I haven’t seen my mother since I was five years old. She migrated to the United Kingdom in 2000 and has not yet returned.
At first I didn’t think her absence really affected me, because I was the youngest of the three children she left behind, and I wasn’t very attached to her to begin with. I felt sad for my brother who missed her terribly (he was eight when she left).
But I was affected. In fact, if I was to choose a single event from my entire life that has had the most bearing on who I am today, it’s her leaving.
One of the biggest burdens I carried through my teenage years was the lie I made up as a child when people would ask me about my mother. The conversations would always go something like this:
I never knew what to say next, and I hated being pitied or treated like some poor orphan, so although I had never even visited the airport since I saw her off, I came up with an answer that would end the conversation:
As you can imagine, many of these kinds of conversations are had when children are starting a new school, for example. So that was the script I stuck with in first form, and the lie grew and haunted me throughout high school.
That lie is the only manifestation of how I was affected by my mother’s absence that I can remember experiencing while growing up. I didn’t feel like I missed her. I didn’t hate her. To be honest, I hardly knew her, beyond the very few memories and photographs I had of her, and the friendly inquiring voice I knew on the phone.
I grew up with my father, brothers, and many, many stepmothers — none of whom stuck around long enough for me to form any strong bonds. My childhood was many things, including traumatic, but all of the negative feelings were conveniently suppressed until later on. I excelled academically. I made friends normally. My childhood was an overall success (can I say that? Lol)
Later in my teen years, that voice on the phone would also become the friendly relative who sent me pocket change, and then the main person who was financing my education and livelihood going into university. I’d say my mother and I were friends, good friends, at best.
And we grew up
Quick backstory: My mother’s other daughter was 15 when she left, and she dropped out of school and had the first of her four children the following year. She got married to the children’s father shortly afterwards.
My sister’s marital home became a place of refuge for me while I grew up. What it meant for me was being in ‘Town’ Cable TV, lots of snacks, and an escape from the woman of the month at my dad’s house. I knew the marriage wasn’t perfect, but I didn’t understand the half of it as a child.
My brother — my only full sibling — grew up with me at my daddy’s house as the only two of his seven(?) children who didn’t have their mothers’ homes to retreat to. My father worked hard to make sure we were always clean, fed, and in school. After high school my brother went into automotive repairs, and had his only child so far when he was 25.
Then I got pregnant and it all blew open
I was 21 and in my final year of university ( you can read about that year here). But aside from the relationship with my son’s dad, what really broke open (apart from my woohaa) was all the emotions… for all three mothers.
Mother one was livid.
In her eyes, two of her children had struck out by becoming parents before they had really become anything, and the responsibility was on me to redeem her worth as a mother. Having had her first child at 15 herself, it was hard for her to see a child as anything but a burden for me. To make matters worse, I was telling her from the jump that the child’s father had left me. She took it very hard and she was very angry for a very long time.
Mother two (my sister) was disappointed.
By this time her marriage had failed, and in a conversation we had when we had both gone to live in my mother’s unfinished house (the irony), she opened up about some of the things she had endured as a child, a wife, and a mother.
Mother three (me) was depressed.
As if they had been triggered by the pregnancy hormones, all the repressed memories and emotions from childhood resurfaced. The more I felt attached to the child growing inside me, the more I questioned why my mother wasn’t attached to me enough to stay, or take me with her. Would I be able to love and raise a child properly without knowing what it was like to be raised by my mother?
I’m going to be 26 in a few weeks, and my mother is planning to come home.
I had never spoken to my mother about her leaving, or questioned it, but in that conversation with my sister I had remarked that my mother had never told me that she loved me. It wasn’t out of resentment or disdain. We had been talking about how the generation before us were socialized, and it just came out. I don’t know exactly what she told my mom, but she interpreted to mean I said she didn’t love me. She was hurt, deeply.
The last four years have been a period of hurting and healing for all three mothers. There is so much that remains too sacred to each woman to share, but a lot has come out into the open to be laid to rest. It took another pregnancy, a diagnosed mental illness, a scare with a terminal illness, and a decision by one mother to wash her hands clean of the others, but the work has begun.
My mother’s anger led her, for the first time, to tell her own truth. Why she had to leave, why she couldn’t come back, how she tried and failed to get her children, and all the trauma she had endured as a child, with my father, and even after she migrated. She opened up about some of the heartbreaking sacrifices she made, and the guilt that she has been living with for the past 21 years.
For the first time, too, I acknowledged and spoke about how I was truly affected by her absence, and reassured her that although I didn’t know the whole story, I never felt motherless as a child. I knew she was there, somewhere.
Earlier this year, my mother told me out loud for the first time that I can remember that she loves me. It sounded odd, I could tell she felt odd saying it, and I hung up the phone without responding because it didn’t register in my brain quickly enough.
I was more prepared the next time, and for someone who tells a child ‘I love you’ every few hours, it sure felt weird to tell my mother. But it gets better with practice.
It’s a happy mother’s day.