Nina Text

APRIL 2019
VIENNA, AUSTRIA

Nina was 18 when her parents went their separate ways. As a result, she grew apart from her mother who was the catalyst for the sudden familial change. Today, at 27, she knows to empathise with her mother's decision. We spoke about forgiveness, reflecting on one of the most complex relationships there is, the one between a mother and a daughter.

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"If you wan't to stay with him, I'm out," reads the letter of the then 18-year-old Nina addressed to her mother, who at the time had just left Nina's father for another man. I am surprised at the emotional reaction of my usually composed friend, but as it turns out, the conversation we are about to have is filled with unexpected revelations.

Just an hour earlier, the scene is lighter: candles are lit, tea is served. I am nervous to interview Nina, my friend, who is an inherently private person, but she's agreed to share with me her story, and I feel privileged to listen to her for an hour. The bell rings at 8.30am sharp, which makes me chuckle. I can always rely on her, I think to myself, and feel nostalgia transporting me to the old days. We met at university where we both studied for an undergraduate degree in Transcultural Communication at the University of Vienna, Austria. Since then, Nina found her true passion in Gender Studies, a topic she follows with dedication and as of recently also holds a master's degree in. But today we delve into the older days and walk down memory lane of her family's past.

I try to make my room as cosy as possible, swipe the table, offer her the comfortable chair facing a more pleasing view of the room. She sits down and patiently waits while I set up the recorder, her green eyes set on the herbal tea. There are so many questions I want to ask her but worry there won't be enough time. Paradoxically, I also fear my curiosity might come across as too pushy and that she will reject me, but as it turns out, she doesn't. Not once.

Back then, the news that her mother cheated on her father didn't come at the most convenient time (does it ever?) as life had already been boiling with drama and change: first heartbreak, school exams and a younger sister fighting an eating disorder in the hospital.

"My first reaction was very furious. I stood up and I smashed a chair. Well, I didn't smash it, but I threw it through the room," she says giggling in retrospect at the dramatic reaction. Did this news shatter her idea of home? "Yes, because everything that was so normal and safe for me and that I also took for granted was taken away from me," she says, her voice growing more serious this time. "Also this place, this home, was not the same anymore only with my dad living there."

This is the room where Nina's parents told her they were getting a divorce. She smashed one of these chairs when hearing the news.

This is the room where Nina's parents told her they were getting a divorce. She smashed one of these chairs when hearing the news.

Nina stayed with her father after her mother moved out of the house. I assume it was a rebellious act, demonstrating whose side she was on, but the effects of showing solidarity with the heart-broken parent lingered. "My dad, after the divorce, was very sad and angry. It was hard to be there with him and all these feelings."

Luckily, she had already planned an au-pair experience in the Netherlands, a gap year she wished to reward herself with after graduation. "[My parents] separated in June and I left in August. It's funny because I went to live with a new family that was safe and stable," she remembers. "They were really caring, and I could talk to my host mother about [the divorce]." She remembers feeling guilty for leaving her family, but is convinced it was the right thing for her to do at the time: "It was good for me to get distance from that situation and to take care of myself."

Putting herself first was out of character for Nina who had always been the good child in the family: good grades in school, no behavioural traces of puberty and an understanding, resilient personality. She believes her exemplary behaviour was partly due to the troubling nature of her sister.

"I hope [my sister forgives] me for saying that she was the problem child in our family. [My parents] focused a lot on her and that hurt me. I really felt that she got so much attention and I had to do everything on my own. And I think, maybe, I was not much there for her when she was in the hospital because there was some competition between us for the attention of our parents."

"Once, my mother went to a seminar with some kind of psychologist where she asked 'do you have to worry about your daughter if you don't have to worry about her?' And yes, I think she should have worried!" she laughs.

 

"I understood that if I want to have a GOOD relationship with my mum, I have to accept her new life. Now, almost ten years later, I understand her reasons for leaving."

While in the Netherlands, Nina corresponded with her mother through letters, a therapeutic tool she used to express her emotions.

Nina has a "hard time expressing anger" and naturally tends to bottle up emotions. But after nearly a year-long getaway to the Netherlands and several therapy sessions upon her return, she found the courage to give her mother's new life a chance, a clear sign of maturity.

"I understood that if I want to have a new and good relationship with my mum, I have to accept her new life," Nina speaks calmly, carefully choosing her words and unapologetically granting herself long pauses to formulate a considered answer. "Whether I like [her new partner] or not, I just have to move on with her and forgive her. Now, almost ten years later, I do understand her reasons why she [left] and that it's not easy to get out of such situation." She pauses. "Maybe it needs a new partner to finally take a step".

The letter reads...
I am deeply hurt and disappointed. I cannot be angry with you because you seem so fragile. I cannot scream at you because I don't want to make things worse for you. But still, I am hurt and I cannot forgive you right now. I have a feeling you don't even want me to. What do you want? Your passivity makes me sick. You're here but at the same time you are not. You barely talk to me and if you do, it's about trivial things I am not interested in. Then all I can think about, can you talk to him? I am jealous of him because I believe he is the only one you like to talk to now. That it's only him who can make you smile in this terrible time. If you want to stay with him, I'm out. I don't want to hear anything about him and I don't want you to come home and pretend that nothing has happened. I think about these past dishonest months and this kind of double life you lived. They hurt the most, you lied to us. I just cannot understand why you acted that way. It's so diffucult to be angry at someone who you love. I want you to feel better because it will make me feel better too. Right now, I don't know what is right and if there is even a right thing to do.

Nina often runs her fingers through her hair when she speaks, creating more volume. She is tall and lean with fiery red hair that she chopped off a few years ago. With not a blemish on her face, dewy-skinned and makeup-free, she is what you would call a natural beauty. Looking through her childhood photographs, it is hard to see a difference between that young girl and the woman that sits in front of me. But there is. If there is anything that she's taken away from her parents' divorce, it is the inevitability of communicating clearly in a relationship.

"You have to communicate with your partner. You have to tell them if you need change or are unhappy with something. [My mother] repressed her feelings and did what my dad wanted to do, like a lot of hobbies or holidays. He had a very strong opinion on things, but I think there was not that much space for my mother."

With that in mind, she is also more realistic about relationships now. "There are [few] couples who stay together for a really long time." A further reason to shatter her confidence in long-lasting relationships was the breakup of her Dutch host parents who she believed to be an ideal couple.

"When I found out I was like, 'Oh no!!!', she exclaims, genuinely affected. "This makes me really sad or maybe, I'm not emotional about it anymore," she says, confirming her more realistic outlook on her own relationship. "I'm like: Okay, I really like my partner right now, but I'm not sure we're going to stay together FOREVER! We'll just see how life goes."

"They can make jokes about their relationship now and my mum even wrote [my dad] a text message after dinner saying she had a nice time and she signed it off with "your ex".

But things do change for the better and time does heal most wounds. Last Christmas was demostrative of how far Nina's family has come. The four of them, including her dad's relatives, spent the holidays together in the house where they all lived as a family.

"It wasn't awkward at all. They can make jokes about their relationship now and my mum even wrote [my dad] a text message after dinner saying she had a nice time and she signed it off with 'your ex'."


After reading the letter that she wrote her mother ten years ago, I asked Nina to write a few words from the today's perspective. What's changed? Reflecting on her growth as a person and as a daughter, her words show how with time you can liberate yourself from the pain and find solace in forgiveness
. She reads it out to me:


Dear mum,

Today I forgive you and I can better understand why and how you left dad and our family. Of course you did not disappear, but leaving dad ended our family life and our home as we knew it and felt safe with. I can even say that you were brave and active when you decided to hurt us, not intentionally of course, in order to stand up for yourself and your new life. There is no good or better way to make this step, it hurts in any way. No one can be spared from that pain. Both you and dad thrived after the recovery from the divorce. I'm proud of you and how much you have changed in a positive way. Sometimes in life it needs a drastic change to become a better and happier version of yourself. I too profited from this crisis. It made me stronger and taught me to open up for transformation even though it can be hurtful sometimes.


"Ruin is a gift, because it is the road to transformation", she recalls a quote she heard in the "Eat, Pray, Love" movie. "That quote helped me a lot at that time. It really describes that learning process for me. It was really hard when it happened and hurtful, but I learned a lot and it made me stronger." It sure did.

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What You Call Home is an audio series, exploring the meaning of home through personal memoirs of people like you and me.

What You Call Home is an audio series, exploring the meaning of home through personal memoirs of people like you and me.