Breaking the cycle
by Jen curtis
My mother passed away when I was twenty after a short but intense “battle” with breast cancer. I use quotation marks around the word battle because that’s how everyone described it: a warrior fighting for her life. But I witnessed sweet surrender at the bitter end of a much longer battle with herself.
For as long as I can remember, she hated herself. She told me constantly how she was fat and unattractive and unworthy of love. How everyone at work despised her. How she was alone in the world.
She swung between the extremes of deprivation diets and hedonistic, lonesome drinking sessions.
Every so often, she would wake up with renewed energy and strength and drive, put herself assertively on the latest crash diet, routinely starve herself for anywhere between a few days and a few weeks, lose some weight, feel fabulous and have a new lease on life. She would stop the drinking, start taking control, organize herself, and plan ahead (in what I realise now was a rather frenzied fashion).
Then something would happen. Someone would say something to her, she’d have a bad day, get a knock, and I’d find her halfway through her second bottle of wine at 5.34pm, horizontal, watching television.
She’d always crash twice as hard as she was up. For twice as long. It never took long to put all the weight back on, and then some.
By the time of her death, she was obese, had been crash dieting for two decades, had done little or no exercise (because she was “too fat,” she told me) and was routinely abusing alcohol and herself.
“Why her?!” people cried at her wake. But I knew why. And so did they.
I was about ten when I first joined her on a diet and I started going down on her sinking ship.
We were a fat family, and I was a fat child who had learnt that being fat was the worst thing a human could be. I was desperate to lose the weight. I was worth nothing otherwise.
I yo-yoed, often with her as a child, and increasingly alone throughout my teens. The yo-yoing developed into a full-blown eating disorder that replicated my mum’s roller-coaster ride with food. Days on end of anorexia--tiny bits of food and hours of running--followed by a binge that would sometimes last days.
Needless to say, I had a complicated relationship with food. And my mother.
And I never wanted to have children of my own.
Five years after her death, things were still not right for me. My issues with food had kind of leveled out, but my relationship with myself and the world had never been resolved. I felt totally lost, had a meltdown, and started therapy.
I grieved for the first time. I grieved the mother I had lost, the mother I never had, the parts of my mother I had lost years ago to low self-esteem and alcohol. I got angry and sad and went through the guilt. I eventually grieved the life she had lived, the support she never had and the help I couldn’t give her.
But I still felt angry and sad. I still didn’t understand and I didn’t feel love for her. I still couldn’t imagine ever becoming a mother myself.
I saw motherhood as being trapped, chained. I saw no value in it. In my mind, becoming a mother ruined your body and made you fat (my mum reminded me constantly how skinny she was before she had my brother and me, and the only pictures ever on display of her in our home were from the pre-kid era, when she was at her slimmest). My dad went out and earned all the money, wore a suit and expensive shoes, took important phone calls, and gave my mother a weekly budget that they argued over constantly. My mother was “just a mum,” as she said. She regretted not having a career and made me promise not to make the same mistakes she had made.
I never questioned that advice. I did well at school, got good grades, and strived to be very independent. After university, I was only interested in earning money. I also got into fitness and trained hard at the gym, lifting heavy weights and often priding myself on lifting more than a lot of men I knew. I played sports like rugby and Jiu Jitsu, alongside men. I worked hard for a hard, lean body. I had always been a tomboy and identified more with my dad than my mum. I felt like being a woman was a weakness, and I needed to be strong.
And I was physically strong, and it showed. Despite being married to an amazing man who was desperate to become a father, I couldn’t contemplate giving up my work, my body, and becoming “just a mum.”
I continued the journey of trying to understand my mum, and what she went through. I asked my family awkward questions and got uncomfortable answers. My dad hadn’t found my mother attractive during pregnancy, and never really wanted kids. He saw it as an expense and lost his loving wife as she focused on motherhood. He felt abandoned, and pushed her away as he focused on his work. She felt abandoned and turned to the bottle. They never talked about it.
Revealing these truths enabled me to soften. To find compassion for my mother who had never had the support she needed and felt alone and unloved.
A year ago, at a women’s retreat, I did a workshop on healing the mother daughter relationship. It was intense, and grief washed over me once again. It took me about two weeks to get through it, but I emerged with a new level of forgiveness and understanding for my mother.
It was several months after my experience at the retreat that I turned to my husband and said, “I’m ready now. I want to have a baby”. He almost cried with joy.
I’m now five months into my first pregnancy, and although I don’t yet have a child, I have a strong sense that I am already a mother. Pregnancy is challenging, and initially I fought it every step of the way, but now I am finding a deep sense of meaning in the process and have finally surrendered myself to it. This process has taught me how much more I am worth than a slim, strong body. It has taught me how much my body can do and given me a glimpse of what I can and will be. What love really is, what I might feel, what I might have to offer to another human being, not only to my unborn son, but also to my husband.
I am changing and softening every day, just as my body is changing and softening. I am learning to listen; to tune in to what I really need, right now. And to surrender. Surrender to what is and to what my body really needs.
During my pregnancy, I have come to feel that women are miraculous beings, that we are strong, powerful creators. I had spent the majority of my life trying to force my body into submission, willing it to take up less space. I always used to think that strength was an exclusively masculine quality, but I am learning that there is a special kind of feminine power. A power that I never recognised before, until I witnessed the surprising power of my own body.
I find myself in awe of every mother I meet: in awe of what she has sacrificed, what she has given, what she has endured, what she goes through on a daily basis. I find myself in awe of myself, for all that I have done so far and what I know I will face, hopefully with grace and dignity, though probably often without. Above all I find myself in awe of my own mother. I am starting to understand what she really meant when she told me she loved me. I am starting to understand how enormous the task was that laid before her, how much she sacrificed, how much she gave. I understand now how hard that must have been to feel alone, to not have the tools or resources to deal with it.
A year later, I found myself back at the same women's’ retreat where I’d taken the workshop on healing the mother-daughter relationship. Now, I was going to be a mother myself. I looked through a set of “goddess cards” for inspiration. I was looking for something like “nurturing” or “abundance”, something that would strike a chord with me, though I wasn’t sure what. I looked through the cards and looked through the cards: nothing stood out to me. Suddenly, I saw the card “shape-shifter.” That was it! I thought about the person--both emotionally and physically--that I had been a year earlier. The person who I had been when I was ten years old and food was the enemy. The person I was when I felt convinced that motherhood was an unnecessary burden. The person who was overwhelmed with rage towards her deceased mother. The fitness fanatic fighting the nature of pregnancy. And the person I was in that moment, four months pregnant, holding a little more compassion and forgiveness, gracefully surrendering to the changes of it all. These people were all one and the same, and yet, in another sense, totally different. I had compassion for all of them, and gratitude for who I was now.
It occured to me that the willingness and ability to change shape--to grow, expand, and contract, physically and emotionally--is part of the human experience. Some change may be permanent, but much of the change we experience is temporary. I am not going to be pregnant forever, I am not going to have this belly or hormonal milieu forever. Even things that feel permanent, like my feelings about my mother or motherhood in general, can and do shift. I will shift shape again. And again and again. Maybe, even probably, not into what I once was, but into something new. I am adaptable, flexible, pliable. I have been so many different things in my thirty years on earth, and I will be so many more in the next thirty. Nothing is constant. Nothing stays the same.
It’s a strange and wonderful thing to be the only pregnant woman in a group of other women. You’re regarded as something almost sacred, a representation of our nature as shape-shifters, life-givers and creators, even if most people aren’t actively articulating it that way. You represent the cycle that we are all part of, what all of us have been through, whether as mothers or as daughters, and the part of the cycle that lies ahead for many of us. You seem almost mystical. At the retreat the second time around, I felt less concerned about participating in group experiences, going on an emotional journey or discovering new truths about myself. I found myself going inwards this time, wrapping a protective force-field around myself, finding my quiet corner, stealing solitary moments to feel my baby kicking inside me. I also found myself daydreaming about my mother, imagining her touching her belly with me inside her, wondering if she felt the same clumsy sense of connection, awe and anticipation of all things to come.