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
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…
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.
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