My Mum and I
Perhaps I am taking an unusual approach to this subject, I don’t know, but when I thought about submitting something to this dialogue, I found that my thoughts weren’t really going in the usual direction of political movements, or sexual orientation, or race, or class. What I found myself thinking about was my relationship with my mother, and a period of difficulty and estrangement that we went through, and how we eventually came to be able to build bridges between us to heal our relationship.
When I was little, my mother and I had a really strong relationship, but that changed as I grew into my teenage years and I began to blame her for a great many things, most of which she was ultimately not responsible for. I thought she was weak and worthless, that she didn’t care about me or my welfare, but I can see now how wrong I was to think that, and how courageously my mother always fought for me and my brother, against overwhelming odds. So I am writing this essay in honour of my mother, a wonderfully strong, amazing and radical woman who is a constant source of strength and inspiration to me.
For the next few years, I didn’t have much to do with either of my parents, and I was especially hostile and cruel to my mother, because I hadn’t forgiven her for what I saw as her failure to protect me. The change came in 2002, when my mother apologized to me for not protecting me from my father, as she should have done, especially in the last two years I was living at home.
My father was abusive to my mother, my older brother and I throughout my childhood. Mostly, he was controlling and emotionally abusive, but he also used physical violence against my brother on a number of occasions, and from conversations with my mother, I now also know that he used sexual violence and humiliation against her. As is the case with many abusers, my father had a good job, and presented himself as normal and reasonable and rational to the outside world, and even if any of us had attempted to describe the abuse he put all of us through, we would not have been believed. All that we could do, my mother, my brother and I, was to band together, and for many years we did, supporting and sustaining each other through the endless abuse my father rained down on all of us.
Eventually, my brother moved out of home when I was 16, leaving just my mother and I. By that time, I was in my second-last year of high school, and over that year and the next, when I was doing my final year of school, my father stepped up his abuse of me, both because he’d lost one of his victims, and because he didn’t want me to finish high school because he knew that then I could either start a career or go off to university, and he would lose yet another victim.
A lot of the time in those final two years, my mother was too afraid to intervene in the abuse, and as time went on, and I was under mounting pressure at school, and subjected to continual tirades of threats and verbal and emotional abuse at home, I came to hate and blame my mother for her failure to protect me. Instead of placing the responsibility and blame on my father, as I should have, I focused on my mother because she was an easy target. I couldn’t attack my father; he was too powerful, and I was too afraid of what he might do if I did, so instead, I attacked my mother and said things to her that I am ashamed to admit now. I told her that she was weak and cowardly for not leaving my father, I told her that she used her religion (Christianity) as an excuse to do nothing, because according to her everything that happened was God’s will, I told her that it would be her fault if I ended up permanently warped by what my father had done to me.
Despite my father’s attempts to stop me, I did finish high school, and I moved away to a different state to go to university so that I could get away from him. For the next few years, I didn’t have much to do with either of my parents, and I was especially hostile and cruel to my mother, because I hadn’t forgiven her for what I saw as her failure to protect me. The change came in 2002, when my mother apologized to me for not protecting me from my father, as she should have done, especially in the last two years I was living at home. This was really significant to me. Prior to this apology, my mother had never admitted to me there was any possibility that she had done anything wrong. Granted, this might have been because I was often very critical and angry towards her, which would naturally make her defensive, but before my mother’s apology, I always felt as if she wanted to believe she had been absolutely right in all she had done, and that I was absolutely wrong to question or criticize her behaviour. So her admission that in some ways she had failed me made a huge difference to me, and it was the first step towards healing all of the animosity and misunderstanding that had grown up between us.
Both my brother and I finished high school, my brother went on to find steady employment and I went to university, neither of us became abusers, or easily subjected to abuse, neither of us have ever had anything to do with crime or drugs. Now I am completely in awe of what my mother accomplished, that she not only managed to keep my brother and I alive in that environment, but that we both grew up to have a strong sense of self, and compassion for others, and a worthwhile future, and the ability to have functioning relationships with other people.
As we began to talk more, and my mother told me more about why she had stayed with my father, about her fears of what would have happened to her and her children if she’d left him, and about the guilt she felt over not being able to do more for her children as a mother, I began to understand to a much greater extent how impossible the choices were that she’d been faced with, and how, contrary to what I’d thought, she hadn’t simply given up and let my father walk all over her and her children, she’d continually wrestled with the problem of whether she should stay or go, of whether it would be possible for us to survive economically without him, of whether she’d be able to work and still provide us with the time and care she felt we deserved, of whether my brother and I would be stigmatized for coming from a ‘broken home.’ This was a real possibility where we lived, as despite the fact that we came from a community where most people were poor, with a high percentage of single parents, or parents on their second or third relationship with various children from different marriages, those with power in the community were judgmental fundamentalist Christians who did judge and condemn anyone who did not conform to their own moral standards. This included school teachers, local politicians, social workers, judges, counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists; and it was a small community, too. If my mother had of left my father, the word would soon have gotten around, and my brother and I would have been treated accordingly as the sinful children of a weak and sinful mother.
And here was my mother, with an abusive husband, with no money, or support, with no qualifications recognized as being valuable or important to patriarchal culture, yet she never gave in to despair, never perpetrated violence herself even though she was constantly exposed to it, and she taught my brother and I to respect and value ourselves and other people, as well as animals and the environment, taught us there was more to life than the cycle of violence we saw happening around us every day.
The more I thought about it, the more I came to know my mother and to see beyond my own hurt and anger (made easier with the passage of time, as my father and his pathetic attempts to dominate me faded into the background), the more I realised how courageous my mother had been in a truly horrific situation, and the more I came to respect the amazing achievements she’d made despite my father’s every attempt to thwart her. As I said, my father had a good job and was well respected, but despite that we lived in a disadvantaged community where poverty, violence, crime and drugs were the norm. I can’t entirely explain my father’s choice to make his family live in that environment when we didn’t have to, but I can say he hated spending money, which he would have had to do if he wanted us to live in a better area, and he enjoyed inflicting every kind of mental pain he could on his wife and children, up to and including forcing us to live in a dangerous environment. My brother and I both attended poorly funded public (government) schools, and my father never gave my mother enough money to properly provide for her children: growing up, most of our clothes came from second hand shops, we never got new shoes until the old ones were literally in pieces, we didn’t get money for hair cuts, or dental appointments, or for medications/doctors’ appointments when we were ill. Also, because the area we lived in was so bad, it was more or less off the radar – no one cared what happened to anyone who lived there, so that meant that my father had carte blanche as far as abuse was concerned.
It was quite common for children in that community, living under those awful conditions, to grow up to become abusers, or victims of abuse, or to end up in prison, or to become addicted to drugs or alcohol, or to become drug dealers, or to die as the result of suicide, street fights, overdose, accidents involving drugs and alcohol, not to mention domestic violence. Many children and teenagers ran away from home, or were kicked out of home, most didn’t finish high school, most had no chance of finding employment, and girls often got pregnant and had children at a young age, and either became poor single mothers or ended up in the same kind of abusive relationships that their own mothers had.
And here was my mother, with an abusive husband, with no money, or support, with no qualifications recognized as being valuable or important to patriarchal culture, yet she never gave in to despair, never perpetrated violence herself even though she was constantly exposed to it, and she taught my brother and I to respect and value ourselves and other people, as well as animals and the environment, taught us there was more to life than the cycle of violence we saw happening around us every day. Both my brother and I finished high school, my brother went on to find steady employment and I went to university, neither of us became abusers, or easily subjected to abuse, neither of us have ever had anything to do with crime or drugs. Now I am completely in awe of what my mother accomplished, that she not only managed to keep my brother and I alive in that environment, but that we both grew up to have a strong sense of self, and compassion for others, and a worthwhile future, and the ability to have functioning relationships with other people.
I also came to realise that despite my mother’s amazing achievements, no one valued her for what she had done; instead, she was subjected to constant criticism, she was told she was stupid, and a bad mother, that she was worthless and lazy and mentally unbalanced, and I was ashamed that I too had, at one stage, bought into this patriarchal racket and abused her along with everyone else, when really she deserved my gratitude and respect and support for giving me all the skills she could to help me survive. So, after my mother apologized to me, and we began to communicate much more effectively with each other, I decided that I wasn’t going to continue abusing her, and instead I began to support her, to tell her how much I appreciated everything she had done for me growing up, to say that I understood how difficult the choices were that she had to make and that I was no longer angry at her, to listen to and respect her thoughts and opinions, to bolster her when others attempted to put her down.
My mother and I have a strong and stable relationship now, which I consider to be one of the most important I have in my life. We still live far away from each other, but now we talk on the phone, we send emails several times a week, we send each other books and letters through the post, and we’re always exchanging thoughts and ideas and opinions. There are still differences between us, but we’ve learned to respect and understand those differences: I can see that my mother’s Christianity, which I once despised, has been a real source of inspiration and comfort to her, and that it has always encouraged her to act with kindness and courage and compassion, and I have learned to separate her beliefs from the rigid and judgmental attitudes of the fundamentalists who controlled my community. (Indeed, my mother never had anything to do with the fundamentalists because of their hypocrisy and self-righteousness). I can also see that the feminist principles I now follow have their origins in the principles my mother gave me, which she called Christian: the importance of having self-respect and self-integrity, the importance of following my own beliefs even when others disagree, the importance of not taking people and rhetoric at face value, but of examining things for myself and forming my own conclusions. Conversely, my mother accepts my independence, my dislike of mainstream ways of living, my feminism, my lesbianism, my decision not to have men in my life, and is proud of me for my achievements and my strength.
It has been difficult for my mother and I to reach this stage in our relationship, but I’m thankful that we have, because now, instead of distrusting and blaming and fighting with each other, we support each other and share our problems, we help each other through the hard times and share our triumphs in the good times, and we share the knowledge and experience that we’ve both learnt through our lives, and I know that because I have the benefit of my mother’s knowledge and wisdom and support, I am a better and wiser person.
Mum, I love you.
Dissenter is a young Australian radical feminist and lesbian, currently 25 years old. She has a BA with Honours in English, and later this year expects to complete a PhD. In the past she has worked as an English tutor helping Indigenous high school students with educational disadvantages, and more recently has been an English tutor at her university.
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