Spinoff Parents editor Emily Writes reflects on the death of a family member and what it means to be a mother.
The school holidays have flown by in a blur. Attempts to work felt like I was just barely keeping my head above water. I dropped many balls – but managed to keep some in the air. And the kids had fun and were mostly oblivious to my frantic lurch toward deadlines.
During all of this, my husband spent weeks going back and forth to Auckland to care for a loved one. It was a privilege for him to care for his beloved grandmother. Her loss, when it came, shook our whānau. As a friend told me, she was te aka kumara – like a kumara vine. We all flowed through her and she through us, connecting the whānau, nourishing us all.
She was life: Vibrant, spirited, healing, fiery. And now in the hollow, what remains is the house she created. This house of my husband’s whānau.
Spending time with them reinforced to me how much I want our little whānau to be similar. I want us to be strong together, to hold each other up – to be a cohesive unit. Solid. Built to withstand. Built not just to survive but to thrive.
As I watched my husband’s whānau standing together, farewelling their mother, I was reminded of a reading from our wedding. Michael Blumenthal’s “A Marriage”:
You are holding up a ceiling
with both arms. It is very heavy,
but you must hold it up, or else
it will fall down on you. Your arms
are tired, terribly tired,
and, as the day goes on, it feels
as if either your arms or the ceiling
will soon collapse.
something wonderful happens:
a man or a woman,
walks into the room
and holds their arms up
to the ceiling beside you.
So you finally get
to take down your arms.
You feel the relief of respite,
the blood flowing back
to your fingers and arms.
And when your partner’s arms tire,
you hold up your own
to relieve him again.
And it can go on like this
for many years
without the house falling.
It reminds me now so much of parenting. Of the work that we do as mothers and fathers trying to keep our house from falling. From the first moment we know that we are growing a being to years later when we are tucking in our child, all lanky arms and long legs, into bed – we’re all building.
We’re building a house we hope will withstand anything.
Every shared secret, whispered to a ripe belly, every grab of a loved one’s hand to feel that quickening – it’s the start of something immeasurable.
My home is not a mansion. There’s no white picket fence or a garden perfectly tended.
I know that the foundation was solid, but I was not qualified to take on this project. And that is something I said to myself so many times in the beginning. How can I do this? Why should I be allowed to do this?
I kept waiting for somebody to take away my right. To snatch it and say: You don’t deserve this abundance. My crappy brain reminded me time and time again that I would never quite be enough for this role. I’d never be the mum my child needed.
What has changed? Somehow over time I have come to realise that I am better at this than I thought I was. With my husband by my side we can keep the walls up. Grandparents helps us with the broken shingles dangling, kindy teachers give us advice on blueprints and share designs of the houses they’ve seen that stood tall and strong. My dear friends rally when I feel like it’s all a bit too much and I’m at their house ready to pitch in when they’re at sea as well. Even the local barista has a part to play.
A community built this. Kept us safe from the rain and hail.
I have changed. My house is (mostly) in order. Things break, I struggle, but the house stands. I no longer feel as if I am a step away from falling. What does it mean? To have respite to know you can settle into this role of a life-time, this new identity of mother?
Maybe it means I finally have space to help another whose arms are tired, legs shaking, trying to build her piece of paradise. Her home, just hers. I know that community isn’t a given for all, that some mothers are building completely alone.
We talk so much about villages but why then are so many mothers hidden in their homes, solitary and isolated? Are we doing all that we can to reach across the divide to help?
This positivity culture we are living in seems to thrive in this divide. Every day you have to feel blessed, be grateful, show off your shiny new kitchen and your shiny new kids. When mothers peek out from behind the veil to speak about the struggles, they’re shot down immediately. Even people whose only interaction with children is when they’re scowling at them at the supermarket feel they have to offer some tip or advice.
But this avalanche of “advice” just chips away at the little confidence that many mothers have. There’s no way to be qualified in parenting. There’s no one way to parent. You do your best. You seek advice if you need it from people you trust. There are people with experience who might model themselves in a way that works for you – but nobody has the right to make you feel small.
All of this shrinking of mothers builds that wall around us. It creates the cracks for mothers to fall through. You must be positive, all the time. Brick by brick. Don’t you know how lucky you are? Don’t you dare complain! Countless mothers have raised kids without ever making a fuss and here you are…
Well, I reject this. My house stands. I struggle. I cry. There’s ups and downs. Things don’t always go the way they should. I make mistakes. My house stands.
I carry pain. And I reject that notion that mothers must be perfect and must show this perfection to the world. The pain I carry doesn’t have to be destroyed or hidden and I don’t have to turn it into something else. Those scars on my heart are the scars mothers with children who they’ve almost lost all carry. I won’t hide them won’t turn them into some Hallmark card slogan. They have made me who I am. They get to stay – bloody and raw.
Motherhood can be painful; our hearts have to beat outside of our bodies. It’s messy and dangerous work. It requires radical empathy. It requires active compassion. That’s the heart of this village. That’s the village I want.
One day, we might find ourselves looking at our children as they grieve for us. We will see the house we built from afar. We will hope the structure holds. We will hope that we might have passed on the ability to build a shelter for all of those we love. We will hope that the blueprints can be shared, whakapūpūtia mai o mānuka, kia kore ai e whati.
An imperfect but perfect home. So much stronger together.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.