A friend on facebook posted, on Mother's Day, the truth about her relationship with a difficult, fault-finding mother. A little different from the eulogies most people were posting! In response, I found myself airing the truth about my relationship with my mother:
My mother didn't like hugs with me when I was a child, because it might mess up her hair and outfit. I don't remember that we ever hugged as long as she lived. A cool kiss on the cheek was about it.
She was phobic, and passed several of the phobias on to me. I have managed over the years to reduce them to mild rather than completely crippling. I was also very conscious of not passing them on to my own children, and it appears I succeeded in that.
She tried very hard to teach me that appearances matter, and to run my life on what other people (the most conservative and conformist ones) might think of me.
She failed in that. I was born non-conformist!
She was basically selfish, though she was so timid and fluffy that few people outside the family realised that. She was petite and pretty, and she had 'helpless little woman' down to a fine art.
As I grew older, there were many ways in which I was more the parent and she the child, even when I was just a schoolgirl. My Dad’s refrain, in any time of difficulty, was, ‘Don’t upset your mother.’ It was understood that she must be treated delicately, and protected from life.
She succeeded in teaching me that the way I look is far from beautiful, which is a serious fault, and that being myself is not good enough — attitudes I have had to fight within myself all my life.
She may well be the reason I cannot tolerate any association with the kind of people for whom everything you do is wrong. I mean that, if I’m around them in any big way, I become a nervous wreck and have to get them out of my life.
She was very controlling, and continually invaded my privacy — and other people’s — right up into my adulthood: reading personal letters and diaries, for instance; and eavesdropping blatantly.
As a consequence, I was very protective of my own children’s privacy. Once, when I asked my Firstborn why he never showed me any of his essays, which were getting good marks at school, he said, ‘Oh, I thought you’d just find them in my schoolbag.’ It had never occurred to him that I wouldn’t look in his schoolbag and read his work. It had never occurred to me to do so, nor that other mothers did so as a matter of course.
On the other hand, my Mum was very big on not spilling family secrets. We must not ‘air our dirty linen in public’. This meant always presenting a facade of happy families no matter what was really the case. (Rows over money; Dad drinking too much and having serial infidelities; my brother wetting the bed for years; Mum frequently taking to her bed for days while dosing herself with Relaxa Tabs…)
I remember childhood dreams, experienced as sinister nightmares, in which things were literally being swept under the carpet.
I survived by stubbornly sticking to my own opinions inwardly, even while having to outwardly pay lip-service to her ideas — and by having nothing to do with her for a period of ten years after I had children of my own.
That was partly because I didn't want them influenced by her in the ways that I had been; but mainly because I couldn’t tell which of my thoughts were really mine and which were her voice in my head. I believed the only way I could find out for sure was to completely separate myself from her. It took a long time, but it worked.
Six years of psychotherapy — for several reasons — also helped.
And I learnt to count my blessings, even if blessings of omission. Some children are physically abused. Some are burnt with cigarettes, raped, their bones broken. They may be starved and their health neglected. Some are killed by their own parents. None of that happened to me; nothing even remotely like it.
A death in the family saw her reach out, and we reconciled. She had aged and softened; so had I. I finally realised that she actually did love me, underneath all that, and was the victim of her own upbringing too.
I also realised that I actually did love her underneath all that.
My little boys, meeting her when they were past infancy, loved her and she them. By then she wouldn't have dared try and interfere in their upbringing. They couldn't understand why I had cut her out of my life and theirs for so long.
My eldest opined that her second marriage, to my dear stepfather, must have made her so happy that that was why she was nicer than the woman I'd experienced. He may well have been right.
Our values remained very different for the most part, but late in her life she expressed respect for the fact that neither my brother nor I was materialistic.
She became more honest in old age. We were finally able to have some good conversations, and to enjoy each other’s company in some ways, even find moments of true rapport.
I remained defensive with her, however, and — I now think — unnecessarily disagreeable at times. (Even though I also did things like taking care of her in my home when she was ill.)
I was still afraid to let her ideas too far into my head; still afraid that she could take me over if I didn’t adopt a policy of ‘the best defence is aggression’. But we didn't have many disagreements. I had the power now. She had been intimidated by my ten years of silence and was afraid to offend me.
She couldn't understand, either, why I had cut her off. She kept looking for some particular incident in which she must have been to blame. I finally explained about needing to become my own woman; I don't think she grasped it.
I was with her when she died. (Of old age, in a nursing home.) It was the most confronting moment of my life. The mother-child relationship, even one so fraught as ours, is basic.
Even in our worst difficulties, even during our estrangement, I always knew deep down that if ever I was in desperate straits with nowhere else to go, I could knock on her door and be at home. I never had to put it to the test, but to this day I retain the unshakable conviction.
For me her death was huge.
It’s only in hindsight that I wish I had understood better how afraid she usually felt, and how much that influenced her behaviour. But I was a child. And later I was an adult trying to overcome my upbringing and find my way to my real self.
Now I look back and recall how artistically talented she was — at piano, embroidery, copper work; even, when she tried her hand at it late in life, poetry. I'm glad I inherited some of that. (Unfortunately not the music.)
I thank her and my Dad for being totally aligned in valuing reading and education, and encouraging me in both. I thank them for being proud of my precocious gifts for English Expression, particularly in writing, and even more particularly in poetry, and for encouraging that. I thank her for knowing that librarianship would be the perfect career for me, and steering me towards it when I was uncertain of my direction.
I talk to her in my head occasionally, in a friendly way. I can do that, now that I am clear which thoughts are my own.
She’s been dead eighteen years. I get along with her a lot better now.