A few mornings ago, I was completing my oral hygiene routine with the obligatory holding-the-mouthwash-in-your-mouth-no-matter-how-much-it-hurts ritual, when a thought hit me. With mouthwash, when it hurts (or stings, depending on how big a wuss you are), that’s how you know it’s working. And another thought struck me: the ‘when it hurts, it’s working’ life philosophy (or, the mouthwash philosophy) is one of the many lessons I learnt from my mother that has led me to many interpersonal disasters in my relationships, romantic and otherwise.
My mother and I have a – let’s say ‘tricky’ relationship. When I was younger, my father moved from Zimbabwe to South Africa and despite the fact that he and my mother are still together, and that we all live in the same country now (and we spent some time living in the same house) he has been, ever since that first move, an ever-present absence in my life. (I don’t know how to explain it, really. It’s like he’s a ghost who inhabits the spaces my father used to in my heart.) So my mother has always been my primary parent, she is who I have in my head when I need to borrow money, she’s the first person I call when I want to share good news and make my parents proud, and so on, and so forth. But being the primary parent also means that my mother not only carries the bad rap that mothers do thanks to psychoanalysis, but she also carries the burden for both parental roles. So our relationship is weighted down with everything I blame her for, and her (understandable) incomprehension and outrage at my attitude towards her.
The year I turned 21, I moved out of my parents home and moved…a ten minute drive away. I live in Cape Town, they live in Cape Town. We live in the same postal zone, share a postal code, even. I see them once a week, my mom and I talk on the phone every other day. No one really understands why I can’t just save money and move back in with them. Apart from the obvious reasons (dude! I’m 23! Who doesn’t want to live somewhere other than with their parents at that age?!), the main idea behind my moving out (and staying moved out, in spite of my mother’s regular invitations to move back) is the distance I needed from my mother, so that I could see her. Because of my father’s sins (which should really stay a topic for another time, I think), I have never seen my mother. I have seen my mother as the carrier of everything in my life, all my joys, and my crippling sadnesses. And when she has been unable to carry the weight (she has two other children, as well as her own joys and sadnesses), I have punished her with long, dry banishments from my life.
But what does the mouthwash philosophy have to do with all this? Well, it’s one of the items on my long list of ‘mother’s sins’. And for a very long time, I have been especially angry about that most misleading (really, don’t try it at home) life lesson. But a few days ago, I was swirling Listerine round in my mouth, and the thought occurred that every lesson my mother has learnt, she has learnt somewhere. Despite the tone of this piece, I really do love my mother, more than I can explain. And somewhere at the centre of that love is the knowledge that the mistakes she has made with me have never been intentional. I know for sure (in a life when I know little else) that she has never lay awake at night, dreaming of ways to ‘ruin my life’ (as they say). She carries what she knows from her life into the lives of her children with love and good intentions. So, my mother must have learnt the mouthwash philosophy from someone or something. And it made me sad, in that moment, and this one, to think of my mother going through her life thinking that when you are hurting, it is right, it is good, the world is in order. In that moment, in my tiny bathroom, in my flat which is ten minutes away from my mother’s bathroom, in her house, I ached for my mom’s pain. I spit the mouthwash out, and went to find my phone so I could send her a quick text telling her that I love her.
Moments like that one are the reason I need to live somewhere away from my mother. When all is said and done, when we’re arguing about curfews, about dishes and laundry and lifts and what I’m wearing, and who I’m calling, my mother becomes, in my eyes, a collection of all the hurts I have stored up inside me at my father’s abandonment, at the mistakes she made when she was raising her three children alone, and working full-time. I can’t see past any of that to make out the shape of the human being, of the woman my mother is: a woman with her own story, her own pain, her own likes, dislikes (mouthwash or not), hopes, dreams etc.
For the first time in my life, I see my mother. Not as playing a major role in my life, but as a person with her own life (in which I play a role). And that has been the most liberating gift (outside of not having to do the dishes until I feel like it) that moving out of home has given me.