The day my mother left us, my father decided to get a dog. It seemed like a straightforward swap to me. We went out to buy a border collie and when we came back my mother was gone. I was ten years old.
Swapping my mother for a puppy had many advantages. In one stroke I was liberated from all the petty restrictions of supervised domestic order. Bedtimes and hygiene went out of the window, replaced by endless summer days topped with coke and crisps in pub gardens. And without a live-in mother our family activities could no longer be divided along gender lines – no more being left behind to dig a stupid fish pond while the men went off to watch the Test Match! My world shifted shape.
My mother’s departure certainly left a gap. But as a family we expanded to fill it. In adversity, my brother, father and I became a team, we all mothered each other (albeit inexpertly).
I was aware that ours was an odd set up mainly from other people’s reactions. Every time my father brought a woman friend to the house she would go straight for me, cuddling and chatting and fiddling with my hair as if her life depended on proving how deprived I was by the absence of a maternal bosom.
I wasn’t oblivious to the hurt and accusations thrown around between adults who should have kept it to themselves. But children are naturally self-centred so – as a child – the fact that my mother was seeking happiness elsewhere may have been confusing but I could certainly relate to it.
It was as I grew up and tried to work out what sort of woman I wanted to be that my mother’s apparent lack of maternal selflessness began to trouble me. Maternal nurture occupies such a unique symbolic space in our society. Deemed the sole providers of one-way unconditional love, mothers are irreplaceable. Fathers may come and go, but mothers will always carry the can.
So, having had it uncontestably demonstrated to me that at least one woman in the world did not fit this Persil ad version of motherhood, I had two choices. I could either blame myself as being obviously unlovable (which I did for a while) or I could understand that being a mother is not a one-size-fits-all mantle.
What I really learnt from my mother is that women do not have a monopoly on nurturing. But as long as society believes that we do, women will remain trapped by domestic symbols that have real life consequences. The presumed co-incidence of women and unconditional nurturing both excludes and excuses fathers from child care and it encourages our daughters to exchange ambitions for single-handed child-rearing. Until the symbols and values of ‘mothering’ are relocated into ‘parenting’ and into the community at large, mothers will always carry the can.
This is an abridged version of an article originally published in Everywoman magazine in January 1995. I wrote it before I had children.
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