Mother’s Day is a painful reminder, not of what I lost, but what I never had.
I know what you’re thinking, but no, my mother did not pass away from a battle with crippling illness, or a shock car accident. In fact, she’s alive and well still living in the family home.
My mother was emotionally abusive for the better part of the 20-something years I lived with her. She deprived me of all maternal love as a child and asserted control over me through stalking, isolation and vile name-calling.
For many, Mother’s Day doesn’t look as rosy and uncomplicated as it does in Kmart catalogues. But I learned that while it’s scary, it’s important to let go of toxic relationships, even if it goes against everything the world says is natural.
From the outside looking in, my mother was a saint. It was incredible how well she could balance her two personas. It was only natural for her to offer feasts to anyone who came over. Those who visited knew to come on an empty stomach because it was a sure bet they would get fed.
But before the latch on the door could clip closed on their way out, she would be verbally tearing my friends to shreds, telling me how my friends were “sluts” and ”bad influences”, and how they were the reason I had grown up “all wrong”.
My friends were the type to be on the debating team or passing on the latest Penguin Classic to read, by the way.
One by one, she banned those closest to me from entering our home.
Her vile tongue soon turned from my friends to me. I was now the “slut” when I wanted to go to birthday parties, or be friends with boys, or even be friends with girls, who had boyfriends.
To escape the criticism and maybe, just maybe, gain her affections for once, I plunged myself into study and sport. But not even lugging home a wheelbarrow of academic awards was an antidote to her abuse.
But she wasn’t incapable of loving – she adored my eldest brother, and she had a very different set of rules and expectations for him. The two of us doing the exact same thing would elicit two different responses.
My mother’s constant rejection was crippling. She made me feel worthless.
And it only worsened once I hit the age of 18. Her behaviour had become dangerous to my mental health, and led me to the precipice of depression. And as I realised that, her behaviour worsened.
My mother started stalking me.
Despite being legally allowed to drink, drive and vote, my mother would arrive at my workplaces in the middle of my shifts, just to ask my boss if I had gone to work that day lest, in her mind, I was lying to her and gone to take drugs and meet up with strange men. “We don’t trust you,” she would utter in her seemingly logical and reasonable defence to why she was following me around the state.
The humiliation was overwhelming each time my manager had to explain that my mother had come, asked about me, and left, without a reason as to why she had made the trip or demanded to speak to them.
At the time, she had me convinced I had done the wrong thing. And I believed her. Why wouldn’t I? She was my mother; a voice of authority, after all.
Somewhere along the way, my house stopped feeling like my home. My safe space was anywhere but there. When I was out with friends, I shook with anxiety waiting for her barrage of calls, demanding to know where I was, who I was with, why I wasn’t home.
She would make a point of telling me she disliked the gifts I had bought her, despite how long I had taken to plan, purchase and wrap. I thought money would perhaps gain her affection, with each gift more expensive than the last. But she would often make me return them for store credit.
She would tell my father awful, exaggerated tales about me, to spark rows.
I stopped eating when she was around. I hid away in my bedroom. I often sobbed uncontrollably in the shower.
The first time she gave me the silent treatment, it lasted a weekend. The next time, it lasted a week. The time after that a month, then two, then six.
My mother and I didn’t speak for the final two years while living under the same roof.
In truth, I probably knew that in moving out, I would be forced to accept it was the end. For now at least. I would be branded with the “estranged daughter” label, and would spend the coming decades explaining - or lying - to people about why I never had plans on Mother’s Day.
I didn’t even realise I had been enduring two decades of textbook emotional abuse from my mother until I was well into my 20s. Unable to sleep, or breathe properly, and getting unexplained chest pains for more than a week, I booked in with the family GP.
He leaned in and listened to my heartbeat. Then, he attached some fandangled device to my finger and let it beep away. Was I having a heart attack, I thought? He leaned back, and with arms crossed across his chest, and one eyebrow raised, said: “There’s nothing physically wrong with you. You have anxiety. Is there anything which could be causing this?”
I realised then that the only way I could heal was to physically separate myself from my mother. In taking that final step, I was crippled with guilt. I desperately wanted to have what others so readily took for granted. But I accepted change. I reached out to my friends, my siblings and my partner and, with them, gained the courage to leave the family home.
Years on, I live a much happier life with my partner in our little slice of suburbia; this is my safe place. With the help of a psychologist and a clearer mind, I can see that my mother probably had her own struggles with undiagnosed emotional or mental illness.
While it doesn’t change my experiences, it has helped me let go of a lot of guilt I placed on my own shoulders. Time is helping me heal, and after years of viewing myself through the eyes of my mother’s disapproval, I’m learning how to love myself again.
So my children better watch out. I am going to shower them with all the love and affection my mother didn’t know how to show me; even when they’re too-cool-for-school teenagers mortified at the thought of their mum kissing them goodbye on their way to school each day.
I’m excited by the hope that one day Mother’s Day will stop being a bitter reminder of the past, and become a day of acceptance, family, pasta photo frames and pink fluffy slippers.
This writer is known to Mamamia, but has chosen to remain anonymous.