When I was fifteen I was, briefly, a ‘nasty-piece-of-work’. Not in any dramatic or scandalous way that would seem particularly unusual to most people; just enough for me to look back and wince at how I treated my mum. Once, the school phoned her to tell her I’d played truant and she confronted me. I met her with an icy, contemptuous glare: “mother, when are you going to realise that I don’t care about school?” Me, who only a couple of years previous had been a lunchtime library assistant; who had worn her form ‘Vice Captain’ badge with pride and who had accounted for 50% of the sign-ups to the after-school Physics club! She looked at me as though I were a cuckoo who had just hatched in her nest and eaten her baby.
It must be difficult to wake up one day and find you’ve got an imposter in the house: an adult who treats you with a distant disdain; who keeps secrets and strives to push you away. If I ask her about it now she is very diplomatic: “it wasn’t very nice; I just waited and hoped you’d come back again”.
When I moved to Vietnam I knew it wasn’t what she wanted. My mum has always wanted me to be happy, but moving 14,000km away from her put that under a lot of strain. I realised one day how, when I moved to Ho Chi Minh City with the full support and encouragement of my mum behind me, she had prioritised my happiness over hers. So had I, and it made me feel very small.
How can we ever do enough to pay back the debts we owe to our mothers?
Darling, let’s have a teenager!
When motherhood first sang to thee,
Did you envisage teenage me?
When you first taught me how to talk,
And beaming, watched me learn to walk,
Knew you I would learn words profane?
Knew you I would leave on a plane?
I wince to think that what you grew,
By growing, disappointed you,
By choosing to walk out the door.
Was your dream daughter twenty-four?
I hope you know that I am blessed.
You filled your child with happiness;
You set me free. The irony:
I hope my baby won’t leave me.