Even though I lived with her, I didn’t know who my Mother was until I was eight-years old. That was one of the main rules of the Commune / Collective / Cult I grew up in: the kids are everyone’s responsibility equally.
Which, in practice, meant we were no one’s responsibility — so in a house full of adults, with two young children, there were no parents. At least there were no parental responsibilities or connections allowed.
A few years after I was born — while my Mother was in the hospital*, my aunt had her first child. The Collective — led by my Father (whom I also had no relationship with), sat her down and for five hours argued that breastfeeding would create a bond with the child that no one else could have. Children, they argued, were property of the Collective, and would be raised as such. Then the eleven members of the Collective who were there — including her husband, stood up, handed her a breast pump and told her she couldn’t breastfeed her daughter… end of story.
*…my Mother was very sick during the first few years of my life. After I was born, she spent several months recovering in the hospital. Eighteen months after having me, she gave birth to my little brother, and she spent another six to eight weeks in the hospital recovering from complications. There was a third pregnancy soon after, that had to be terminated because her life was at risk. So when she was finally healthy enough and came back to the Collective, it was a very different place.
But she stayed, my aunt didn’t. My aunt chose to leave the Collective and move in with her sister, several towns over. Eventually she returned, but on her terms. She would live separately from the Collective (just down the street actually), but she would look after her own kids. She chose to bond with them in her own way.
The Collective took form while my Mother was in the hospital for the third pregnancy. She had very little to do with its formation, but made the choice to accept its rules during her recovery. She chose to stay. Chose to have her two kids raised by a group… chose to have us as a chore on a group ‘To-Do’ list. My brother and I were even sent to live with my exiled aunt for a time. All of which is insane. How does someone choose that path?
The Collective, under the leadership of my Father, lasted from when I was 2.5-years old, until I was eight. It finally broke down when my parents marriage broke down. There were too many affairs, too much abuse, and my Mother had enough, and had a plan, and one day she just walked me down to the train station and we escaped.
We took the train to Kingston, where we met my aunt who had been looking after my Brother. Then our little family continued on to Ottawa. All the while I, as an eight-year old, was questioning my Mother about how she wasn’t supposed to be alone with me. About how much trouble we were going to be in for breaking the rules — for the first four years of my life my mother was too sick to bond, then when she was better the Collective had changed the rules then, four years later, we’re alone on a train and I’m trying to figure out who she is.
My Mother called a childhood friend from the Kingston train station who, after hearing some of the insanity we had been through — and that we were in the middle of an escape, agreed to let us stay with her in Ottawa for as long as we needed.
After arriving in Ottawa my Mother and her friend stayed up all night talking about the escape and a lot of the stuff that preceded it… I stayed up as late as I could listening in from upstairs. The next step my Mother took was to contact her father. One of the other ‘rules of the Collective’ was no one was to discuss Collective business with outsiders. That especially meant family. So this moment was the first time my grandfather had heard the insanity that was the previous eight years.
His first reaction was to offer to have my Father’s legs broken. When he calmed down, he offered my Mother a deal… we’d live with him and my grandmother in Montreal, and he’d pay for whatever College or University programs my Mother wanted to take.
My Mother, knowing he was very serious about both offers, turned him down. Her mother had been extremely abusive… when my Mother first met my Father she left one abusive relationship for another. No matter how attractive her father’s offer was, she couldn’t go back.
So she made another choice. This time she chose to make her own way. She rented an apartment over a garage in a small town where she had some childhood connections, and found work doing bookkeeping.
For the next six years we lived in what became a pattern… moving around the region every six to eight months to find something moderately better or cheaper, my Mother finding and leaving new jobs, working night shifts at some, coming home after our bedtimes, leaving us with babysitters, sometimes leaving us on our own.
So for the first few years of my life my Mother wasn’t there, for the next five years of my life I was a group chore, with little to no idea who she was to me. Then, for the next six to eight years, I was a latchkey kid while she tried to make a life for us.
So the question is… when did my Mother and I have time to bond? How much of the yelling and screaming and threats that we went through for my early-to-mid teens had to do with the lack of understanding who we were as individuals? How many of the misunderstandings and frustrations we have with each other today are linked to those two choices?
Is there enough time left for us to work through the decades of those misunderstandings, is it possible for the two of us to have a relationship not based on assumptions and the preconceived expectation that every conversation we have about the past has to end in anger and resentment?
I really don’t know. I do know we’re running out of time, and We haven’t even started yet….