All of us had a Mum… right?
Technically, yes. We all had a mother otherwise we wouldn’t be here.
But having a mother is not the same as having a Mum.
Healesville cemetery is a sacred place for my family. On the edge of a country town it is a beautiful, peaceful location surrounded by trees and views of the nearby mountains.
My wife, Rosie, loved Healesville. Her family holidayed there when she was young. Healesville was my home town. Rosie and I chose this cemetery as our burial place a few years before she died of breast cancer.
My parents are buried at Healesville. The plot Rosie and I bought almost directly faces their grave in the next row.
We lost Rosie just a few years ago. Mother’s Day is tough for my family.
Our hearts and minds are still raw. My children miss their Mum.
Mother’s Day afternoon I visited the cemetery with Merryn and Liam (my daughter and son-in-law). We stood in front of Rosie’s grave to remember her, and silently vocalise our feelings of love and grief.
Merryn brought some white roses from her garden. She gave me one to place on Rosie’s grave. I made a hole in the recently rained-on earth and planted the rose upright in front of Rosie’s headstone.
While Merryn and Liam continued to reflect, I turned around to face my parents’ grave. I read the plaque as I have done many times. Seeing my mother’s name, Edna Winifred James, died 12th June 1966, aged 49 years, impacted me as never before.
I was struck with a profound realization…
In the 53 years since she died I’ve never grieved for my Mum, not even on Mother’s Day? How could this be??
Mum did not have an easy life. As a young woman she was beset by a condition I also share… depression. Mental health issues were little understood in those days. Depression was a shameful thing; you kept it hidden and suffered in silence. Thankfully her older brother, Bert, saw her struggling and tried to encourage her and build her self-confidence.
But depression was no stranger to Bert either, and tragically he took his own life when Mum was a young adult. I can hardly imagine the extent to which this caused her to plummet further.
Mum was married during World War II. After Dad returned from the fighting, three daughters arrived in succession. Six years later they had a son… me.
Mum’s pregnancy with me was torrid. Shortly after I was born she had a severe breakdown which put her in a psychiatric ward for months. Dad stayed home to work and visit Mum; my sisters were sent away to his brother’s family, and I was looked after by Mum’s sister.
Recently I read some letters Mum wrote to Dad from hospital in December 1957, 4 months after I was born. She was knitting a jumper for me and was so hoping to be allowed hospital leave to have Christmas with the family. I don’t know that she made it.
It saddens me deeply to think of the pain Mum must have felt during those dim, dark days of 1950’s psychiatric treatment. Separated from her family, knowing her children had been farmed out due to her breakdown, must have been incredibly painful.
Mum’s recovery was very slow, if she ever really recovered at all. I spent 2½ years with my aunty; she adored me and raised like a son; no doubt I bonded to her during that time. When I finally returned home, my mother was a distant woman in my life.
Disabled with depression, Mum spent a lot of time in bed or sitting unresponsive in a chair, lost in her pain. The demanding role of raising a 2 year old was simply beyond her.
I have very few memories of my mother from childhood. If she spent quality time with me I remember very little of it.
Mum lived a short life. One Sunday night while playing the organ in church an aortic aneurism burst. Mum literally died of a ‘broken heart’.
I was eight years old at the time.
I’d had a mother for six short years.
But I never really had a Mum.
Life shaping scars
Mum couldn’t care for me after birth and had to give me up. My aunt cared for me deeply, then she too had to give me up. Infants can’t comprehend the reasons for these things. As a baby, this was rejection, not once but twice… first by my mother, then by my aunt. Infants interpret rejection as their own fault. Indelible feelings of guilt and fear of rejection were scripted into the core of my being.
These scars have shaped who I am and still affect me today. Fear of rejection and guilt gave rise to decades of depression and anxiety.
I’ve spent most of my life searching for someone or something to fix me, and fill the deep void in my spirit. Decades of counselling, medication and therapy eventually helped me to manage the depression, but the painful void remained.
I looked to God to fill the gap, but 20 years of commitment to faith tragically reinforced my fear of rejection instead of healing it. I looked to Rosie to fill the void, but no amount of love she could give was enough. Even the love of my wonderful children, and great support from close friends could not get me there.
But the picture is not all bad. Suffering teaches you things you cannot learn any other way; it can build love, empathy and compassion for others like nothing else. That said, I would never choose to suffer, but I am so grateful for the lessons I’ve learned and the people it has brought into my life.
A precious memory
The night Mum died I was at home with my sisters. I remember the look on Dad’s face when he walked through the front door. Before he spoke a word, I burst into tears.
I have other memories of that night. The pastor came around to comfort and pray for us. My sister Glenda held me; the comfort she gave me healed a childhood divide and created a bond that exists to this day.
Most profound of all is a memory from earlier in the evening, before Mum and Dad went to church. After dinner she put me on her lap and gave me a cuddle. I remember it distinctly, but why? Why would I remember something that happened before she died?
Was her hugging me so unusual? I don’t remember her ever having done it before.
Was she motivated by an inner sense that her time was at an end and she wanted to say goodbye?
Whatever the reason, this expression of her love profoundly impacted my young mind. I stored the memory away, waiting for adulthood to bring it back so I could discover the message it contained.
My rational adult brain says Mum must have loved me. But for years this meant nothing to my heart.
I knew there was no value blaming her. How could I be angry with a woman who did her very best amidst terrible suffering? I’ve known that suffering too. Instead of anger I felt compassion, but still no sense of love, or being loved.
I always found it difficult to speak of ‘my Mum’. I felt awkward. It just didn’t fit. It lacked any feelings of warmth or authenticity. So I referred to her as my ‘my mother’ instead.
In recent years it dawned on me how tough life was for her; how incredibly painful it would have been not being able to care for me; to allow another woman to take her place because of the disabling torment within.
I realised she had little or no control over what happened. This allowed an emotional connection with her to start growing. I still have a long way to go.
The message embedded in her cuddle just hours before she died is finally reaching my heart…
My mother really loved me.
I really did have a Mum.
Mother’s Day is a time for celebrating Mums. The huge role mothers play in raising children can bring a great deal of joy and fulfilment. It is also very difficult and demanding, with more than a fair share of heartache. But the vast majority of Mums (and Dads) do the best they can.
Mums fully deserve to be celebrated on Mother’s Day.
Be aware of others
Mother’s Day is a tough day for many people. It may seem like everyone around you is celebrating, while you are feeling pain.
Many people, both young and old, have lost their mothers.
Many mothers and children are separated by distance, and fractured relationships.
Many mothers languish in nursing homes, forgotten or neglected by their families.
There are mothers who have lost children.
And women who longed for children but couldn’t have them.
And then there are those who had a mother, but never had a Mum.
Mother’s Day is a tough day for all these people.
Next year, let’s be mindful of how they feel and let them know we care.
A closing thought
Let go of your Mum.
No Mums live forever. At some stage you have to let your Mum go. When you stand by her side in her final days, as much as you want her to stay, let her know she is free to go. Firsthand experience has shown me how important this is.
There are many other aspects of letting your Mum go; it’s a process that begins in childhood and continues through our adult lives.
A vital step is realizing you are a complete person in yourself. Your fundamental value and worth do not come from your Mum, and must not be dependent on much or little she loves (or loved) you. Some of us, even as mature adults, remain stuck in childhood.
The victim narrative of ‘not having a Mum’, and the void it created, has driven me to avoid rejection by pleasing other people. It has relentlessly demanded ‘I do more with my life’ and daily told me I’ve failed. Perversely, it also became part of my identity… being a victim gave me significance, prompting care and support from others.
I’m finally realising I need to leave the victim narrative behind.
The irony is, at the same time as finding my Mum, I’m finally letting go.
Ian James 20th May 2018
© 2018 Ian James, http://www.onlivingauthentically.com