How it feels to ... forgive an unfaithful mum on Mother’s Day

  • Natalie Claire Baker

A decade ago Natalie Baker discovered her mother was having an affair — the first of many. At first she cut her off. Now she explains how fury evolved into absolution. Originally published in The Sunday Times Magazine –

For years I have dreaded Mother’s Day. While my friends treated their mums to afternoon tea and a day at the spa, I would pretend it was just another Sunday. This may sound like sacrilege, but for me and my two sisters it felt necessary. I knew that the moment I gave my mum a card or flowers, I’d be saying: “I forgive you.” And until recently, I wasn’t ready to do that.

Five years ago, when I was 25, my mum walked out of the family home. It came as no surprise, as she’d had a string of affairs during the last six years of her marriage to my dad. Their relationship had been in dire straits. The affairs were shocking, and to walk out on us was unmotherly and unnatural — well, that’s what I believed at the time because it’s what people, especially other mothers, told me. My dad, of course, suffered greatly, as did I and my sisters.

The truth about her infidelity came out in the summer of 2010. My nanna had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and I had finished my first year of university a few weeks early to help provide end-of-life care with my mother and grandpa. Three weeks of hospital visits, rapid deterioration and heartbreak followed before Nanna passed away, with me, my mum and my sisters by her side.

A few days after her death I went by train to collect my exam results from university. On returning home, I found my mum in our house with a man I knew well — a friend of hers. It was clear they were having an affair. I went straight up to my bedroom in disbelief. The next morning, in a state of shock and fury, I told my dad and sisters, and we confronted Mum. My nanna’s funeral was just days later. Suddenly my life became a soap opera, though EastEnders was pale in comparison.

What I didn’t appreciate then, and what my mother has told me since, is that she was beginning to go through the menopause, and was navigating a hormonal whirlwind that would last five or six years. She was questioning her relationship with my father, her mother had died, and her father passed away a few years later — she felt lost and orphaned.

“Grief takes on various forms,” she told me recently, “and when you lose people close to you it puts things into perspective, life being short.”

I was blind to any of this back then. I couldn’t understand how my mother — who had given my sisters and me the best start in life, bringing us up in rural bliss, filling our lives with hobbies, sleepovers, dance classes — could have brought this on our family.

At the end of the summer I went to America to complete my second year of university in upstate New York. My year abroad and all that came with it — new friends, Brooklyn boyfriend, cross-country road trip — provided a welcome distraction from the Third World War at home. But the pain and anger were just deferred.

Back in the UK, my dad became the superglue trying to hold our family together. My parents continued to live in the same house, go on holidays and days out together. On the surface, everything seemed fine. But when evidence of new affairs emerged, the trust we had started to rebuild was violated. It felt as if an earthquake had destroyed the walls of our home, yet instead of repairing the damage the very next day, we were struck again and again. Our paranoia reached unimaginable heights. Who is she with now? Why is she not home yet? Where has she been all day? There were text messages, emails, regular sightings. We all became detectives. It was no way to live.

There was no space to reflect on what was really going on with my mum, or to take stock. I was simply angry. I would frequently erupt at the dinner table and call her a “whore”, “slut”, “shit mother”, and so on. I’m now deeply ashamed and embarrassed by the memory of the things I said, but I was young, unworldly and everything hurt.

One thing I now know is that it’s impossible to process grief while living under the same roof as the person you are grieving for. As another year came to a close, I quietly hoped the new year would bring a resolution — an end to the pretence that everything was OK. That day came in the autumn of 2015, when my mum packed her car with her clothes and drove away to be with her lover.

For nine months I stopped all communication with her. Birthday, Christmas and Mother’s Day cards were discontinued. I craved a clean slate — space to breathe and sunny skies. So I moved to the south of Italy, to teach English in a sleepy town in Campania. I didn’t know it, but I was about to embark on a period of shedding — and of growing sympathy for my mother.

I had a long-term, long-distance boyfriend, but in Campania I started to develop feelings for someone new. It was the first time in my life I had felt torn between two people, and as I tried to resolve this in my mind, I thought of Mum — and began to understand what she might have been going through. I didn’t want to feel trapped, so I chose to end things with my boyfriend. The new relationship, however, amounted to naught.

On reflection, it’s interesting that I wound up in a country that houses the headquarters of the Catholic Church — a religion that tells married couples to commit themselves to one another until death. The very notion relies on two people staying the same during the course of their matrimony. For marriage to have longevity, both parties must surely have room for change and growth. In the case of my parents, one changed and the other didn’t. By staying together, both wound up miserable.

I can’t help but feel that so much suffering could be spared if our marriage culture made room for change and nuance. If people were at liberty to articulate — to their spouse, to their friends — their evolving desires in a way that didn’t trigger stigma, revulsion and fury, perhaps we would see fewer acrimonious divorces.

For many years I felt extreme anger towards Mum. I now realise there was something else at play — the pressure society places on mothers to be nurturing and loyal, and to sacrifice so much of themselves. Anything less is deemed a failure, but this leaves no room for their own needs.

Adulterous women are held to far greater account than men in our “slut-shaming” culture. The language we use to talk about them — the kind of awful language I fired at my mother over the dinner table — is far more damning and expansive than that used to describe their male equivalents.

One experience I had while studying in New York has helped me turn a corner. I heard a Hiroshima survivor named Tomiko Morimoto West speak on the 65th anniversary of the atomic bomb. She had been 13 at the time of the blast, and was the only member of her family to survive. She spoke movingly about her loss. What struck me as remarkable, and so humbling, was her focus on forgiveness — how the act of forgiving helped alleviate her suffering. If a survivor of Hiroshima could forgive, then surely so could I — after all, I still had a mother, a home, my liberties.

Next week I turn 30. As an adult, I understand that things aren’t black and white, that there are varying shades of love. Parents mess up. Parents change.

My mother is now in a long-term relationship with the man she left my father for. Both my parents are far happier apart than they were in the later years of their marriage. They’ve moved on and created new, fulfilling lives for themselves. My sisters and I are much closer than we used to be, having gone through all this together, and we perhaps feel lucky in that respect.

When I told my mum I’d be writing this piece, I asked her how she’d felt on Mother’s Day for the past nine years. “Awful,” she said. For her, it was a constant reminder that her relationship with her daughters had become so impaired.

I recently celebrated her birthday for the first time in years. It was her 60th, and as I watched her dance to her favourite band, arms flailing, hair wild and free, I realised that what I felt for her was love. Love and acceptance. This Mother’s Day I will give her a card, or at the very least, a call.

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    The Sunday Times Magazine