardest things you will ever do. I couldn’t comprehend how much courage is required to get up night after night to feed a newborn, or how, when you’re caring for a child, your own needs get completely ignored. I wasn’t prepared for how often they get sick, or how often they cry, or how much attention they need every day. Nor could I have predicted that there would be moments, when I hadn’t slept properly for days, that the urge to run away from it all would seize me.
And it was during some of my darkest days that you came down to help me. I am so grateful for all those times you changed Amity, and fed Amity, and took Amity out for walks. Thank you, Mum, for giving me those moments to breathe when it felt like I was suffocating under it all. The fact that Amity has grown into a happy, healthy three-year-old is something for which I have you, in no small part, to thank for.
Time and time again, what has surprised me the most is how much she reminds me of you. I can’t even count how many times she has said something to me in exactly your tone of voice, or given me your classic ‘trying-to-be-stern’ look, or put her arms around me with the same fierce and unguarded love that you do.
The other day, Amity and I were scrolling through photos on my phone, and we came across one of you. She touched the screen, looked at me and then said, ‘I want to see Gramma.’ What could I say to her? I’m sorry little girl. I fought with your grandmother and, being the pig-headed idiot that I am, I haven’t spoken to her in over four months. I’ve ignored her calls and I haven’t responded to her emails. I didn’t even open the letter she sent me.
One of my friends once said to me, ‘Having kids is like a drug. They heighten your experience of living, but destroy you in the process.’ I laughed. I just assumed she was joking. But looking back, I realise now, that there were times I destroyed parts of you. When I’ve made you sob with frustration, when I’ve made you feel like a failure, when you’ve been racked with worry over some of the choices I’ve made in my life.
It’s been more than 20 years since you moved to Queensland and we’ve never spent a Mother’s Day together since. That’s largely my fault. You’ve tried to make an effort to come and see us every year at Christmas, but I’m sorry, Mum, I haven’t made the effort back.
Amity is asleep at the moment. It’s 10pm, and the nights are getting colder. I just went in to tuck an extra blanket around her and I found her lying there with her arm around that pink bunny you bought her for Christmas.
There’s a saying that always makes me cry when I think of you and Amity. ‘One day, someone is going to hug you so tight that all of your broken pieces fit back together’.
I’m sorry, Mum, that I broke you sometimes. I’m sorry I never tried as hard as you did. I’m sorry I wasted so many chances with you. If you’ll give me one more, Amity and I would love to come and see you next Mother’s Day.
Please forgive me.
There’s a little girl who wants to hug you. And a bigger girl who needs to.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem