Every woman becomes their mother. That’s their tragedy. And no man becomes his. That’s his tragedy. So wrote Oscar Wilde in The Importance of Being Earnest. But I have not become my mother. No, my condition is more acute: I have been possessed. Like a spirit in limbo, she has inhabited my body, directing each move I make. I open my mouth, and her words fly out sounding just as they did the first time they landed in my ears. She forces that low whistle from my lips when I cook, protracting my forefinger to scan the recipe just as she always has. Sometimes when I lose patience with my husband, she compels me to say quite terrible things, then later when I rock my baby to sleep, a waterfall of endearments in the cadences of my mother’s dialect cascades from my lips, words I recognise but don’t understand bubbling forth like I’m speaking in tongues, showering my child with blessings and inherited love.
She is also manipulating the muscles in my face so that no matter how I dress or cut my hair, I look more and more like her each day. Harnessing some voodoo magic, she even transmits to me her pain. Familiar sighs of exhaustion slip from me because my muscles now feel like hers: back and shoulders wire-tight from carrying and nursing babies, chronic fatigue from sleepless nights. “Now you understand,’ she is saying to me through each twinge, “about a mother’s body. The bittersweetness.”
Now I understand. I see how the body becomes a vessel for pride and regret at its own accomplishments and their high cost, how it becomes a dwelling place for your the mother’s struggling soul and the ghosts of the children who once lived there, fragments of their cells left over inside her like discarded socks on a bedroom floor. Of course, the mother’s soul is condemned to struggle. How could it be otherwise when our babies could be hurt at any turn? When no matter what we do, we’ll end up hurting them, too? This is the constant heartache. It does not improve with time. So we clad our hearts in iron to keep them from bleeding out. God forbid we wear the burden on our faces.
It did not happen overnight. The birth of my daughter beckoned her and, for a time, she watched from the rafters, occasionally guiding my hands. I didn’t know how to change a nappy. She let me figure it out. But somehow I knew how to love the child in my arms. Somehow I knew how to hold her, how to nourish her with my breast, how to comfort her with whispers. Three years passed like this, with gentle guardianship, but when another baby joined the household, my mother finally rolled up her sleeves and took over.
It’s hard now to see if there is anything original left of me at all. Or maybe that person, the individual I thought I had become, was just a placeholder, a diversion, a scenic route. Perhaps Mother was inside me all the time, just waiting, as mothers do, to be needed.
It’s disconcerting to be body-snatched, but I’m getting used to it. There are perks to having someone else quicken my hands when noses need wiping and dishes washed while I’m trying to meet a work deadline, or to conjure words of comfort when a small knee has been grazed, showing me how to fix it up with cotton and a kiss. And to feel, though thousands of miles separate us, my mother’s presence, right there in the room. The tragedy is in realising that if I have become her, my daughter will become me and I have already made too many mistakes. All that’s left, then, is to hope my girl will forgive me my failings and just let the sweet words, the stroked brows, and all that iron-clad love sink deep into in her blood, permeating her fibre, and wait there, quietly, until needed.