Mothers without mothers


My mother’s mother died when mum was 15.

Mum cannot remember a time when her own mother wasn’t sick. Back in the 50s, people who needed long-term care were shunted from place to place. At one stage her mother was cared for in a geriatric hospital even though she was only in her late 40s.

She had hypertensive issues and became bedridden. My mother recalls a time when they needed to care for her at home. Mum was in the forth form then, at Hutt Valley High School. She loved basketball and had taught herself how to flick-flack, and to do the splits. She was probably quite a confident girl. School was everything for mum; she wanted to become either a pharmacist or a concert pianist.

All of the money and effort was, however, put into her brother, who was lined up for medical school.

Once her own mother came home to die, mum was taken out of school to look after her. The other sisters were much older, with young children and those sorts of serious commitments.

Mum was 15. She recalls standing on a chair to look out a high window with a view towards the school field, filled with uniformed and hormonal teenagers, getting on with their lives, unaware of the girl left behind to be at her mother’s bedside.

No teenager wants this, no matter how much they love a parent. Kids are kids—they are supposed to be selfish. It doesn’t last anyway; pretty soon the world has you in the grip of compliance.

It was much sooner for mum. Once her mother died, my own went out into the workforce to earn. She became a proficient typist and shorthand-taker in Wellington at a shipping company.

That was that. There was no ‘discussion circle’ or ‘family group conference’ about what should happen to my mother.

Mum’s life of ‘have to’ must have been overwhelming, but the other thing here—the intangible—is that she never knew what it was to be mothered. Fathered, certainly. But mothering?

She had to imagine and invent; and when she became a mother herself, she had no context from which to draw inspiration or just plain practical common sense.

I know of many motherless mums, and on this year’s Mother’s Day, I am thinking about them, and hope that the dead piece of heart can radiate, even just a little.



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