"There’s no doubt the barbs our mothers hurl can be powerful." Photo: Getty Images
When English writer Jeanette Winterson was sixteen, she told her mother she was in love with a girl who made her happy. Her mother responded “Why be happy when you could be normal?” At the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival, Jeanette said this phrase was so destructive and so defining, that she has spent much of her life working out what it meant. She even used it as the title of her autobiography.
Winterson recalls being locked out of the house by her mother all night, pulled into a cupboard to rehearse the apocalypse and even forced to endure an exorcism to get rid of her ‘demon’. So, it’s extraordinary that it was Mrs Winterson’s words that defined the writer the most.
There’s no doubt the barbs our mothers hurl can be powerful. They are weapons that wound so badly that they scar for years. A phrase long buried and forgotten can resurface in our doubts, insecurities and darkest fears. As Jeanette Winterson prowled the Opera House stage, she told us that most people have such a phrase that haunts them.
As she spoke, I was taken back to a defining moment in my relationship with my mother. A moment that meant I’d long excised any insult I’d absorbed. That moment was half an hour after I’d had my first baby. Bloodied, bowed and filled with a powerful passion, I held my daughter and realised I would love and yet frequently fail her. I began to understand on a visceral level what my mother had felt and done for me. I began to see her as a person with her own doubts and insecurities and I realised it was not fair to project pain, hurt and blame upon her.
I don’t think you have to a have a baby to come to this realisation. Soul searching, therapy or just being thoughtful will do the same. Witness Jeanette Winterson who owes much to psychology, poetry and her own indomitable self-will.
Yet, as I read her book this week, I began to shift my perspective yet again. I began to worry about all the terrible things I’ve said to my children. It shames me to admit that I’ve said the words ‘hopeless’ and ‘idiot’. It pains to reveal I’ve even sworn at my kids. We all say terrible things we regret; even Buddhist monks would probably hurl sentences of fury and frustration if they babysat. But I’m now wondering what I am doing or saying that will wound my children so much that they’ll reveal it from a therapists couch or write a book about it.
What comforts me is the knowledge that Jeanette Winterson’s brutal childhood made her the powerful, thoughtful and wonderful writer she is today. It’s how she became who she is. Through writing and searching for her birth mother, Jeanette has come to peace with her adoptive mum, Constance Winterson. She also forgave and loved her weak father who stood by and let her be treated so badly. She wrote herself out. Perhaps I can absolve some guilt by realising I need to provide my children with some creative fodder if they want to act, paint, perform or write.
Ultimately, it wasn’t her mother’s words that hurt Jeanette Winterson the most. Jeanette never felt her parents loved her. She had to learn how to love. And how to forgive. Reading ‘Why be happy when you could be normal?’ inspired me to forgive myself. I hope my unconditional love will mean any words I fire, and any mistakes I make, will bounce off flesh protected by the armour of adoration. Yet, while my children will feel the safety and security of love, I know it cannot protect them from all pain. So, I’m trying to watch my mouth and let them know that it’s normal to expect love to make them happy.
Your say: What phrase did your mother use that stayed with you? Have you forgiven her?