Motherhood: a ghost story

2:20 pm on 11 May 2024
Stylised illustration collage of woman looking into mirror, Canadian flag, a fetus in womb, and the word Viola

Photo: RNZ

By Inès Almeida*

I was named after my mother's mother, a woman who died when my mother was only nine years old. I was named after an absence, a ghost. Years later, when my daughter was born, we chose to name her Viola, after my own dead mother. Despite my hesitation to name my child after yet another ghost, I ultimately agreed. Gifting the names of the dead to the living is a classic way to honor the dead, but I worried about the haunting. I don't want to be reminded of the Viola I lost too young when I scream at the Viola I have to clean her damn room or to fold the laundry she said she'd already folded. I hope she'll break this cycle and give her future daughter a name that is entirely her own. Maybe she won't have children at all.

Seventeen years before giving birth to my son, I buried my 42-year-old mother in a cemetery in Canada. Just a few months after arriving in New Zealand, I became a mother myself. Raising children without my own mother's guidance was like navigating a new country without a map - a fitting analogy, as I was also finding my way in the unfamiliar landscape and culture of the South Island.

However, the absence of my mother has become easier to bear over time, largely because the demands of parenting have left me little opportunity to dwell on her loss. One of the unexpected gifts of becoming an orphan at a young age is the ability to cut ties, move on, and never truly miss anyone. That is, until I caught feelings for my own children. But I still wonder what life could have been without them.

In a world where I am not their mother, I'm a writer with the time and energy to fully dedicate myself to my craft. Instead of engaging in tedious conversations about gut biomes and home renovations with other mothers, I picture myself dissecting the works of Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa with fellow writers. We'd sit on a terrace overlooking the Douro river in Porto, sipping house wine and smoking cigarettes.

Stylised illustration collage of woman writing in notebook, wine pouring into glass, author Fernando Pessoa, and basket of unfolded laundry.

Photo: RNZ

I know it's a bit pretentious but let me have my fantasies. The dreamer in me believes that I can have both - that I can be a writer and a mother simultaneously. Yet, the mother in me, burdened by guilt for desiring something beyond the daily rituals of parenting, chastises myself for not being good enough. The expectations of being a good mother are overwhelming, especially those I place upon myself. I wish I could have had the opportunity to discuss these struggles with my own mother. I know she found it hard too, and I now recognise her bursts of anger, her neglect for what it was: a longing for a different life. I've lived longer than her, and I've longed longer than her. Because of this, I try to see the worst parts of her with compassion and love.

I often envy my children's naivete about the world and how it functions. I sometimes wonder if they think I'll live forever, a thought that both amuses and concerns me. When my daughter struggled to open a can of rice pudding recently, I found myself thinking, "I can never die! How will she survive without me?" A friend reassured me that most food comes in easy-to-open packaging these days. This same friend frequently complains about her own mother, and I nod silently, secretly fighting the urge to slap her, a violent reminder of the profound loss that comes with a mother's absence.

Recently, my son Taiga and I were watching Sex Education and I anticipated a peppering of uncomfortable questions about sexuality and reproduction. Instead, he asked, "Were you happy when you found out you were pregnant with me?" I laughed and explained that getting pregnant at 26, in a foreign country, with someone I barely knew or liked, was not part of my life plan. And then to be transported five months pregnant from Kurume, Japan, to Waimate, New Zealand, well, that was a karmic torture. Imagine my delight in finding myself in the New Zealand version of the racist hometown in Canada I had worked so hard to escape.

Stylised illustration collage of a devil face, "You can always leave", mountain and river, and woman running up stairs.

Photo: RNZ

Taiga, however, made the journey worth it. He was a dream baby who slept through the night and effortlessly captured the hearts of everyone he met. His name, which means "big river" in Japanese, represents that his life will flow like a strong river, nourished by the love of many, like the streams that feed powerful bodies of water. He's the embodiment of this name, more so than anyone I know. Take, for instance, 'Lamb of God', the meaning behind my dead mother's dead mother's name. I am no one's lamb, and as godless as they come.

Motherhood is an experience that defies simplification. It is a role that requires me to be both an individual and a source of nourishment, a sentient being and a creature driven by the primal instinct to reproduce. I am nurturing and self-sacrificing, yet I often struggle to conceal the desire to sever the invisible umbilical cord and walk away. As the daughter of a dead man who did just that, I have always had the potential to follow suit. My father Fernando isn't crisping away in the flames of hell like my Vovo (grandma) had predicted, but instead lives on my shoulder, wearing a Devil's onesie, whispering in my ear, you could just leave. This was a man whose greatest words of wisdom were: "Life's a bitch, and then you die". It would be an understatement to say his disappearance is the best thing that ever happened to me. I'd like to think my own children wouldn't feel the same way, had I left. My daughter's memory of me in her childhood is different to my own. She doesn't remember me being there, so in her story, I'm the ghost. I try not to push my truth onto her, but I hope someday when she's scrutinising why I'm not in any of the family photos, she'll understand that I was the one with the camera.

Over the long weekend, I texted my oldest friend back in Canada about how I've taken to reading books about women who abandon their families, and watching short documentaries on the Japanese johatsu, 'the evaporating' who disappear from their lives one day to the next, often because they're running from something, but sometimes just because. She's kind and says soothing things to me to loosen up my self-loathing, but she's wrong, it was never a sacrifice to stay with the people I love most in the world. She tells me I'm a good mother, because I stayed, and continue to stay. I know that staying with the people I love most in the world was a choice born of deep, unbreakable bonds. Eventually, we both agree that we don't know what being a good mother means, but perhaps it lies in the simple act of being present, day after day, through the joys and the struggles of this complex, beautiful, and sometimes haunting experience.

*Inès Almeida is a writer living in Wellington.