Diane Keaton and Mandy Moore as on-screen mother and daughter
When my mother was hospitalised with lupus six years ago, I was plunged into a bout of fear and panic. Fear that my mother would die and leave me behind, and panic about whether I’d been a good enough daughter. I began talking to other women and quickly learned that other daughters had similar fears. Love for their mothers, regret for opportunities missed, resentments and emotional complexities all bubbled to the surface. This confirmed that, for most women, their relationship with their mother is one of the most complex, enduring, infuriating, guilt-ridden and, if they’re lucky, joyous relationships of their lives.
The Daughterhood began: a kind of Daughters Anonymous, made up of nine daughters who came together once a month for six months to share their mother stories and do their Motherwork in order to try to improve their relationships with their mothers, before it is too late.
My Motherwork took the form of the Ten Commandments of Daughterhood:
1. Get to know her
As we grow up, the story of our mother is handed down to us through scraps of conversation, photographs and funny incidents told on a loop over dinners and family get-togethers. At least a version of the story gets handed down. The story of our mothers then gets stuck in one place. If there are gaps in the narrative, they don’t get filled. But when my mother dies, I want to know her full story.
I was always interested in my mother’s relationship with her mother. She lived with us in a granny flat beside the house and we all adored her. But, even as a young child, I sensed that there was tension between them. She was such a wonderful mother, had she had a good role model herself?
On another occasion, I asked my mother about her love life. It was a spontaneous conversation that kept us at the kitchen table in her house for hours. I listened to her as she drifted off into a reverie of remembered romances and flirtations. It reminded me that there are so many layers to her life and that I’m only one of them.
2. Travel with her
I used to do it all the time. On trains, buses, planes and boats all over the world. But since my mother got sick it has required a bit more planning. My mother’s biggest dream was to see the ice cliffs of the Antarctic, but her lupus meant that we had to downgrade on that one. So we set out to the Arctic to see the Northern Lights.
Our days in the Arctic were filled with amazing experiences. A week after we returned home, she contracted an infection and was back in hospital. “I don’t care that I got an infection,” my mother said from her hospital bed. “It was worth it.”
Travelling with your mother is a way of spending quality time on neutral territory. There are opportunities for conversations that you otherwise might not have.
3. Celebrate her
Celebrating my mother while I still can is a fundamental one of my Ten Commandments of Daughterhood. I have no clue how long she will be with us but I treat every birthday as if it is her last. I want her to know how much I love her for who she is and who she has become, both as a mother and a woman in her own right. Making a fuss of her on her birthday validates her. It is an expression of our love and admiration for her. She has celebrated us over the years, now it is our turn to celebrate her.
4. Cook with and for her
My mother doesn’t cook much on her own anymore but we love cooking together. A few months ago we cooked paella for the first time and another Saturday was spent learning from my mother how to cook the perfect Irish stew. Some of the best conversations I’ve ever had with my mother are when we’re waiting for the potatoes to roast or the fish pie to bake.
5. Keep her up to speed
For our mothers, people who remember the days of mangles and one-digit telephone numbers, keeping up can be a nightmare. But technology can also have a hugely positive impact on their lives, so I think we owe it to them to lead the way. In my case it’s the blind leading the slightly blinder.
My mother now has an iPad, a mobile phone – she ditched the smartphone because she found it a pain – a Kindle, a Bluetooth speaker, a smart TV with Netflix, a laptop and a digital camera. She uses the iPad to watch Netflix in bed, the mobile phone to keep in touch with us and the Kindle to read books. She writes on the laptop, sends emails and Skypes my sister Kate in Turkey.
It hasn’t been easy introducing her to all this new technology but, in terms of her independence and enjoyment of life, it has been worth it.
6. Be patient with her
My mother, because of her condition, walks much slower than she did a few years ago. I’ve had to stop myself hurrying her along, especially if I was carrying two heavy shopping bags. It was an unconscious thing, but I used to walk ahead of her, looking back impatiently every now and then. The unspoken message from me to her was, “Could you go a little faster, Mammy?” Until one day I realised that this was putting her under pressure and I began walking alongside her so we could talk.
I know I can be the Busy Daughter sometimes but I try and take St Francis de Sales’ advice when he says: “Have patience with all things; but, first of all, with yourself.” I’d add – and with your mother.
7. Don’t be her doctor
If my mother had a rattle in her throat, I would suggest she might need to go to hospital. If she tried to walk out to the garden, I would object on the grounds that she wasn’t able to do it. When I visited her, I’d tell her when to take her tablets and how many. If she wanted a glass of wine with dinner, I’d question whether it was allowed. I thought I was doing the right thing. The daughterly thing. It was only after a couple of weeks that my mother, at a low point and exasperated, told me that my ministrations were not helping. “I’m trying to figure this out myself, Natasha. Please give me the space to do that.”
My mother told me that her biggest fear is that her children will take control of her medical decisions, that she will be disarmed and left without any autonomy or control.
I’m not my mother’s doctor anymore but there is still a lot I can do for her: chat, plump up her cushions so her back doesn’t get sore. It’s about letting my mother take control and me taking a supporting role.
8. Let her interfere
If you have an aversion to your mother interfering, my suggestion might sound strange. I say, let her interfere. By that I mean, give her a hearing. Let her state her case, her opinions, her concerns.
“Tell me about it. Persuade me,” is something my mother often says when I tell her about a plan I have that she doesn’t agree with. “I might surprise you.”
This can be a difficult thing to do, especially when you know your mother isn’t going be 100 per cent behind your latest life plan. Letting her in might feel like the last thing you want to do. But instead of shutting her down, try giving her the space to say what she thinks. She might just surprise you and, even if she doesn’t, you’ve let her have her say.
9. Mind your mother language
The language we use when speaking about our parents as they age is a real bugbear of mine. And my mother’s. We “bring” them on holiday, we “send” them away on a break, and we “take” them shopping. We “get them” to take their medication. The worst one of all is we “pack her off” somewhere or another. We have developed the habit of talking about our mothers as though they are children.
This patronising tone has crept into all facades of life, from the media to our caring professions. It’s all in the tone and language used. “Are you ok there, pet?” “Can I get you a cup of tea, darling?” You know what I am talking about. Since when does everyone over 60 turn stone deaf and revert to childhood?
10. Plan her funeral
Over the years, even before she got sick, my mother has asked me and asked herself the question: burial or cremation? The first time was while we were watching Six Feet Under. I took one look at her and turned up the volume on the TV.
More recently, I’m the one who has started the conversation about what kind of funeral she wants. But since she’s been ill, it’s been increasingly important to me that I make sure everything will be as she wants it at the end.