Mother’s Day, motherhood, and my mad mother

Today I posted this as my status on Facebook.


I fully expected to be vilified and maligned by all and sundry, something which — at the time of writing — hasn’t happened. After all, sexual equality, feminism, and politically correct rejections of stereotypical gender representations seem to have done very little to tarnish the shining image of motherhood as the highest pinnacle women can aspire to reach. A woman may have this as her ultimate goal in life and still be lauded — ‘full-time mother’ remains an acceptable ‘job description’ and staying at home to look after the kids whilst her (male) partner goes out to work raises not a single eyebrow; a man, on the other hand, for whom being a father is his be-all-and-end-all is still looked at somewhat askance, and comments — whether positive or negative in tone and intention — are still made about how unusual it is for dad to stay at home and mum to be the family bread-winner. Nevertheless, given that that is the case, perhaps surprisingly, the majority of people seem to respect and support my somewhat different views on the whole maternal shebang. They may, of course, disagree totally with the sentiment but simply be espousing the views apocryphally attributed to Voltaire, i.e. ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’ [*].

However, one individual — a friend of a friend, someone whom I only know through Facebook and have never met in person — decided to send me a personal message on the subject. She remarks that the reason I am opposed to dropping sprogs left, right, and centre is because of unresolved issues with my late mother. This well-meaning individual suggests that I might wish to seek counselling ‘before it’s too late’ (I assume she means too late to be a mother — I suspect that she does not realize that I am quite as advanced in years as I am, and that the chances of my becoming pregnant without much medical intervention are, whilst not totally impossible, very very unlikely).

Now, this raises two points: firstly, she appears to think that this notion has never occurred to me before; and, secondly, she seems to think it matters.

This of course opens up the whole nature-nurture debate, something that’s been tossed around for centuries now. My own view, in a nutshell, is that it’s about 25% nature (intelligence is innate, as is raw talent — artistic or musical ability, athleticism, facility for learning languages or sciences) and 75% nurture (not quite the Sartean ‘man is nothing at birth and throughout his life he is no more than the sum of his past commitments’ but getting on that way in general terms — inherent ability can be cultivated and nourished, or it can be stifled, but some vestige will still remain).

So yes, it is eminently possible that, having been raised by a woman who was certifiably bonkers — I am avoiding the use of any more precise terminology as I am not qualified to diagnose mental illness and can only base any conclusions on having read psychiatric studies and found myself thinking that she ticked an awful lot of the boxes for a variety of not-very-nice disorders — my interpretation of What It Means To Be A Mother is somewhat distorted. It is not beyond the bounds of credibility that I might not wish to inflict on others what she inflicted on me.

I should elaborate here: I was never the victim of ‘child abuse’ in any discernible sense. I was never beaten, or starved, or humiliated in any way. My mother’s methods were more subtle and more insidious. She was the centre of the universe and I was her satellite, her mini-me. When I was about four years old, she permed my naturally ram-rod straight hair into a mass of Shirley Temple curls so I’d look more like her. When I told her I needed glasses at the age of twelve, she told me not to be so silly; I didn’t need specs because she had perfect vision (I squinted at objects more than about six feet away for four years before she finally believed me). I wasn’t allowed to eat certain foods because ‘we don’t like them’ — even though I’d never had the opportunity of trying them to find out. Her control had to be absolute, and so long as that was the case, and there was no threat to the sway she held, all was well. I was her little doll, her pet, and she spent hours and hours playing with me, teaching me, entertaining me. And, oh, how we laughed and what fun we had! My early childhood was a non-stop adventure, a voyage of discovery. If anyone should have wanted to have kids one day, it should surely have been pre-pubescent me. But I didn’t. I remember how much I disliked dolls and used to scribble with crayons all over any photos of babies I found in newspapers or home shopping catalogues. I don’t think it was jealousy — I was an only child, I was spoilt rotten, these other infants had absolutely no impact on my world — I simply did not like babies (human babies — I loved all kittens, puppies, lambs, fox cubs, baby rabbits…).

The rot set in when I reached the age of around thirteen. Until then, I’d been largely educated at home. My mother was a qualified teacher. People from the Education Board (as she called it) came round periodically and tested my reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, but I was always at least three years ahead of whatever the standard was for my age. And because I associated almost exclusively with adults, I knew how to talk to them and came across as self-possessed and mature. The Education Board people always went away happy and content and totally in thrall to my mother. Have I mentioned how utterly charming she could be when she chose? In those days, she was still beautiful as well, and plump-but-not-fat… the Education Board men (they were always men) simply didn’t stand a chance.

Occasionally, she did send me to school — I have no idea why. Perhaps she worried about my not having friends my own age; perhaps she did it to punish me; who knows? Anyway, these stints were invariably short-lived — between one day and perhaps two months. After that, she’d decide that the standard of education was too low (it probably was — remember, I was very advanced for my age) or that I was being bullied (it’s possible, but I never noticed it) or that I was Picking Up A Yorkshire Accent (again, possible — but in so short a time…?). Personally, I think she just missed having me at home. Whatever the reason, after a few days or weeks, we’d be back in the old routine and everyone was happy.

However, eventually she decided that the whole Going To School thing was called for. How else would I keep up my academic excellence now it seemed that she’d taught me all she knew? I was proficient in English, French, history, art, maths, could draw and sew, had read more of the classics than your average English graduate today — and she’d run out of things to teach me (this was before she decided to study classics at university). I knew nothing about geography or any of the sciences. I could swim, but I’d never played hockey or netball. And I had no idea how to interact with children of my own age.

I went to school. It was OK. I found it quite hard at first, from a social point of view, and ludicrously easy from an academic one. Ironically, the purpose of my conforming to educational norms (that I should study physics, chemistry, biology, and geography) was immediately nullified as the school, even before the notion of League Tables, was keen to get good exam results and arranged my timetable so that none of those subjects appeared on it — only something generally acknowledged to be for the no-hopers called ‘General Science’. As for the secondary idea of my learning to play team sports and getting fit, well, let’s just say that, whilst it was hell at first, it didn’t take me long to think of a way of ensuring that I didn’t have to endure it for very long.

The trouble was — and I don’t think my mother had foreseen this — that I made friends. And I wanted to do things with those friends. I remember she once said to me in all seriousness ‘Huh! Anyone would think you’d rather go shopping with [friend] than spend the day with me!’ I was thirteen years old; I had birthday money burning a hole in my pocket; I had the opportunity of spending the day being silly and giggly and girly with [friend]… and she thought I’d rather stay home watching TV with her?

My relationship with my mother went downhill from there. She connived to make sure I lost any friends I had. If anyone phoned to invite me to do something, she’d tell them I was busy and request they didn’t ring again; if anyone wrote to me — in pre-internet days when not everyone had a phone, we used to write to each other during school holidays — she’d open the letters and only pass on any she felt were ‘suitable’; and she was the Queen of Emotional Blackmail — if she didn’t want me to go somewhere or do something, she had the knack of making me feel horribly guilty for even having thought about going there or doing whatever it was. And if she failed in those endeavours, she’d sulk. She was awfully good at sulking. When I was fourteen, I did something to upset her and she refused to speak to me or even acknowledge I was in the room for three months.

If I went shopping with a friend, I’d have to hide any purchases at the friend’s house as my mad mother would throw them away as soon as my back was turned because ‘that horrid thing made you look so fat/cheap/scruffy’ — even though a few weeks later, if I went shopping with her, she’d buy me an almost identical one. Buy? My mother also suffered from kleptomania… so I’m not sure if ‘buy’ is quite the right verb, although, to be fair to her, she did only tend to steal things that were of no real use to anyone and never (as far as I know) from individuals.

As for when I started dating… oh, then she really had fun. She spun elaborate yarns about how she’d seen one boyfriend locking lips with another girl, and told me another had phoned and told her he was cancelling our date and didn’t want to see me anymore; she decided that a slightly older boy I was seeing (I was probably 16 by this time; he was perhaps 19) was a pimp and would get me addicted to drugs and then subject me to a life of prostitution; another had insulted her (she claimed) so I had to choose where my loyalties lay, and if I made the wrong choice I’d be homeless… For the record, I very much doubt that the first boy would have been daft enough to snog another girl anywhere where my mother would have been likely to catch him; the second was most surprised, the following Monday at school, to learn that he’d made such a phone call, but the damage was done — he thought I was inventing that as an excuse to finish with him (and I had, from his point of view, stood him up the previous Friday); the 19 year-old was a shy, geeky lad who’d as much know about the things he was accused of as I did about physics and playing netball; and the one who calumniated her…? Well, truth be told, I don’t remember a single thing about him… not even his name… but I’m fairly sure the allegations against him were spurious.

Oh, there are myriad other incidents and anecdotes. My aunt, now well into her nineties, told me recently that she had on a number of occasions come close to calling Social Services because of the way my mother treated me. She didn’t, though, because she was scared of the repercussions from my mother. You might, if you’ve read this far, be wondering where my dad was in all this. And the answer is: keeping out of it — for which I don’t blame him in the slightest. Mother was just as capable of turning on him as she was on me. Had he stuck up for me, there’d just have been two of us in the firing line, and her wrath would have increased exponentially, making life worse for both of us. Better, then to keep his head below the parapet and just hope for the best. I did the same when he was in the firing line. Like my aunt, we were scared of the repercussions of doing anything else. Even my mother’s GP who tried to persuade her to see a psychiatrist was cowed into submission when she stared him down and hinted that there would be consequences if he persisted in making such ‘very silly suggestions.’

Her weight, her anger, her insanity, and her lies all increased as she got older — or perhaps, once I moved away, I was simply able to see her for what she was. Either way, it is not my purpose to tell stories about my crazy mother (though I could probably write a book about them), but to explain why I doubt that she’s the reason for my lack of maternal instinct, and why — even if she is — it’s of no importance. For the first dozen or so years of my life, then, when my mother was just charmingly eccentric and hadn’t graduated menopausally to fully-fledged Psycho Bitch From Hell, I should have wanted lots and lots of kids on to whom I could pass my idyllic childhood. If we believe in theories relating to formative years, I should have been 100% pro-motherhood, to such an extent that even my rather less delightful adolescence couldn’t have made me waver from my determination to procreate and then make sure I did right all the things my mother did wrong. But this isn’t how it was or ever has been. I have known since time out of mind that I didn’t want kids; I have never found myself questioning that; and now I’m (almost) too old to do anything about it, I do not find myself regretting my choice.

If my mother is to blame for this… well, I can’t see that it matters. I have no regrets. I do not think ‘Oh, I would love to have kids but I’m afraid I might turn into my mother and be horrible to them.’ If I’d been born ten years earlier, or in a different country, or my aunt had called Social Services and to hell with the consequences, I wouldn’t be quite the same person that I am now. External influences would — perhaps subtly, perhaps radically — have changed the way I think. I have absolutely no way of knowing in what way, though, or to what extent. Just as Edward Lorenz’s hypothetical butterfly caused a hurricane, my mother’s madness may have caused my repudiation of motherhood; but only in science fiction stories can anyone travel back in time and change that. And who’s to say the consequences of so doing wouldn’t be worse? Lordy! I could have had five babies and only discovered once they were born that I really didn’t want kids after all.


 [*] In 1906, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, writing under the pseudonym of S.G. Tallentyre, published her biography of Voltaire entitled The Friends of Voltaire. In it, she wrote the phrase ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’ as an illustration of Voltaire’s philosophy on freedom of speech — it has for over a hundred years now been misattributed to the subject rather than to the writer of the biography.