“You’re like a bird with a broken wing,” my daughter said.
Which was something I’d often thought, but now it did feel like that. My right arm is next to useless and I really should not be typing. Every muscle from my shoulder to my wrist aches and the more so when I do anything. For the last six weeks or so the pain has come and gone, rendered acute by playing tennis, but having a multitude of causes. Anything as mundane as lifting a cup of tea, or a kettle full of water, or an iron, or driving my car, or carrying a bag of shopping, or holding the dog lead, leaves me sore. It aches when I wake up in the morning and when I go to bed at night. I cannot do most of the things I would like to do. I cannot play tennis or paint or ride a bike. Sometimes it is excrutiating, especially when I have been driving, and one day I spent in bed. For the last two days I have refused to drive, and one evening we came home and my daughter had ironed my clothes which made me want to cry. I am reduced to reading War and Peace.
For so many years being a wife and mother has been about doing things for my family. Many aspects of my role as a mother are passive. I respond to what my daughters need from me, and I meet those needs. Meeting their needs has defined me.
Now they need less from me in practical terms, and want to need me even less, and I have to re-think what being a mother is about. It’s been a long time since I had to bath them, or help them dress. Now there are really only two practical things that they need from me and that I can do for them. They need me to drive them places and they need me to provide money. Even meals are no longer an essential as both daughters enjoy cooking and like to have a say in what they eat and will help themselves when they are hungry and my younger daughter does not take pleasure in food the way my elder daughter does.
If I am no longer needed, am I no longer necessary?
Those practical needs have only been the visible clothing of what I am to them. To switch metaphors, those daily acts of housekeeping have been the tip of the iceberg. What lies underneath is larger and equally essential to their survival and is my life’s work. “Existence precedes essence. Hence one is not born a woman but becomes one”. I will never know how my daughters have seen me, or continue to see me, any more than I know how others see me, and so much of what I do requires me to draw on the depths of my becoming and to hope that who I am is good for them.
I am their most important female role model. Whether they like it or not, I will have influenced their idea of what a mother is, what a wife is, what a daughter is, what a sister is, what a daughter-in-law is. What a woman is. They can kick against me, reject me, try to be like me – as they choose. I have been their pattern that they must adapt to fit themselves, the definition that was given to them and which they can embellish and embroider with their own ideas, the outline which they can rub out or fill in, the equation from which they can add or subtract. Everything female for them began with me. I am the starter kit to which they can add all that they have seen and read and experienced. Together with my husband, I will have shaped what they think about what love is, about what work is, about what women do, about what good food is, about what art is and what is beautiful, about what is right and what is wrong, about what is good and what is not, what is fun and what hurts, about who they are and who we are, about what is worth fighting for and what is not worth a piece of fluff.
Much of what is between us is a constant process of modelling and remodelling, of chipping away at corners and curves, of not looking and looking, of putting me out of sight and of examining critically at what I am. I am the sculpture that they are rendering unrecognisable and transformed, made of their own imagination and ideas until it takes on their likeness, and the neverending process of becoming a woman, a wife and a mother is handed over to their own children and the clay is remoulded all over again.
I needed to have a broken wing to be reminded that I am more than the meals that I cook or the miles I drive.