Notes on motherless mothering.
It has been very hard to write this. As if there is no energy left for it.
My first night with my daughter it is just the two of us. I hold her all night. I cannot put her down. She nuzzles into me, not really feeding properly yet. Sometimes she seems to dream a disturbing moment and I apologise to her for the rudeness of her birth, which was not the blissful opening I had hoped for. She already has bad memories, I think; enough to disturb her sleep. I try to make up for it and reassure her all night, even though I am exhausted and have not slept since labour started two days earlier. I just look and look at her; later I read that this gazing is normal.
My second night with my daughter my mother joins us. At about 3am. She has been dead for twenty-five years (since I was fifteen). I flood with tears. I hope my sobbing won’t disturb my baby, who still has no name. I weep and weep in Alice in Wonderland proportions. I think of my mum bringing me home. I was her first little girl. I wonder how it was. There is no one to ask. But in a way I know now; it was like this is, now. In the few photos she looks tired and happy. Like a new mother. Having a baby brings me closer to my mother simply by becoming a mother. Becoming a mother; it is an experience shared by so so many. Obviously. Yet it is each time renewed and experienced, embodied, strong and unique. I am crying for my mum, but I am also crying for myself. I am hoping I can be as good a mother as my mum and I am also hoping I will not be like her, hoping I will not have to leave like she did. She killed herself. I was 15 and my sisters 14. A mother’s suicide; the ultimate abandonment.
On this second twilight night, where the novelty of breastfeeding on and off all night steals all sense of sleep, I think and cry over how sad, how desperate, how distant, how troubled, how hopeless, how joyless, how far off she must have been to have done it. Holding my new baby I cannot imagine reaching a depth where I would wilfully let go of her. Mum had three babies, three girls, and she had to leave us. Poor mum. I sob uncontrollably and promise my daughter I will do my best and pray to some universal force that I won’t follow my mum.
On the fifth night we name our daughter Pansy Rhiannon. Having been unmothered for so long and for all my adult life, I am used to living without a mother’s input. I guiltily used to relish the freedom from her anxious looking after. But perhaps her love and support would have been better. I remember the intimacy between my mum and grandma. A sharing of secrets and shortcuts, looks and jokes. These first few months of my daughter’s life I have felt unguided and rootless, yet also that I am setting down roots. And just as I felt freedom to be the young woman I wanted to be, I have felt a certain freedom to be the mother I feel like being. But only, I think, because she is so distant now. Twenty-five years away. I have wanted my dad more, since he had only been gone four years when Pansy was born. And dad had become both mother and father to us. Yet, that tearful second night, it is mum who comes, and I see that my great sadness that she is not alive to meet my daughter is part of my joy at having a daughter.
( My sisters each have two boys. One of them remarks when I tell her that I have had a girl, ‘It’s a bit like having mum back’. A strange statement. But I always imagined, if I had a child, I would have a girl. And I always said I wanted a child because it was the only way I would have a relationship of the ilk of that with my mum. A mother-daughter relationship. I hope I will not lay too much at little Pansy’s door.)
Mum leant on her mother a lot. I have my mother’s hands. I begin to notice her mothering gestures in mine. I remember her hands so well; their texture, their veins, their smell; practical, short-nailed, garlicky, cooking hands. Writing, doodling, flower-drawing hands. Hands that bathed me. Hands that were so close, for so long. I never realised that the ‘in-arms’ stage literally meant in-my-arms, all the time, will not be put down, even for a second. A mother’s hands; how could they be forgotten?
My mum did not breastfed us. (Was she breastfed? 1944 – likely or not?) Somehow this was feminist. Freedom. I breastfeed Pansy and I hope it will protect me against following my mother; it is so passionate and intimate and entwining. She feeds from me. I give her life. I will not take my life from her. Poor mum. Maybe it would have helped. Fucking formula. Another way of persuading women they are not enough as they are; not only do they need artifice to look good, they need artificial milk to feed their young. I can’t imagine my relationship with my daughter without breastfeeding ; without the sensual, warm, animal closeness of it. I am sure it can help against the black dog depression. That is what I want. Pansy wakes frequently at night still now at almost eight months. I tell myself she is checking that I am not abandoning her. Sometimes I just want to squeeze her hard hard hard to show her that I’m here.
In a couple of weeks one of my sisters and I will visit mum and grandma’s graves, on a quiet hillside in Wales. I imagine introducing mum to her grandchildren. I try to imagine her now (she would have been 69) but is it hard. She stops in time. Time stops in her. My sisters and I must be mothers and grandmothers to our children; we carry mum to them – she is in us.