I am five and I think in fairy tales. Heroes and villains. In my own life, I have the perfect villain. I am the forgotten child, the lost princess, the stolen baby. And the villain is my adopted mother. Like Rapunzel’s dear old Mother Grothel, my mother is controlling, narcissistic and needy. But these adjectives will only come later, what I know now is fear. Fear of being in her company because I can never do the right thing. Instead I spend time in the garden, in the secret dens I decorate with the flowers I’m allowed to pick. The wild ones. The antique pink campions, the sunshine buttercups and the pale blue forget-me-nots.
As I grow older, her face takes on angles. I no longer see her for who she is. Her delicately arched nose becomes hooked. Her long black hair is beautiful but sinister. Her brown eyes channel fury. And the petunia red lipstick which was fashionable in the seventies and which leaves traces on every cup, is dangerous. As an adult I never wear it. It’s too bold. Ever-present. Threatening.
I’ve rid myself of every photo of her and now all that remains is this archetype. A spectre which still haunts my dreams at nearly forty. And those vivid vermilion lips which dominated her face.
I’ve thought long and hard how it has come about that I have cast my adoptive mother so definitively in the role of the evil Queen. How a perfectly ordinary woman could be perceived by me as cruel, even in the absence of any physical abuse. She offered no red apple, cast no malevolent spell. I feel if I am able to understand why, it would not only help me; it would help the millions of children who have dysfunctional relationships with their own mothers. Whose minds vilify them as I do.
My mother was a product of her time. Strictly protestant and of an era where corporal punishment was lauded and emotions were a sign of weakness. How children were–for their own moral health–allowed no privacy. How female sexuality was shameful. How we all had to be driven with ruthless ambition if we were to better ourselves. But then how does she differ from her peers? Is it the simple fact I was adopted and redirected my abandonment issues and rejection into a seething cauldron of resentment and blame laid squarely at her feet? Was it her relentless social climbing which eradicated my poorly developed sense of self? Was it my adoptive father’s own dismissive and abusive comments which influenced me?
“I’m going to stick a wooden cross up in front of the house so she can hang herself from it.”
Emotional blackmail, game playing and gas lighting. They were all present in my childhood, and yet there are worse, far worse parents then she. I know she did the best she could with the resources at her disposal. None of my carefully listed reasons adequately explain the hatred that crystallised my heart from such an early age.
Children can be ungrateful, selfish little fuckers. There’s no pre frontal cortex governing their actions and they are truly capable of the most horrific acts. It’s Lord of the Flies and worse. In many ways I have been stuck within my own pre-adolescent patterns, the lonely adoptee, isolated for years with only my mother and my hate for company especially after my parents’ divorce. She wanted my love, but she never got it.
Why do we love?
As an adult, I look at who I want to spend time with, who I love. These relationships are consensual, mine with my mother was not. It’s only in the truly gravest and most provable of circumstances that a child can emancipate themselves from their parents. There was no escape. Nowadays I spend time with people who respect me. She did not. The people who love me just as I am. She did not. So quite simply, one of the answers to the question ‘Why do we love?’ is ‘Because we are loved.’ It’s far easier to love someone back if they love and admire us. We shimmer in love, we bloom and we grow. A child deprived of love, strikes horror in our hearts and whips our apathy into uproar.
But one might say that in many ways it’s not a parent’s job to love a child just as they are.
It’s their job to prepare that child for society as we have constructed it. And what a society! Hierarchical, greedy and full of power imbalance. If my upbringing was supposed to acclimatise me to those structures, well, it did a splendid job. But is that all there is of life? The war between parents wages on and how they might best achieve this, is a matter of constant debate. I was given the best education, a new legitimacy and in those days it was a true gift for a bastard child. I had a well off middle class family, none of which I appreciated at the time. She dressed me in pastels, and I was always her pale imitation.
Nowadays I have come to be grateful for my privilege and my life. The lessons it brought me as well as those I was denied. But was I loved?
My adult experiences have brought me to a place where I realise there’s a marked difference between loving someone and having them feel loved. With my own children, I look carefully at what they most respond to. Is it physical contact? Is it words of affirmation? Is it quality time? Is it acts of service? Is it gifts? According to authors of The 5 Love Languages of Children, these are all languages of love. But as a child growing up in a strict religious household there were very few gifts despite the fact we were well off. Healthy parenting still dictates that gifts are bad for a child. In a sex negative household there was little sensual or intimate contact. With two working parents, quality time was reserved to my mother drilling me on my homework. Acts of service weren’t freely given, on the contrary they were listed time and again as a demonstration of my ingratitude. And whilst there were words a-plenty they were mostly about how I could do better, be better.
My children and I returned home from a playdate last night, but before we left I snuck off to the garden to pick the forget-me-nots I’d seen peeking out through the wooden boards of the veranda. They love flowers, at the moment the smaller the better. It suits their tiny fingers. Those small blue flowers are also the ones which sprang unbidden around the hedgerows in my childhood home every spring despite my mother’s best efforts to weed them out and flank her garden in regimented scarlet salvias and tangerine marigolds. And when I return with bunches for both of them, I am rewarded by my children’s glowing eyes, wide smiles and exuberant hugs. Those forget-me-nots are a gift from me to them, and a reminder to myself. Never to forget that no matter how much I love my children, it’s not about me showing love in a way that I think they should appreciate. It’s about understanding what it takes for them to feel loved.