“You’re such a mum,” says my friend Pat affectionately – and inside myself I go, “Oh no, not again!” But it’s not too bad; she doesn’t actually want to claim me for herself in that capacity as so many others do, she’s just commenting on how I come across.
It’s a mystery to me. I have friends of all ages and don’t feel older in my consciousness than any except the really young, and not even all of them. Further, I have never experienced myself as particularly maternal, even when I actually had children – though I did my best of course, as one does. I certainly wasn’t the stereotype, the happily domesticated, perfectly efficient Mum of the early sitcoms (much to my youngest’s continuing reproach). I remember saying, when the kids had all left the nest (really the nest left them, but that’s another story) and my cat and the last of the family dogs had died, “I think I’ve finally learned how to do Mother, just at the point when it’s over.” (For those who will rush to tell me it’s never over, I’m speaking here of practical, day-to-day mothering.)
Not that I wanted it not to be over. I was glad I’d got through it somehow without major disasters, and I was good and ready for the children’s father and me to be just a couple again – at last! Then we found out that we no longer had much in common apart from parenting, and when that was gone … but that too is another story.
Then some of my younger friends started claiming me as their “adopted” Mums (i.e. one Mum, me; various independent-of-each-other adoptees). It never sat easily with me – I just thought we were close friends – but it always seemed meant as such a compliment, even an honour, that I accepted the silly label with whatever semblance of good grace I could manage – and the attendant feeling of some undefined kind of obligation, too. How churlish would it be to refuse? Well from now on that’s what I’m going to do. Next time someone says, “You know, I’ve decided you’re my surrogate Mum,” or, “You’re just like another mother to me,” I’m going to say, swiftly and loudly, and if necessary rudely, “Oh no I’m not!”
I’ve started to notice that these can be dangerous projections. Did I mention that I’m not maternal? Sooner or later I’m bound to disappoint. I don’t do the mother thing well … though perhaps that wouldn’t matter anyway, given that projection is involved. Even when the person consciously sees me in that role, I think there’s still a lot of unconscious stuff comes with it. After all, who wants an extra mother except someone who feels they’ve missed out on the real thing? The ones who see me that way aren’t making up for a deceased mother; no, they’re substituting fantasy me for a real one who was/is unsatisfactory. But sooner or later they reach their delayed adolescence, and then it’s time to break free, grow up and become themselves, delivering a few hard kicks to Mother-Figure in the process. After all, at that point, who would want a mother figure being privy to the confidential details of their lives? (That’s what friends are for. So, by virtue of being mother, I cease to be friend.) I never trained as a psychotherapist, to expect or deal with such developments, let alone maintain objective, professional distance from someone I regard as a pal, and I’m just not up for it any more.
I’m perfectly happy for my sons and foster-sons to call me Mum, and to sign myself that way in emails and birthday cards to them. Sometimes nowadays they call me by my name (as one of the “fosters” always did) and that’s OK too. And of course there is a special bond, a special history.
I didn’t meet my stepchildren until they were already grown up. Sensibly they’ve never regarded me as an extra parent, but more as a friend. I have a nice relationship with my stepdaughter, and she sometimes turns to me for advice, but she doesn’t want me to be her Mum; she’s got one.
I’m perfectly happy when my excellent god-daughters address me, half-jokingly, as “god-mum”. We’re all quite clear on the nature of the relationship and it’s nothing like mother-daughter. It’s somewhat like being a favourite aunt. (I am that too, to a beloved niece.) Mostly they call me by my name, and I treat them as the adults they now are.
And I’m perfectly happy to be “Nana” to my grandchildren. They’re “steps” too, but that makes no difference to them – I’ve always been around. So I AM an extra grandmother, but in an official way. It’s a real relationship: I’m married to their grandfather.
All these relationships, you see, are real and defined. They are legitimate, they have either legal or socially recognised status. There’s a framework. This makes for ease and clarity. Even the mentoring I do for some people is recognised by all parties as exactly what it is.
For the rest – sorry, I did my parenting decades ago. There were lots of bits of it I enjoyed and I certainly don’t un-wish it, but it was enough. I don’t want or need any grown-up infants now.
(Disclaimer: None of the above applies to my friend Letitia, whose idea of surrogate daughterhood is not to want things from me but to seek to do things for me!)