My mother is incredible. I can only hope to be as phenomenal a mother, and if I am halfway there I will count it a personal victory. She is the oldest of four, and since her parents worked full time for most of her young life, she also had to care for her younger siblings.
I hope for you to not have this responsibility, as I think it is too much of a burden for someone so young.
It was just she and I for a number of years, and I worry that this has fundamentally formed the way I view parenthood. I cannot imagine raising you with anyone. Whenever I picture having children, I picture doing it on my own. I would love for you to have a father who loves and cares about you, or another mother, but when it comes down to it, I imagine that it will be just you and me. This scares me, mostly because I worry I will not be enough for you in the same way my mother was for me.
She was always very careful about who she allowed me to meet. I only discovered on the night of her wedding to my stepfather that she’d had other boyfriends between him and my dad. My aunt said she didn’t want to introduce me to anyone she did not think would be a permanent fixture in my life, and I respect her hugely for that.
I’ll begin with a Neil Gaiman quote, because he knows more than he thinks he does.
‘I’ve been making a list of the things they don’t teach you at school. They don’t teach you how to love somebody. They don’t teach you how to be famous. They don’t teach you how to be rich or how to be poor. They don’t teach you how to walk away from someone you don’t love any longer. They don’t teach you how to know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. They don’t teach you what to say to someone who’s dying. They don’t teach you anything worth knowing.’ -The Sandman.
I don’t pretend to be able to teach you much and, if you are my daughter, I’ll have already tried to teach you all I know. But I’ll still try and tackle this list regardless.
- How to love somebody. I don’t profess to know this well, but I will love you endlessly. As I write this, the only person I love as much as I’ll love you is my mother, who in return loves me the way that someone who’s drowning loves a lifeboat. And I will love you fiercely. You cannot save people, little one, you can only love them. Love them without guilt or shame or asking anything in return.
- How to be famous. As I am not, nor will hopefully ever be, famous, this is a hard one. I would say be humble. And be kind. And don’t ever forget where you’ve come from, or where you’re going.
- How to be rich; see above.
- How to be poor. Do not be afraid to ask for help. My little one, if you are ever in need, I will always help you. I will fill in forms for grants, and always buy you toilet roll and baked beans when I come to visit. My mama had to watch her friend swap the light bulbs around in her house and pick which rooms could stay in darkness, all the while raising three kids. I will not allow you to go through that. I will teach you the value of money, and I will help you to understand that it is not everything to you. You will not have a hole in your heart that can only be filled by material possessions. My stepmother has never written a thank you letter for any Christmas present that I have bought her. Please bear in mind when you think this sounds trivial, that my father had an affair and left my mother for this woman. And yet my mother still found it in her heart to help me buy Christmas presents for her every single year.
- How to walk away from someone you don’t love any longer. This one took me too long to learn. It will not be an immediate thing, but more of a slow fade, and one day you will wake up in the morning and you will gasp and shake your head and refuse to accept it, because they’ve not done anything wrong. It doesn’t matter, love, it doesn’t work like that. Once you’ve realised that, you can’t go back. Not immediately anyway. Maybe in ten years’ time when your foundations are less affected by the swaying of their tide, but not right now. Tell them you need to be you, and you alone. Don’t assume it will be easy; it will not.
- How to know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. Don’t. Stick with trying to know what’s going on in yours.
- What to say to someone who’s dying. Nothing you say will change things. When my uncle was dying and started to smoke, someone ask if he wasn’t worried about the health risks. They meant it in a caring, concerned way. My uncle deadpanned them, and said “Let me live long enough to die of lung cancer.” I saw his widow some years later, still smoking, and when I got my pack out she said, “It’s very bad for you,” in an absent-minded way while she handed me her lighter.
Some days you will feel like you are drowning. I will have taught you all I know about anxiety, but I fear that some information will slip through the cracks in your smile. I hope you will smile, but I hope that it will not be a smile you force, smeared across your face like cheap lipstick.
I have spent too much time smiling to be polite, smiling to make other people comfortable, and smiling because I am constantly told to cheer up. I smiled at funerals because people told me that my speeches were beautiful. I smiled when men told me that we could still be friends. I smiled after I was sexually assaulted when I told my friend because at least someone believed me. I hope you will not smile as though the world depends on it. I hope you will smile because your heart is too full of joy, and you are not sure of how to express it.
I was in and out of mental health care from the age of ten, and it will break my heart if I have to see you go through the same thing. But I will be there. Regardless of anything you do, or go through. That’s what a mother does.
Whenever I think about depression, I think of it as a lake. People without it are on lilos, or rubber rings, or even boats. They might experience divorces, or lose their jobs, and that might mean they have to get a new floatation device, and spend a couple of days in limbo, but they will always find their way back to one.
Then there’s depression. It takes away your life-line. Some days you’ll be able to float, just like everyone else, and no one will even realise you ever struggle. On most days you’ll have to swim around, put effort into continuing to stay afloat. People might assume you’re doing this on purpose (see well-meaning phrases like “but you have no reason to be sad!” or “but you’re so pretty/funny/clever!” or, my personal favourite, “but there are people STARVING in Africa!”).
And then there are the blue days: deep blue funks, my stepdad used to call them. On the blue days, you will feel like you are being dragged under water, that you are drowning. Sometimes you will fight it, plaster on smiles and defiantly refuse to accept that anything is wrong, even when the water is slowly filling your lungs. Other days you will struggle, and that will hurt even more. Especially the looks people give you when they see your scarred and flailing arms.
It will hurt.
The first time I undressed in front of the man I would stay in love with for far too long, he grimaced, and told me I had too many scars. I should have pulled my clothes back on, propped up the corners of my mouth with my two middle fingers, and walked out, even if I had already missed the last train. Instead, I went downstairs and curled up on the sofa, the scent of the dinner I’d cooked him lingering in the living room.
A lot of the time it will be the people you love most who look at you with cold eyes. Some of them will not understand what possesses you to drag anything across your flesh, and they will not understand what it is you are trying to exorcise.
There is only so much you can write down in letters. The rest will be told in poems, songs, glances, hugs, whispers, and yells. Ultimately, the rest is up to you.
You are a wonder. I haven’t met you yet, but I am already so proud of you. I never really thought about having a daughter when I was younger, but right now I cannot imagine loving anyone more. I always thought about having sons, had names picked out for five of them, but no idea how to deal with a daughter, worried about being a bad example, worried that you’ll be too much like me.
I worried too much about most things, and tried to ignore the fact that I wanted children, just like my mother did. I worked too hard, had a part-time job while I studied full-time, and tried to make everybody else happy. I hated myself, and I thought that if other people needed me that the depression would get quieter in my brain. It didn’t. It just made me want to claw my way out of my own skin, to exorcise whatever was in there until I was nothing more than a red mess smelling of sulphur. I thought the more educated I was, the more I’d understand myself. In a way, it worked, but by the time I was twenty I had such bad eyesight from staring at screens and books that the optician had to triple-check my date of birth when she read my prescription.
You will probably have my freckles, and need glasses. That’s okay, you are from a long line of short-sighted women, and none of us have let it slow our lives down. I’m sorry if you get my height and feet, but on the plus side, you will never have any problems with seeing the stage at concerts, and they’ll always sell Doc Martens in your size.
I wonder what music you’ll like. I like to think that you’ll love Queen as much as I do, and as much as my father does. He once told me he expects to be dead before he sees me have children, but I want him to love you as soon as he sees the first ultra-sound photograph. I hope he frames it, and puts it in his office, and smiles when he looks at it. I have never seen my father cry, but I hope the first time he holds you his eyes well up, and I can see raw love reflected in them. I have watched my father flirt, shout, and argue, but never cry. Not out of anger, or grief, or joy.
My father could sell ice to the Inuit, and I have lost count of the number of times that his silver tongue has turned into a forked one. I hope that no criticism will ever hurt you as much as my father’s hurt me. I would nod as he spoke, and inhale slowly while I smelt expensive cologne and disappointment coming off him in waves.
I want so much for you, sweetheart, you have no idea.
I hope you will be kind. I know you will feel the same wanderlust that my father and I feel, and you will not know a home when you see one. My dad never knew when to settle down, and I worry that I will be the same.
I hope that you will be braver than I am, and plan much less. I can imagine the nights I will spend waiting up for you. I’ll make you black coffee before you go to work, and try not to think about what could have happened because you never worry about that.
I’ll buy you an anchor necklace for your tenth birthday, a reminder that you’ll always have somewhere to return to and ground yourself. Maybe a compass would be more appropriate, but I’ll never tell you where your home is, just let you know that I’ll always be there in case you need me.
My sister and I are split souls; we never shared a womb, but our eyes laugh the same, and we will always want the best for you. Your uncle is my boy wonder. I was fiercely protective of both of them, and I hope that hasn’t changed by the time you read this.
You will have aunts. Not just my sister, but others. Ones that I love like family. Your aunts will be there when you won’t let me be. Some of them I have known since childhood, and some of them came into my life much later. They will be terrible influences, and I know for a fact at least one of them will buy you whiskey and cigarettes. Your Auntie Jo will love you fiercely. When I fell in love with someone I couldn’t possibly have children with, she drunkenly offered to be a surrogate mother. Then she repeated the offer when sober. I worry that you will love her more than me.
I do not yet know your father, but he would think I encouraged you, and I would be happy to let him complain about telephone bills and his worn-out travel bags. You will be the best thing he ever gives me. You will be the best thing that anyone ever allows me to know.
Sweetheart, I will love you. And that is the beginning and end of everything.