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I didn’t love my mother and I was afraid it was my fault.
I have often been told how “lucky” I was to be my mother’s daughter. She had mastered her ever-graceful public persona with a captivating air of sophistication as she spoke with the high-society English accent she hadn’t lost despite her decades in the United States. Her clothes were timeless, simple cuts of fine natural fabrics in soft colors, accented by an elegant necklace she had picked up at Neiman Marcus or Gump’s. She hosted elegant parties with white linen tablecloths, silver place settings and tasteful flower arrangements. I watched in silence as my mother twirled around the room, charming her guests, my father by her side.
Seen from the outside, our lives were ideal. No one noticed how much I recoiled from my mother’s touch, even finding the touch of her hand against mine unbearable. When she managed to hug me, my body tensed. I felt – if only for a moment – that I was in danger. His disappointment was undeniable and my fear was quickly replaced by guilt and shame.
“What’s wrong?” she would ask. ” I am your mother. Why can’t I touch you?
Why hasn’t anyone told me about the dark side of motherhood?
This is a question I asked myself. As a girl, I was expected to love this woman who gave birth to me. Our libraries are filled with books that revere mothers; the works of art on the walls of the world’s most revered museums deify the mother-child relationship; our religious doctrines command that a child honor his mother. The society’s view is unequivocal: nothing is more sacred than the bond between a mother and her child.
I tried to force myself to be a better girl. After all, she had fulfilled her maternal duties. She carried me, she disciplined me without ever laying a hand on me, she dressed me, fed me and tucked me in every night. Sometimes I wished she had hit me or cut me with a knife. A single bruise or scar could have been enough, giving me proof once and for all to prove that our failure to bond was not due to something deep inside me but something hangar ended. I curated lists of wrongs she had done against me that were often beyond the norm—sharp criticism and unpredictable anger—but I intuitively knew that these events could not explain the chasm between us.
It wasn’t until I discovered secrets she’d been hiding all her life that I realized it wasn’t my fault – and maybe none of it was really her fault. no more. It all started when I found my mother sitting alone in the dark, scribbling an unfamiliar name over and over:
Dorothy Soames Dorothy Soames Dorothy Soames
I was nineteen at the time, and years passed before she tried to tell me more. As a child, I knew little about my mother’s past and nothing about her family, not the names of her mother or father, or whether they were alive or dead. She would get angry if I questioned her, or worse, retreat to her room and brood alone in the dark.
When I was well into my adult life, my mother announced, “I want to tell you everything.” Her willingness to share was sudden, and a lifetime of secrecy had turned any curiosity I had about my mother’s past into resentment.
“It’s too late,” I told him.
Months and years passed, and we never talked about what she wanted to tell me that day – and then she left. Moments after watching my mother take her last breath, I rushed out of the room, sobbing wildly, struggling to breathe as moans erupted from deep within me. Over the next few days, I was overwhelmed by the emotions that had washed over me, struggling to complete even the most mundane of tasks.
Why was I mourning a woman I didn’t love?
I would find the answer after crossing the Atlantic to find out the truth about a little girl named Dorothy Soames.
My mum didn’t grow up among London’s elite, as I had always been told, but in the infamous Hospital for the care and education of young exposed and abandoned children, commonly referred to as the Foundling Hospital. For two centuries, illegitimate children would be prepared for a harsh life of scrubbing the floors for the English ruling class. Once abandoned by a mother eager to hide the shame of an unwanted pregnancy, the child would take on a new name. For my mother, her name would be Dorothy Soames.
From that day on she would be impersonally called Soames and brought up in a world reminiscent The Handmaid’s Tale, but unlike the rules imposed on Margaret Atwood’s characters, the restrictions governing every aspect of my mother’s life were real. Every morning, she put on a white cape and skirt, and walked with the other children in pairs in complete silence. Every moment of their days would be mapped out, when to eat, talk and even when to defecate, all under the watchful eyes of women dressed in blue with white caps who enforced rules carved in stone centuries before.
Physical violence was widespread, not only accepted but expected. A whisper could result in a beating or worse. Solitary confinement was also a preferred form of punishment. My mother would endure being locked up time and time again in windowless closets. Some staff have evoked terror simply by walking into a room, taking pleasure in inflicting pain on a child. In my mother’s day, that would have described Miss Woodward, the gym mistress. On one occasion, Miss Woodward beat my mother up because she talked so wildly online that a mass of purple-black bruises remained for weeks. On another occasion, she threw her to the bottom of the pool, well aware that she couldn’t swim, pushing her repeatedly with a stick while other teachers watched for entertainment.
What I discovered about my mother’s upbringing explained some of her strange behaviors – why she scrubbed the floors until her joints bled, or when, for a time, she found solace by eating thick oatmeal for breakfast, lunch and dinner. But what I learned about the impact of institutionalization on a child’s ability to bond with others ran deeper. According to British psychiatrist John Bowlby, connections made – or not made – at a young age affect a person’s ability to form healthy and meaningful attachments throughout their life. Without this security and nurturing, a child cannot learn to trust others or form healthy attachments. In the 1950s, psychologist Harry Harlow attempted to replicate the results of Bowlby’s so-called attachment theory, hoping to answer the question: Can you raise a healthy child without love? Monkeys taken from their mothers at birth sat and rocked, staring into space while sucking their thumbs, unable to interact with their peers. In another experiment, monkeys placed in solitary confinement—something my mother had endured many times as a child—would emerge from solitary confinement hopelessly, broken beyond repair.
Reading about Harlow’s experiences, I couldn’t help but wonder if my relationship with my mother was consistent with the dynamics he discovered. My mother had no friends in her adult life, at least none that I know. While his elegant evenings were always well attended, no one ever stopped for a cup of tea or followed shopping expeditions. I wondered if she was like Harlow’s monkeys, unable to form lasting bonds with those around her — not just her own daughter. As I learned more about childhood bonds, about how a lack of contact could shape a child’s worldview, it seemed more than possible that the fate of our relationship was sealed within the first few months of my birth, before conscious memories could form. Perhaps my mother, who had received neither love nor tenderness in her childhood, had been unable to hold and rock her little child in her arms.
I’m not alone in my inability to find love for a hurt parent, but I may be one of the lucky ones: I can put a thumbtack in time and understand so much why my family ended up like her. did it. Now I know why I mourned my mother’s death so much, why pain shot through my body, leaving me exhausted and fragile those weeks after she closed her eyes for the last time. I did not mourn the loss of what I once had, but what was taken from me before I even took a breath or took my first steps.
Justine Cowan is a lawyer and environmentalist who has spent more than two decades exposing corporate corruption and holding polluters accountable. A graduate of UC Berkeley and Duke University School of Law, she lives with her husband in Atlanta, Georgia. His first book, The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames, will be released in paperback in April.
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