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Are mothers and daughters two different people? Or extensions of each other inextricably bound together in complex ways?
Mother’s Day was a few days ago and I called my mother up to wish her. We chatted together and laughed as usual and again, my heart was filled with sorrow at her absence. I missed my mother.
And yet, I reminded myself, was it not a relief in so many ways that she was physically absent and far away from me? Firstly, I consoled myself, I was ‘sparing’ her tension. My life had gone awry, at least in comparison to the so many ‘proper’ and lady-like plans my mother had had for my present and future. I was supposed to be the good girl, from the pinned up kerchief to the neat frock and pig tails tucked neatly behind my ears, complete with polite behavior. And had I turned out like that? Hadn’t the spite of her claustrophobic expectations from my femininity turned me into a slovenly and somewhat unhappy hippy, scratching myself uncomfortably and surreptitiously, as others complained of how unbearably I stank?
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Yet, how I admired my mother’s pristine and pure beauty. She was the only beautiful woman in the world for me, while I was its most ugly hoyden and slut! How condemned and ugly I was, while my love for this idol, this paragon of purity and beauty soared! How I missed her, the misshapen monster that I was, without her by my side, to exonerate the grace of my origin! How deeply I despised those who called me pretty in an ‘odd sort of way’ because I disbelieved them and later purposely ‘lost my looks’ to the world, so that I could love my mother as the unequivocal heroine of my life, from whom I could draw beauty and glory.
I wondered why she nagged me endlessly about maintaining my looks, when it had been to bask in her glory that I had given up my struggles that had been paltry in any case.
I wondered why she nagged me endlessly about maintaining my looks, when it had been to bask in her glory that I had given up my struggles that had been paltry in any case. No, I wasn’t pretty and yes, my mother was gorgeous and no she never discriminated against my looks and loved me with all her heart, despite everything that I was. But maybe she started feeling afraid of too sharp a paradox between us. “People won’t believe you are my daughter,” she would desperately add. The continuity between us had to be maintained, even as I was to remain her ‘younger sister’ in my appearance.
It was better that my mother was far away. She would not understand my complex political decisions and my painful emotional life, would she? We would begin to quarrel and bicker as soon as our ‘honeymoon period’ was over, as she would begin asking me the most important question in our relationship: “WHY”. Why did I think and feel in the terrible and tortuous way that I did? Why was I not simpler? Why was I not “normal”? Why did I not try to look “pretty” like the other girls did? Why was I so political? When she was my age…
And for a long time I would try to explain to her that maybe I was just a mirror, a part of her. And then it would suddenly dawn on her that I was blaming her for the same things that she was labeling me for, since she came first into the world and not me and that I had simply followed her into the world and followed her teachings too… and it was she, she and she and not just I, I and I….
And that she and I did not have a start and a finish line to the painful torture and tearing love that was between her and me that would end only on that one dreadful day when the skies would tear apart and one of us would remain behind. And on that day when only one of us would remain behind, we would be halved, as if torn apart from each other, bleeding, handicapped and limping, forever ugly and condemned, motherless and childless to the world.
Only we could complete each other and create each other and without each other, the both of us would be monsters.
Only we could complete each other and create each other and without each other, the both of us would be monsters. Only the both of us would make each other and compose our mutual reflection, as we would constitute the remnants of each other in the world, even as sons would go ahead to grow beards. Only we would continue to re-enact the history of struggle between two women rolling together in blood and birth cries, the labour of love and the fear of death now indistinguishable as we would strain against each other in our need to survive each other, amidst hovering death of birth.
After all, she could not be beautiful without me either.
If I killed myself aai, what would happen to your beauty? I thought often. But it was such a disastrous thought to imagine that graven face, its lines of grief etched in stone on her face, forever ugly and stony in silent and defeated cracks, so still that a small spider could spin a silvery web from the corner of a cheek to the tip of the aquiline nose. A face that would so never smile that I would not be able to recognize it. My heart would quail to lose that one person’s smile and mirth in the world that I loved more than myself. My throat would constrict with grief with the very imagination of my mother’s lost beauty and defeat. It would be like hugging my mother, only to reveal that the person turning around was a menacing stranger instead….my real mother lost to me forever!
It was better that my mother was far away because feeling blamed, she would grow angry and start calling whatever decisions I made ‘complicated emotional hang ups’. It would then go back to the loneliness of stepping around each other, saying sorry and carrying on as if nothing ever happened
And pretending we were the lucky ones after all, since so many mothers did not have children or so many children did not have mothers. It would all go on like this till the stress built up and the next battle broke out between us, as if the both of us were simply waiting for it with our grievances accumulated: the both of us like hurt and angry children, ready to recount and hurl each others rejections back at each other, as if we were divorcing spouses.
The day you spat out the sweet I bought you…the day you did not pick me up from school as I waited and waited outside it.
And then the day would come for departure. She would look fragile, brittle, tired and frail. I would feel like an ass and bite my tongue for a hundred different sharp comments that I could have avoided making, during her visit. We would flutter around each other, promise not to cry, while feeling pretty much on the edge of it. I would feel sick and tired with the melodrama and irritated and fidgety. My mother would feel rejected about my irritation with the melodrama. She would want to pray, which would of course become the suitable occasion for crying. I would be formal and business-like avoiding the crying thing and probably rejecting her some more. My final embrace would be non-intimate and stiff. And as she would finally cry, I would chant under my breath: please let this get over. I hate my mother crying. I hate saying goodbye to her. I have no clue of what I am going to do when she dies.
I feel extremely uncomfortable about confronting the biggest abyss of my life…a non-defined love that paradoxically accompanies emptiness and confusion. My mother and what my enormous love for her means, in terms of defeating and denying myself….whether she lives or passes away or whether she lives far away. The confusion that in loving her, I must annihilate myself or in loving myself, I must annihilate her or the opposite, because there is no start and finish line between her and me. We are continuous circles of each other.
We pray in the meanwhile for all the mothers and children of the world and for maternity itself, for motherless children, for childless mothers, for those mothers who cannot find their children and are today in old-people’s homes or ill with Alzeimer’s, for orphans and poor children, for the children of sex workers and for surrogate mothers. We even pray for Mother Mary and the poor crucified Jesus and the pain she felt. And she prays that I remain fine and ok and healthy and successful. And she prays for her journey back home.
But still there is no ‘us’. She has not prayed about ‘us’. There seems to be no language for praying for us because there is no boundary between her and me. How can there be a ‘we’, if there is no her and me?
“Your mother is a human being and we must imagine a perfect mother, if you want to be healed”, my therapist once said to me, when we were discussing the issue. “Why can’t we imagine my own mother?” I asked querulously.
It seemed we could not imagine my mother because my own mother would always have to be human and therefore have flaws and so on, with her relationship with me. For those women with issues surrounding care, security and safety and suffering childhood depression (or dysthymia), we had to imagine a perfect mother, who would be motherhood incarnate, in order to heal from depression. This was therapeutically supposed to help.
It was a big assumption that healing from pain, that one undertook in the first place out of love, can necessitate the giving up of that one subject of enormous love, itself. Needless to say, my therapy was unsuccessful, since I could not imagine any other perfect mother, who epitomized motherhood.
Yes, my mother was imperfect and human and relationships between mothers and daughters are endless and often without boundaries, that makes them painful and full of a certain circular eternity that can also become claustrophobic, unless accepted as so.
Yes, my mother was imperfect and human and relationships between mothers and daughters are endless and often without boundaries, that makes them painful and full of a certain circular eternity that can also become claustrophobic, unless accepted as so. What mothers and daughters feel for each other is far greater than love, because it is like a coiling spring. It is a form of continuity that is often full of undefinable categories in terms of our modern relationship parlance that is full of all sorts of sanitation devices that ensures longevity, and that too of the marital kind (you know boundaries and so on). Mothers and daughters are often enmeshed together and mystical and very painful; they are each other’s friends and enemies and their mutual relationships sometimes cause both their personalities to develop or become severely hindered.
Mothers and daughters are not two different people. They are often two women running a three legged race against each other, where sometimes every pull apart hurts like hell.
First published on the author’s blog
Mother & Child abstract art via Shutterstock
Deepra Dandekar is a feminist historian working on narratives of religion, community and violence in
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