In the Mothers Apart Project one of the themes emerging from talking to both mothers apart and professionals is the problem of stereotyping, and judging people by those stereotypes according to myths about ‘bad mothers’. Another theme is that professionals who are not in the field of domestic violence avoid asking questions about violence and abuse in order to have to deal with it – and this is for a variety of reasons. Professionals are telling me that this is what they observe on a regular basis in other professionals who avoid at all costs opening ‘Pandora’s Box’ that is domestic violence (you have to bear in mind that the professionals I am interviewing are going to be sympathetic to survivors/mothers apart as they have granted me an interview to support the Mothers Apart Project).
Today my mother left, she boarded a plane and travelled far away.
She turns 60 this year. Having an almost entirely absent father has left our relationship resembling, as I put it in a toast a few nights ago, not only that of mother and daughter, but also a tried and tested friendship. This latter aspect our affections being considerably less fraught than the former. Never the less I would say that we have made a dedicated study of one another, a critical, yet mutually respectful observation over many years, under many suns. Perhaps this is what my step father could not stand about me, stumbling his way into our lives when I was only four: our devotional fascination and partiality to one another. Un-rivallable and un-touchable except by alienation and wilful destruction. How was he to know that the death of my mother’s mother, when I was still in her womb, had bound us doubly to one another’s blooded souls. I needed her to feed me, clothe me, love me, she needed somewhere to pour the love, the anger, the shock and the grief of my grandmothers abandonment of her and of this world. The result of so much primal need must have been a force to be reckoned with by a man, hurt, angry and belittled by life in his turn, yet no match in passions for this five year old, this romantic, ready to give it all for the one true love of her young life.
I have known for some time now that mine would never be the mother who lived down the street, who knitted blankets for her grandchildren, or moved in when she turned eighty, and I suppose, after twenty-two years I’ve come to terms with this. Of course my mine is the mother who is virtually un-shockable, constantly supportive, who will pick up at 3-am when I call, and fly half-way around the world if I really needed her to… So it’s not all bad!
There is a great moment in Zach Effron’s ‘Garden State’, one of my favourite films to this day. I tried to write it out, but then I thought – argh you just have to watch it for yourself, and I found the clip on youtube:
(original link to video has been removed)
I’ve felt ‘homesick for a place that doesn’t even exist’ for so long now I can’t remember what it felt like in the first place and I wonder how much of it is a fantasy, an imagined amalgamation of all the things and all the people that feel displaced and lost in the world, magnetically drawn to one another? But when I’m with my mother, just sometimes, I catch the faintest whiff of it, it’s like I can finally, actually relax because I’ve made it. I’m home. It’s an understanding, a lack of judgment, competition or expectation that I have never found with anyone else. So that every time she leaves I am deprived of that blissful if brief respite, and the loss of it hits me like a deep blow, somewhere in my gut.
In her essay ‘Eye to Eye’ Audre Lorde writes:
‘Last month I held another black woman in my arms as she sobbed out the grief and deprivation of her mother’s death. Her inconsolable loss – the emptiness of the emotional landscape she was seeing in front of her – spoke out of her mouth from a place of untouchable aloneness that could never admit another Black woman close enough again to matter. “The world is divided into two kinds of people,” she said, “those who have mothers and those who don’t. And I don’t have one anymore.” What I heard her saying was that no other Black woman would ever see who she was, ever trust or be trusted by her again. I heard in her cry of loneliness the source of the romance between Black women and our mommas.’
And though she birthed, fed clothed, held and consoled me, I wonder how much I had a mother, and how much I had a friend, a sister, a soul mate. And as my friends now grow further apart from their mothers – mothers so dedicated to their motherhood, I wonder if it is this friendship that will endure, that will allow us to grow together rather than apart? Which brings me back to my grandmother, unknown in life yet so very present in death. They threw her ashes into the sea and whenever I am near its stormy British shores I think of her, and speak to her, and sing sometimes a while. She was, from what I know, a strong woman in her own way, a woman -were she born now – who may have run a company, sat in boardrooms, or even been a TV chef, but of course, meeting the world in 1926 she lived a very different story. Married her whole life, five children, and a constant support to her husband, a wonderful cook, spotless home.
My mother – ‘allergic to housework’ – as she put it, was ever desperate to get out of their country home and nuclear life in which the greatest expectations of her where to go to secretarial college. Breaking the mould by going to university instead and bringing home, not an affable young lawyer but a woman she met at the bakers instead. (Ever the rebel my old mum.) Went on to fight for women’s rights, and their right to live without men, not needing anything from them, not an allowance, not a roof, not a penis. Quite literally. And though (note the hopeful tone) I believe that this extremely powerful, world-jolting chapter of feminism was effective and necessary, I think it is our responsibility to keep pushing things forward with men and not against them. Indeed I believe this is the only way forward. Still I look at women around me who have careers, who have achieved, are achieving, and in all of them I see a choice made, well I don’t think it was always a choice, and I certainly don’t think it was always conscious, but there it is: work, or children. I’m not saying that women haven’t had both – they most definitely have, but how much was sacrificed, and who or what ended up coming-up trumps?
If it hasn’t been possible to work on your career and be a devoted parent in the past, despite all of feminisms efforts, will it be possible in the future? As the children of career-driven mother’s can we ever forgive them for not always putting us first? And as the grown-up daughters of home-focused mothers can we ever forgive them for not fulfilling their professional potential?
It’s not a new conversation, but it does seem to be coming back into prevalence. Certainly when I hear James O’Brien of LBC, a station I finally agreed to listen to after much nagging from my boyfriend, and guess what – I still think he’s an old-fashioned and hypocritically-leftist pillock, talking about how one in three women want to stay at home to look after their children in the UK and this must be because of a genetic pull which is stronger than any mans ever could be.
What tosh! First of all it’s got to be taken on a case-by-case basis, some men will feel much more desperate to stay at home with their children, some women will be scratching at the door to get back to work and vice versa, neither or these scenarios make you a bad parent! Or indicate m/paternal abnormality.And all parents are severely influenced by the society they grow up in, and what that society/culture considers normal, acceptable parenting. In parts of Africa it is considered acceptable to not speak to a woman when she is on her period, in parts of Britain it is considered acceptable to hit a woman’s bottom in a club then later that same night to beat up a sixteen year old boy for flirting with your sister or daughter. In certain social circles the idea of not having a nanny is absurd, whilst in others children are kept with their mothers and breastfed till over the age of four. It all depends on your up-bringing and the social-conditioning you either conform to, or rebel against James!
Right – excuse me, James O’Brian rant over. And once again this blog is becoming too long! I guess what I’m really trying to look at, well it’s many things, but if we can accept for a moment, the taboo that is a romance with our mothers (with much the same fraught frustrations, betrayals, execrations and mis-communications that we often find with our lovers) can we then begin to acknowledge the anguished heartbreak, and fury that we cause one another in life, and the unconsolable grief we feel not only in death but sometimes in long partings, and can we then begin to heal? Begin to forgive our mothers either for their devotion to us and neglect of their professional lives, or for their devotion to their work and absence in their domestic roles. Begin to allow friendships to bloom, to see all women as our sisters, flawed, challenged, often oppressed and of course – as ends all great personal journeys – begin to forgive ourselves and to let go the fear that we will fail in our own mothering and sisterhood as they did. Because – of course we will. We are human, we are women, and the system is flawed. But perhaps with less pain, anguish and expectation, we can fail a little less.
Ama Budge: A performance artist turned freelance writer commenting on gender inequalities, reflecting on my own challenges and experiences as a mixed-race Londoner and most importantly taking note, in awe, of the extraordinary resilience of human kinds striving for be better, and to love.
This week I waved my son off to camp – he’ll be away for nine days. Elizabeth Macarthur waved her young sons off too, to be educated in England, for years at a time. I don’t think I can imagine how she felt. Or can I?
Inga Clendinnen explored the problem at length in The History Question: Who owns the past? (Quarterly Essay, Issue 23)
We cannot post ourselves back in time. People really did think differently then – or at least we must proceed on that assumption…It is true that historians are cruelly limited. We can’t do conversations; we can’t (usually) do monologues. But what we can do is become increasingly knowledgeable about the contexts in which particular actions, including the writing of particular words, took place. We do this not by emphatic time leaps, which would condemn us to live forever sealed into our own narrow cultural and temporal world, but by reconstructing as delicately, as comprehensively and as subtly as we are able, not only the material but also the cultural settings in which other people, once living, now dead, lived out their lives.
Clendinnen herself quotes novelist Henry James, who in 1901 wrote:
You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures and documents, relics and prints, as much as you like – the real thing is almost impossible to do, and in its essence the whole effect is as nought: I mean the invention, the representation of the old CONSCIOUSNESS, the soul, the sense, the horizon, the vision of individuals in whose minds half the things that make ours, that make the modern world were non-existent. You have to think with your modern apparatus a man, a woman – or rather fifty – whose own thinking was intensely otherwise conditioned, you have to simplify back by an amazing tour de force – and even then it’s all humbug.
Elizabeth Macarthur had nine children. Seven survived infancy and five (all four sons and one of the three daughters) were sent to England to be educated. At no time did the seven siblings ever gather together under the same roof because by the time the youngest was born the older ones were overseas.
There was nowhere in New South Wales to adequately educate the children and, even if there were, Elizabeth felt ‘it would be unjust towards them to confine them to so narrow a society. My desire is that they may see a little more of the world, & better learn to appreciate this retirement.’
Like many immigrants before and since, John and Elizabeth had painted for their children a glowing picture of England as Home. Elizabeth, writing to a friend in England, acknowledged that she and John may have gilded the lily somewhat, noting that the children considered England as no less than ‘a seat of happiness and delight’ which contained ‘all that can be gratifying to their senses’ and where ‘of course they are there to possess all they desire.’ Elizabeth sensibly recognised that the children needed to experience England for themselves but she did think that some of them would subsequently choose to make New South Wales their home.
In 1798 Elizabeth’s eldest son Edward, aged eight, was sent to school in England. To his mother’s chagrin he ‘almost quitted me without a tear.’Edward travelled in the care of a Captain Hogan, aboard the Marquis Cornwallis, and for company sailed with Norfolk King, also eight and Lieutenant (later Governor) King’s illegitimate son who up until now had been living with his father and stepmother on Norfolk Island.
(Therein lies a whole other story! A blog post for another day, perhaps. I wonder if the boys attended the same school.)
In 1801 Elizabeth’s husband John sailed to England, without his wife. With him were the couple’s eldest daughter Elizabeth (then aged nine) and the second son John (then aged seven). Son John would remain in England and become a lawyer. Elizabeth corresponded with all her children but she never saw John again and was devastated when he died suddenly, in his mid-thirties.
Husband John and daughter Elizabeth returned to NSW in 1805 but a scant four years later John sailed to England again, in the wake of the overthrow of Governor Bligh. The two youngest Macarthur boys, James (then aged 9) and William(then aged 7), travelled with him. John and the two boys did not return home until 1817, when the boys were aged 18 and 16.
Given the very real dangers of each voyage, the unknown elements faced by the children in England, and any mother’s anxiety for her children I DO feel able to guess at Elizabeth’s emotional response. But I won’t endeavour to describe it – instead I’ll trust in my readers’ abilities to guess at Elizabeth’s emotional response too.
 EM to Bridget Kingdon, Elizabeth Farm Parramatta, 1 Sept 1798
 EM to Bridget Kingdon, Parramatta 1 Sept 1795 (incorrectly dated, should be 1798)
 Bassett, M. The Governor’s Lady: Mrs Philip Gidley King. Melbourne University Press, Reprinted 1992. p114.
Adventures in BiographyI have a young family and a demanding day job but in my spare time (!) I’m working on a biography of one of Australia’s first white colonists: Elizabeth Macarthur. So far in the course of working on the manuscript I’ve met some wonderful people and travelled to some amazing places. I thought it was about time to share the wonder and my amazement.