Just how hard is it to get through Mothering Sunday when you don’t feel unconditional love and gratitude towards your own mother? Every year I am reminded of a friend who finds it one of the most difficult days of the year. My friend, let’s call her B, breaks out in a cold sweat when the Mother’s Day cards start filling the display stands in the shops.
‘I hate it’, she told me, ‘the hypocrisy, the guilt trip, all of it. I literally feel huge anxiety when I have to choose a card to send.’
B’s difficult relationship with her mother started when she had children of her own. Until then she’d spent a lifetime being a parent to her own mother, a complex woman who’d endured a terrible childhood and an abusive marriage.
B, the eldest of four children, had unwittingly fallen into the trap of becoming ‘mummy’s little helper’ in that her mother, in the absence of having a kind husband or concerned parent herself, relied on B to be a companion, listener, empathiser, friend – but crucially, never a daughter in the true sense of the word. B witnessed terrible domestic violence and was occasionally the victim of it herself, bearing the physical brunt of her father’s rages while her mother stood by.
They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and B grew up resilient and a real pragmatist who brushed aside her own difficulties in her quest to help others, just as she had been taught. When B give birth to her first baby, the lid on the box in which she’d stashed all of her childhood trauma was somehow loosened by the act of becoming a parent, and she nosedived straight into severe postnatal depression and anxiety.
In short, for the first time in her life, she really, really needed her mum. She needed that intimate, boundless love and support that only your mother can really provide in times of great stress and uncertainty. B reasoned that it was long-overdue seeing as it was a role that she had played all her life for her mother, up until now. And was it forthcoming?
B says not: ‘when I needed her the most, she withdrew. I got the strong impression that she was actually jealous of my baby in that he was now taking up all the attention that she used to get from me. I kept trying to talk to her, let her know how I felt, how abandoned and confused I was. I thought if I laid my true feelings on the line and showed her how much I was struggling I was, she would see that I needed her.’
B’s mother was in turn angry, defensive, dismissive – eventually accusing B of being ‘too demanding’. This baby was then her mother’s only grandchild and B soon became aware of how much her mother ‘talked a good talk’ to other people about how much she adored him, but her actions suggested a different story.
A decade on, B has now gradually withdrawn from her mother, keeping contact to a bare minimum. ‘I’m ashamed to admit that sometimes I think it would be easier if she wasn’t around any more.’
Lesson number one in life is that you can’t change other people, all you can do is change how you react to them. Mumsnet has a particularly fascinating and long-running thread called ‘But we took you to stately homes’, apparently this is what parents use as mitigating evidence when confronted by their adult offspring of historical neglect or abuse. This thread allows members to discuss elements of their own dysfunctional upbringings and it’s on there that B has eventually found solace.
‘I’m not alone’, she tells me with a smile, ‘I know that none of my childhood was my fault and that my mother is a narcissist who can only put herself and her own feelings first. There’s nothing I can say or do to get through to her because she’s simply not capable of change. It’s like suffering a bereavement, but that person is still living.’
So spare a thought on Sunday for those who are grieving for a mother-child relationship that has expired, despite both parties being very much alive. There’s not a greetings card company out there that has come up with a suitable card for that yet.