Before I had children, I worried about the kind of mother I’d be. After talking to other moms, they assured me this was a common fear, and that I would draw on instinct and experience and everything would be fine. But my concern stemmed from a different source, in that I had no example of mothering to draw upon.
My sister and I had lived alone with our father since the day our mother moved out (both of us were under age five at the time). This was the early 1970s and it was unusual for a mother to leave after a separation, but, like children of unconventional domestic arrangements, it was our normal. My father did his best, but the truth is he had been left as well.
I remember bits from the day my mom left, and many things in the months afterwards. I remember mismatched socks, strange school lunches and steaming TV dinners. But my sister and I—despite people’s fears—did not become feral or neglected. Instead, we occupied the space just outside of those things.
Not having a mother meant not having little things that perhaps required a maternal touch. We didn’t get ponytails with coloured ribbons or belong to a Brownie troop. My father made sure we were secure, and I’m thankful for that, but someone was missing. I was the one who rode in the front seat of the car where my mother would have sat. I was a small reminder that she wasn’t there, and it must have made my father sad too. He did not withhold whatever we lacked on purpose; he just simply didn’t have it. He couldn’t be our mother.
My past has left an indelible mark, and I can see it in how I interact with my kids. I’ve caught myself not being soft enough sometimes, although perhaps I lack something available only through active participation in a mother-child relationship. I’ve felt jealous of my kids because they have a mom who is there for them (as imperfect as she is). When I listen to people complain about their parents, I am envious. Arguing requires intimacy, and my mother and I rarely surpass cordiality.
But I am not insulated from her influence. Sometimes I hear her in my voice, or see my hands as though they’re attached to her; the quick, no nonsense movements of washing a toddler brings back memories of something I’d buried for more than 30 years. People ask if I miss a mother in my life. The feeling becomes less sharp each year. I want to put my energy into creation rather than regret. I want things to be different for my kids. I want first-hand stories and memories forged with them. I just hope I can do this without some of the tools. But I’ve realized that my history doesn’t need to become theirs. And so together, we are building our own.