Writer, Gaby Koppel shares some lessons on motherhood including how she came to terms with a turbulent childhood after she became a mom herself.
Lessons on motherhood: My past experiences
“I was terrified of becoming like my mom. I felt like I needed a few lessons on motherhood first. A lot of women have difficult relationships with their mothers, but mine felt especially loaded. It wasn’t just the fact that she was loud, Hungarian and chain-smoking. Mom carried the past around with her like a suicide vest threatening to go off at any moment. And then, just to confuse me, she’d do something absolutely wonderful. It was like dealing with two different people.
My fun-loving mom could be a fabulous entertainer – on the right day she was witty, charismatic, funny, well-read. She loved a full house, a groaning table, and extra mattresses in every bedroom. She’d invite 50 people over and recruit me into the kitchen as her willing helper.
But the self-destruct impulses were powerful and this is an important lesson on motherhood I would learn later. At some point in the afternoon, I’d lose myself in a cloud of flour on a quest for the perfect profiterole and, when I looked up, the ‘Other Mom’ had arrived, pursued by demons. As she came down the stairs in her finery, I’d realise, with a sense of unease, that there was something wrong – the walk not quite steady, the make-up smeared, the words slurred. Underneath that voluble exterior, she was actually a timid woman, for whom the prospect of having to make small talk could unlock a host of terrors from her tortured past. So she’d hit the bottle and stumble around incoherently, leaving 15-year-old me to step in as hostess alongside Dad.
I would be standing there with a smile fixed on my face, offering round the canapés, while burning with anger inside. I felt embarrassed by her behaviour, of course, but it was more than that. When she was comatose on the couch, I felt abandoned, every bit as much as if she’d walked out of the door. And sometimes I did wish she would leave us for the kind of steady, rational life that I was sure I’d have with my engineer father.
More about my mother…
My mother’s upbringing as the daughter of a well-to-do Jewish family in Budapest had left her with an imperious air and tastes for the finer things in life. I stood in her shadow, both physically and metaphorically, always slightly in awe of her, and anxious about what she would do or say next.
She regarded our small hometown as a bastion of provincial dreariness. So three times a year, she whisked me off to the city for a shopping spree. Unstintingly generous, she’d try to dress me in outfits that were too sophisticated or extravagant for my schoolgirl-ish liking, and treat me to cake before returning home. But, the following day, it would be business as usual, with her furtively glugging vodka from her secret stash next to the Wedgwood china, while I fumed quietly in the kitchen.
When it came to sex, she was desperate to demonstrate how modern she was. I was 16 when she offered to take me to our family doctor for the Pill, adding that if I slept with a boyfriend at home, she’d bring us breakfast in the morning. So I clung resolutely to my virginity just to thwart her. Living at home was like being on an emotional pendulum, and I left as soon as I could, heading to Europe for a gap year, then university. I never really went back.
Starting a new life
As I progressed from intern reporter to assistant television producer, I was careful to give my parents an edited version of my life, without any of the disappointments or the mess. With hindsight, I realise that I was still scared of her disapproval. I’d grown up so caught under the spell of her mesmerising personality that she still had the power to destroy me by uttering a single sentence.
Despite the drunken bouts and turmoil, my parents were devoted to each other. When Dad died, Mom’s devastation was total. She took an overdose and was discovered in the nick of time, only to struggle on for another six years. Grief stole her sparkle, and the demons took hold with a vengeance.
After I married, I used my own family as a fortress to hide in. Having a small child made the practicalities of visiting more difficult, and that became a convenient excuse not to when those visits became increasingly strained. The pattern was always the same: nervous about our arrival, she’d already be slurring her words, whereupon unresolved anger about her drinking would make me shake with rage. The next day, she’d be sober and genuinely puzzled about why I was still slamming doors.
As we added a second child and then a third, I was determined to keep my career going. I wanted to provide them with what I thought was the right kind of hardworking role model, distinct from my erratic and housewifely mom. I found it difficult to empathise with her loneliness or her numerous physical ailments. I’d done the only thing I could to survive – cut loose.
I’d made myself harder and more selfish, so it was almost impossible to reconnect when she really needed me. Then one day the neighbours noticed that the newspaper hadn’t been taken in. The police found her dead at the kitchen table.
As the years passed, I began to miss her. Bringing up my own family made me take a fresh look at my childhood. I realised how obsessed I’d become with her drinking, to the obliteration of everything else. I started to write a novel, and found, to my surprise, that the central character was instantly recognisable. Of course, it seems so obvious now. After all, who was the most memorable, idiosyncratic and complex person I’d ever met? Trying to tell my mom’s story in a fictionalised form, I realised how little I actually knew about her past. I regretted showing so little curiosity while she was still around to tell the tale.
I devoured books about the war in Hungary – about the persecution, theft of property, the starvation, the rape and random executions of Jews. It made me feel sick to realise just how easily I’d passed judgement on a woman who had endured so much.
I reopened the old albums of photographs we kept packed away at the back of a cupboard. I hardly needed reminding that she had been a ravishing young woman who spoke four languages, played the violin to concert standard, and ran up a chic wardrobe on her Singer sewing machine. But there are no pictures of the woman I remember from my teens.
Learning to forgive and forget
I’m sad my children have grown up without their grandmother, but the thing I regret most of all is that in my fury about the drinking, the lies and the secrecy, I’d forgotten the really wonderful things – her energy and candidness, that unerring instinct about people, the openness to new ideas.
Over time, my rage about my mom’s drinking has burnt itself out. She may have been a deeply flawed person, with more than a trace of narcissism. But having children has made me realise how difficult it is to be a good parent. She called it right on so many things, including boundaries and freedom, and always offered unconditional love.
I’ve made my own fair share of mistakes – I’m probably still making them – and when I see my children judging me, I think of her having the last laugh, totally free of malice as only she could be. I just hope that I manage to hang around long enough for my kids to forgive me. With my mom, I simply ran out of time.