OPINANTAS / S. Malik – Writing about mothers on Women’s Day seems rather exclusive. Mothers, after all, do have their own special day. However, all of us, including all women, have mothers, who all happen to be women.
In Hungary, where I grew up, Mother’s Day celebrations are held at school. The classrooms fill up with damp-eyed and softhearted mothers and grandmothers as the children – dressed in black and white (the traditional uniform for celebrations) – sing songs and recite poems of gratitude towards their mothers. Because I always had a good relationship with my mother, it was not until I was 21 that I realized that the picture painted at these school celebrations was tainted. In reality the child-mother relationship is often complex or even complicated. I also realized that in Hungarian culture it is not considered appropriate to talk openly about one’s own mother. Of course, even back then, brave and courageous writers like Peter Esterhazy unveiled their mother (and father) in such a candid way as to make readers blush. But this impartiality is altogether missing from everyday discourse about mothers. Talking about one’s mother remains a pseudo-sacred act, and talking critically a taboo. There is an old Hungarian idiom, that says: about the dead say good things only or nothing at all. The same applies to one’s mother, and any deviation risks being viewed as blasphemy.
However, as a 21-year old, while sitting on a bus in a dreary district of Budapest, I realized that along the years some of my friends, acquaintances, colleagues and even family members had shared some intimate anecdotes with me, which often revealed a deeper truth. Often, these moments of truth were quickly swept aside the next instant; or simply followed by the silent sound of a guilty conscience. So, on the bus, while passing through a neighborhood of socialist housing projects, I wrote down the anecdotes that I could recall, and called the collection Centimater. What follows is a selection of excerpts from the book:
My umbilical cord hasn’t been cut yet. I just noticed yesterday that after thirty years it’s still there, albeit a bit rotten. It has endured a lot. It has been stretched for thousands of kilometers. It’s super stretchable and super durable.
My father cheated on my mother. Not once, but constantly. My mother knew it and punished him well: she forgave him and continued to love him dearly. She actually loved him to death. It drove him crazy. He took his own life.
When mum gets up in the morning she takes a deep breath and talks all day long. She is exhausted by the end of the day, like all of those who listen to her. I never pay any attention to her. I am the most energetic member of our family.
I have always been a sickly child. Always medicated. I spent half of my childhood in bed, taking pills. During summer I used to go to swimming classes wearing a scarf. My mum pampered me relentlessly. Then one day she died. That was forty years ago. I’ve never had a problem since. I have not even sneezed once.
When I said that mother is like Winnie-the-Pooh, I meant that she is so cute and cuddly. But then I thought about it again and I figured that she is also that dumb.
If I ever doubted myself, my mother proved that I was wrong and defined myself to me. If I had problems with the world, she defined the world to me. Now that I want to define her… this is all I can think about.
Mother loved justice. Whilst father was alive he used to badmouth his mother-in-law. So, mother buried father next to her mother. She thought this way they will have plenty of time and opportunity to sort things out.
Centimater includes 100, numbered, anecdotes about mothers. Readers of Centimater who have spent more time as the children of their mothers than being mothers themselves will mostly think of their own mothers. Those with older children, however, will perhaps also reflect on their own way of mothering. Either way, the book is meant to serve as a conversation starter, even if that conversation only happens with one’s self. Which thoughts or anecdotes do I identify with? Was my mother like this? How would I sum up our relationship? What comes to my mind when I think of her? As we start talking about our mothers more honestly, we may learn to understand, forgive or accept them. This might pave the way for a healthier, more honest relationship with our own children. Because our story always precedes us, and never ends with us.
My grandmother spent two nights praying before I was born, because she wanted a boy. After my birth, she spent two nights crying, because I was born a girl. She learnt from her mother, that the life of a woman is hard. My great grandmother, who was the first daughter after seven boys, became the right hand of her own mother, who bore nine more children. My great-grandmother told me that she despised the sight of her mother, who seemed to be perpetually pregnant. Those children who were born did not always live; but those who lived provided plenty of work for those who came before them. Being born into the role of serving seven boys made womanhood and motherhood unappealing to my great-grandmother. Later, she “only” managed to have two daughters. She was widowed at the age of 35, during the Second World War, but provided her girls with professions, property and the inherent understanding that it is hard to be a woman. Thus my grandmother decided she either wanted to be the mother of seven sons, or one girl. “There is no point being born a woman! It is too hard!” – she used to say. My grandmother’s first pregnancy resulted in my mother. She stopped child-bearing after that. During communism my grandmother had to work a lot. My great-grandmother raised my mother, who later managed to combine motherhood and work with ease. Maternity leave was three years per child and she chose a profession that enabled her to spend more time with her family (she was a teacher and did her marking at home). However, she wouldn’t say being a mother is not challenging.
I, now, have also become the mother of a girl. I have more options than the mothers before me ever had. I am more educated, more liberated, freer: I am a mother without borders. Like a nomad, I have moved my motherhood through cultures, stumbling across different ways of child-raising in each place I have lived. Different places, different challenges, different advice, different expectations – but motherhood is still challenging. Knowing the stories of the mothers before me makes me ask: Did I inherit a predisposition towards believing that motherhood is hard? Maybe. But this is just my centimeter of the story.
Happy Women’s Day, Happy Mother’s Day!
Szilvia Malik Game
Journalist and story-writer, currently residing in Paris.
While living in Australia, Szilvia published a blog with stories about her experience there as a European and a Hungarian.