Shock read: Why I cut my mum out of my life. No re­grets!

Har­riet Brown, 60, ex­plains why it was the tough­est – and best – de­ci­sion she ever made

Woman's Own - - HELLO & WELCOME - © Har­riet Brown

My mother’s dyed blonde hair slid across the pil­low – her beau­ti­ful straight nose was bent to one side by the ad­he­sive tape hold­ing the breath­ing tube in her mouth. She had al­ways been an at­trac­tive woman. Peo­ple warmed to her vi­va­cious, fun-lov­ing per­son­al­ity and found her en­thu­si­asm con­ta­gious.

Aged 76, she was in a hos­pi­tal bed, deep in sep­tic shock, un­con­scious and with her or­gans fail­ing. The shape of her hands, their curv­ing thumbs slack against the hos­pi­tal sheet, was deeply fa­mil­iar. I could pic­ture those hands scrub­bing a kitchen counter, bring­ing a cig­a­rette to her red-slicked lips, slap­ping my face…

Con­stantly crit­i­cised

It was the first time I had seen my mother in four years. At the time of her death we hadn’t com­mu­ni­cated, not by phone or email, for three years: we were es­tranged.

When the time came to say that last good­bye, no-one was more sur­prised than me when I burst into tears: ‘Now I’ll never have a chance to have a re­la­tion­ship with her.’ But do I re­gret cut­ting off con­tact? No. It was the best thing I ever did. She might have charmed strangers but my mother’s re­la­tion­ship with me was very dif­fer­ent. I grew up con­vinced there was some­thing wrong with me be­cause she re­peat­edly told me so, a con­stant drip, drip, drip of crit­i­cism.

When I got straight As she scolded me for think­ing I was bet­ter than other peo­ple. When she found me read­ing in bed af­ter lights-out she pun­ished me for be­ing sneaky and de­ceit­ful. Our re­la­tion­ship turned me into a per­son who never felt good enough, kind enough or pretty enough. My mother, need­less to say, would have told a dif­fer­ent story. In her eyes I was the cold, un­grate­ful daugh­ter who re­buffed her love and all her at­tempts to heal our rift.

‘In her eyes, I was the cold, un­grate­ful daugh­ter’

The great es­cape

Yes, it was a last re­sort, but be­ing es­tranged from my mother prob­a­bly saved my san­ity. My fam­ily looked good on pa­per: two par­ents and two daugh­ters, a house in the sub­urbs, din­ner out once a week. My fa­ther was as an ac­coun­tant and my mother was 23 when I was born. In her sleeve­less blouses and pedal push­ers, her hair curled and her lip­stick dark against her pale skin, she looks like a teenager in pho­tos from that time. They show her hold­ing me as an in­fant, smil­ing. I wish I could re­mem­ber feel­ing safe in her arms. My sis­ter, three years

younger, was the af­fec­tion­ate one who brought out my mother’s ma­ter­nal in­stincts.

My mother of­ten dug out a pho­to­graph of me aged six and my sis­ter aged three. In it my sis­ter sits on a tri­cy­cle, smil­ing ten­ta­tively up at me. I have one hand on her shoul­der, scowl­ing into the cam­era.

To my mother this was ev­i­dence of my mean­ness. ‘All she wanted was your at­ten­tion, and you were too self­ish to give it to her,’ she’d tell me. Yet I loved my sis­ter. We worked hard over not to let the is­sues be­tween my mother and me af­fect our own re­la­tion­ship.

Other peo­ple might tell me I was smart or funny or kind, but to my mother I was con­ceited, self­ish, in­ca­pable of af­fec­tion – and lucky she put up with me at all.

At 16, I en­dured her fury when I ap­plied to go to col­lege early, in large part to es­cape her. Four years later at my grad­u­a­tion, my par­ents, sis­ter, pa­ter­nal grand­par­ents and I drove to a restau­rant, sup­pos­edly to cel­e­brate. Sud­denly I heard my mother loudly tell the ta­ble how ashamed she’d been when she’d found birth control pills in my bag when I was 14.

It was bad enough she’d di­vulged this story on ‘my’ night, but worse still that she had twisted the facts. I could have sworn I’d been 16 when this hap­pened. Dis­put­ing her story would have only made things worse.

And what of my fa­ther? Where was he through­out all this? I got along bet­ter with him; we were both in­tro­verts. But he chose the path of ap­pease­ment, telling me in my 20s that my mother would leave him if he didn’t take her side.

Af­ter univer­sity, my mother and I saw each other ev­ery few months for fam­ily get-to­geth­ers and the oc­ca­sional week­end visit, which of­ten ended in ar­gu­ments that led to frosty si­lences. When I moved fur­ther away, con­tact grew more spo­radic, and only at large fam­ily events. But we still fought by phone and, later, by email and text. I mar­ried when I was 28. For many years I never planned to have chil­dren, ter­ri­fied I would in­ad­ver­tently do to them what my mother had done to me. Then my grand­mother died, my fa­ther’s mother who I’d al­ways been close to, and the need to have a child bloomed in me sud­denly. I was preg­nant two weeks later.

No re­grets

I tried to keep a dis­tance from my mother, but I couldn’t com­pletely cut off con­tact. I still hoped we’d some­how mag­i­cally de­velop the re­la­tion­ship I craved.

The last straw didn’t break un­til my el­der daugh­ter was 18 and had a relapse of the anorexia she’d de­vel­oped four years ear­lier. In the midst of this my mother started email­ing, of­fer­ing sup­port. ‘You can turn to your par­ents, you know,’ she wrote, and I felt the old tug of long­ing. So I wrote and asked for ideas on high-calo­rie meals we could cook for our daugh­ter. Per­haps my mother would en­joy giv­ing prac­ti­cal help, I thought.

Soon af­ter, I re­ceived a re­ply, a di­a­tribe on how my ca­reer as a writer on food and body im­age was to blame for my daugh­ter’s ill­ness, that she was re­belling against me as I’d re­belled against my mother. I felt dizzy. Blood rushed to my head. And then it was over, and I was done with my mother. I felt no re­gret, no rage and a great clar­ity set­tled over me.

I didn’t go to her fu­neral. In­stead, I was on the is­land of Maui, on a long-planned hol­i­day with my hus­band and daugh­ters.

Af­ter nearly 50 years of con­flict, I thought I had no feel­ings left for my mother. Yet as we hiked a beau­ti­ful moun­tain trail, I started to choke, and my lips and tongue went numb. I had to sit down. A sen­tence popped into my head: my mother was buried to­day.

My mother was dead and I would never, now, get her bless­ing. I’d spent so much of my adult life walling off my feel­ings for her and fi­nally the walls were com­ing down. Only in death had I fi­nally al­lowed my­self to feel love and sor­row for her. It was an irony she would not have ap­pre­ci­ated. ✽ Adapted by Clare Gold­win from Shadow Daugh­ter by Har­riet Brown (£20, Da Capo Life­long)

‘she had twisted the facts’

Left, Har­riet, as a baby, with her mother; right, with her mum and daugh­ter

Har­riet with her mother on her wed­ding day

With her mother’s pass­ing, Har­riet has fi­nally let her emo­tions out

With her daugh­ters when they were younger

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