To some of us, Mother’s Day is a reminder of a painful past, of broken relationships and broken dreams. The following piece is my tribute to the woman who gave birth to me. Mom, I’m sorry I let you down…
The last time I spoke to my birth mother was in 2006. She flew to Canada from her homeland of South Africa to spread the remainder of my father’s ashes in the city we’d spent 10 years as a family: Prince George. My mother emailed me from my sister’s, where she was staying, and asked if I wanted to meet. It was nice – and surprising – to get an invitation, especially as the previous year we had had our share of conflicts around my decision to transition from my assigned female identity to a male one. At the time, my mother had disowned me and accused me of bringing shame over the family. After my father passed away from cancer, she told me she wished I’d died instead of him.
Given the acrimony that my transition had caused, I stayed away from my father’s funeral and accepted that I would perhaps not ever see my mother again. The thought was not so horrible. If love had once existed between us, I could not remember the last time my mother had admitted to feeling anything resembling it. Long before my transition we had locked horns over everything from my lack of motivation to my intentionally bad behaviour, as she saw it. In truth, my sin was that I had dared to become clinically depressed at the tender age of 12. Mental illness reflected badly on her skills as a mother. And if I had to guess, the guilt of her failure rendered her incapable of showing me affection.
Some children bring out the worst in their parents, and I certainly brought out the worst in my mother. Between my severe depressive episodes and my father’s physical disabilities, I imagine my mother felt her family was more of a burden than she’d signed up for. At least where I and my father were concerned. She convinced my father, a psychiatrist, to prescribe me antidepressants. But neither of them thought it necessary for me to speak with anyone outside the family. And so, when the medications made my suicidal thoughts grow worse, I withdrew even further, scared that I was going crazy, scared that if they found out, they would have me committed.
The yelling started gradually, and became more severe once my two elder sisters left the house. My mother would get upset at anything and everything it seemed. Like when my father dropped his fork at the dinner table, his fingers like twisted twigs, the result of severe rheumatoid arthritis. She would scream at him when he clumsily knocked his knee into the corner of the coffee table and blood poured onto the living room carpet. Because of the medications he was on, my father bled easily and long, his blood refusing to clot. My father rarely defended himself against my mother’s cruel jabs. As he later told me: try to think of it from your mother’s perspective, being with a man who is dependent on her to get around, to live. I couldn’t understand his logic. If she loved him, surely yelling was no way to show it?
But there was a viciousness in my mother’s attacks that made me want to leap up and defend my father with all my might. I loved him and wanted to look up to him. And yet, there he was, vulnerable, in many ways a broken man — and not even his wife treated him with respect. It made my blood boil. I tried to defend him but for my pains I unleashed not only my mother’s rage but my father’s too. In his eyes, my mother could do no wrong. And given the choice of defending the woman he depended on or the child who wanted to look up to him, he inevitably chose my mother’s side, condemning my angry outbursts and ordering me to apologize to my mother for challenging her authority.
I learned two lessons: sometimes doing what you think is right, hurts. And, never trust your parents.
As my father’s physical health declined, my mental health plummeted as well. My mother, too, sunk into a kind of sullen, angry depression, though this was never acknowledged. I remember her spending her afternoons stretched out on the leather couch in the TV room watching soap operas with the sound turned off. Some nights I would hear her screams from the bedroom, waking as she sometimes did from vivid nightmares.
It carried on like this until I finished high school and, at the tender age of 18, fled to Canada to stay with my sister and attend university. By then, my depression had become so entrenched that a mere change in environment wasn’t enough to shake it. But I finally reached out for professional help and started my long road towards recovery.
So, in 2006, when my mother invited me to meet with her, I thought: maybe we can finally have an honest conversation. We got together in front of the Empress Hotel in Victoria, BC. As I approached her I asked if it was OK for me to hug her. Stony-faced, she told me to do whatever I wanted. She stood as still as a tree-trunk as I tried to wrap my arms around her. We settled onto a park bench and I told her of the hurt she caused me, of the anger I still felt. When I questioned her outbursts, she seemed surprised. “Why did you bother listening to me?” she asked. As if it was my fault for caring what she thought of me.
I told her I needed her to apologize for the way she belittled my father and me. She refused. She said that I was to blame, that I had made her life a living hell. That’s when I realized that my mother would never change. And I needed to be OK with that. That day when we parted, I realized I could not continue the relationship with my mother and keep my sanity. I needed to let go of needing her acceptance. I needed to move on with my life.
I haven’t seen her since that day, and though it hurts, I know it was the right decision for my own healing.