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Our daughter is leaving home in just over a week. She’s moving interstate to go to university. There’s a good uni ten minutes down the road, but she wants to experience a different city, live in a different part of Australia, and who knows where she’ll go after that …

We wandered around the uni a couple of weeks’ ago and I couldn’t help but feel excited with her. I kept grabbing her arm, saying, ‘Look at that,’ and, ‘Did you see they’ve got this?’. I stopped the car in the middle of the road to take a photo of the sign – and embarrassed her as the cars banked up behind us. 

The other cars just had to wait ...

There weren’t many cars, and I was quick …

We will miss her. I don’t like that there’ll be one less place at the dinner table each night. I’ll miss her chirpy voice each morning. I’ll miss her three pairs of bathers on the line. I’ll miss her scrawled notes on the bench telling me she’s gone for a run. I’ll miss seeing her familiar shape at her desk …

But her future is beckoning and this is what children do – they leave their parents. As they should …

***

For me, having my own children opened a lot of childhood wounds. I remember one day when I was a young mum trying to clean my daughter’s bottom after a particularly messy nappy. I lay her over my lap and she began to struggle, kicking her legs and crying as I wiped. Immediately, I was taken back to being a child across my mother’s knee, my bare bum in the air, struggling to get away as she whacked me. I started to cry and had to stop cleaning my daughter — I felt like I was abusing her …

The flashbacks were frequent when the children were younger: when my kids didn’t share, I remembered being called selfish; when they were naughty, I remembered being told I was bad; when they told a lie, I remembered being labeled a liar. From watching my children act like children and do the same things that I’d done, I saw that I wasn’t selfish or bad or a liar – I was just a normal child.

The childhood flashbacks are less frequent now, but our daughter leaving has stirred up different memories. And it’s not just memories that return, but the feelings of anxiety, hurt, anger, frustration, and powerlessness. And grief …

***

I started studying Medicine at the University of Tasmania in 1985. I had to leave home to live in Hobart, two hundred kilometres away. On the day I was leaving, my mother wanted to set off at ten o’clock. At eleven o’clock, having tossed my gear into my bags, I came out ready to go. She refused to drive me down. I hadn’t been ready at the designated time and I hadn’t packed my bags properly.

The thing was, I wasn’t ready to leave on time, nor had I packed my bags properly. She was right.

I apologised many times over. No, she still wasn’t taking me. I tried to talk, cajole, beg, do anything to get her to take me. But no, I was a disorganised, lazy bitch who needed to be taught a lesson. My father and my sister argued on my behalf, but No, she can’t get away with it. She has to learn to be responsible.

There was much yelling, screaming, and tears, until, as the sun began to set, I decided I’d hitch a ride down. I had to get to uni somehow — lessons were starting the next day. In the end, my father stepped in and said he’d take me. Weak, she told him, You’re weak as piss. Giving into her and letting her get away with it.

It was already dark when we left. I said goodbye to my mother but she stayed at the sink and didn’t speak. She didn’t kiss or hug me or wish me well. I cried all the way down.

In Hobart, Dad helped me unload. I made him a cup of coffee in the dining room, then he drove the two hours back. He tried to make me feel like a normal uni student, hugging me and wishing me luck as he left.

But I didn’t feel like everyone else. Everyone else had arrived in daylight and was unpacked and happy, sitting in each others’ rooms and playing music. I walked past them with my bags, head down to hide my puffy eyes.

I didn’t tell anyone because I was ashamed. Everyone else’s mother had sent them off with hugs and kisses and good wishes. I didn’t want people to know that mine hadn’t, and what that said about me. I was jealous that they were allowed to start their new lives happily, with their mothers’ blessings. 

I put it behind me – I had to in order to start uni the next day. The only way I could cope was by forgetting about it, by going to bed and getting up and pretending I’d gone off to uni with good wishes just like everyone else. So that’s what I did …

***

It happened again when I went overseas in 1989. Again, I’d been irresponsible, selfish, lazy. My mother hit me the night before I left and gave me a black eye. My father dropped me off at the airport because my mother refused to. None of my family saw me off — no kisses, no hugs, no good wishes. Again, I covered my bruises – inside and out. It was my own fault — if I was better behaved, she wouldn’t do this. Again, I felt ashamed.

In 2000 I moved with my family to live in Western Australia. Before I left, I was a fucking, fucking, fucking, fucking, fucking bitch, repeated many times over in front of my stunned husband and daughter. No kisses, no hugs, no good luck wishes before we left.

I sat in the car afterwards and howled. But this time, I had a witness outside of the family. I had someone who could tell me, ‘No. You’ve done nothing wrong. All you’ve done is leave.’

I began to see the pattern …

***

Sometimes I feel sorry for myself for the childhood I had. (Like yesterday — yesterday was a self-pitying day.) My childhood can never be undone and made right. I will always have scars. But I have done the next best thing, and the only thing I could do to help right the wrongs: I have made it better for my own children. I made that my mantra: not to do to them what had been done to me.

Strangely enough, that in itself has been healing. Through mothering my children, I’ve been able to mother the child in me. The child who was told she was a bad, selfish liar, I’ve realised, wasn’t any of that. She was a normal child, one who became a hurt, lost, lonely, misunderstood child. I understand her now, and I love her.

***

In our matching caps and sunglasses. Deliberate.

In our matching caps and sunglasses.

Our daughter is gorgeous, as are all our children. She’s sensible and she makes good choices. She works hard and her future is bright. She deserves the opportunities opening for her.

As parents we’re meant to be preparing our children for the adult world, for independence. Isn’t that our job? The time has come to let go. My role as a mother is changing. I’m here for support and guidance when needed. And, of course, I’m here to give love. Much love. Love is always needed.

My daughter and I are preparing and packing. She’s excited to be starting the rest of her life and I will not take any of that away from her. Moving away from home is a milestone and I want her to have good memories of it, to be able to look back on it as a happy time in her life.

I’ll let her go with a smile, and I’ll kiss her and squeeze her tight as I wave her off. I will miss her but it is her life and it is her right to live it how she wishes.

It is time to let go.

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THE SISTERS' SONG

Coming January 2018 (Allen and Unwin)

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