If I were to tell people my schooling was paid by three scholarships they might smile politely.
If I were to tell them I studied piano for 12 years and was accomplished enough to perform in public, they might be impressed.
If I were to tell them that I won every form prize in my junior school, won countless competitions for speech and drama, poetry reading, the bishop chorister’s award and played the lead ‘Alice’ in Alice in Wonderland, all before the age of 11, they might ask me why I don’t do any of it now?
But of course I don’t normally tell anyone these things. Because I didn’t do any of them really. My adoptive mother did.
My mother cared a lot about my education and my accomplishments. The ones she wanted me to have. I was one of those children who had an activity based life, from elocution lessons, speech and drama, competitions in festivals, choral practice and piano.
‘I want you to play the piano.’ she said. ‘Music is one of the greatest pleasures you can know. I was deprived of piano lessons when I was little, but you must have them. I want you to have it all. But you must practise. 30 minutes every day.’
Soon thirty minutes became an hour. That’s a long time when you’re 7 years old. But when I didn’t, she’d get angry and remind me of her deprivation. She wanted me to be grateful to her for something I never wanted. My fingers practised… whilst my teeth bit into the wood of the piano. I gnawed away at it, the instrument that I had been forced to play. The one I hated. The varnish wore off where I bit it and helped me cope because I could see physical proof of my hate. Hate that I couldn’t share with her (or anyone else), because every time I did, she’d trot out the story of how she would have loved to be in my place. The only respite I had was on holiday. Until she bought me an electric organ for Christmas, because she cared so much that I would suffer from lack of practice.
Then there was the singing.
‘If only your father hadn’t thwarted my career. I was a semi professional opera singer when we met. I could have been great. You will have the chances that I never had.’
I had singing lessons. I was in the general school choir, the special school choir and the church choir. She joined the church choir – despite her ongoing feud with God for making her infertile – because she cared about spending time with me… and drowned out my 11 year old voice with her powerful mezzo soprano. I made it to Grade 5 for singing on her impetus; you can train your ear and your technical skills for these things but singing actually requires a good voice and a passion to sing, which I didn’t have.
In academic work, it was similar. I lived in terror of the parent teacher evenings, never sleeping on these nights, waiting for when she’d come back home. To tell me that I hadn’t been trying hard enough, that I was a failure. In my first school, I was too advanced. She’d taught me to read at 3 years old, which meant I was bored at school. They moved me to a different school. But the same thing happened. Home schooling from Mum meant I was bored and consequently made little effort. The teachers started sending notes home, which I tore up. I was 6 years old. But eventually it caught up with me…
‘We asked her to write about her weekend,’ they said. ‘And she wrote three lines saying she watched television. Don’t you do anything with your child?’
Her shame was overwhelming and my punishment severe. A withdrawal of love. She decided I needed to be moved again because I was more academic than the kids in the state school system. And of course her reputation as a perfect Mum had been sullied.
In my next school, she diligently studied with me at exam times. Drew up schedules, made all the notes for me in every subject, coached me again and again until I was word perfect. I won the form prize every year and was top in all my classes for 4 years. In the last year of junior school I won the second scholarship for 10% fees (instead of the top one for 20% that I’d already got). I hated the girl who won the 20% scholarship. It was because of her, my mother didn’t love me as much.
The cracks were showing though. The strain of having to be top of the class meant that I had started to resort to stealing at school in an effort to break out of my prison of the perfect daughter.
‘Don’t you buy anything for your child?’ said the Head Teacher to my mother when they found out about the thefts.
Her humiliation, both for the loss of the scholarship and my stealing, meant that I was moved to my fourth school. An even more prestigious school famed for their excellent academic record.
On paper, I have the perfect mother. She sacrificed all her time for me, her career for some years, her money, sent me to the best schools, encouraged musical and academic endeavors. If I could be the perfect daughter, I would be the proof of her fantastic mothering skills. And as an adoptive mother, it was doubly important that she prove herself. The prizes, the scholarships, the distinctions in all my exams. This was the girl she loved. Because as a brilliant reflection of her mothering, I made her love herself. Finally she was loved. But the price she paid to get the love was my destruction. Because my mother was a grade A manipulator and a narcissist. She persuaded everyone – including me – that she only had my best interests at heart, whilst in reality…it was all about her. Her huge insecurity needed feeding.
As she drove me forward in her ambitions, I started deceiving her about the little things and then the big things. I had a secret life. One where I didn’t have to be perfect. And one which she would hate and hate me for it. And as she started to find out more and more about the daughter she didn’t know, the smoking, the promiscuity, the lying… she started to hate me, withdrawing her love and approval – thus perpetuating the duality in my character. For years I had striven so hard to please but I couldn’t maintain the image that she’d created for me. There was a remnant that half-heartedly tried to cover up my behavior as a last ditch effort to gain her love but by 15, I’d given up trying to be what she wanted.
‘What kind of monster are you?’ She’d say. ‘I understand now that nature is stronger than nurture. I can’t fight your genes.’
Eventually she couldn’t stand the bad girl any longer and I was sent to boarding school – the fifth school – (albeit with a music scholarship). But it didn’t last long. Without any possibility of love and approval, I no longer needed to be the perfect daughter. Rootless, directionless and without any knowledge of who I really was, and even what I really wanted I found an outlet in sex and alcohol… which shamed me into leaving for my sixth school. I’d started to copy her pattern of running away from trouble.
I don’t believe in blame. I don’t believe in anything but acts and consequences. It was my destiny to go on this journey to understand myself, my mother and see the plight of others around me. I am privileged to be able to do it, but it’s taken me a long time to realize this. My heart breaks for my mother. A woman deprived of love herself, growing up in a poor environment, desperately insecure and playing second fiddle to her brother, the first born and adored son. And for her to then discover she was infertile. How she must have wept. How it became an obsession to become a mother, a perfect mother at any cost. No matter how hard she tried, she failed. And now, that we haven’t been in contact for decades, I weep for her some more. For us. For the child I could have been. For the mother she tried so hard to be. And for her now, a woman who has lost her only child.
When I look at my children, I wonder how my issues will be borne out on them. I hope I will be able to give them the ability to be themselves. To support their choices, even if I disagree with them. And to let them experience life the way they want and not the way I want them too.