I’ve been living with Mum for almost 8 years now. I feel a need to look back over the 8 years and see where I’ve come on my journey.
When I arrived here, I was only intending to stay for as long as it took to sell my house in Wales and decide where I would go from there. I even considered moving to Canada. My life was a wreck and I just needed somewhere to stay till I found my direction. Even when I decided to stay as long as it took to look after Mum till she died, I didn’t really think this was going to be such a long phase of my life.
It seems hard to believe my attitude back then, that Mum was not long for this world. She was still quite mobile, driving, able to do her own shopping and cooking, not needing any personal care. She was anxious and depressed with being on her own, but a healthy, mobile woman compared to what she is now. But in my mind, I was thinking 3-4 years. I think I was picking up on what Mum herself was feeling, that all she was doing was waiting to die.
I’ve written about my mother’s physical progression – from being able to do everything for herself, so that I could go away for days at a time without worrying about her, to her present state of frailty, where she is dependent on me or the carers to bathe, dress, toilet, cook and fetch and carry for her. But I haven’t said much in my blog about my own process through the whole experience. When I decided to stay, rather than let Mum go into a care home, I realized I would feel quite stuck and unable to continue with my own life, so I decided my gain from it would be examining my relationship with her throughout my life to the present. I might be stuck physically, but I would still be on my inner journey. I would take the opportunity to allow myself to feel, to remember, to connect, with whatever I needed. I suspected this could be painful, but the fact that, in some ways I’ve stepped outside the world, allows me to let painful things be there, without my needing to stay too normal while it’s going on. I’ve already been through one major midlife crisis, in my 40s, when I had a near breakdown, and was unable to continue to work. But that was the most important experience of my life, a massive period of growth and coming into myself. It was painful, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I wanted to resume that process, to get back to growing and becoming after a long period of feeling dead inside, suspended, somehow, in a waiting place, in the relationship I’d left to come to Mum.
But where to start? I’ve never had one of those pally, best-friends kind of relationships with Mum. We’ve never had much in common. We look quite alike, but the resemblance ends there. I suppose I’ve inherited much of my personality from Dad, but as he basically ignored us or withered us with contempt while he was alive, I never saw that in a positive light. The most I could say is that I have many of his characteristics – especially being an introvert – but I have chosen to do different things with those attributes.
With Mum, I can’t even say that much. She’s simple, where I am complex; intelligent, but not really a thinker; she’s tried her hand at poetry and writing, but is not really imaginative; she used to like making things, and has created some beautiful textile art, but she is not really creative, while imagination and creativity are my breath and bones; her unquestioning naiveté and acceptance of authority informs her right-wing politics, whereas I’ve always thought things through for myself, even as a child, and formed my own opinions, and been instinctively left-wing long before I knew what it meant. She can be fine in her own company, but is basically an extrovert and so needs company, while I am fine in company but am deeply introverted and need lots of time on my own. I’ve always been reflective, a remeberer, and as a child my tendency to think about things and then ask strange thoughtful questions always disconcerted Mum. Her inability to understand me and tendency to do the ‘adult’ put-down if I said something odd, led to a disconnection between us that I still feel deeply. A young child needs to be mirrored back in some way by their parents in order to have a sense of identity and belonging. I grew up simultaneously feeling older and wiser than my mother, because I seemed to be able to see and understand things that she couldn’t; and yet also ungrounded and a little mad because the world I lived in seemed so different from that of most of the people around me. I was like that child in the film who could see dead people.
Mum has actually confirmed, on her own initiative, that as a child I seemed to have an emotional maturity that stood out, and I played complex imaginative games that fascinated other children.
So I came to live here with a woman who I've known all my life, but for whom I feel a strange lack of emotional connection. But there must be something there – surely as a child I didn't feel that way? I have memories of walking, holding Mum's hand, as we went places – just the 2 of us – feeling the sensation of the skin of her hand in mine. She used to take me to places she wanted to go, visiting friends, the library, shopping, even leafleting an estate with notices about their amateur dramatic company. I'd always be in my own private day-dream, noticing and reflecting on things, but usually quiet. I was never one of those chatty children, always asking questions. That's why she always took me with her, I was always quiet and well-behaved.
I remember a phase when I was in my 30s, when Mum and Dad would come to stay, and Mum and I would go for long walks and talk about stuff. This was at a time when I was about as conventional as I've ever managed to be, married to a man I still refer to as The Dreadful Mistake, so I suppose Mum and I had a little more in common. At the time I felt I had more connection with her than I'd ever had as a child. She was going through her own issues with life, and would tell me a little about Dad's depression after he'd been made redundant. She became a little more reflective after doing Marriage Guidance training. I found out a lot about her childhood during that period, especially the fact that her mother had basically had nothing to do with her and her twin sister for months after they were born, retreating to her bed with what sounds like post-natal depression. I also learned something of my father's childhood, which he never spoke of (apart from the story about how he refused to write a word for his Latin O level in protest at being made to learn Latin instead of chemistry.) I certainly learned at some point that he had a very conflicted relationship with his own mother – having been a Mummy's boy – which confirmed my own observations as a teenager that he was a misogynist who hated and feared women.
But even at this point in my life, when I was probably closer to my mother than I'd ever been, I still felt I'd had more experience of life than she had, having been widowed, brought up two lots of step-children (well - more cohabited with, rather than brought up), suffered a life-changing failure of career when I abandoned my postgraduate studies and then endured years of bullying in the low-grade job I managed to get, because I had too much education. All this was quite outside anything my mother could imagine. I'd already lived more life and suffered more pain in my 30s than Mum ever did – though who knows how much a person is suffering under the surface of their uneventful lives. Mother certainly spent nearly 60 years married to a man who never showed her any respect. I don't know how she endured it, but I have learned that in fact she did try to get away, but he clung to her and manipulated her into staying. So I know where I got my tendency to get sucked into relationships with needy people, and to just endure endless amounts of shit from partners. But I always did eventually break away, and Mum never did. I think having a husband die when I was so young knocked out that assumption that you are stuck for life and couldn't exist without a partner.
So- I brought all of this into my quest to explore my relationship with my mother. All this back-story of disconnection which inspired my poem The Separation of Difference:
THE SEPARATION OF DIFFERENCE
We are constantly being born.
That first wrenching parturition
To blend is bliss
But to separate is to become.
This mother’s womb does not devour,
But still, it clings,
Reaches out to a hand long gone,
That never knew oneness, sameness,
Only ever the separation of difference.
And I cannot go with you,
Small hand in yours,
On this last journey,
I’ve never have that feeling that I've come full circle, that Mum nurtured and cared for me as a baby and now I'm doing the same for her. I do have body-memories of being dressed and even bathed, as a small child, but I never have any sense of repaying Mum for what she did for me. Being the 3rd of 4 children, I mainly remember being pulled around impatiently by a mother who was always struggling to keep on top of everything, and usually watching one of my brothers, rather than me. When I dress or wash her I see her body stiffen and stop breathing, and, for a moment, she looks like someone very young, a baby. I think she was pulled and prodded around by impatient, rough hands when she was tiny.
Indeed, I feel like I have always somehow looked after Mum. I think I was always the old soul, too aware of her struggles when I was very young. To some extent we all were aware of her vulnerability, as children, and that's the reason all 4 of us are so protective of her now. We all have different connections with her, but none of us wanted her to go into a care home. I sometimes try to imagine what it would have been like if she'd died first and Dad was the one who needed looking after. I know I wouldn't have been able to do all this for him. Just as well he died so quickly and suddenly. He couldn’t have coped with disability the way Mum does.
I've found things out during this long conversation that has been our life together over the past 8 years. Some of the things she's told me about family history and her relationship with Dad have turned my assumptions around. I don’t dump my opinions about Dad on her, I'm careful not to lead her in any way. But it is true that some of the questions I've asked her have resulted in her thinking about things in a different way. I see a long process of reflection and re-evaluating taking place in her – occasionally she shares the odd tip of that iceberg.
So, even as she is fading out from this world, she is becoming clearer as a person. She always seemed like someone who had never come fully into herself, somehow only partly there as a person, because she lived so long in the shadow of my father. I still wonder how much more of a person she'd have become if she'd succeeded in getting away, during that long, awful 10 years of our childhood, when the 2 of them were permanently on the brink of splitting up. I
I do respect all that Mum did to find some fulfilment and direction in life. Her voluntary work in a Barnardo's home for teenage girls, her Marriage Guidance Counselling (though I do find that a bit incredible), her singing and friendships. It's become a shared story in our family that Mum took the lead in everything and Dad tagged along after her - into Marriage Guidance, into singing, writing – all things which Mum initiated, then got Dad got into and took over and dominated. It seems to me that the friendships they had were all created and sustained by Mum.
But on a really deep level, I have to acknowledge that I still find it hard to respect my mother. I can say all of the above, and it's all true. I can acknowledge that she did the best she could, that she's a different generation, and made different choices. I can salute her strength in endurance, and I see that she was looking for meaning and self-worth (which she never bolstered up at anyone else's expense - unlike Dad). But I don’t really feel that. Is it that the decades of my father's contempt for her have rubbed off on me? How does it affect someone always to be subject to that? It can become self-fulfilling. But I suspect it goes deeper. Even deeper than the disappointment of not having the mother that I really needed, because she is too different from me to be able to be there for me in fundamental ways. I think my own deeply empathic, insightful nature always enabled me to know, even inchoately as a child, that inside she was a virtually abandoned baby, born a weak 2nd twin that no-one knew was there till she began to come out, too weak to hold herself up till she was nearly a year old, undoubtedly left to herself for long periods by a mother who was depressed, angry, waspishly bad-tempered and who blatantly favoured one child over the others. To me, that child, my mother, that abandoned baby, who is still waiting for someone to SEE her, is still present in the woman who is slowly wending her way to her grave. And it resonates with the child that I was, the unacknowledged inheritance that I have been handed, as the only daughter. I hold this so deeply that by the age of 7 I knew that I could never become a mother myself, never hand such a poisoned gift to another generation.
LLEU LLAW GYFFES/ INNER MOTHER
I am the child of a woman
Whose mother turned her to stone
In her own womb.
That un-gift thuds on
Through my veins.
A skein of need
Looking for a final resting-place.
Children can be lost in time, you know,
And their ghosts inhabit others’ bodies.
I became lost Lleu,
Wounded, I could not fly,
Only cast heart-flesh and maggots
To feed creatures from the Underworld,
Wise creatures who led me back,
And called me three times by name.
Rescued, I rescue the princess.
She is faded, blind.
She has been sleeping too long,
Flying in the dark.
I take her hand
And lay her to rest on my own breast.
She is my mother, my child.
So, these are my explorations – the hard questions that only mean something to me. What am I carrying in the grain of my psyche and my body from my mother’s shadow-self? All women have some kind of issues with their mothers, and I suppose men must have similar issues with their fathers, that are to do with our sense of identity. For each of us the journey of discovery is unique. The constellation of genes and personal history that creates the cocktail of a family, shaken and stirred together at a time when our soft brains are still growing into a shape that fits the world, is what we take with us when we separate out to find our own lives and loves and make our own families. Somehow it’s always been my lot to feel alone in this world, an orphan without even the luxury of being able to fantasize wonderful parents, because I could see them in myself, in face and colouring and personality. They weren’t strangers to me, but I was to them. When I first heard of reincarnation my fantasy was that in a previous life I had been, not the parent, but the grandparent of the two children who brought me up.
So, when I bathe my mother, dress her, help her stand and walk, I have no sense that I’m doing for her what she did for me 64 years ago. I feel I am doing what I’ve always done – looking after her. The continuity feels linear, not circular.
Another way I’ve explored is to try and notice my reactions when some habitual thing Mum does really pushes my buttons. I feel this will tell me when things go really deep. For example, I feel my body tense and my temper rise every time Mother waits for me to start doing one thing for her and then asks me to do the other thing. There is a theme that comes up in folk-tales around the world – the Impossible Task - and I always feel this theme is my story. No matter how hard I work or how well or how swiftly and effectively I do my task, it will never be enough. The only response will be to set another task. And I will be watched for the slightest failure, the smallest stumble will be laughed at, the tiniest blemish pointed out. My body-reaction tells me this goes way back. And again, I recognize that Mum did things that way with me, when she was teaching me basic household tasks, because that was how she was taught. Her generation taught by criticism and fault-finding, but Mum’s family really went in for ‘teasing’, as they called it. It was actually painful, belittling mockery for the tiniest deviation. Mum herself never teased us like that – she didn’t like it when it was done to her, so didn’t do it to us. Good for her! But it’s still there in her. Even when you try to erase bad family ways when you bring up your own children, the scraped-away palimpsest of it continues to impress itself on your behaviour.
So – in all my explorations over the past 8 years, I’ve been to some pretty dark places. I’ve lived my sense of abandonment by a mother who struggled to cope with 4 children, all so close in age, when she was little more than a child herself, and a selfish and immature husband. I’ve recognized myself - with shock – when I read a book about the effects of emotionally absent mothers. It’s not that I lack compassion for Mum, but I allow myself to have my own feelings, when these truths come home to me. The lack of protection for us as children, has to be acknowledged, even though I recognize it came from blindness and naiveté, and not lack of love. My task has been to look as long and as hard at the dark side of my relationship with my parents as I need, and the doing of it has in some ways allowed me to feel more respect for Mum and her struggles, more appreciation of what she was, rather than disappointment for what she was not. If I allow that my feelings about all this are my own business, (as long as I don’t act out on them towards Mum), then I can go as dark as I feel is appropriate, without needing to make excuses either for myself or Mother. It is what it is.
But I do desperately long for this to be over, so I can get back to my own life. I tell myself I am doing a full-time job and like any other job it takes up a large part of my day, and that if I added up the number of hours per day I actually work, it’s not very much. But it’s hard to be at someone’s beck and call day in, day out, with no clear boundaries around when I’m on duty or not. I tell myself I’m being an old bat when I feel resentful at being asked to do something for Mum when in my own mind I was just going off duty, even though Mum asks sweetly and always says thank you – but a woman is used to being her own boss in her own house, it’s not like being at work, and I just have to remind myself that my irritation is natural.
I reached a point of total rebellion last year, when I decided enough was enough and suggested Mum could go and live with my brother in Scotland. It turned out this was not possible, so I’ve settled back in to waiting it out, with extra support from the Scots brother – the only one who lives in the UK - and more carer sessions. In retrospect, I realize much of that reaction was brought on by the high number of visits by so many family members, which became burdensome and created all sorts of boundary issues between me and my sisters-in-law. I look at last year’s diary and see visit after visit, week after week. Nephews and nieces are no problem and it’s always lovely to see them. But there is a confusion about roles when I go away for a break, leaving a brother and his wife to look after Mum and run the house. When I return things can get a bit bumpy as we change tracks back to me being the alpha female in my own home, and them being guests. It’s a learning process for all of us. I’ve never spent this much time with my family, and in the past I was more likely to visit with them than vice versa. We’ve had to get to know each other all over again, because of this different context of our interactions.
So this has brought up old issues with family as a whole, not just parents. Spending so much time with my brothers has brought up painful memories of miserable school holidays as a teenager, coming home from an all-female boarding school, to a male-dominated home where I felt like a stranger. My parents moved to a different part of the country when I was about 15, and I never got to know anyone or have any friends there. It was not my home, and I felt more kinship with my school friends (in spite of the ghastliness of the school) who became the sisters I longed for.
But this, too, has brought its own blessings. There’s always been a disparity between the way my family sees me and the way the rest of the world does, even back in the days of school, and I realize that is still there, after all these decades. As a teenager I was acutely aware of how male-dominated my home was, and how misogynistic my father was – but I had to accept that as normal back then. It meant that my mother and I were automatically marginalized by all the men. The sense of male entitlement meant that we simply weren’t acknowledged, and this affected even the brother that I was closest to. We’re all pretty strong characters, but my strength has largely been invisible at home. Outside the family, I’ve usually tended to assume some kind of leadership role, That would just happen even when I didn't look for it. . Now I am in a situation where I expect my status as woman of the house to be accepted without question, as any woman would do in her own home, and I find myself needing to spell it out to siblings who seem not even to be aware they are marginalizing me afresh. This has forced me to examine my own attitudes to myself, and I have begun to own my own leadership qualities. I am an energy-holder, not a dominator, a collaborator and creator, not a dictator, I lead from behind, and am never threatened by another’s talent or strength. I gravitate to people who work like that themselves. But I can’t bear controllers or manipulators.
My dream for my future is the creation of a mini-community of women like me, who are alone in their 60s, lacking good pensions and needing to live rent- and mortgage-free, in order to support themselves into old age. I need to own that I am the woman to make this happen and keep it working. Without my particular style of leadership and ability to collaborate, it will never happen. It may still never happen, as it all relies on having enough money. But it’s an important dream. It’s the reason I’m still hanging in here.
After the darkness and the rebellion, I am now in a stage of acceptance. I never imagined Mum – or anyone – could continue to live in such a frail, immobile state. I just have never experienced old age in this way. I keep expecting this to be her last winter, but then she lives on and grows frailer, and it’s another winter, and she still hasn’t gone.
And why shouldn’t she hang on? She seems to have so little now, just sitting there all day, listening to music, watching telly, sometimes listening to an audiobook. She rarely sees any of her friends, though she phones them. But she has one important thing she never had in all those years of contempt from parents and husband – love and respect. Her carers dote on her, her children and grandchildren go out of their way to visit her and let her know how important she is to them. She’s enjoying a period in a gentle, golden light. She is reaping what she has sowed, because, in spite of her failings, she always gave us one important thing – she was always glad she’d had us, glad to be a mother and give us life, seeing us as her great achievement in life. She, whose own life was so begrudged by her own mother, never grudged us ours.
And my brothers? Well- we talk, we share our reflections and discoveries about our parents, and memories of our childhoods. We’re learning as we go along. In future we’ll grow more distant as we resume our own lives after this joint project is over. But we’ll all have learned much about ourselves and our family and been changed by this experience, and that has to be a good thing.