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When you and your mother aren't friends

Some women just don't get along with their mothers.

I came across an interesting article in the Daily Mail recently, though I must admit I found it quite painful to read. The author had such a poor relationship with her mother that she asked her to go to couples therapy. She aims to document the success or failure of this in the leadup to her giving birth to her own first child.

My relationship with my mother was awful, and that is one major reason I don't have children - I couldn't bear the idea that I might have as bad a relationship with my daughter as with my mother, and I didn't want to screw up my kids the way my parents screwed up theirs - there is not one well-balanced psyche between the four of us siblings and we have spent most of the past 30 years out of contact. 

This article is a useful reminder that there are many women who don't get on with their mothers. In fact, some psychologists believe it is the most fraught of all familial relationships and the most damaging when it goes wrong, partly because the expectations of ourselves and our mother's generations are so completely different. The choices that many modern women make - multiple sexual partners, living with people rather than marriage, delayed childbirth, small families or no children at all - can leave many older women nonplussed, or jealous, or angry. 

However, in the case of the Daily Mail writer, it was the total non-communicativeness of her mother that was the biggest issue for her to deal with - she grew up in a household where emotions were something you simply didn't express (yup, know how that feels - my parents sat on opposite sides of the living room and barely acknowledged each other's existence most of the time). 

If you don't get on with your mother, I heartily recommend the book When you and your mother can't be friends by Victoria Secunda, which helped me to understand why I was always so angry with mine. My mother was needy, clingy, untrustworthy and unreliable - someone you could never lean on or talk to about anything - and although I knew this was due to her terrible childhood, there was a part of me that hated her for this role reversal, where I was like her mother and she was like my daughter. Having spent most of my teenage years looking after her, I left home at 18 pretty much never to return, and for many years we didn't speak at all, managing - eventually - a distant phone-only rapprochement (voicemail is a wonderful thing).

When I went to visit her shortly before she died, it was the first time we'd seen each other in 15 years and her indifference to me took my husband's breath away - though not mine, as we'd never had much to say to one another. Besides, she was very ill - though not ill enough, I noticed, to give up her spite against my sister, who had cared for her for most of the previous 20 years. Her stoicism in the face of impending death was truly admirable and she retained enough energy to be mean to my poor aunty right up till the end.  

Shortly after we left her hospice, my husband and I were hit by an articulated lorry on the M1 and I spent most of the next two months having physio, while he spent it on trancs. I phoned my mother every day, sent her flowers every week, and books and music. But I didn't want to see her again, and when she died, neither I nor my siter went to her funeral. Such is life.

Anyway, you may find the article worth a read if you have the time. 


When love isn't enough

When you have an ambivalent relationship with your parents, their deaths can bring complications

I wrote an article for the Telegraph recently, about what happened when my mother in law died, and I thought some of the comments that were posted following it were kind of interesting.

I wrote and filed this copy quite a while ago and have only just got round to reading it online - I generally prefer not to read articles once they're sent. But death is a touchy subject and it certainly touched a nerve with some readers. I find it interesting that so many people just assume that you love your parents and that your instinct will be to rush to their side. 

But what if you don't, and it isn't?

My husband's difficult relationship with his mother is a private matter between the two of them, but as an example of filial piety, we might look instead at the relationship I had with mine.

When my mother became terminally ill in 2006, she was expected to live only a few weeks. 

I hadn't seen her for 15 years and for the first 10 of those, we hadn't spoken either. We had only lately, and to my reluctance, been in intermittent contact for a few years and I was still largely avoiding her on the phone. In fact, I now realise, I'd only seen her a dozen times since I left home in 1981 - 25 years earlier.

Deciding whether or not to see her now that she was sick was a tricky matter because the truth is, deep down I was still terrified of her.

My husband was livid that I'd even consider it. "She's done you enough damage," he kept saying.

And yet, and yet. You only get one mother and a person wants to do the right thing - I didn't want to spend the rest of my life regretting that I hadn't gone, and I supposed that her illness had probably reduced her ability to do me any real damage. 

Whenever I suggested visiting, however, she put me off, saying to come later when she was feeling better. Since I knew she would never be feeling better, I wasn't sure if she really didn't know she was dying, or was trying to keep it from me. Or simply wanted to avoid me. I don't know to this day.

But in the end, when 'the call' came, from my aunt, saying: "If you want to see her again, come now," I didn't hesitate. We got straight in the car. 

It takes 17 hours door to door from our home to my mother's home in the North (we're not quite - as one commentator on my article suggested - 'a few minutes' from the UK), and once back in Blighty I phoned repeatedly to see if she was still with us. 

Indeed she was. I arrived, kissed her a brisk hello and sat down for - who knows what? 

I mean, I think she was pleased to see me, but it was hard to tell. The DH was aghast at what he saw as her indifference. I just thought she was ill. Besides, it was what I'd expected. We are not, and never were, that sort of family. We were the sort of family that sat at opposite sides of the room.

But at least she and I didn't argue. Nor did we talk about anything deep (some of my friends fondly imagined there would be some sort of rapprochement and lots of earnest conversations but I knew that would never be). We spoke instead about the weather and the flowers in the garden. She dozed from the morphine, I read a magazine. Thus ended the first day. The DH and I had to leave quite early to find a hotel, because she refused to let us stay in her flat (not just us - anyone else, either. Afraid we'd nick her stuff).

The second day I spent more time with her, helping her to eat at one point, but I don't remember much else. Much of the time she was asleep. My aunts - my father's sisters - visited, and I chatted to them. And my mother's husband (my father is long-dead) came, but she didn't want to see him because he was too weepy. At one point my mother went to chapel (she was always very religious).

On day three she was more alert, as they had changed her medication, but the DH and I had to leave for the ferry back to France, so we chatted for only half an hour or so.  I asked her if she would see my sister (they weren't speaking and mother had previously threatened her with a court order if she came near her), but she wouldn't ask her to come, and my sister would not come unasked. And so we left. 

An hour later, on the M1, the DH and I were almost killed by an articulated lorry, leaving me with whiplash and him sleepless and on tranquilisers for months. For obvious reasons, he became my main priority for the next few months. 

Far from dying in the next 24 hours, as expected, my mother lived another five weeks, even suffering a stroke and being rushed to casualty at one point, as if they could 'save' her. My brother in the south of England made many fraught journeys north. My other brother on the Isle of Wight saw her once, I think (he's rarely seen anyone in the family since the late 1970s). My sister, who had been her carer for over a decade and lived only a mile away, didn't see her at all.

Meanwhile, from France, I underwent physio for my damaged neck, sent books and flowers and music, phoned every day (she was often asleep and I couldn't speak to her) and ummed and ahed over making another visit.

But to tell the truth, I just couldn't see the point. She was asleep much of the time now, and surrounded by other relatives and I didn't feel that my particular presence would make that much of a difference to her. And for myself, I didn't feel the need - I had said goodbye to her many years before, and I took the opportunity now to say goodbye every day. 

It is a difficult decision though, and part of me now regrets not going to see her again, just so that I could be absolutely sure of her indifference, rather than just supposing it. 

When she died, I cried, of course. I wouldn't wish her death on my worst enemy, and she had been alone, too, which was very sad - for all my brother's efforts he was either en route or in the south when she died. And there is also the knowledge that once someone is gone, so is any hope that things might ever be better. The failed relationship is all that there is.

So, as I said, I find it interesting, the reactions to my article, that gave me '2 out of 10 and a C-minus for effort', or that said I was 'wrong' not to encourage my husband to go and see his dying mother, assuming that in some way, I was holding him back. I wonder sometimes if other people simply lead uncomplicated lives and don't realise that for some of us, life and relationships remain a more complex issue.



Mothers and daughters

To be serious for a moment...

My mother died in April. She was 83 and had pancreatic cancer, which was expected to kill her within weeks, but in fact she survived nearly five months. It is an ugly disease, and we feared the worst, but she remained independent almost to the end, only entering a hospice, and then a nursing home, in the latter few weeks of her life.

Not long afterwards, my friend C's mother died of oesophageal cancer at the much younger age of 70. C was with her at the end, and was able to nurse her, but was devastated to see her suffer over a long period of months. Then a couple of weeks ago, T emailed to say her mother too had died. Age 85, this was not from old age, but in a terrible accident. T and her sister - all that's left of the family - are in a state of shock.

Then there's my friend F, who is losing her mother inch by inch to Alzheimer's. In her heyday, her mum was a real force of nature - a tough and sassy businesswoman - but as the disease takes hold, her increasing neediness and fear are breaking F's heart.

The fact is that we are reaching that age when we lose our parents and there's nothing we can do about it. For T and myself, this is the second parent, and we both find ourselves 'adult orphans', to quote a phrase. Neither of us has children ourselves, and that is perhaps hard - we don't have their futures and achievements to look forward to. But C and F have the more difficult task - that of aiding their ageing fathers through their own loss and bereavement.

The death of a parent is always a turning point, but losing one when you're middle-aged yourself provokes much more reflection than when you're young. I was 24 when my father died of a heart attack, and although the shock was awful and I miss him to this day, I didn't feel brushed by the hand of mortality in the same way as when my mother went. Now, with her gone, I feel far more keenly that I am the next generation over the edge of that inexorable conveyor belt.

I have no religious belief - I think that when you're gone, you're gone, and that lack of belief in itself brings a kind of peace. But when she was diagnosed, it was a struggle not to be angry, to accept the inevitable. My mother had lived a long life - outliving my dad by nearly 20 years - and death comes to us all in the end. But it's still hard when it's your mother, and my mother was enjoying her life, her outings, her circle of friends. She was not ready to die.

Nor were we close, which complicated matters in a family that had never been happy. When your mother's sick, you're expected to fall into line and behave a certain way, especially as a daughter. But our relationship had never been good and she and I had never been friends. I left home as soon as I was able, at the age of 18, and had seen very little of her since. But nevertheless I did not wish her ill. I did not want her to die.

In an attempt to get my head around some of the emotions I was feeling, and being the bookish type, I read several books that proved very helpful. The first was the classic by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying. Somewhat dated now (its ideas were once considered revolutionary, but are now standard practice in hospitals and hospices), this was the first book to outline the 'five stages of grief' - disbelief, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. At the very least, it helped me to understand why my mother would never admit to me that she was terminal, whereas she talked with my brother, her executor, quite readily about her funeral arrangements.

When You and Your Mother Can't be Friends, by Victoria Secunda, however, was a real help to me, if only to know that I was not alone in having such a difficult relationship with my mother (in fact, this book is now doing the rounds in our neighbourhood, where so many daughters seem to have trouble with their mothers). Like myself, Secunda had undertaken the last-minute rush to the bedside of her estranged mother, and she too had gained little from it. When I visited my mother in the hospice, it was the first time we'd met in 15 years and her seeming indifference to me took my husband's breath away (I assumed it was her illness, but then she had always been the same). I said goodbye with relief, and although I did not see her again, if I could not be loving I tried at least to be kind, and sent her books and music, and the flowers that she loved, until she died a few weeks later, just before Easter.

Losing Your Parents, Finding Yourself, again by Secunda, is another good book, though not as good as the first (it's the earlier work, and it shows). This outlines the differences that losing a parent makes in your life, and it was interesting to see how for so many people it had been a watershed - a catalyst to marriage, to divorce, to changing career or starting a family. Many people said it had been the biggest change in their lives.

I don't know if there will be any great change in my own life, but the truth is that with my mother's death in some ways I feel relieved of a burden. I no longer have to beat myself up about not being a 'good' daughter, about avoiding her phone calls, about pretending there's someone at the door to cut a conversation short. Our relationship was what it was - and I wish it had been better. But now it's over and I am grateful to longer have to worry about it.

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