Mother Teresa once said, "I have found the paradox that if I love until it hurts, then there is no hurt, but only more love." As Mother’s Day approaches, I reflect on the complex relationship I share with my own mother.
Mothers have been represented in popular culture as anything from angels to monsters. The mother-figure (whether biological, adopted, or even male) occupies a central position in our lives: our conscious thoughts, as we struggle to emulate her successes and reject her failures; our dreams as we absorb her kindnesses; and our nightmares as we experience her cruelties. She has the power to inspire the extremes of our own love and hate.
Growing up, I accorded my mother the status of a god and, as such, felt myself to be a victim of her whims and wiles. I paid her the highest respect and never questioned the cruel words, pains or fears (so much more intense then!) that she could inspire. When it was time for me to leave home, it was difficult, as though I was bound in a harmful symbiosis with her moods, whether aloof, angry or depressed. I returned once, only to have her push me away again. I didn’t see that the separation spared me the burdens that had consumed her life. Instead of feeling liberated, I felt rejected, and slowly the divide opened between us.
Alone with my words, which also slipped away as mental and physical challenges ravaged me, I ran into the wall of my mother’s denial many times. For years, I used her distance to fuel the belief that she had rejected me because I was anything other than the perfect mirror of her: hard-working, selfless, and opaque to everyone, including herself.
I moved to another state and then to Canada, half a world away. Through the love of a beautiful soul, I began to heal and know the experience of being a mother myself. Determined to be different, I encouraged our daughters in their creative gifts, their self-esteem, their belief in their own beauty and power, and their need to look to no-one for approval. Yet, they still struggled with the things I struggled with. These qualities, whilst nurtured by the mother-figure in our lives, must ultimately be found inside us. While a good mother will do all in her power to give her child the skills to develop these qualities, a mother can only provide the raw materials and we must provide the willingness to work on them ourselves.
I’ve realized that I have the qualities I ascribe to my mother. I can also be tired, snappy, aloof, pessimistic – the antithesis of what I want to be. A mother is not an angel or a monster. A mother is human, and makes mistakes. She is sometimes kind, sometimes cruel – but hopefully not wittingly – and even if she is, we must forgive her, if only to begin the healing in ourselves.
My mother faces the same struggles that my adult self does, only she doesn’t yet realize the strength to be gained in embracing her challenges, or their potential to bring us together. For the first time, the ocean dividing us diminishes and while we have much healing (some of it painful) left to do, we have the resources between us. Perhaps one day we will embrace the kindred souls in each other and discover that once all the hurt is over, Mother Teresa was right: all that is left is love.
Jane Waterman is a freelance writer, artist and scientist. She is working on her memoirs and a first collection of short fiction, which she hopes to publish this year.