I often (but not too often) joke that if I ever left my husband it would not be for another man, but for my mother. I fell in love with my mother again in my early 30s and we are markedly close.
Through my 30s and 40s my mother has become a companion and friend as well as a supportive and nurturing parent. One of the things that surprises me about our relationship is how coveted it is among my friends. Not just our relationship, but my mother herself.
“I wish my mum was more like your mum.” “I wish I could talk to my mother the way you talk to yours.” “Your mum is so much fun . . . I wish my mum was as open-minded as yours.” And bizarrely, “I want to get your mum around so that some of her will ‘rub off ‘ on my mum.”
And yet I think this says more about the attitude we have towards our mothers than it does about the mothers themselves.
My mother, while she does have exceptional qualities, is not so different from her peers as my friends perceive. It is the fact that I have made an effort to treat her as a woman and not just a mother that has allowed our, in the past, often fraught mother-daughter relationship to flourish into a deep friendship.
Throughout my teens and right up to the end of my 20s I held my mother responsible for everything that went wrong in my life: my inability to form a satisfactory relationship with a man, my bad teeth/feet/legs and fluctuating weight. I once lost my passport the night before an important business trip and rang her in the middle of my panic to blame her for being a hoarder herself and not training me to be more organised.
The biggest thing I blamed my mother for was the gap inside me that craves love. That hole is just part of the human condition but one which we try to fill with drink, or food, or sex or therapy . . . seeking the satisfaction of complete fulfilment which we will never find. The only love that is big enough to fill that gap is surely a mother’s love. However it’s not until you become a mother yourself that you realise the hard truth which is that no matter how big your love is for your child, ultimately they will have to make it on their own.
My turning point with my mother came when I was 31. I was staying in my mother’s house in London. I was unemployed, single and childless and my youngest sister had just become pregnant by her boyfriend. I would like to say I had conflicted feelings, but that would be too kind. I was furious and bitterly, bitterly jealous. My mother came into my room early one morning and found me howling, pounding the wall shouting, “It should have been me!”
She gathered me into her arms and comforted me. I realised then that there was no other human being on earth who would ever love me enough to sympathise with such ugly feelings. And crucially, I realised I still needed her as a mother. I made a conscious decision to let all of the past go and form a new relationship with this person. This woman who had all this love towards me: how would it be if I didn’t dismiss her love as a given but took it on afresh? What would happen if, instead of the immature expectation I had always had of this cure-all love, that my mother should be able to intuit my every need otherwise she had failed, I started to ask for her love, ask for her advice? And crazier still, actually listen to it and perhaps even, from time to time, take it on board. I have traced the most successful, the happiest and the most secure days of my adult life back to the moment I started to do that.
One such occasion was in Yamamori on George’s Street in 1997. I asked her what she thought of my relatively new live-in boyfriend.
“I think you should marry him.”
I was taken aback . . . this was the woman who told me never to get married. Why this one? I asked.
She took me back to an incident that had occurred a few weeks before. A friend of mine from London was staying in our apartment in Dublin along with Niall and my mother. My mother and my friend were both en route to somewhere else, and I got called away for work. I was nervous about how Niall would deal with these relative strangers as none of them knew the other very well. Tragedy struck during the night when my friend got a phone call from London to say his mother, whom he lived with, had died. It was a terrible shock.
My mother described to me how Niall had handled the situation calmly, with strength, sensitivity and great compassion.
“He stayed up all night talking to the poor man,” she said. “Now that’s the sort of person you want to be married to. And oh, “she added, “he’s a hard worker.”
My mother had always actively discouraged her daughters from getting married, saying the institution was outdated and designed to tie women down.
What was this turnaround all about?
“I’ve changed my mind, “she said. “I know I have always said the opposite but now I would like to see you married with a child. I can see that’s what you desperately want and I think it would make you happy so I want it for you too.”
An English journalist, slightly older than me, recently interviewed my mother and I and was astonished at the cultural differences in our respective lives.
The journalist had grown up at the same time as me, in London, but her British baby-boomer parents were living the ‘60s dream. They were doing the whole dope-smoking, nudie flower power pop songs thing while my mother and her emigrant peers were still held in the cloying, guilty grip of the Catholic church. They wore the long flowery skirts and the platform shoes but they left the free-love principles behind. They eschewed contraception but remained loyal to wedding vows, even through being battered by alcoholic husbands, and stayed at home cooking and cleaning and minding their children because they didn’t have the confidence to avail of the education and the work opportunities now available to them. While the world around them partied, the majority of my mother’s generation of Irish emigrants spent the ‘60s and ‘70s picking rusk crumbs out of their Draylon-covered sofas in the London suburbs, cooking big dinners for tired husbands, feeding babies and taking their daughters to Irish dancing classes in chilly church halls.
Joan Baez was singing on their kitchen transistor about revolution. Erica Jong, the Female Eunuch, Gloria Steinem, free thinking, free love… it seemed like everyone was free except them. The revolution was happening on their doorsteps but not in their homes, they could smell the freedom but they couldn’t taste it. So they drummed into their daughters these messages of independence. “See the world, have your own money, don’t worry about getting married and having children. Any fool can get married; don’t sell yourself short.”
They bred a generation of independent career women with aching ovaries. Like Bridget Jones, it seemed finding a good husband and having children later in life was not as easy as our mothers told us it would be. For those of us who managed to squeeze it in, “having it all” became “doing it all”. As Germaine Greer recently said, “When we said we ‘wanted it all’ . . . it seems what we got ‘all’ of was the work.”
I think our mothers’ generation has straddled a wider gap in the culture of women’s personal and working lives than any other.
The gap between my life and my grandmother’s life is culturally colossal, yet I hope my generation does as good a job of bridging the gap between our children’s lives and our parents.
I also think my generation of women are particularly hard on our mothers. We urge them to be more liberal, more like us. And yet they have witnessed and weathered the almost complete disintegration of their value system whilst still managing to fling their daughters forward into a new era, fuelling us with their dreams as well as their disappointments.
What I have discovered through my mother and her friends in the past 15 years is that these women, with a tremendous amount to offer, often lack the confidence to achieve their potential. What makes them more hard-done by than the generations before them is that liberation was within their grasp . . . but their arms were not long enough to reach it.
My mother could have been a novelist and the confidence she lacked to do it herself, she made sure she gave to me. That has been her gift to me as a writer: not just her encouragement and support, but her unfulfilled writer’s permission to mine her life for the stories she could have told if she had grown up in a more modern time.
The man my mother ‘chose’ for me was also sexy and funny and I was in love with him. But ultimately the foundation of the happiness I have experienced being married to him has been down to the qualities she saw in him straight away, strength of character, kindness and a powerful work ethic.
My mother isn’t always right, but then, neither am I. However, she is always older and often, very often, much wiser than I am. And she loves me. Surely they are the best qualifications a good friend and mentor could have.