There is nothing like the weird, gross, devoted love between a single mother and her daughter
Some people wait decades for their parents to become human beings. They’ll sail through playground tussles, university days, early jobs, pregnancies, marriages, divorces and everything in between, fervently believing in the mysterious magic with which a mother is imbued. They know a mum can change everything with a cup of tea or a lasagne, a wise word or a knowing smile. They are the types of people who say, as one friend once did to me at the age of 27, “I don’t think I’ll ever be as much of an adult as my parents.”
When you grow up with a single parent, it’s different. That revelatory moment everyone is supposed to experience in middle age, when an incapacitated parent reveals their human frailty for the first time by asking for reassurance, doesn’t come.
It already came, years before, when you were five years old and your dad cried after a custody ruling. Or at seven, when you felt your mum’s awkward sadness among hundreds of happy couples waiting in the playground. Or at eighteen, when your crushing fear of a beloved parent being lonely without you eclipsed all the joy of moving away from home for the first time. Because you knew they were human all along.
These are the bad things about being a child of a single parent: you grow up too fast. You’re drafted in as relationship adviser by default, which usually means hearing more than you’d like to about your mother’s sex life. You’re seen and treated as an equal, even when you’re just an overtired 11-year-old or a teenager having a meltdown. Your anxiety about whether they’re OK at any given moment will play a constant, low-level drumbeat in the background of your life, getting louder when you’re happy. You will find yourself identifying with Jessa in Girls when she finally snaps during an altercation with her father, “I’m the child! I’m the child!”
But these are the good things: you have a readymade best friend. Not in the way people mean when they flippantly tell you their happily married mum is their best friend because they go on shopping trips together and share tips about quinoa. This is a real friendship, the kind that can only come from wiping each other’s tears and taking turns to tell each other everything will be all right. The kind where you stay up until 3am debating current affairs with each other on a school night because your opinion is respected and your conversation is vital. The kind where you learn that two people can say the unsayable – as you both will, many times, especially during your own adolescence – and love each other enough to painstakingly rebuild your relationship again afterwards.
Mother’s Day, we’re often told, is just another commercial leg-up for purveyors of half-dead petrol station daffodils and cards containing misspelt sentimental poetry. But for me, it also provides an opportunity to examine one of the most complicated and valuable relationships in my life.
It provides the space – even if that’s just a few minutes on a snatched phone call – to step back and appreciate that single parenthood comes with its own unique set of sacrifices and dedications.
Zach Braff’s character in Garden State comments that he realised how much his mother loved him as a child when she offered him her sleeve to wipe his snotty nose on. Not to take the wind out of his sails or anything, but my mum once spent an hour ringing round my friends to arrange a playdate for me while she was in labour with my sister. After her waters had broken.
If that’s not weird, awesome, disgusting, incredibly devoted love on another level, then I don’t know what is.