The mother-daughter dance can be a delicate one. Here, people say the things they can't say to her.
Illustration by Ashley Goodall
"Our mothers," said French novelist Marguerite Duras, "always remain the strangest, craziest people we've ever met." At best, the woman who introduced you to this world is your savior—especially when it feels like that same, cruel world has waged war against you. For the less fortunate, her mere presence can unearth deep reserves of pain. For many, or most, it's a nuanced blend of both.
Whatever your mother-daughter dynamic, it can be inexplicably hard to put praise or pain into words. Whether it's the fear of causing her heartache, sheer awkwardness, or some other reason as unique as the relationship itself.
I asked some women to write it down, instead.
I wish you could have trusted me. Trusted that beneath it all—the yelling, the barbs—I just wanted to help you. I'm pretty sure whoever came up with the term "high functioning alcoholic" didn't have a parent who really drank. That somebody can hold down a job and appear to the world as together, doesn't mean things aren't forever on the edge of falling apart. You can't hide reality from the people you live with.
I wish you had known I never would have told anyone. It feels too late now; alcohol is enmeshed so deeply into my memories of us. There are so many moments I come back to, times that should be happy, but they are tinged. My 16th birthday is discovering you had started mixing vodka with your wine, to give it more of a kick. I have this aversion to the smell of red wine now—I've only just realized. My body seizes up ever so slightly if I catch a hint of it. I just wish you could have trusted me—trusted that beneath it all, there has only ever been, and only ever will be, love.
I wish that when you asked me a question you would actually let me answer it. Speaking over me every time you invite me to speak makes me feel like you don't care what I have to say. It makes me think you don't care about me as a full, feeling, breathing person—like you only care about the version of me that belongs to you.
It was pretty weird that you asked me to take the profile photo for your internet dating profile just a few months after Dad died. There, I said it. I still think you looked great in it though. I don't know. We are not good at communicating, are we? I find it pretty hard to have conversations with you because I always feel like you're there out of obligation.
In general, I feel like since you re-married, your kids have been less of a priority. It's hard, because I want you you be happy, but as a feminist I don't think your life should revolve around being there for your children. I guess it does shock me though, sometimes. I'm really jealous of my friends who have overbearing parents.
You also once told me that if I ever needed an abortion, you didn't want to know about it. I think about that one a lot. I would literally drive a stranger off the street to an abortion clinic if they asked. Grievances aside, you are an incredible person. You are powerful. As a great man (Darren Hayes from Savage Garden) once sang, I believe that parents do the best job they can.
It's not so much your schizophrenia. I'm used to that. It's more your narcissism, and how you treat me like I'm your entertainment—like a stupid doll. You don't do anything to help yourself. You just wait for me to save you and I can't, because I'm too tired from trying to keep myself afloat. You reject other people to sit around waiting for me, so you can guilt trip me into visiting you. It's sick. But you're sick—so how can I be angry, right?
I am constantly struck by how conditioned you are. You tell me you don't believe in gender quotas and that women shouldn't get jobs "just because" they are women. Which is confusing, because when I was young you told me women can do anything. You tell me you are much happier now I have found someone to "look after" me. I mean, he's great, but I was also pretty damn happy on my own. And he doesn't look after me, we're partners.
You remind me of all the times I have failed. Yes, thanks for that—I remember those times too. But I'm going to keep failing, because I'm going to keep trying. And I kind of think I'm succeeding, too. You tell me to settle. I'm glad I didn't settle in my 20s, and at 33 I won't be doing it now. I'm very grateful for what I have but I'm not finished yet.
I don't get a lot of what you say. And I'm sure you don't get me. But there was something, or many things, that you did which made it possible for me to live the life I lead. And I think it's a pretty damn good one.
I love you, but I don't like you. You have bullied me my entire life. When I was a kid, you hounded me when we disagreed and used my emotions against me. You have me so completely cowed that even now I don't stand up for myself around you. You always have to bring me down. I was so happy when I signed my first book contract; I told you that if my book sold a thousand copies, I would get a royalty bonus. Your response? "You'll never sell a thousand copies." Then you got offended when I turned to leave—so you wouldn't see my anger and tears. "What? I'm just being realistic," you said. How could you not be happy to see me happy? Maybe I don't love you.
I wonder if I'll ever send you these words.
As a teenager, I accused you of working too much and not being 'maternal'. I couldn't see then how nurturing you really were. As an adult, I'm completely in awe of what you achieved, of your strength and resolve. You run your own company, manage your own staff, you and Dad continue to be in a loving relationship, and your children are (for the most part) functioning adults.
I wonder if I'll ever send you these words. Sentimentality is embarrassing for both of us, and to be honest, I'm not sure either of us could deal with the awkwardness. I'd like to think I might, one day down the track. Perhaps when I'm a mother myself. But for now, here is a silent, typed-up thought you might never read. Mum, I know what you've done for me, and I'm grateful, and I hope you're not too disappointed with the results.
*Names have been changed