Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Being a mother is a tough job, but wonderful too

My children are my gold, and far from draining my selfhood, they fill it, and give it substance
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The Independent Online

My mother, Jena, died on this day exactly two years ago, as winter was finally giving way. Her last months were desolate and she was starving herself so she could get faster to her maker. All that was left was a skeletal waif, her eyes somewhere far away or looking pleadingly at us. I longed for the woman who was my mother – lively, funny, intensely affectionate, optimistic, feisty, demanding, obstinate, and manipulative. I miss her so much. I need to talk to her, quarrel with her, stroke her still lovely skin.

She loved Mother's Day but rejected gifts: "Waste of money. Flowers die, have too much chocolate already, don't need another bloody cardie". Instead, she implored: "Stay with me today, the whole day, make me happy". But I resented her for demanding more time when she knew how much I had to do.

Now times flaps around me, like a too big shirt. Balzac wrote: "A mother's heart is an abyss at the bottom of which there is always forgiveness". So true. Mum forgave me though I didn't understand her needs, the unbearable tenderness and gnarling knottiness of being a mother.

I do now. I found myself saying to my daughter on Saturday: "I don't want presents, don't need things, I want you to show me you care about me."

She will not heed the cry; kids can't, I didn't. Mum had to raise children in the fifties in Uganda with an unreliable husband who found regular work and family life much too tedious. She kept loan sharks at bay and struggled to provide for us – cooking, sewing, teaching and tending infants. Her burdens were unimaginably heavy. Millions of women around the world, and here too, are still weighed down by poverty and responsibilities. Education liberated me and give me the chances she never had. As a modern working woman, I have financial independence and a good man. Both help reduce the stresses of motherhood. Work/life balance is getting better and gender equality – though still to be achieved – is no longer an argument. It is still incredibly hard to be a mother and even harder to point out this truth.

I don't mean the guilt and the exhaustion of trying to pack it all in, but the vulnerability and intense, unique co-dependence between a mother and child.

Just as they never tell you about the agony of childbirth, so there is a conspiracy of silence about how tough is the business of mothering from birth to death. The childcare expert, Penelope Leach, for example, wrote: "Fun for him is fun for you. Fun for you creates more for him and the more fun you have the fewer will be your problems". Groan.

Mother's Day ribbons and flowers bring joy, but also add further gloss over reality, the complicated relationship between children and the women who gave them life, carried and delivered them, their flesh fused then torn asunder. When your children are in pain, you feel it on your skin, almost physical; when they hurt you, you feel a toxic shock as if your own body is attacking itself. You are the one they turn to, yet fight, the one who has to absorb their frustration before Papa comes in and sweetness is restored. Fathers, when they do get involved, are seen as heroes by the children and society. There are days when I want to run away from it all, but how can you run away from yourself? Hard feminists deplore such confessions of weakness. Theirs – understandably – has been a battle against victimhood and pathetic femininity. Equal rights means never having to say you are tired or laid low.

We are supposedly like most men, hard and invincible. Only we are not. Post feminist men aren't either, but they aren't programmed, as are females, to bear the emotional excesses of their children. These days, new pressures have been added on to make us feel even more wretched. We must look forever young and sexy, pretend that motherhood makes no difference to our bodies, that there is no depletion of energy, no sudden reprioritisation with the arrival of a child. Websites to help mums in crises are proliferating. Thousands of users are apparently suicidal. And yet the assumption is that when things go wrong, mum will take care of everything. I look around and see that most disabled children are cared for by lone mums and even devoted fathers scarper when the going gets tough.

My children are my gold, and far from draining my selfhood, they fill it, give it substance, my existence meaning. They love me passionately. My 14-year-old daughter cries when she thinks of Bambi's shot mum.

Neither realises death will take me away and it is only then they will understand how they made me feel, how hard it was to be their mum and how wonderfully joyous too. Too late.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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