Last weekend my mother asked me if I wanted to accompany her to her favourite Italian delicatessen on Monday – the deli featured on My Kitchen Rules, a show Mum adores.
I was tired. I had things I wanted to do. But it was Mother’s Day week, and I’d just moved from Canberra to Sydney to be closer to my family and do precisely things like this with Mum. So I said yes.
Truth was, I didn’t know whether Mum cared if I said yes or no. She can be difficult to read. Was she asking because she thought I might need good quality Parmesan cheese? Or because she wanted my company?
I have a mother, and I am a mother.
The mother-child relationship is not an easy one. It’s a relationship that shapes us as children, and it’s one to work at through its various phases that challenge us all in different ways. The love that exists can be painful, and we can hurt each other – whether we intend to or not.
As mothers we know all this, but no matter how lofty our intentions to be the best we can be for our children, we bring emotional baggage to the relationship (some of it from our relationships with our own mothers) that can hinder our efforts. It is important to be self-aware about this – but not to question ourselves so much as mothers that we don’t trust ourselves any longer to do the job.
As a daughter, I still crave my mother’s approval, probably because it is so hard coming. As a mother I am terrified of messing up, and yet I still catch myself doing things I swore I’d never to do to my child: like arguing with his dad in front of him.
I also struggle to find that healthy balance between selfhood and motherhood that my mother never had. But when I push for selfhood, for time and space to research and write, sometimes I feel terrible guilt.
My mother picked me up in her car. As we drove to the deli in Concord, in Sydney’s inner west, I described the research I’m doing on her maternal grandmother. Mum grew up believing her Nonna Lina was an orphan with no parents, but it turns she was an abandoned child.
Her mother, probably to protect her honour, gave up her daughter to be brought up by an institution, retaining her anonymity as was custom in 19th-century Italy. It’s been confronting research. I’ve been moved by the stories of abandoned children who, as adults, tracked down their natural mothers only to find they wanted nothing to do with them.
Motherhood. It’s complicated.
At the deli Mum and I selected cheese and pasta and tinned tomatoes. We bought ham hocks and dried borlotti beans to make soup, and Mum said she’d write out the recipe for me when we got home. She pointed out the red tins of Simmenthal that her mother, Anna, used to love.
“It’s meat,” Mum said when I asked.
On the way to the car I took my mother’s arm as the hill was steep and her forearm reminded me of grandmother Anna’s tanned, soft skinned, adorned with heavy gold bracelets that clinked and jangled whenever she moved.
I said I felt like a coffee and Mum suggested we go to a pasticceria in Five Dock. I ordered an almond croissant that I knew I’d regret and a skim latte (who was I kidding). Mum ordered a coffee and a donut. We found a table and I asked Mum about motherhood.
She told me she’d do anything for her kids (and she has), but that she’d never felt …
“Maternal?” I suggested.
“I’ve always felt like I’d be better as a career woman.”
Mum was an Italian immigrant and never had the opportunity to finish high school or go to university, though she desperately wanted to. She had four children and her selfhood was subsumed by motherhood, like so many women of her generation.
I told her I felt the same. I loved my son more than anything in the world and am grateful every day that he is mine to nurture, but I constantly doubt my suitability and worthiness as a mother.
I crave validation in other areas of my life – career and writing – even though the satisfaction I get from a nice comment on a piece of work is fleeting, while motherhood gives me rewards that are much deeper, that endure.
“We’re alike, you know,” I said.
“I’m not a deep thinker like you,” she replied.
Mum always says this. It’s a way to close a gate around her inner life, to keep me out.
On the way home Mum told me Dad had wanted to come with us that morning but Mum didn’t let him.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because I thought it was important to have some mother-daughter time.”
In that moment I was grateful I’d said yes when Mum asked if I wanted to come with her to the deli. It turns out she did want my company.
Cynthia Banham’s book, A Certain Light: A Memoir of Family, Loss and Hope, is published by Allen & Unwin.