I keep this framed photo of my mother and me on the mantelpiece, because in it we look like a happy, close pair – even our scarves are in harmony! But the truth of our relationship was far more complicated and, for me at least, often painful because I didn’t feel emotionally supported or ‘seen’ for who I was. This was in part down to my mother’s ongoing struggle with clinical depression, her anger and disappointment with life, which hung over all of us like an unpredictable storm cloud and prevented a true sense of security or trust developing.
I was never able to talk to her about our relationship while she was alive, even though it must often have made her miserable too: she would always interpret it as an attack, and either get angry or withdraw into coldness. In some way, knowing her emotional fragility, I also wanted to protect her from the truth of my feelings, so I never really expressed the full extent of them.
When she died eight years ago our relationship had begun to heal, thanks to her gradual drift into Alzheimer’s disease, which made everything much simpler between us. At the end, even though she no longer really knew who I was, I was able to just tell her I loved her, and she responded in kind. In some ways dementia felt like a tremendous gift to us both.
But close relationships don’t stop when a person dies. I’m not talking about life after death, which I don’t think I believe in, but the way someone continues to live on inside you and the attempt to understand and work things out with them persists, albeit unilaterally. For me, this came about through writing my book In the Wars (yet to be published) where I stopped looking at my mother through the lens of my own experience, and instead tried to imagine how life had been for her, from her point of view. In this I was very much aided by some of her own writing – diaries, poetry, fiction, letters – which helped me to discover the woman she had been apart from, and as well as, my mother.
Towards the end of writing the book, I had so far re-habilitated her in my own eyes, that I was beginning to doubt the truth of my own experience: had I somehow created or imagined a problem between us that didn’t exist? But no, I had lived it my whole life: the unhappiness, the miscommunication, the narcissism of mental illness. Through writing I had discovered a different woman – a passionate, intelligent and creative person, who had somehow got lost in her own melancholy and the choices life foisted on her. It was this, combined with her own denial of her feelings, instilled in her by a wartime childhood, that made her unable to be a good mother. I understood her better, but this understanding didn’t diminish my own experience as her child.
To balance the picture I wrote a chapter from my own perspective, using my own old diaries in which I gave vent to my difficulties with our relationship. “When I read about how other people feel about their mothers I can’t relate to it.” I was in therapy on and off over many years, trying to heal the emptiness inside me that came from not feeling truly accepted. It was painful going back into those feelings, but necessary to acknowledge them if the story were to be complete.
And now something has been laid to rest. I don’t feel that pain any more, just sadness that my mother didn’t manage to break out of the (sometimes self-inflicted) cage she was trapped in and live a brilliant, fulfilling life…or even a mundanely content one. And sad that she and I, who were so alike in many ways and had so much in common in our way of seeing the world, never managed to find a way of expressing that through friendship and mutual support. Not that is, until in her final years she became more like my child than a parent, and we were at last able to connect.
Writing this book has both been my gift to her and given me so much in return: I’ve set us both free.