No one prepares a woman for motherhood. No one can. Growing up we may or may not have our own mother to learn from, either to try and replicate or perhaps even, better her efforts. Efforts are all we have to go on and the realities are that efforts are all she had to go on either.  The dictionary definition of Effort is ‘a vigorous or determined attempt’. So the best we can have a go at is an ‘attempt’ at motherhood, and one that requires a great deal of energy at that.  Little wonder that as mothers we lose so much of what we think of as ourselves in the constant struggle to have enough energy to propel our own children forward. So what is it that defines a mother-daughter relationship? Do you remember the way you watched your mum as you grew up? Trying to figure out what made her tick, how she managed to keep her make-up so perfect, her hair in place, the apparently “effortless” way she always seemed to be smiling and laughing and shielding you from the weight of her “vigorous and determined attempt” at motherhood?  I know I do.  

An Array of Female Paraphernalia !

My own mum had me at the tender age of 17 in a world that would condemn her for not being married, or indeed cleaved to my father in any way.  I remember stockings and undies drying in the bathroom, hair curlers and the smell of perming solution and little blue compacts with Max Factor mascara and an Aladdin’s cave of jewellery and lipsticks and perfumes that made up her daily routine of facing a world that she believed (and still does believe by the way) condemned her for not being the “good girl” she thought her own mother to be.   All of this I watched, whilst living under the same roof as my mum, one of her elder sisters with whom she shared an attic L shaped bedroom and my grandparents.  So I had the benefit of three adult women from whom to learn.  

Keeping Up Appearances 

Appearance has always figured large in our family.  Both my mum and my aunt were great beauties and in this they took after my grandmother. As with everyone in the ’60’s, hair was big. Skirts were tight or short, or both and were usually stretched over figure moulding girdles known as “roll-ons” because that was the only way that anyone had the faintest chance of getting them past their knees!  A 22″ waist was desirable and anything bigger than 24″ was getting chubby.  Everyone smoked because it was sophisticated to do so and it helped achieve and maintain the 22″ waist.  Everyone was blond! In fact no one was naturally blond but as long as the bleaching was done midway between perms then hair follicles could just about remain in tact and no one had to risk going green or being hit by chemically induced baldness.

So into this high maintenance household came me.  I watched, I learned it was impossible to apply mascara with your mouth closed and that lipstick was put on only to be partially removed again by a folded tissue pressed between your lips and that the resultant red lip print on the tissue was a kiss that I could carry around with me whilst my mum was at work.  She was at work a lot. Not because she wanted to be but by way of retribution for having got herself knocked-up so young. The insult to this injury for her was the closeness of my relationship with my aunt, who didn’t work anything like the same hours.  The jealousy this engendered manifested itself as a battle royal on the gramophone between my mum’s Beatles’ records and my aunt’s Elvis ones.  Like everything else in my family the real point of contention was avoided and appearances were maintained.   I don’t remember ever hearing my mum cry or scream or lose her temper, actually try as I may I don’t remember anyone in the house ever doing any of those things except my grandmother.   I wonder now in the relative clarity of being a grandmother myself if it’s only possible to truly express ones emotions once your children have children of their own.  A sort of “Phew! …well I managed to keep you alive whilst you grew up and somehow you’ve managed to produce children of your own, so now I’m going to sit back and watch to see if anything you do reminds me of my own fuck-ups… or if indeed you can do a better job…I hope so….. oh, and by the way, I may cry a lot and potentially get quite cross too! It doesn’t mean I don’t love you and yours with all my heart, it just means I’m trying to get know myself for the first time! I’ve been so entirely focussed on getting to know you for almost my entire adult life, and now there’s this new older and wiser woman I’m meeting for the first time,…. ever!!”

Feuding and Reuniting and what we miss whilst we’re busy wasting time doing these things! So why with the obvious need for maternal support in the face of reaching adult and parenthood do so many mothers and daughters engage in battles that sometime cause seemingly irreparable rifts? I write this today because I have friends who have lost their daughters sometimes literally which tears me apart to think of it, and sometimes because they have just ceased to communicate properly. Yesterday the pain of losing her own incandescent daughter; Carrie Fisher just one day before was too much to bear for the equally incandescent Debbie Reynolds and she has joined her daughter in the hope of an afterlife reunion.  I don’t share this belief myself but I completely understand why people hold onto this.  As mothers we put in this “vigorous or determined attempt” to make the lives of own daughters easier to bear when they are finally faced with the same challenges and let’s be frank, it’s just an impossible task. Men have it so much easier, in every way and the chances are they’ll be congratulated for their efforts. Someone said to me a couple of weeks ago ” it’s hard, this being alive thing isn’t it?”. Yes it’s really hard but the rewards are there if we look beyond what we think we are owed.  If we stop thinking that that new dress will make us feel more of a woman. If we stop thinking that doing something nice for someone else means that we should better it by doing something nicer for ourselves. If we trust, … and I mean really trust (and it requires an immense amount of bravery to do this) that the mother, daughter, grandmother in us just needs to love, listen and support and do nothing else, then the rewards are there. They are there in the smiles and the kisses of the children around us. The faces that sometimes we don’t see because we’re too busy looking in the wrong places for the validation and the approval we seek.  It’s hard this being alive thing, but to those that love us the alternative is very much harder and sometimes just too much to bear.  

Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds and Billie Lourd, who now has to deal with the dual loss of her mother and her grandmother

Leave a Reply

  1. Margaret Brown

    Wonderful,insightful writing as always Karen….

  2. Judi Massenkeil

    Enjoyed the read very much and so true. Brought back many memories. Thank you Karen.