The woman who started Mother’s Day as we know it, held on the second Sunday in May, is Anna Jarvis. It is interesting that she was never a mother, choosing to remain unmarried and childless. It is also interesting at since Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Mother’s Day a national holiday in the US, Jarvis grew appalled at how the one day a year meant for mothers so quickly turned into a capitalist circus. Cards and flowers being marketed as symbols of love were not quite what she had in mind. Jarvis then spent the rest of her life fighting lawsuits against the use of the term Mother’s Day, trying to get it off the national calendar. The purpose of such a day, according to Jarvis, should have been to spend time with our mothers instead of buying them stuff.
This Mother’s Day, I did not be spending time with the woman who birthed me. She lives on a different continent. Sure, there’s Skype and WhatsApp and messages I can forward. There’s the option of delivering cake and flowers, but I won’t be able to hug her, to touch her, to hold her hand and tell her I love her. Sometimes, the distance is necessary, but sometimes, it hurts.
Like Jarvis, I believe in face to face conversation instead of couriered flowers. Like Jarvis, I too am a daughter who has chosen to not be a mother. My own mother doesn’t approve. I have been created by a mother, she says, I should give that gift to someone else. I am so intelligent and talented, she says, I should pass those genes on. That I give her reasons for my choice doesn’t matter. She’s as stubborn as I am, or maybe it’s the other way around.
My mother recently visited me for a few weeks, and we spent a great deal of time in conflict. But we also managed to have a hand full of decent conversations, especially when other people were around. We visited the homes of my girlfriends, women who used to be like me. These women have grown up, they have become mothers, while I continue to hang on to my cherished, child-free independence. My mother held these fresh infants, well-behaved and pleasantly cherubic, with great affection. Perhaps she imagined them as her own. Perhaps she found an outlet for outpouring the love she was reserving for her own, currently nonexistent grandchildren. My mother, as most mothers, truly believes in motherhood as a gift, the kind that keeps on giving. I can not empathise.
A daughter’s relationship with her mother, as many of you reading this piece might attest to, is complicated. Mine certainly was. I grew up as the older of two siblings, the oldest grandchild on my maternal side of the family. I was the centre of attention, until I wasn’t, and if I were to self-psychoanalyse, I might say that it stays with you, the sudden rejection. Perhaps I resented the lack of unconditional love, or perhaps there was unconditional love, it just took a different form. Regardless, I looked for love elsewhere—in friends, as I grew older in sexual partners, and very recently, in myself. For most of my life, this has been an ignored idea, being my own support. In typical child-who-has-never-been-a-mother fashion, I am making this piece about myself. But it is actually about my mother. And because she’s a mother through my existence, I suppose it is also about me.
Psychology Today lists certain patterns that indicate toxicity in mother-daughter relationships.
- When daughters feel dismissed, they take it as rejection.
- A mother’s controlling behaviour can be interpreted as the daughter’s lack of judgment.
- A mother’s abandonment can take the form of emotional unavailability, especially if one child is privy to more love than the other.
- An enmeshed relationship is one where a daughter constantly demands her mother’s attention, and the latter constantly gives it, demanding and encouraging and living through the daughter.
- A combative relationship is one where the mother exercises her power over her daughter.
- A mother can be unreliable—dismissive one day, excessively fussy the next.
- A self-involved mother sees her daughter as an extension of herself, but also concerned with the appearances and opinions of others.
- The roles can be reversed – from a young age, the daughter can become the care-taker of the mother.
I wouldn’t take this list too seriously. It is written by a woman who authored a book called Daughter Detox: Recovering From an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, which is not the say I don’t take the author seriously. Not all mothers are loving, not all daughters are understanding. Life is not a manual one can read and understand how to live. We are all trying to live it the best way we know how. Most of the time, we don’t know very much at all.
It is important to note that my mother is very loving—too loving, if there’s such a thing. I also want to note that I do not define my relationship with my mother as toxic. It has its good days and bad. There are times when I feel immensely drawn to her, but there are also times when I feel I want to be as different from her as I can. I want to be less emotional, less critical, less stubborn. But I am overly emotional and critical and stubborn. And I have her eyes. To turn into my mother is to not turn into my own person. That my genetics and upbringing has decided who I will become before I have become it, well, that’s a terrifying prospect.
After I moved to a different continent, my mother grew restless, more worried about my well being. Was I eating okay? Was I safe? When we met, she held my hand and hugged me constantly, while I grew uncomfortable with her physical affection. My theory, the one I have developed through self-psychoanalysis (which can be the reason one questions its credibility), is that I resented my mother for her rejection when my brother came around. And when I had grown up and moved away and she had love to give, I resented her efforts at making things right again. A part of me believed our relationship would always be uneven. She would push and I would push back, she would ask for love and I would refuse. She would ask for my motherhood and I’d give her my free-spirited feminism instead.
This is a simplistic narrative, one of many stories I tell myself to understand how my relationship with her works. It is an incomplete story, and it is only one, static version in a world of multiple, dynamic versions in which mother and daughter are changing and growing. Naturally, then, their relationship is changing and growing.
Someday, I am going to write a book about a mother and a daughter and their twisted love. But today is not that day. Today, I want to tell you a story.
A mother flies across the world to visit her daughter. At the airport, while waiting for her luggage to arrive, the mother fractures her hand. When the mother video chats with her daughter and displays the broken hand, the daughter laughs, because it is the first of April. Later, the daughter feels guilty. She shouldn’t have laughed.
Over the next two weeks, the mother helps the daughter move to a new home. The mother wants to book a cottage through Airbnb because she can’t cook for her daughter, because the mother’s right hand is fractured and stuck in a cast. The mother thinks she is being a burden. The daughter thinks her mother is being ridiculous.
The daughter has a condition called misophonia, in which certain sounds act as triggers that she can’t be around. Recently, her mother’s talking, the way she says certain words, has become a trigger. The daughter eats separately from her mother. When they sit together once a day, it is to watch a movie, and if the mother says something that acts as a trigger, the daughter storms out of the room and the mother is, once again, alone. She flew thousands of miles to be with her daughter, and her daughter can’t stand to be with her.
The day before her flight, the mother suffers an anxiety attack. She can’t stand the idea of being on a plane for a dozen hours, trapped, stuffed in a box with limited air that she has to share with hundreds of strangers. The daughter accompanies her mother to a pyschotherapist and medication is given. The mother feels better now that she is medicated, and she flies back to her country.
A month passes and the daughter moves into her new home. She sends her mother photos, asks her how to make daliya and banana bread. The mother gives advice on how to mop the floors to minimise dust. She asks her daughter if she’s eaten, if she’s safe. The daughter writes about her mother on Mother’s Day, because it’s easier to tell the world how she feels than to tell her mother how she feels.
Pragya Bhagat is a staff writer at PopIQ.