As I sat to recount the story of our lives, my mother and me, and how we have come to be, the anxiety that followed became almost unbearable. For weeks I toiled, paragraph over paragraph, trying to account for my father’s actions, tell my mother’s story, and to understand my life more clearly through this tale. I sat in our gallery, aghast, as truths revealed themselves to be more and more incredulous. My father had consciously and without remorse left my mother in a vat of emotional distress for years. I knew what I had endured being his child, but I was finally getting a look behind the veil at what my mother had suffered through.
I had asked her about the years gone by before, and she had shrugged it off, but this time, it was almost too much for her to hold in, and in one sitting, she overflowed. Yet she passed it off with just a nod; a little laugh inevitably concludes the typical refrain, her favourite line—well he dead already—a closed door to the past. I now assume that perhaps it is because I’m no longer the little girl she describes in these stories that she has become more open. Or perhaps it’s her age. The older she gets, the more of her life she feels the need to share. She has always been a mystery to me, much like my father was, and I have found that her tales offered more to see.
Growing up, I understood without a doubt that our home wasn’t a happy one. No, my father didn’t hit my mother, he didn’t throw us out, but he often neglected us, leaving my mother and me to fend for ourselves. To me, he was a bully, shaming me for my weight in front of guests and relatives, forcing me to sit while he laughed at my expense. My mother would be demonized for demanding his attention. Her pleas went ignored. Pleas for support at home, in caring for me, which we wrestled endlessly, for faithfulness to our family that would never come. His commitment to us was non-existent. We lived near the extended family. Aunts and uncles. Grandma and grandaunt. All on one block. My mother often sought their assistance and support, only to be told to stay, whenever her frustrations with him led her to want to leave. “Stay”, despite my father making it difficult to maintain a suitable home. “Stay” and continue to remain dutiful. “Stay” and wait. No one confronted my father about his actions; they simply made polite pleas at arm’s length, while my mother continued to suffer. She was alone, and he could care less. It would be remiss of me not to be grateful for my aunt, who took up the responsibilities my father had to me. But as grateful as I am, she was content to step in, instead of confronting him. They all were content to let my father be, while they pressured my mother to comply.
Why Women? Why Mother?
“Why is it always the woman’s role to endure endless inquiry and be confronted by everyone, while men escape interrogation?” I wondered. When I was a little girl, one curious woman mustered up the nerve to ask my mother about us one morning, while my father was away. She’d seen the mysterious woman in his house and could not help herself, so she posed the question. This was not the woman she had known my father to be with at all their social events.
“This is my daughter,” my mother replied flatly.
The woman’s eyes widened again confused. “His daughter? I didn’t know he lived with anyone.” She replied, having no idea that my mother and I existed and absolutely content with absolving my father from her investigation.
I found it especially strange that my father stayed silent in my mother’s stories. In the tale of his first wife, she was blamed for his neglectful behaviour, for not performing “wifely duties” and yet my father constantly betrayed his duties to his family without repercussion. Through their silence and willful ignorance, his peers enabled his lack of accountability. But it’s only evidence of a wider issue in our society and culture. Cries of the patriarchy come to mind. My mother’s accounts, and my sisters’ words, reinforced my experience. The expectation of women to wait and submit to their husbands while they aren’t given the same liberties and freedoms remains universal. My father was allowed to live as he pleased and my mother never received support because it was assumed that her husband would fulfil his duty.
The toxic patriarchy of an old but relevant world is what shaped my household and coloured the ‘support’ the women in my father’s family gave to my mother. There was no real effort. No talk of independence or self-reliance. Financial freedom was not an option. Instead, they believed that it was her place as his common-law wife, later to be his lawfully wedded spouse and the mother of his child, to seek support from him alone. No other option would be appropriate. She was limited. Yet there is no way to know for certain what would have transpired had my mother left. I do think that in most cases, the advice given came with the best of intentions. Those who don’t know privilege rarely often seek it. But for my mother and me and by all her accounts, I wonder what would have been if the people around her would have tried a little harder than simply telling her the only option was to stay.