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'I don’t know how to be a good mum because I haven’t seen it myself.'

Most women don’t look like the mums sitting on the front of Mother’s Day cards. Today, Mamamia celebrates all kinds of mums. For more stories about the reality of motherhood, check out Mamamia’s Mother’s Day hub page. 

This post deals with domestic abuse and could be triggering for some readers.

Sitting on her bed, my daughter's voice cracks; the emotion she has fought so hard to contain within her seemingly impenetrable teenage barricade, beginning to spill through. A trickle, first. Then, a rush. She tells me what she is feeling – that she doesn't think I love her, that I'm not proud of her, that I don't seek the same close relationship with her as I do with my other children.

I'm blindsided by the admission. I've felt the widening distance between us, but believed it to be her; the pulling away and grasping for autonomy and independence that comes with being an adolescent. I've been careful to step back, to allow her whatever scope she's needed to navigate her identity amongst school and peers and boys and life, believing this is what she has needed of me. In this moment, I'm aware I have misjudged the situation.

Watch: Be a good mum staring Laura Bryne articulating the contradiction of pressures that mothers face in their daily lives. Post continues after video.

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My daughter is 15 years-old – closer to 16 than not. It's the age I was when I left home; a backpack hurriedly stashed with clothes in the aftermath of being beaten by mother's latest boyfriend. It was her idea of how best to teach me a lesson for my disrespectful attitude toward him; an attitude no doubt culminated from an entire childhood of dysfunction, neglect, physical and sexual abuse.

I do not return home, nor set foot in my mother's house again. I do not know how she feels about this; if she walks past the bedroom once mine and grieves for the daughter she has lost, or whether she is relieved, I am not her problem anymore (though I suspect the latter). 

It is not the first time she has chosen a man over me. Not the first time I have been the one to gratify the anger and lust of the men in her life under her impervious watch. 

I spent the remainder of my schooling years housed in whatever way I could – on the couch at a friend's place, with a family who take me in as a good deed (this doesn't work out as I am not into Jesus as much as they would like me to be), in a hostel with a guy who has a penchant for drugs and death metal, and with an older lady who force feeds me porridge with butter stirred through, in an attempt to fatten me up. Each provided a roof over my head yet did not compensate – could not compensate – for those crucial years left motherless, and the parts of me found lacking since.

As my daughter cries, I hold her. Cry with her. I tell her how immensely she is loved. How proud I am of her. That she is seen. I tell her I am sorry for the ways I have failed her; for the ways I have not recognised her need for me to be more present and engaged with her. I tell her parenting teenage girls requires a lot of learning, more so for those of us not parented ourselves.


I do not tell her I am terrified of how much she needs from me – more so, that I cannot provide it. I do not tell her I am terrified that I don't have what it takes to be a mother. That there is too much lacking in me. That the years of parenting I did not receive have rendered me inadequate. I do not tell her I am terrified of my deepest fear being exposed: that I am not enough and because of this, she will grow up believing she is not enough either.

Some years later, there was an attempt at reconciliation with my mother, though our relationship remains murky at best. I was married, and had just given birth to my first son. I told her that she can be part of his life – our life – on the condition that she has sorted her life out; that the boyfriend who beat me is not in her life anymore. She assures me he is not, and tells me she will come and visit us at the hospital. 

The day we are due to go home she did not show. I called her and called her again. We waited as long as we could, then strapped our newborn into the car for the hour drive home. 

On the outskirts of town, we passed my mother driving back into town with the boyfriend she was supposedly no longer seeing. They had spent the weekend camping together.

At this point in my life, I am involved with a church and feel compelled to overlook this in the name of forgiveness. If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer him your left? How many times do I forgive the one who hurts me? I am yet to discover the full length and breadth of the lies; the ways betrayal can mar the already-tenuous heart.  


In the 20 years that followed, we attempted a relationship that consisted of little more than customary birthday and Christmas visits. We were unstable; disordered. She tried too hard to execute the facade of a mother-daughter closeness we will never have — never have had. I am too triggered by a lifetime of damage and her unwillingness to be anything other than the victim, quick to pull out the scorecard of all the ways I have hurt her the moment a whisper of conflict is aroused.  

There is a dichotomy that comes with severing the relationship with a parent; a rupturing down the middle that consists of equal measures of grief and deliverance, guilt and release. When, at the beginning of this year, I made the decision to end the relationship with my mother after a particularly triggering altercation, I was too angry to feel anything, until I am not. Until I am leaning over the bathroom sink heaving the sobs of a daughter found motherless once again, yet knowing sometimes we are left with only hard choices to make.

Listen to Me After You and join host Laura Byrne tackle everything about motherhood. Post continues after podcast.

In the time that has passed since then I have waded through the turbid ambivalence of emotions that have housed themselves beneath my everything is fine exterior. I realise I do not grieve for what I have lost, but for all I have never had. I grieve the mother who could never be what I needed her to be. I grieve the yearning hollow of years without love, nurture, guidance and belonging — years I raised myself, as best I could.


I wonder, as I stroke the hair back from my daughter's face, if it was enough? How do we learn to parent when we were not parented? My only lived experience was that of chaos and dysfunction; I have nothing to draw from. But what I do know is this: a woman does not earn the right to call herself a mother because she gives birth, but because of her willingness to show up and do the work of raising her child, even when it is hard. Especially when it is hard.

I may not always be the mother I want to be, or hope to be. Perhaps I will always be found reaching into that hollow and grasping for something that will never exist to me. Perhaps I will always be a little less equipped because I was not given the tools and know-how of parenting that other women carry.

But also, perhaps this makes me more determined to do better. To be the one to recognise generational cycles and say, no more. Perhaps this makes me the one who will strive to leave the legacy not left for me; to do whatever it takes for my children to know they are loved unconditionally and abundantly. Perhaps this makes me the one to teach this daughter of mine the grace that comes with overcoming adversities and learning to do hard things. 

The grace that comes with learning to become a mother.

Feature Image: Getty.

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