When My Mother Died.

Whatever life circumstances we are born into, as human beings there are certain basic needs, which we all have in common. We all come into the world in a very vulnerable state, dependent on others to meet our innate needs for physical and emotional care.

In a Western industrialised society, with its emphasis on the nuclear family unit, the most significant person is usually our mother. She is
most often the one who is charged with the onerous responsibility of being primary carer to growing individuals. A mother is someone who is expected to be wholly and personally answerable for her children’s successes and failures in a society, which separates us into very small and isolated family units. This socio-economic system leaves each of us totally dependent on one, or in a “modern” family, possibly two adults to meet all of our emotional, physical and spiritual needs.Once upon a time, when people roamed over the land surfaces of our planet we lived in groups where children had many significant adults in their lives. Freud would have been out of work and ideas in a society where a child’s birth mother was only one of the important adult influences and the man who donated the sperm was probably unidentifiable!

In twentieth century Britain mothers are the primary carers for most of us, and because that one person cannot possibly meet all of our basic needs for unconditional love and acceptance, we all carry a knotted mass of frozen needs into our adult lives and our relationships with others.The presence of my mother in the world, even when we were separated by considerable geographical distance, kept alive the hope that one day I would get it just right, and in being the daughter she felt she had never had, I would finally get the kind of mothering that I felt I had never had.

In October 1995 my mother was diagnosed as having a terminal illness. She was not expected to see Christmas. No one told Maisie this, and she clung to life with great tenacity and with the familiar mental attitudes, which had kept her going through the many hard years of being mother to nine children. Maisie was emotionally absent from my childhood life. Each new arrival sent her deeper and deeper into a world of romantic novels and escape from the reality of many small, needy, dependent people in an environment of abject poverty. She never faced the truth of a situation where her husband was mostly absent from the day-to-day hardships, and her children were struggling to survive in an emotional desert.

I cannot blame my mother for not facing that reality. Her survival and consequently ours would probably have been doubtful had she really recognised the full extent of her powerlessness to change the conditions of her life. As a working-class woman, with an unemployed husband and nine children in a nuclear family set-up, which imposed on her a responsibility for all of them, she had very few options. She made it through those years by remaining stuck in mourning past fantasies of living happily ever after.

At the funeral we sang “Bind us together with love”. Through the days of our growing up we were bound together by our mutual lack of love and separated by constantly being made to compete for the crumbs of emotional succour that our mother had the capacity to give.

Maisie was eight months dying. Reluctantly she went and reluctantly we let her go. Nine Adults came together with the collective responsibility of caring for our dying mother. Maisie chose to believe that radiotherapy treatments had cured her of lung cancer and we chose to collude with her in this belief, each separately trying to come to terms with her imminent departure while competing with each other to be the very best the most caring son/daughter ever. We planned her care, making sure that she was never alone long enough to face the pain and possible despair on her own.

While I was attempting to address the contradictions, which this situation presented, I seemed to be observing my siblings behaving in a state of collective amnesia, playing a game of “Let’s pretend she was the best mother who ever lived”. Excuse me folks; did I dream that our childhood was one of deprivation and neglect, of emotional and physical abuse and violence? Maisie did her very best to be a good caring parent within the limits of her own capabilities, and the limits imposed by a society which condemned her for being a working-class woman with too many children. Our mother was just as much a victim as we were, but our collective experience and our individual experience in that situation with Maisie as our mother has had long-lasting effects on each of our lives. Through the long days and nights of her dying I had a great longing to reach out to each my brothers and sisters. I wanted to draw them close and embrace them in a space where we could honour and acknowledge our own unique ways in which each of us experienced the pain of our childhood reality. As much as I was already grieving for the mother I had and for the mothering I never had, I was grieving for four brothers and four sisters whom I desperately needed to care how I was feeling and would accept that I cared how they were feeling.

It didn’t happen. There was no space in the scenario to explore the past or resolve the present. We slipped into the old family roles and resentments, rather than face anything that could be interpreted as criticism of our dying mother. In the fragile cast list of the family script and allotted roles I was the intelligent one who achieved academically, but was of no practical use.

I was also the who criticised and said no to our mother in the atmosphere of a Scottish Protestant household where whatever your mother did or said was to be unquestioned and obeyed. I was bad and mad and a snob for wanting all of us to have a better life, I gained my mother’s approval for bringing academic achievement into the family and a certain amount of kudos in having a daughter at the very posh Grammar school. I earned her disapproval and the rejection of the family for speaking the language of middle-class education.

When I made attempts to talk openly with the family about what the past had been like for all of us, I neatly placed myself in the old role of critic and educated middle-class deserter. My attempts to use my skills to help my mother through the pain of her illness and to gain her approval, only seemed to confirm for her what she had decided a long time ago; that I had become an educated snob with no practical use. As far as she was concerned the acupuncture treatments I gave her produced a rash on her arms and a pain in her leg. It was the delayed effects of two radiotherapy treatments, which had got her out of bed and into the world again in a comparatively meaningful way.

My mother’s illness was a time, for me, of great ambivalence, of desperate attempts to be close to her and to my brothers and sisters. I remember someone saying to me that they finally began to grow up when their mother died. My reality of this sentiment is that when my mother died I could begin to liberate the needy child within from the impossible task of fitting the template which my mother had constructed for me and which the family hegemony maintained.

I had hoped that sharing, the pain of losing our mother would forge stronger links between us. The gaps had widened and I began to feel that it was going to be almost impossible to create a future based on a past that did not exist. The challenge was to address the past in its entirety, to acknowledge the distress, to recognise the forces which had shaped our lives, good and bad, to let go of our mother with love for her and for each other and to move on. We move on still Joined by a common birth name and the names of two people identified on our birth certificates as our parents. Pandora’s box remains closed.

Our father’s passing preceded our mother’s by seven years. Into his place stepped nine progeny who made sure that Maisie did not have to worry about such practical matters as decorating and fixing mechanical things. In assuming this responsibility for our mother the mutual entanglement of co-dependency went unnoticed. Our mother’s illness and death brought an opportunity to look at the outlived patterns of behaviour. However, the structures that had served us well as survival mechanisms became hardened into rigid shells around our emotional blocks, masks, dogmas and prejudices. We do not willingly leave self-built prisons or welcome any challenges to our firmly held world-view. One person in a relationship may make a conscious effort to grow, but if the others involved resist, change becomes impossible. We must each then find our own way and travel it. I realised very quickly the futility and the arrogance of trying to persuade my brothers and sisters to follow my ideas when each must work within our own limits and emotional parameters.

My mother has gone. I have no more time and no more chances to be a good daughter, to be the person she wanted me to be. I could go into therapy and sift through the emotional detritus of my childhood, bit by bit, but this could prove as useful as sorting the rubbish left after a wild party, identifying who might be responsible for each offensive piece of litter. Somewhere under all the emotional gunk stuck round my heart is a small child, still wanting to sit on her mother’s lap, still grieving for what she never had, unconditional love and acceptance, even when she doesn’t win prizes, even when she messes up with great excellence. I wanted my mother to love me not in spite of or because of anything I did or didn’t do, but just because…just because.

Last week I walked along our street, past the house where strangers live now. A very fine rain was falling and the air was as grey as the houses. Somehow the street didn’t seem as long as it used to. I looked from one end to the other and saw rows of houses, all slightly different, but somehow a cohesive whole, where once I had seen fragments of life and buildings painted with my sorrow and grief. Perhaps I am no longer carrying my great burden of guilt and so my path along the road is lighter and no longer painfully heavy. As my old house faded into the greyness of the early evening twilight and drizzle, with nothing to distinguish it but a sense of familiarity, I knew that I had finally let my mother go, knowing that she did her best and that I did too.

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