We are all daughters. We are all products of the women before us. And they, the women before them.
I was raised by my father and step mother. But this is about my birth mother.
Regardless of the earthly relationship you have with your birth mother, it can not be erased nor denied. I should know. I have tried. But because of, or maybe in spite of her, her existence has had a profound effect on the woman you are today.
I’d like to share some of me with you.
I was born in the early eighties. My biological mother was a mere 24 years old and my father was 20. My brother came along two years later and it is safe to say that my mother had a fairly tough time in the role of ‘mother’. She subsequently left the family house when I was 5 years old.
So just like that that we were now a family of three; me, my partially deaf three year old brother and my 25 year old father.
There are lots of memories I chose to emphasis to make sense of the anger of abandonment, the resentment and the unfairness of why my mum didn’t want me.
The truth is I do have some more maternal memories of time with my mother, albeit not many. Most of my more cherished memories with her were after I became a mother myself. My perception had shifted and a new found compassion was reborn.
I never met my maternal grandmother. She died just before I was born of a female cancer. Her name was Joyce-my middle name.
Now every day, as a child when I walked to school, I would walk through the burial grounds and it became habitual to visit my grandmother’s grave. I was drawn to do so and didnt question it. Throughout my life, it has been somewhere I go to feel close to an ancestral root. I wanted to know about Joyce so much. I ached to find a part of me. I wondered if I was like her and whether she knew why my mum was the way she was. My mother struggled to speak about Joyce. I used to push her to answer my curious exploratory questions but I would get the same answer every time. “She had a hard life”. This only made me more frustrated and angry. I just wanted a sense of my maternal lineage. In my eyes, my own mother had made a shambles of being what I had decided that role should be like and all I was asking of her was to shed some light on my family history.
As a teenager I was full of resentment towards my mother. I was confrontational and demanded answers as to why she chose and continued to choose alcohol over us. I craved her attention but pushed her away at any opportunity, almost as a method of punishment. Mine and hers.
I would sit at Joyce’s grave and ask ‘why’. I’m not even sure I knew what I was asking ‘why’ about but I just didn’t understand her. I would also get the same answer. “She’s trying”.
When I say this, it’s not as if some unearthly being knelt beside me and placed their hand on my shoulder in comfort to let me know all was well. It was an inner message. This message sometimes took the form of “She’s doing her best”. But I am certain, even from a young age that my cognitive brain would not have come up with that answer for me.
I had my first child and things between my mother and I softened. I made a choice to not let my relationship with her or lack of one, impact her own relationship with my son. Her grandson. I made it my mission to not only be a great parent, but I would be the best parent. I would make up for my mother’s perceived weaknesses. I would go above and beyond. I was exhausted.
I fell pregnant again, this time with a girl. There was a fair amount of residual bottled up trauma festering in the depths of my soul around mothers and daughters and I took the opportunity to ask the questions again. This time with more sensitivity. As a woman. The truth was, I was petrified. What if I had inherited the lack of ‘maternal love’ gene from her? I later understood that this was nothing to do with love and everything to do with communication. My mother did love me. My mother just couldn’t communicate it.
After I became a mother, I came into my own. My purpose changed. But this felt different somehow. I was having a daughter. I never knew my own matriarchal heritage so what would I pass down from that biology apart from having an increased risk of developing a female cancer.
As I mentioned, my grandmother died of a female cancer; ovarian specifically before it spread and engulfed her entire body. My own mother was symptomatic and after my brother was born she was advised to reduce the already significant risk by removing her internal female organs.
My mother had been diagnosed with mesothelioma at the age of 58 and had outlived her original prognosis by a year but she was eventually moved in to a hospice. This was initially for respite care. She never went home.
I had become increasingly more interested and curious about my maternal family history and sought any information that was available about where I came from. What genes had been inherited, whether I had any resemblance to any of my fore mothers. Who they were as women. What I may have inherited that could be passed on to my daughter. The more I sought answers the more blanks I drew. The harder I looked the more lost I became. I had to accept that any insights that were to come to me, were not going to be through my mother. I later discovered her aunt was still alive, her mother’s sister, whom I had never met, and lived less than a 15 minute walk away from her with her cousins.
So when I was diagnosed with breast cancer it was a shock. I was supposed to get ovarian cancer not breast and not yet. This was far earlier than any of the other women.
Five days post my own surgery my mother died.
To say that month was traumatic would be an understatement.
A week before my surgery I visited my mother in the hospice to let her know that I wouldn’t be able to visit her for a couple of weeks. My frustration had reached a tipping point and I knew that I needed to let go. Let go of the anger, resentment, frustration and guilt. The shame, the expectation, the disappointment and the dreams. I needed to let go of her so we could move forward. I didn’t know this at the time but I now understand and believe that this was the work of those who went before me. The work of my ancestors and the universe combined to allow us both traverse this threshold in peace.
When I said that we are the products of our mothers, what I actually mean is that we are significantly influenced by our mothers. This might be literal and we can have similarities and almost synchronicities with the women who bore us. And in the same breath but perhaps on a new line we can use our experiences with our own mothers to fuel our own fire.
You see I didnt want to be like my mother. I fought to prove to her, myself and the world that I would be 'better' than her and definitely everything in a mother that she wasn’t. I had an opinion on everything and I loved and communicated openly. I was also ignorant and intolerant at times. This thinking and paradigm continued until the day I visited her for the last time in the hospice.
As I sat opposite her plucking her sparse eyebrows that she took so much care of, I asked her if there was anything she needed. She replied with a request to have a photograph of us with my brother, whom I hadn’t spoken to for over two years despite living in neighbouring towns. The details of how this came to be are unknown now but safe to say our versions of why we became non- verbal were vastly different because our perspectives were. Neither less valid.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. But maybe if I had done what I probably should have done, we wouldn’t have found the peace that followed. I declined her request. Stating that I would not pretend to play happy families at the emotional cost of myself and my brother for the sake of a photo that would sit gathering dust. It would be contrived, a pretence and a lie. She changed the topic. I pulled her back to the place of conflict that I so badly wanted to resolve. I wanted her to say that it was going to be OK. That all of this would be OK. I unfairly forced her to talk to me. A woman who didn’t talk. And she did.
“I’m sorry for everything Sam. Sorry for not being the mother I should have been. I don’t know why I couldn’t. Just know that I am honoured that you sit opposite me today and am proud of the person you are. I love you, I always have and I always will.”
And just like that, this invisible link of expectation dropped. The thinnest of threads just fell. My mother had never uttered anything emotional before and certainly not sober. At that moment I forgave her. I forgave myself for all the punishing I had put myself and her through. All the unrealistic and unachievable asks I had placed upon her and myself on this Earth. In an instant I understood that she had done her best. And that is all any of us can do. If we could do better at any point we would do better.
We had a brief hug in tears. Me holding her deformed and fragile body which was propped up in a chair. I knew she felt peace too. Then I left. And that was the last time I saw my mother.
My mother laughed alot. I had always put this down to her being drunk for much of the time. But actually they say alcohol can release your truth, the parts of you that you hide or are not confident enough to show the world otherwise. After she passed and people would remember her, it would be as cheerful. I always considered my mother a negative woman. Yet when she was diagnosed and throughout her demise, she was philosophical and accepting. She would find her own light in the dark. It was only afterwards that I saw this as a quality in her I admired. I wonder how long it had been there, unnoticed by me. Reframed as pessimistic.
You see I was so stuck in the familiarity of hurt and pain that I was subconsciously very resistant to change. I think many of us can identify with this. When I look back there were so many times my mother had extended her version of an olive branch. But because I had not received this in the same way it was intended, if at all, nothing changed. I had grown used to being the abandoned one, the one that wasn’t worth it. The one who’s story would depict me as the victim and my mother in a poorer light.
The story I told myself since I was a child was that she didn’t love me. Which is one way to frame the reality. Another way is that neither of us knew how to make the other person feel our love for them. I know which version allows me to move forward with peace and which one keeps me stuck in a cycle of pain. I just wish I had grasped that earlier.
My mother wasn’t a great communicator full stop. But any time I moved house, she would always offer to do my end of tenancy clean. She had worked as a cleaner her whole life in some way or another and so this was her way of showing me she cared. She would every now and then drop a small bunch of flowers on my doorstep. The love was there. I was just resistant to it. More than that. I chose not to see it. Because I understood how to blame her for everything. I didn’t know how to be thankful to her. My father and step mother had been granted every last ounce of my gratitude and there was none to spare for her.
It wasn’t my fault. Nor hers. It just was. And if I could have done better I would have.
I know sometimes I don’t do my best. But at that point in time it is all I can do. I was no different to my mother in this respect. Our benchmarks may be different but I have spent my life trying to prove that I am more. When really I was always enough. It was never about being more or less as we are all uniquely the same. I called her fearful yet I had acted in fear of being like her my whole life. I had called her irrationally anxious. I too felt nervous in crowds and suffered from anxiety-it just presents itself in over productivity and busyness. She felt unmet potential in herself. This, too, is one of my biggest fears.
My brother whom I had barely spoken to for two years called me at 6am on Monday morning to let me know she had passed away hours earlier. Later that afternoon there was a knock on my front door. My brother was standing at the door with his heart in his hand. Without any words, he followed me upstairs back to my bed where I lay recovering from surgery and we both got under the duvet and sobbed.
Her wish of having us together couldn’t have been in more of a raw and real state. It certainly trumped us posing awkwardly for a photo riddled with anger and hurt that’s for sure. The last two year's conflict seemed so insignificant in comparison to the intangible tsunami of grief we were both drowning in.
As I mentioned earlier, I chose to explore my ancestry. This was two fold in motivation. One was medically. Because of the strong family history of female cancer on my maternal side, so strong that for as many of four generations straight, every female, had been affected by it; my great grandmother, grandmother, mother and now me. I had to confirm the cause and age of death in Florrie, my great grandmother for me to be able to undergo extensive genetic panelling that would in time benefit my own daughter. The other motivation was my own soul searching. I wanted to know my family history.
A little relevant snap back to my own experience with cancer.
8 tumours were found, mostly in my right breast but they had said there was an indeterminate tumour in the left breast also. During my consultations the left breast was ignored and the focus was on a simple right mastectomy. In honesty it was an overwhelming time and I had almost blurred this information from my memory. But at the end of one appointment I had an unexpected urge to voice my buried concern about the tumour in my left breast. My consultant looked puzzled and her eyes scanned furiously over the computer screen. To cut a long story short and if you have read my previous blogs, it turns out that the left tumour was cancerous. I had to fight for this to be investigated as I was frequently fobbed off, saying that they were convinced it was nothing to worry about. After further extensive biopsies, multiple requests for exploration and investigation to confirm the health of my left breast, two months after my initial right mastectomy was scheduled and cancelled, I had my double mastectomy on the 5th of December.