I’m never sure what to say about my mother. I think that she will forgive me if I confess that for a long time, our relationship could best to described as a disaster. I barely remember the happy memories; they were there, but few and far between, blighted by the screaming and shouting, physical violence – mine as much as, probably more than, hers – swearing and threats and ghastly power struggles that left both of us frustrated and sobbing, she on the sofa downstairs and me in my bedroom, nails dug into my face, coveting blood. The laughter was sandwiched between hysteria, confidences regretted the moment that they were breathed out into the air between us.
It was hard for my mother and it was hard for me.
There are family photographs proving that, long ago, I was a mummy’s girl. If I focus my mind, I can remember it: staring up at her as she sung us to sleep, thinking that she was the most beautiful, that she had the best voice, that the scent of her skin was the sweetest in the world. I envied her charisma, her sense of style and her hair, the way that charmed at parties, her laughter, the way that people looked at her. And I wanted to be her, to read her books and to watch her shows and to grow up to own a house just like ours, to raise two daughters like her, to drive my car how she drove her car, with a mix of devil-may-care as she hurtled over the bumps, and sheer shrieking terror at an unexpected roundabout when she didn’t know when to turn off. Every little thing that she did was exactly as I wanted to do it. Mummy’s girl. Even my tonsillectomy felt like a treat, like a girls’ night away with my mother. We played My Little Pony on my hospital bed, and she flicked through her magazine whilst I flicked through mine, and I felt terrifically grown-up.
And then things sort of fell apart. There were a few years that felt like tsunamis crashing over our heads and whilst we didn’t break, our family did. She was bruised, I was bruised, my little sister – well, she is the strongest of all of us, and you wouldn’t know if she didn’t tell you about the years in and out of hospital, and finally emerging to the news that her parents were getting divorced. And I think that we all struggle to describe the bitter, turbulent aftermath; how the years following were neither an ending nor a new beginning, but a series of emotional disasters that shook our new, smaller house like an earthquake.
At the epicentre, there was us.
Years ago, in another life and a story for another day, I worked with rescued dogs. I have seen how, if you pack them in tightly enough and you stress them enough, they turn savage; they attack one another for things that, if not for the stress of their environment, they would barely even notice. And every time it happens, it makes them more volatile, more defensive, more prone to turning around and taking off their companion’s face. Stitches and snarling, that was my mother and me.
We are not very alike – she and my sister are two peas in a pod – but we are both so stubborn, and this vicious cycle of evisceration lasted for years. Even in my early twenties I remember sobbing with rage because only she could make me feel like a child again, even as I held my own child in my arms.
What fixed it? Space. And time. Boundaries.
I stopped seeing her when I felt vulnerable. Truth be told I never see anyone when I feel vulnerable, but I stopped making exceptions. And I recognised that beneath her share of the snarking was a woman damaged, who had endured years of illness of uncertainty with her sick child only to emerge from Great Ormond Street and to be told, balloons deflating and party hats drooping, that her husband had been seeing somebody else, had been for years, that the family narrative to which she had clung had been a lie. She was somebody whose sense of self had been slowly chipped away, ripped away, sliced away, by somebody who seemed determined to destroy her, financially starved, lost her home, lost her child, her favourite child, the child whose very existence had depended on her a mere few years before, to her other parent. In order to rebuild our relationship, I needed to stop seeing her as a parent and begin to recognise my mother as somebody with scars. Some were caused by other people. Some were caused by me.
You can’t pour water from an empty cup. It’s one of my favourite sayings. It’s applicable to so many scenarios but I used it most frequently to teach kindness. When I want my children to be more gentle, more considerate, to others, first I show this to them. More cuddles, more deep conversation, the kind where you stare into their eyes and you try to feel their interest, to really care about Peppa Pig how they care about Peppa Pig, or about bagels, or the overwhelming importance that this very morning, they catch the bus to visit the park. I tried to fill her cup.
There were things that I had never told her.
‘You are strong.’
‘I admire how much you fought for us. You are relentless. I don’t think that I could have done that.’
‘You are a good mother.’
‘You are a good mother.’
‘You are a good mother.’
‘It must have been really hard for you.’
Sometimes I think that she fought me as though I was my father, as though her fury and frustration finally had an outlet that answered the telephone and bothered to show up at court. And I lashed out at her because everything was hard, and sometimes getting out of bed or going to school or just amending my tone of voice was impossible, and I needed her to just. go. away. (Only of course I didn’t say ‘go away’, I said ‘f- off’ and quite often there was a see-you-next-Tuesday thrown in.) I used his insults; I knew, as all adolescents know, how to dig the knife in and how to twist it.
Violence after violence. Storm after storm.
Pain breeds pain.
I reversed it.
Kindness breeds kindness. Trust breeds trust.
‘My children love you so much.’
‘You are so good with them.’
‘You really are the best grandmother.’
You have to heal yourself before you can heal somebody else. But sometimes it’s enough to just be a few steps ahead on the mountain, to reach beside yourself and to hold out a hand. I held out a hand.
Motherhood, for me, was about strength. I wanted to be strong for them, to be healed from the inside-out – no papering over the cracks, I wanted wildflowers to blossom from them. When the boys were born, and again when I fell in love with them, I swore that I would become a whole person – that there would be no old wounds. My children are named for mothers, famous and non. Beatrix, my mother’s mother, Leto, mother of twins, Embla, first woman. They were named for strong women and I wanted to be one too. My immersion into the cult of motherhood came with the bone-deep certainty that I needed to forgive my mother, and I needed to help her to forgive me.
You fill the cup. You let them pour.
Real life doesn’t come with happy endings. Things end when you are dead, and even then the stories carry down, passed from child to grandchild, remarked-upon absent-mindedly over tea. So I can’t tell you that things are always simple, that we are Rory and Lorelai with British accents and figures like dumplings, that the cracks have smoothed over as though we are clay. But last night, I called her as I left the office in London, and we were still laughing on the phone as the bus pulled up outside my home.
And I watch her with my children and my heart is a swollen, humming thing. Because she is a good grandmother. Because I am glad that she is in our lives. Because things are finally easy, and she is the mother I need her to be.
And I think that I am finally that daughter too.
What is your relationship like with your mother? Are any of you like me, and only really settling into the mother-daughter relationship as an adult?