"It’s that time of year again. The supermarkets are rammed with display stands of pink cards, cut price flowers, candles and mugs with messages of motherly appreciation on them. My email inbox is full of brands proffering discount codes to take my mum to a spa or to buy her a bracelet.
I lost my mum to cancer when I was seven and I have always found Mother’s Day activates spark such a lot of sadness and uncertainty in me. I know for a lot of motherless people, it’s not just about navigating one day of the year without a mum, it’s every single day. But the ubiquitous mention of mothers for the whole of March can intensify the grief.
In truth, I don’t think constantly about the fact I don’t have a mum. She’s been gone for twenty two years so I’ve been motherless for the majority of my life. It’s calcified into part of my identity, as concrete and pedestrian as my own name. There are times though, and particularly this time of year, when the hard truth of it hits me with a stunning, cold clarity. I miss her. And more than that, I miss the unique experience of being mothered.
Over the years I have formed attachments to all sorts of women my mother’s age. Sometimes, I want to go and sit next to a woman on the tube, ask her to scoop me up and tell me I am doing ok. I still wish Emma Thompson would adopt me. I watch my friends and their mums with something close to envy. Mothers of ex boyfriends have adored me in the past (disaster!) Poor motherless me, who must be taken under their wing immediately.
What is it to be mothered? I’m not sure I know. I’m probably not the right person to write about it, having only experienced a mother briefly. Is it something we can even capture and contain with language? Perhaps I am missing something that I have invented in my head, after all, everyone’s experience of having a mum is totally different. All I know is that I have always felt a huge absence aching at the centre of my life.
It’s a strange feeling to want something that you are not sure how to name or define. I only have vague projections of mother daughter relationships; effluents I have scrambled from my early memories, from film and TV, from watching others.
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Let me try. I want a mother to talk to, to talk to my mother, explain how I am feeling to someone who loves me in a singular, unique way. I want guidance, to measure my mum’s youthful mistakes against my own, and find reassurance. I want to learn about her life. I want to expose our communality, the bonds that are drawn between two related women. I want a conspiratorial partner, intimacy, to curl up in her bed. Sometimes I just want to be told off.
Let me pause here to say that I know some can find this in ways that don’t involve conventional mothers. I know that men can raise children with heart and vulnerability (my own dad did a damn good job.) And I’m not naïve enough to think that simply having a mother gives you an automatic best friend to share the burden of womanhood’s woes.
I have friends who have strained relationships with their mothers, they just can’t seem to get close to them. I don’t know what my relationship would be like with my mother today were she alive. Would I get on with her? Would she shut me out? Criticise me? She could be mercurial. I remember her throwing a leg of lamb in the sink when an uncle complained it was dry (fair play.)
Would she admonish me for my weight as I saw her mother do to her? Reading back through my mum’s old letters to her parents, she always signed off ‘fat one’, a nickname she was assigned for not being the thinnest of her sisters.
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Even in our short time together, I learnt some things from my mum about the standards women are held to by men and by themselves. After my dad left, she was always on the cabbage soup diet. I watched her do frantic sit ups on her bedroom carpet every morning. In the hospice, when she was weeks away from dying, the doctors told her she needed to eat more. Her response; ‘are you kidding? I’ve waited my entire life to be this thin!’
Mothers shouldn’t be expected to be flawless examples for their daughters, they have their foibles and their trauma as my mother did. But one thing I have missed is the opportunity to grow together. Sometimes I allow myself the fantasy of driving on a long car journey with my mum and listening to the podcasts of today – brilliant women challenging expected body image and the societal supremacy of men- and I wonder, would my mum have grown through the hatred of her own body, through the repercussions of her romantic pain? Would we roll our eyes together and say ‘eugh men’ and reach for a chocolate from the glove compartment?
When my mum died, I moved to live with my dad and my brother. I loved them but I was lonely. I lacked the feminine empathy and advice I needed in my formative years. When my boobs started growing, I thought I was dying. It took me years to ask my dad for tampons in the weekly shop. I grew tall quickly, I was awkward in my own body, I hated the way I looked.
I felt my small world so deeply; crushes, the theatrics of female friendship. I had nowhere to put it all. I felt I was carrying a massive mound of dirt and the mess was going everywhere. I drifted into a care-giving role as the only woman around, as a lot of motherless daughters will relate to.
My dad was a wonderful dad but he had to go out to work. My brother suffered after losing our mum and struggled with drug abuse. I didn’t have the room to share what I was feeling. I wanted a woman at home to talk to. I wanted to grieve, openly. This wasn’t on the menu in a house of men. Their grief was so cloistered, restrained and quiet. I used to escape to my mum’s sisters for weeks. I was hungry for women, for mothers.
Writing became my great comfort, my own private landscape where no one needed anything from me. I could write and I would feel something like freedom, as though with each word I was landing on something I hadn’t previously had the language for. It was a space for expressing grief and accepting uncertainty. I found my mum again through writing, I kept her close and eventually, let her go. As I got older, women mentors and writers became friends, a found family, their gentle hands on my life saying; go on.
So much of what I’m writing here is woven into Little Boxes, my first novel. It feels as though I’ve been writing it ever since my mum died. I look at grief (that slippery subject that has unsurprisingly obsessed me in all my work) through the lens of different characters; through men and boys as well as through the eyes of women. I explore the act of caring and why it is that it so often falls to us women. And I try and write into the thorny and baffling experience of navigating the world as a young girl.
I don’t know how much my lack of a mum has affected me. I still struggle with eating, how I look. Until I met my partner, I dated some awful, cruel men. I still have a yearning for a mother, whatever that means, somewhere deep and primal. I do know that I have found my way here, ungracefully and divergently, that the presence of writing in my life has been one of confrontation, reckoning and healing.
I know that in my adult life, I rely on my friends and the total safety I feel when we talk together. I know I have found pieces of mothers in my aunts and in the women who have mentored me, and that together, they have been instrumental in my stronger and healthier sense of self.
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So what will I be doing this Mother’s Day? Well, firstly, I am going to allow myself to feel, to miss my mother. She was a great mum, even though I didn’t get her for long. She was fun and naughty and glamorous and she loved her kids so much.
I will think of her and I will look at the picture I have hung on my wall of her drinking champagne while doing the washing up. I’m going to go and see my aunts; my alternate mothers and we can talk about her, freshen her in our minds.
I am going to text my friends that don’t have mums and tell them they will be ok; this day will pass, it does every year. You will be ok."
Cecilia Knapp's debut novel Little Boxes is out now in hardback, published by HarperCollins, £11.78
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