I didn’t love my mother—and I feared that it was my fault.
I was often told how “lucky” I was to be my mother’s daughter. She had mastered her public persona, always gracious, with a captivating air of sophistication as she spoke in the upper crust English accent she hadn’t lost despite her decades in the States. Her clothing was timeless, simple cuts of fine natural fabrics in muted colors, accented with a stylish necklace she had picked up at Neiman Marcus or Gump’s. She threw elegant parties with white linen tablecloths, silver place settings, and tasteful floral arrangements. I would watch silently as my mother flitted around the room, charming her guests, my father by her side.
Seen from the outside, our lives were ideal. No one noticed how I recoiled from my mother’s touch, finding even the brush of her hand against mine unbearable. When she would reach to hug me, my body would tense. It felt—if only for an instant—that I was in danger. Her disappointment was unmistakable, and my fear was quickly replaced with guilt and shame.
It was a question that I asked myself. As a daughter, I was expected to love this woman who’d brought me into the world. Our libraries are filled with books that revere mothers; the artwork on the walls of the world’s most venerated museums deifies the mother-child relationship; our religious doctrines command that a child honor thy mother. Society’s view is unequivocal—nothing is more sacred than the bond between a mother and her child.
I tried to will myself to be a better daughter. After all, she’d performed her motherly duties. She bore me, she disciplined me without ever raising a hand to me, she clothed me and fed me and tucked me in each night. Sometimes I wished that she had hit me or cut me with a knife. A single bruise or scar might have sufficed, giving me the evidence to once and for all to prove our failure to bond was not due to something deep inside of me but to something she’d done. I curated lists of wrongs she had committed against me which were often beyond the norm—sharp criticisms and unpredictable rages—but I knew intuitively that these events could not explain the chasm between us.
It was only after I uncovered secrets she had kept hidden for a lifetime that I understood that it wasn’t my fault—and perhaps none of it was really her fault, either. It all began when I found my mother sitting alone in the dark, scribbling an unfamiliar name over and over again:
Dorothy Soames Dorothy Soames Dorothy Soames
I was nineteen at the time, and years would pass before she tried to tell me more. As a child, I knew little of my mother’s past and nothing about her family, not the names of her mother or father, or whether they were alive or dead. She would grow angry if I questioned her, or worse, would retreat to her room and brood alone in the dark.
When I was well into my adult life, my mother announced, “I want to tell you everything.” Her willingness to share was sudden, and a lifetime of secrecy had turned any curiosity I had about my mother’s past into resentment.
“It’s too late,” I told her.
The months and years passed, and we never spoke about what she wanted to tell me that day—and then she was gone. Moments after I watched my mother heave her last breath, I rushed from the room, sobbing wildly, struggling to breathe as wails erupted from deep inside. During the days that followed, I was weighted down by the emotions that had overtaken me, finding it difficult to perform even the most mundane tasks.
Why was I grieving a woman I did not love?
I would find out the answer after I traveled across the Atlantic to uncover the truth about a little girl named Dorothy Soames.
My mother did not grow up among London’s elite, as I had always been told, but at the infamous Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children, commonly known as The Foundling Hospital. For two centuries, illegitimate children would be prepared for a hard life of scrubbing floors for England’s ruling class. Once left by a mother eager to hide the shame of an unwanted pregnancy, the child would go by a new name. For my mother, she would be known as Dorothy Soames.
From that day forward, she would be referred to impersonally as Soames, and raised in a world reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale, but unlike the rules imposed on Margaret Atwood’s characters, the strictures governing every aspect of my mother’s life were real. Each morning, she would don a cape and white tippet, and march with the other children in twos in complete silence. Each moment of their days would be laid out, when to eat, speak and even when to defecate, all under the watchful eyes of the women dressed in blue with white caps who enforced rules that had been etched in stone centuries before.
Physical abuse was widespread, not just accepted but expected. A whisper could result in a beating or worse. Solitary confinement was also a favorite form of punishment. My mother would endure being locked up in windowless closets time and time again. Some staffers evoked terror simply by entering a room, taking pleasure in the very act of inflicting pain on a child. In my mother’s time, that would have described Miss Woodward, the gym mistress. On one occasion, Miss Woodward beat my mother for talking in line so savagely that a purple-black mass of bruises remained for weeks. On another occasion, she threw her in the deep end of the pool, well aware that she couldn’t swim, pushing her down repeatedly with a stick as other teachers watched for entertainment.
What I uncovered about my mother’s upbringing explained some of her odd behavior—why she scrubbed the floors until her knuckles bled, or when, for a time, she found comfort eating thick gruel for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But what I learned about the impact of institutionalization on the ability of a child to bond with others was more profound. According to British psychiatrist John Bowlby, bonds established—or lacking—at a young age affect the ability of a person to form healthy and meaningful attachments throughout life. Without that security and nurturing, a child cannot grow to trust others or form healthy attachments. In the 1950s the psychologist Harry Harlow attempted to replicate the results of Bowlby’s so-called attachment theory, hoping to answer the question: Can you raise a healthy child without love? Monkeys taken from their mothers at birth would sit and rock, staring into space while sucking their thumbs, unable to interact with their peers. In another experiment, monkeys placed in solitary confinement—something my mother had endured repeatedly as a child—would emerge from confinement hopeless, broken beyond repair.
Reading about Harlow’s experiments, I couldn’t help but wonder whether my relationship with my mother conformed to the dynamic he had discovered. My mother had no friends in her adult life, at least none that I knew of. While her elegant parties were always well-attended, no one ever stopped by for a cup of tea, or tagged along on shopping expeditions. I wondered whether she was like Harlow’s monkeys, incapable of forming lasting bonds with those around her—not just with her own daughter. As I learned more about childhood bonding, how a lack of touch could shape a child’s view of the world, it seemed more than possible that the fate of our relationship may have been sealed in those first few months following my birth, before conscious memories could form. Perhaps my mother, who had received no love or tenderness as a child, had been unable to hold and cradle her own tiny infant in her arms.
I am not alone in my inability to muster love for a damaged parent, but perhaps I am one of the lucky ones: I can put a thumbtack in time and understand so much of why my family ended up the way that it did. Now I know why I grieved my mother’s death so intently, why pain coursed through my body, leaving me exhausted and frail those weeks after she closed her eyes for the last time. I mourned not the loss of what I once had, but what had been taken from me even before I drew my first breath or took my first steps.
Justine Cowan is an attorney and environmentalist who spent over two decades exposing corporate corruption and holding polluters accountable. A graduate of UC Berkeley and Duke University School of Law, she lives with her husband in Atlanta, Georgia. Her first book, The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames, comes out in paperback this April.