Are you mad about your mother? Or does your mother drive you mad? These questions are at the heart of a new book by Natasha Fennell and Róisín Ingle, who set out to help themselves and other daughters make the most of their relationships with their mothers, before it was too late.
In this extract, we meet one member of their group, The Daughterhood, ‘Anna’ whose relationship with her mother has been fraught since birth.
I’m 54-years-old and I never expected that in the autumn of my life I would be dealing with a mother whose winter is going on indefinitely. It’s the responsibility no one warned our generation about.
My greatest fear is not that my mother will die; it’s that she will outlive me and I’ll never know a life free from her. There. I’ve said it now. I know that’s a callous thing to admit but it’s the truth; it’s how I feel. She’s 88. Apart from horrible leg ulcers, she is as healthy as a moderately fit 60-year-old. Her mind may be on the wane with the first hints of Alzheimer’s but she’s not about to keel over any time soon.
I don’t, as a rule, tell anyone what I just told you. In the past six months I’ve started to take time off work to look after my mother. But I’m full of anxiety about it. I’m doing it through a sense of duty rather than love. I don’t feel like a ‘bad daughter’ but I do feel something of a fraud, as I don’t have that deep bond with her that daughters are supposed to have with their mothers. I’m ambivalent about daughterhood. I am, in effect, waiting for her to die.
When I first met Natasha Fennell I was dubious about her project. She was presenting at a conference in a hotel on the outskirts of Dublin. I had been flown over by my company – I work in travel, sending people away on singles' holidays. I am single myself and I love travelling. I was sitting in the lobby minding my own business when we started talking. And she asked me what I now know she was asking everyone as part of her research:
“Do you have a mother? How do you feel about her dying?” I think she was taken aback by my answer. It’s not something I would normally blurt out to a stranger. But it was one of those anonymous conversations, where you know there will be no repercussions.
Then she told me about the book she was writing with Irish Times columnist Róisín Ingle and about how surprised she had been to find so many daughters were struggling when it came to their mothers. It didn't surprise me. The struggle has defined my life. Natasha and I exchanged numbers. I didn't expect to hear from her again.
In fact, she rang the next day. I was barely off the plane in London. She wanted me to think about being involved with her project. My first instinct was to say no and change my number so I wouldn’t have to think about it again. But another part of me was curious. Was there really anything that could be done when it came to my mother? Or was it just a trial to be endured?
As part of “The Daughterhood” Róisín and Natasha had organised monthly meetings with a group of daughters, where they gathered to talk about the good, the bad and the guilty of loving our aged mothers.
I only attended one Daughterhood meeting, when I was over in Dublin for business, but I like to think I have done the correspondence course. The emails have flown back and forth. I've done my 'Motherwork', as well as I could in the circumstances. I'm a participant in the Open University Daughterhood Degree.
By the time I met the others in Natasha’s house it seemed the other daughters had clicked. They said I was to start at the beginning with my mother story. So I did.
According to my mother I rejected her from the day I was born. I wouldn’t take her milk. Apparently I howled whenever she came near me. This record played over and over from as early as I can remember.
My mother told me so many times growing up that she did not want to get married, did not want to be pregnant and did not want to have a child. She made very sure not to have another one after me.
I grew up knowing that this life of domestic drudgery and motherhood and wifery was not what she had planned for herself; that in a parallel world she was living quite another existence. An opera singer, maybe. Or a model. In her 20s and 30s she looked like a Mediterranean beauty. Jet black curly hair, dark complexion, tall and slim. A complete catch. Like Sophia Loren with a 22-inch waist.
But, in fact, she was from a dirt-poor London family with very limited experience of the world outside of Hackney. She had no sense of herself. No ability to fulfil her potential. Just a gnawing sense that things could have turned out very differently if life hadn’t been so unfair as to land her with a husband and a daughter.
My dad was, like my mother, from a working-class East End background. He was from gypsy stock. He didn't even have a birth certificate. He was 46 when I came along; my mother was more than 10 years younger. But, even so, she was marrying and having her first child very late for those times. To have your first baby at 35 was really unusual then. She'd left it as long as possible before getting married. Years later I read something from author Annabelle Charbit that struck a chord. She wrote that her mother belonged to that group of low IQ individuals who find everything alarming and who believe that raising your voice is the most effective form of communication. That is and always has been my mother – maybe not the low IQ, but she certainly has an underdeveloped curiosity about the world and other people.
I don’t have any memory of being in hospital at the age of three. They say I fell off a pony ride. Apparently, I came off the horse in a very unusual way and broke my arm in several places. All I know is that while I was in the hospital, in this children’s ward where the windows had bars on them, I was physically abused. And while my memories of my time there are hazy, apart from being given dead legs and Chinese burns by one nurse, I remember connecting the sense of abandonment to my mother. I’d heard her enough times complaining about having had me. It seemed to me I was being punished for being born. From an early age I was aware of being a troublesome burden.
At home, I knew the set-up was different to that of my friends’ families. Their parents had friends round for dinner and drinks. My friends had record players, put music on, had their mates round. That wasn’t my life. My mother constantly moaned. She was never happy. She made mountains out of molehills and she never relaxed. I never got the sense that my mum and dad loved each other either. There was no intimacy between them. There was no tenderness. They’d slept in single beds since I was an infant. I expect it was because my mother was terrified of getting pregnant again.
We lived with my grandmother, whom my mother idolised. I would describe their relationship as uncomfortably close. Granny was the light of her world. Mum was an only child herself and went everywhere with Granny – a dynamic, feisty woman with whom I had a wonderful relationship. She liked a laugh and took an interest in me without moaning endlessly.
I felt sorry for my dad. And while I preferred his company to my mother’s, he was remote and distant; lost in thought mostly. I could never get close to him. Before he married my mother he had a wild sort of peripatetic life; wherever he laid his hat was his home. He was a traveller in every sense of the word. He didn’t seem suited to the settled, domestic life. He was a wanderer pinned down to a mundane routine. My mum would slag him off constantly until it would get too much for him and he’d go down the pub. When she got in a rage she would boil with frustration at her lot in life. And yet they stayed together – her cooking and cleaning and complaining; him just asking for peace and, when it didn’t come, escaping to a place where he found more comfort.
“Don’t ever get married,” she’d scream at me when the slam of the door signalled my dad was off down the White Horse. “Don’t get trapped. Don’t have a baby.”
And I never did. Funny, that.
I knew from about the age of seven that I would leave home as early as I could. The first time I went abroad was on a school trip to Belgium and Holland and I remember sitting in a dining hall with the nuns – it was a convent school – and seeing bottled water for the first time. And we were given horsemeat. I remember thinking, 'This is amazing', while most of my classmates were miming being sick. It was 1968.
In the early-1970s, if you were a white working-class teenage girl in London you went one of two ways. You either became a teeny bopper, who worshipped the Bay City Rollers, read Jackie magazineand dreamt of getting married. Or you explored the "alternative" culture. For me, that meant reading Karl Marx, The Little Red Schoolbook, getting into French existentialism and radical film culture and punk. I wasn't a Jackie kind of teenager.
I’d been having a close friendship with a teacher who was only a few years older than me. He was in the Worker’s Revolutionary Party. We would go to parties with other teachers of a left-wing persuasion and sit around, smoke dope and talk about existentialism. If this sounds like the worst kind of 1970s radical chic cliché, it was. I used to wear a beret and smoke a pipe. My teacher opened my eyes, opened me up to learning, to revolutionary thinking, to Marxism – although our friendship would certainly be viewed very suspiciously by today’s standards.
He was the first person to suggest I might go and do a degree. He encouraged me to take A levels and then study Art History. I never got any sort of guidance about school or study from my parents. They never had high expectations of me. My world at home was so narrow. I felt as though I lived with this really old couple. I had nothing in common with them.
They seemed impossibly out of touch. They read rubbish newspapers and watched crap game shows. They didn't know about Albert Camus or the Left Bank or any of the French intellectuals. So, in my impetuous teenage way, I wrote them off.
And outside of the house I soaked up all this stuff wherever I could find it. I was becoming the person I felt I was meant to be. If my mother had taught me one thing by default, it was that you had to create your own life. Grasp it. She hadn’t done that for herself and she was unfulfilled and miserable. She never went on foreign holidays. She’d never learnt to swim or ride a bike or drive. She never became proficient at anything that would have given her freedom or adventure. She had shied away from life and this was like a warning flag to me. I wasn’t going to repeat her mistakes. I was off. And I wasn’t going to look back.
And yet I tried so hard, all my life, to make things better for her, to steer her gently towards making good decisions. The only time she ever left the country was when I arranged a holiday and took her and Dad to Turkey for two weeks in 1984. The only photo I have of her looking truly happy is from that holiday. There's something so melancholy about this person who never really adjusted to modern life, or even adulthood.
Something unknowable lurks in her history and I’ve never got to the bottom of it. Instead I have these faint memories of flaming, violent rows. A terrifying anger directed at Dad and at me. At Dad for going down the pub and being free, as working-class men were in the 1960s. At me for being helpless and noisy and messy. Working-class sulking. Dinners thrown at walls. Awful atmospheres and slamming doors. Was there post-natal depression? Undoubtedly. But no one even had a word for it then. It was one of the many things you just didn’t talk about. Her parents were living with them, and my mother’s close, cloying relationship with her own mother, plus a new baby, was a recipe for tension.
It was resentment built on poverty. A literal financial poverty, but also an emotional poverty – of not talking about feelings. Each person scurrying off into their corner and brooding or storming out to the pub. What did my mother do in those first couple of years after my birth when my dad was ostracised and badgered and driven to drink? There was no TV at home in 1961. There were no books in the house. There was just the kitchen, the wireless and the radiogram to break the silence.
A person could go crazy with a small baby. That milieu, reflected so accurately in British films like Billy Liar or Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, and even sitcoms like Till Death Us Do Part – horrible suffocating décor, dark, heavy, wooden furniture, doilies and linen, and the older generation's foreboding that everything they had fought for 15 years earlier in the second World War was going to be dismantled by a force more alien than Hitler's war machine: make way for the youthquake of the 1960s and 1970s.
I was aware I'd been born into an era of great change. By the age of seven I was glued to Top of the Pops and thrilled by Hammer horror movies. My mother hated it all. To think she was only in her early 40s, yet to her even The Beatles were a sign that everything was going to pot. Never has a generation of parents been as appalled as those of the late 1950s/early 1960s. Didn't matter if you were going down the pit for your living or looking after clients at a private bank – the youth were hairy, scary and had a radical agenda; they talked about revolution and got naked in Hyde Park. They had all the opportunities their parents had never been afforded because of the war. Resentments brewed but the old guard couldn't stop the tide.
They couldn’t stop me. By 14 I had become a cuckoo in the nest, a swaggering arty-farty anomaly in this traditional East End home. I wasn’t interested in going to catering school like my mum had expected. I was reading Kafka, studying photography and European cinema. There was absolutely no common ground between us. The gap increased until one day, aged 15, I just left home. That’s when I consider my real life started.
My dad sat there with a face like a lemon. He wasn’t happy but he couldn’t stop me. My mother wanted to know how I was going to look after myself and was full of dire warnings about how I would come “crawling back”, but I knew I was going to be okay and that I’d never live in her house again. There were no hugs at the door, but not really any rows either. I packed a rucksack and hitch-hiked to Devon with my best friend and her older brother. They lived in a kind of commune – a tumbledown rural hippie haven where I could have conversations about metaphysics and creativity and God and art and feminism.
I lived between Devon and various squats in London, enjoying the punk rock explosion. I kept in touch with my parents but only the bare minimum. When I’d visit her, my mum would say, ‘When are you going to get a proper job? When are you going to knuckle down?’
Years later when I moved back to London in the 1980s, I got a degree and a job in the public sector, and I began to have what might be seen as a more regulated relationship with my parents. But then my Dad died and then it was just Mum and me.
Now that my mother needs more help, I’ve started to work a four-day week. I spend my Fridays with her – making her meals for the week, sorting out her medication and hospital visits. Five years ago I started talking to her about moving to sheltered housing. In her own home the only bathroom is upstairs. It’s not suitable. But she wouldn’t even entertain the conversation. “You are not going to put me in a ’ome,” she’ll shout at me and anyone else who tries to bring up the prospect of her moving.
I'm trying to do the right thing. But it's out of a sense of duty rather than anything else. I care about her. I do. I want her to be comfortable. I want her to be happy. But she will never be happy. She doesn't know how. In April I bought her a special padded wheelchair. She hadn't left the house since December because she can't walk unaided any more. I pushed her two miles down to the High Street. I took her to the pub for her favourite whisky and ginger, and I showed her the sunlight on the water of the local pond. There was no thanks. No "What a lovely day; this is great." It was just, "It ain't half cold." Do you know what she reminds me of? Steptoe and Son. Steptoe and Daughter. That's us.
If she dies tomorrow, of course I will feel bad. Mostly because I couldn’t ever get her to help herself or enjoy things more. It’s as though she’s spent her whole life with a cloud of negativity hanging over her. A yoke of gloom.
I feel I’m a daughter in name only. I don’t have any of the sentimental or loving feelings that daughters are supposed to have. It’s the mystery of my mother that drives me nuts. I want to know what her problem is. I want to know why she never tried to live. Really live. If there is one question I have for my mother it is: “why have you never taken a leap of faith? Why have you never once just thought ‘fortune favours the brave’?” She never cut her own apron strings from her mother; she never made that journey as a child away from the parent. She never rebelled.
I believe something very healthy happened at the end of the 1950s, when people started rebelling against their parents. They became a powerful generation, and made real changes for the good of the world. But she never individuated, to use Jung’s terminology. I don’t understand why not. I’d like to understand.
I think it’s too late, though. Perhaps that’s what I’ve learned during my time with The Daughterhood. If I have work to do with my mother it’s getting her to accept her own mortality. She’s in denial about her mobility, her age, her oncoming dementia. I’d like to give her a good send-off, though. We’re of a similar mind when it comes to green issues. She thinks the same way I do, that we are ruining the planet. I know she wants a biodegradable coffin and she showed me a brochure with a bamboo casket being carried into a bluebell grove. “Isn’t that lovely,” she said. So I suppose I could talk to her about that. I suppose that is one thing I could do.
My main preoccupation now is that I don’t want to witness the cruelty of her at 100, or 103 or 106, dribbling and incontinent. I cannot be the one looking after her while the rest of my life stops happening. Although it sounds awful and mercenary, the truth is she’s sitting on a house worth a fair bit of money, simply because it’s in London.
If she died I could sell it and go and live my dreams. I don’t want to send people on singles’ holidays. I want to see more of the world myself. I have a whole other part of my life to live. And the only thing stopping me is my mother.
Natasha and Róisín will be speaking at a special Mother’s Day lunch on Sunday, March 15th in Residence, Dublin, Tickets €49, email: firstname.lastname@example.org and a mother-daughter supper on Thursday, March 19th in The Westbury, Dublin, Tickets €55, call: 01-6463385.