You always believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself
A loving letter from daughter to mother
The following letter can be found in Letters of Note: Mothers—reprinted by kind permission of Hannah Strong. This Friday edition of the Letters of Note newsletter is free to read; to receive a few more each week, become a paying subscriber.
In 2017 filmmaker Greta Gerwig made waves with the release of her award-winning directorial debut, Lady Bird, a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale in which its protagonist, Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson, makes the difficult journey from high school to university while navigating an often turbulent relationship with her mother. In January 2018, having recently watched Lady Bird, British film journalist Hannah Strong was inspired to write to her own mother. This was her letter.
There’s not an awful lot I remember about our relationship during the 2005–2010 period, but I think that’s largely because there’s not a lot I remember about that time full stop. I hated being a teenage girl. I didn’t go to school, I didn’t eat, I didn’t sleep. It was, all things considered, A Bad Time. We both know that I’ve gone to great lengths to forget the unique brand of hormonal malaise and indentured depression which overshadowed that period. I tried everything I could think of to shrug that burden off my back but always found it barrelling straight back down the metaphorical hill of life to crush me all over again. You used to tell me it gets easier, and I’d scream ‘When?!’
In time I got so used to the weight, I’d forget I was carrying it at all. I started to say ‘Something’s wrong with me,’ forgetting that a) I was a teenage girl, so intrinsically there was stormy weather constantly on the horizon, and b) A chemical imbalance is not a character flaw. That doesn’t mean it hurts any less, of course, as it hurt when Dad walked out, as it hurt when we were broke, as it hurt when I thought I’d be stuck in the town I hated forever. I still don’t buy the idea there’s nothing wrong with me, but I’m slowly coming to terms with the notion that it’s the ‘wrong’ bits which make people interesting in the first place.
I spent many years in the curious adolescent limbo of simultaneously wanting to be both extraordinary and ordinary, caught between a push-pull of ‘stand out’ and ‘fit in’. I was frustrated that no one ‘got’ me. I think that’s why I turned to films, the natural medium of the outsider. When I think about being a teenager, I think about hurting, but I also think about other things too. Like listening to Radio 2 in the car when you drove me to psychiatric appointments. Like the numerous times you came to pick me up because I’d passed out at someone’s house party which you didn’t know I was at in the first place (sorry about that). Like going to the library on a Friday afternoon to rent a DVD for the weekend. I realised sometime later that you weren’t watching because you loved movies (you don’t)—you were watching them because you loved spending time with me.
You always believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself, and you always said ‘I have to, I’m your mum’, as if a sense of duty is all that compels a person to act so selflessly—and you really were selfless, because we didn’t have much, and I know everything you had you gave to me. I’m exhausting, and I’m not easy to love, and when I made it especially difficult, you never stopped trying. Even when I was being a little shit (which I suspect was most of the time).
We both know it’s not always easy, it’s never going to be easy. But thanks, at the very least, for teaching me if you keep going, eventually you might be able to laugh about things. And in the end, laughing about our own mortality, and marvelling at what tiny, insignificant specks of stardust we really are, is the best any of us can really hope for. I’m happy with that.
Love your petulant, troublesome, troubled, and eternally grateful (eldest) daughter,
I felt I was reading a letter I could have written to my mother...
1) I needed to read this today. Hannah is refreshingly honest and vulnerable, something I struggle to be with my parents.
2) When I was in the throes of raising teenagers, I distinctly remember doing two things. First, I read my old diaries (starting at about age 10). Second, I penned a letter to my parents and slipped it on their table just as I was about to depart from a visit with them. I don't remember everything I wrote, but I do remember saying something like, "Thanks. I don't know how you could even stand me during those years."