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"Every year, I feel grief and gratitude." My mum neglected me, but she also loved me.

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

Mother’s Day is a difficult day for me. It’s not as straightforward as gifting roses, writing a card or sharing a nice brunch with my mum.

I usually spend Mother’s Day cycling between grief and gratitude, contending with the reality that my mum was abusive, while also thinking about how much my mum sacrificed for me.

I spend the day oscillating between feeling angry and then feeling guilty for being ungrateful. And every year, I wonder if I’ll settle on a side.

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Growing up, I mostly kept to myself. From the outside, I seemed like a quiet and shy child. But in reality, that quietness masked debilitating fear.

I feared the fake red roses in our living room. To others, they looked like cheap decorations. To me, they were much more. My mum would beat me with the stems until the green lining wore off, revealing the metal cores. She beat me when I didn’t eat fast enough. She beat me when I accidentally spilt juice on the floor.

Sometimes my mum would lock me outside of our house and refuse me food and shelter. These punishments often followed incidents I could not have been responsible for.

Once it was because she reversed into a car; she said I should have been looking out for it. Another time, it was because I didn’t ask a shop assistant a question for her. I remember that time very clearly, because afterwards she told me I wasn’t her child anymore.

But I also remember how loving my mother sometimes was. She would use her spare money to buy me art supplies. She’d spend afternoons annotating catalogues and circling all the things she thought I’d like. When people visited the house, she’d carefully unpack the art that I’d made, and show everyone like they were her trophies. She’d stay up late to keep me company when I was studying. She often bought me my favourite foods and wouldn’t eat them herself, even though I knew she loved them too.

But when I couldn’t get out of bed or eat because of my depression, she’d yell at me accuse me faking it. She yelled at me when I didn’t greet her friends the way she wanted me to. When I didn’t tell her my final high school grades, she didn’t speak to me for three months. When I missed one saucepan I was supposed to wash, she didn’t speak to me for a week. The silence was often worse than the yelling.

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It’s no surprise, then, that on a day meant for appreciation and celebration of mothers and motherhood, I find myself in a place of ambivalence.

My mum didn’t return to her home country for nearly a decade because she wanted us to have enough money for our education. She didn’t buy any new clothes while we were growing up. She never had a meal out or treated herself with the products she wanted to. She didn’t go to the dentist for years.

My mum abused and neglected me, but I also believe she loved me and provided for me the best she could, often at her own expense.

Uniform narratives of abusive relationships and the idea that motherhood and sacrifice go hand-in-hand have kept me swinging back and forth between resentment and compassion.

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On one hand, I resonate with the claim that abuse and neglect negate love and that people cannot claim to be loving when behaving abusively.

But I also can’t deny my mum’s love, despite it being threaded between abusive behaviours, fear and violence. I can’t divorce the love from the abuse and as a result, I can’t land on a side.

Perhaps this ‘in-between’ will be the final position on how I understand my mum’s behaviour and our relationship. Maybe I’ll eventually stop trying to seek out a clear narrative that names ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as absolute positions.

Living with this complexity is always hard, but it’s especially hard on Mother’s Day. These days of commemoration never feel like they hold enough space for me, enough nuance to fit these conflicting feelings.

So I turn to my imagination. I imagine what my life would be like if my mum was able to process her own trauma; as an immigrant and victim of abuse herself.

I imagine what my mum’s life would be like if she wasn’t uprooted from her family into a foreign place with no support. I imagine what she would be like if she was able to leave her abusive husband. I wonder what our relationship would look like.

And I wonder all this on Mother’s Day, as my inbox fills up with emails promoting Mother’s Day gifts and my social media feeds become saturated with mum appreciation posts. This year even more so, as I think about all those stuck with their families, and those who are separated.

I wonder what it would be like if Mother’s Day also had space for messiness, ambivalence, complexity and nuance.

For now, I’ll spend this Mother’s Day offline. Maybe I’ll make some art, or bake a cake for myself. I’ll definitely have a pack of over-packaged, discounted chocolates. Maybe I’ll even call my mum and see how she’s going.

If you or someone you care about is living with family violence please call safe steps 24/7 Family Violence Response Line on 1800 015 188 or visit www.safesteps.org.au for further information.

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