The Sunday Telegraph - Stella
In my own words
Kate stopped all contact with her mother two years ago. So, what would it be like when she had her own daughter?
‘I had to cut my mother out of my life before I felt ready for a baby’
IN THE MIDDLE OF the night, when I’m breastfeeding my sixmonth-old daughter, Blake, I start thinking about my mum. I think about how sad it is that Blake hasn’t met her. But my mother isn’t dead. Nor have we been separated because of lockdown. I cut her out of my life two years ago.
People are often shocked when I tell them I don’t speak to my mum any more. ‘But… she’s your mother!’ they splutter, as if this biological link trumps all possible reasons why we’re no longer in touch. There’s a stigma about having no relationship with the woman who gave birth to you. An errant father or an estranged sibling is one thing, but your own mother? People can’t get their heads around it. I’ve taken to saying, ‘She’s not around,’ so people presume she’s dead and move on.
So, why have I cut her out of my life? Well, like most stories of family estrangement, it’s complicated. We had a fraught relationship when I was growing up. My parents divorced when I was 11 and she left when I was 15 to live with her new boyfriend. For years, I persevered in trying to maintain some sort of relationship, going through the motions of the mother-daughter rituals. Mother’s Day was always hard. I’d end up sending some nondescript floral card, then feel relieved that the ordeal was over for another year. We’d meet up for lunches, but without the bond formed in childhood, she mainly felt like a stranger I was obliged to see.
Finally, at 34, having gone through my own divorce and many years of therapy, I realised that I had the power to decide who I did and didn’t want in my life. After one particularly upsetting dinner, I simply stopped replying to her messages and then blocked her number. She’s written to me a few times (letters delivered via my sister, because she no longer has my address) and, while she says she’s sorry about the past, I don’t believe she is capable of change.
To some people, this will sound cruel, unforgiving, selfish. Even my partner has trouble getting his head around it and occasionally asks me whether I can’t give her another chance, for Blake’s sake. But because he’s never met my mother, he doesn’t realise that letting her in a little bit will open the floodgates.
For a long time, I thought I wasn’t capable of becoming a mother myself because of the paucity of the relationship with my own. While all my friends started having babies, I felt ambivalent about the idea of children and was convinced that my ‘mummy issues’ must be why. Ironically, it was only after cutting off ties that I began to feel the first inklings of what kind of mother I might want to be, to hope that maybe it didn’t have to be the same. Like pruning back a plant, it’s as if I had to sever all ties with this dying relationship to allow the space for my own fresh shoots of motherhood to grow.
I’ve surprised myself by how much I’ve enjoyed being a mum so far, but having a baby has thrown questions about my own mum to the fore. Whether it was midwives asking if my mum had visited yet or seeing friends’ mothers move in to provide support, this is a time when your mother would typically be a big part of your life. When Blake does something new and adorable like smiling for the first time or rolling over, I wish I could send a picture of her, but I send them to my sister or my partner’s mum instead.
I have thought about what I’ll say when Blake asks me about her grandmother. I hope I can just be honest with her and explain that I prefer not to see her any more.
I realise now that, over the course of my life, I’ve formed close friendships with older women who have been like mother substitutes to me – a boss, a woman I met at a yoga retreat, an ex’s mother – yet, I often wonder what I would be like if I had a close relationship with my mum. What would my worldview be like if I knew what it was like to have the kind of mother-daughter relationships I see in the media – that unconditional love that is like no other? I thought I’d never know what that was like and yet now, of course, I do, because I feel it for my own daughter.
I can only hope that having such a difficult relationship with my mother has in some ways made me a better person and even a better mother. I’ve seen how wrong things can go. At least I know what not to do.
‘A Trip of One’s Own’ by Kate Wills is out now (Blink, £12.99)