On Difficult Mother-Child Relationships

Sunday, May 12th is Mother’s Day again. This year my partner and I will spend it with my partner’s foster mother, a woman who took the brave step of adopting my partner when she was 16 or so. We will take her out for a sit-down meal at an upscale pizza joint she really enjoys. And we will thank her for the transformative decision she made to adopt my partner and save her from a life on the streets of Vancouver.

As for my own mother, I don’t know if she is living or dead (I assume she’s alive), nor do I even know the country she now lives in. I assume it is South Africa, where she (and I) was born.

While I admire the sacrifices mothers make every day to raise strong, healthy, well-adjusted children, my own complicated relationship with my mother prevents me from reaching out to the person who brought me into this world. I hope she is well wherever she is. And while our estrangement has been painful – to both of us I’m sure – I do not foresee ever seeing her again in my lifetime. For us the road together ended long ago.

I’d like to devote this blog post to the motherless ones. To those of us who lost our mothers along the way to adulthood and ourselves.

My mother wasn’t a terrible person. At least, I trust she did not strive for that. She was born in 1944 in a small farmer’s town in rural South Africa. The youngest of three children (sort of – she had a fraternal twin brother and an older sister), she was the first person in her family to attend university, where she studied psychology. It was during those university years that she met my father, also a student, studying to become a physician, and later a psychiatrist. They met on a blind date, set up by mutual friends. From the sounds of it, my mother wasn’t overly impressed with my father at first. But they became an item eventually; married in 1963. Then two years after, my father faced a grim medical prognosis. His kidneys were failing and he would need to undergo a transplant if he were to survive. Despite his protestations to leave him be, his own mother stepped forward as a donor and the surgery took place some time in 1965.

My father survived what was then still considered experimental surgery and my mother stayed by his side throughout. She was the rock that got him through it all, he used to say. It would take another three years before my oldest sister was born. And then four years later my middle sister followed. After that my parents took a hiatus from conceiving until seven years later in 1979, when I was born one winter day. I try to imagine my mother and father as lovestruck youngsters. My mother, a lowly farmer’s daughter, had bagged herself a doctor for a husband – she must have felt pretty good about her prospects.

But my father was not a well man. His health was precarious all throughout my childhood and we were raised in a household of fear and mistrust. Every argument or disagreement was seen as a potentially fatal blow to my father’s health. My mother raised us to behave well or else bad things would happen. As an impressionable and fearful child, I wanted nothing more than to be good at all times, and I was eager for my parents’ approval. I thought only they could be trusted in the whole wide world and I followed my mother everywhere like a puppy. As for my father, we all approached him with a kind of fearful reverence and affection: he was the man who lived when he shouldn’t have and who suffered from chronic pain all his life.

I grew up, until the age of 11, in a smallish city called Prince George in northern British Columbia, Canada. It was a far cry from the dusty South African landscape my parents both were from. They had left for Canada on the advice of a family friend, who had encouraged them to see the world. So, when my father was almost forty years old, and my mother four years younger, they landed in Canada in search of adventure. The adventure lasted 10 years, give or take, with a short intermission in the middle – a year and a half stint during which we returned to South Africa briefly. We lived in Canada long enough that we each earned our citizenship cards – and life, at least from my childish perspective, was pretty good. Until it wasn’t anymore.

My relationship with my mother had started to sour before I entered my teens but it got much, much worse as puberty hit me. In 1990, with my father’s health starting to fail and my middle sister and mother calling for a return to our home country (it was home to them – for me, Canada was all I knew), we did just that: we flew back to South Africa and my father and mother bought a modest little house in a mostly white suburban neighbourhood in Pretoria – a city known for its large conservative Afrikaner population.

Depression hit me hard soon after and I struggled to make sense of my new cultural surroundings, my gender expression and my sexual identity. My parents, I felt pretty sure, were not going to be able to help me figure these things out. And no one I knew seemed to be struggling with the same issues as I was. I knew no one who was gay nor did I have any concept of what it meant to be a transsexual, let alone a female-to-male transguy. My mother, I knew, had a low opinion of lesbians – I knew this because when I was still a pre-teen in Prince George she had forbidden me from playing with a school friend because, she said, the girl was a “lesbian”. She also disapproved of the conductor of the children’s orchestra I was part of because this woman, too, was a dreaded “lesbian”.

But I had no real feeling of myself as someone who fit under the lesbian label. I liked girls just fine, but I liked boys too. More importantly, though, I was drawn to boyish things – and this had nothing to do with sexual attraction. While my mother tolerated my tomboyish ways when I was just a child in Canada, as a teenager in a conservative South African neighbourhood, I was expected to behave a certain way. I failed at it miserably. I hated wearing dresses, was useless at putting on make-up or learning how to cook. I preferred the company of my father’s male friends and was much more drawn to the types of conversations they would have – conversations about the news and politics and philosophy and music. I had little interest in exchanging recipes or discussing soap operas in the kitchen.

As graduation day from high school approached, my mother and I barely were on speaking terms. She felt I was intentionally badly behaved and showed little sympathy for my mental illness. By then I was severely, suicidally depressed, and my father, the psychiatrist, took the step of feeding me anti-depressant pills he received for free from the drug reps that visited his office. I had no language with which to explain what was ailing me, and my parents showed little interest in finding out the cause.

After high school, I left for Canada to study and stayed with my eldest sister who had settled on Vancouver Island. That move probably saved my life. I was still a very troubled person but the continental divide gave me enough distance from my critical mother to begin to seek my own answers for what was wrong. At university, I eventually discovered a language for what I was going through, and a term for what I was. I was transgender. A female-to-male transsexual. A transman.

My relationship with my mother never recovered.

(to be continued)


5 thoughts on “On Difficult Mother-Child Relationships

    1. thekeenobserver Post author

      Thanks Steph. It’s hard day for lots of people. That’s part of why I wanted to write about it. But I have had the fortune of having a number of mother-figures in my life, and today is a day I honour them.

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