10 Ways to Mother

by Madelaine Gnewski

1. “5% funny,” I think, “and 95% crazy.” I am ten years old and standing outside the bathroom in my childhood home. My mother is having a good day. A really good day. I think to myself that this might be the first time I have ever seen her attempt a joke. And it is not even a joke. But she desperately needed to pee, and the bathroom downstairs was busy. I heard her coming up the stairs taking two steps at a time. She did not even close the door behind her. Then all I could hear was a deep sigh of relief. She called on me, a chill went down my spine, “You know, Baddus, one of the simplest pleasures in life is going for a pee when you really, really need one.” She gives me a big toothy grin, and I laugh because I can feel love. This. This is what it is like to be a family. I hold on to this memory long after it is gone. It becomes my go-to when I need reassurance that no one is, no one can ever be, 100% evil.

2. “The devil’s child,” my mother cries. She is so close to my face that I can smell the red wine on her breath. I am thirteen years old, and I do not yet understand what it means to be an alcoholic. “She is not making any sense,” I think to myself as I push her off me. “If I am the devil’s child, is she the devil?”

3. “You are very lucky,” my mother’s ballet students say to me, not knowing what goes on behind closed doors, “to have a mother like that.” We had just been on one of our very few family outings when my mother spotted her ballet students hanging around smoking cigarettes outside the theatre. She ordered my father to pull up next to them so she could give them an ear full. I am now sitting in the backseat with my eyes fixated on the girls. I must look like a creep, but I cannot help myself. Or maybe I just cannot wait for justification. “A chance for my mother to unmask herself,” I think naively and settle in to watch the scene unfold. It never happens. Of course, it never happens.

4. “Normal is uninteresting.” My mother is sitting next to me on the couch, her head held high, wearing a facial expression I am yet too young to decode, but later realise is arrogance. We are on holiday in France. My parents have rented a small riverboat to go around the canals for two weeks. My sister and I are fourteen years old, and I have just asked my mother why the mean girls in school are always the most popular. And why they are all the same. Or pretend to be. She later uses this as ammunition, and I learn not to trust anyone with my inner world. But in that moment, we are like everyone else. In that exact moment, she has my back. I feel seen. I even allow myself to believe we are just like the family in the boat parked behind us. We must look happy, too, because the father gives us a wave through the window. My parents wave back. Only ironically, though.

5. “Your children will hate you,” she slurs. She is having yet another one of her biweekly tantrums and my very existence is upsetting her. I take this with me, bury it deep inside, and do not have children, do not even think about having children, for another seventeen years. In fear that maybe, just maybe, she might be right about this one.

6. “A narcissist,” my therapist calls her. I am in her office again. It is the third time in four weeks, and I have not cried yet. I cannot seem to feel anything these days. But it is not like I expected it to be, how depression is usually described. It is not a wave. Or the presence of something dark. It is the absence. The absence of everything that brings me joy. A hole in my stomach that sucks the good things out and replaces them with nothingness. And it is exhausting. So, I have created new routines. I have strict rules upon which I build my day; the same breakfast, the same lunch and three dinners on rotation. I run four days a week. But always on the same days. To think as little as possible. To survive in the mundane. To create the illusion of presence in the absence. Joy only comes back in short bursts. This state is comforting. I’m alive, I think.

7. “Guilty,” I feel every time I let my thoughts drift, even just for a second. It can happen anywhere. In the supermarket. On the tube. At a dinner party. It is unsettling how quickly my body responds with a physical reaction. This time around, it is late March, and her birthday is coming up in a few days. I still have not decided whether to message her or leave it be. I message her. And just like that I am twelve years old again, waiting for her. Her validation, her love. I swallow three times in the hope that it might stop my racing heart from exploding.

8. “You are too angry,” he says to me, “and it has nothing to do with me.” My hands are shaking, I cannot gather my thoughts and all I can feel is a sharp pain in the back of my head. I am angry. I am so angry I am convinced for a moment that the rage is all but about to consume me. It takes another six years to get it under control. To learn how to release it without turning it inwards. In on myself. He is long gone by then, though.

9. “She is getting old. Do not wait too long,” they tell me when I say I do not talk to her anymore. They all say it. They all think it. And I feel sad that whatever it was I missed out on in childhood, it must have been great because they are thinking about their own mothers. They are thinking about the unconditional love that they were given. A love so obvious, so irreplaceable, that they cannot bear to see me. I tell them I will think about it. I go to bed with an ever-growing hole in my stomach.

10. “You are enough,” my mother never says. She is a master of conditional love. It is the highest prize you will never earn. For a million reasons. But mostly because you are not an extension of her. There is no resolution to untreated personality disorders. No apology or explanation. There is no forgiveness. No justice. There is only acceptance. But repetitive abuse breeds lost children—depressed, anxious, and mentally ill children who become depressed, anxious, and mentally ill adults.

I think about my mother a lot. It surprises me every time because it is never about the great, big things in life, but rather, about the most ordinary. What is she having for dinner tonight? Does she wear slippers when it is cold? I think I do this because the very foundation of who we are, what makes us truly human, is anchored in boredom. Surviving the ruts of the everyday. How we handle repetition. Who we are when we are not performing.

I know my mother is creative. I know she is a master performer. I know she is competitive. I know she is goofy. I also know she is an abuser. She is—or used to be—an alcoholic. I know a lot about my mother, but I do not know her. And I never will.

Madelaine Gnewski is a writer, linguist and assistant editor at TINT Journal. She is Polish, grew up in Sweden and lived in Australia, the UK, New Zealand and Ireland before moving to Denmark.