I’m reading a book by one of my favourite Spanish authors, Julia Navarro, Dime quien soy (in English Tell me who I am, although I’m not sure there is an English translation). It’s a compelling story about a woman who, in the thirties of the 20th century, abandons an upper class, comfortable life to follow a communist revolutionary, who turns out to be a Russian spy who will use her for his less than transparent purposes. She shares his ideals of a communist world, in spite of her origins and upbringing, but she follows him for love, abandoning her family, her husband and, most of all, her baby son.
I’m not halfway through the book yet, but it is clear for us readers that this woman is torn between her love, her passion for this man, and the love she feels for her child. She is consumed by remorse and by the appalling thought that her son will grow up without her, hating her for having abandoned him. Even so, this certainty will not make her come back, as she sticks to the man and the life she has chosen, in a world where the possibility of choice was rarely given to women.
Even today, society looks with high reproval on a mother who abandons her children; imagine almost one hundred years ago, where the role of women was mainly to become wives, breed children and ensure domestic bliss so that the “master” – the head of the family – would find harmony at home to pursue his breadwinning role. This has of course drastically changed – if not in all societies, unfortunately – but the stigma of the “unnatural mother”, i.e., the one who abandons her children, remains. And the guilt, too.
I would say most mothers, when confronted with this choice, still choose the love for their children over romantic love, as painful as this may be, as much as this choice may condemn them to a life in an unhappy marriage or relationship without any hope for the future. A dear friend, years ago, did just that. Her marriage to an older, brilliant, charming but cold man had long ceased to be a true marriage. They had grown apart and lived like friendly strangers, but still strangers. During her business travels she met a man on the other side of the world, and they fell in love. She often travelled there, so they met frequently, and their love for each other grew. He truly, deeply loved her and wanted her to join him there, with her daughter, then a little girl of no more than 7 or 8 years old. As much as she ached to accept his proposal and change her life, as much as she thought about how to make things work for all of them, in the end she could not do it. Not only her husband would never allow their daughter to leave the country and live far away from him, but the little girl adored her father as well; and she could not bring herself to break her daughter’s heart. Instead, she broke hers. She ended the relationship and went back to her loveless marriage. To this day, she and her husband are together. I believe they have reached an amicable state in their relationship; at least she seems in peace, and they are the proud parents of a healthy, happy, bright young woman who is beginning her career. A young woman who will probably never know the extent of the sacrifice her mother has done for her. Hopefully not.
Another friend, recently, has made the same choice. More surprisingly, perhaps, bearing in mind her children are already grown-ups in their mid-twenties; still at home, of course, like most people their age – in Portugal, at least. Also trapped in a marriage whose spark had long dwindled and died, she embarked on a love affair that lasted for years, with occasional meetings and stolen long weekends and short holidays. After a few years she and her lover came to the conclusion that they wanted to build a life together. After all, their respective children were young adults already, so theirs would just be another case in the growing divorce statistics. Unlike many men, who tend to procrastinate this sort of decision, he immediately divorced his wife, while she could not bring herself to have a final talk with her husband. For months she agonised over what decision to make, and in the end could not bear the guilt of breaking up their family and eventually lose her children, something she feared would happen as they were highly attached, and supportive of their father. She finally severed all ties with her lover, breaking his heart and most probably hers, and returned home to play the mother role and be there for her children, as long as they need her. Chances are in a few years her not-so-little birds will leave the nest, and she will ask herself if making the ultimate sacrifice was really worth it.
Freedom of choice
Looking back at Amelia, the heroine of Julia Navarro’s book, and these two women, one might say she was a bad mother, and these two are what mothers should be, sacrificing all for their children – after all aren’t we the ones who bring them into this world? I relate to my friends, naturally, because I know my children are the greatest loves of my life, the only unconditional love I will ever feel, so I am positive I would never, ever, leave them, even to pursue a great love story. But maybe this is because I have had my great love stories and know they all end, sooner or later, only to be transformed into something else. Not so with the love story with my children – it will go on forever, to the last day of my life.
Even so, one of the things I treasure most in life is freedom of choice, and everyone should have it. Amelia made her choice, and suffered for it, no doubt. Still, she made it freely, and that’s how we, women, and all human beings, should go about life. Being free to make our choices so that, be they right or wrong, we may never regret them, because it was a path we freely chose, not one that was imposed on us. So, regarding Amelia and all the mothers who chose romantic over motherly love, who will throw the first stone? Not me, for sure.