The relationship between mother and daughter is arguably one of the most complex there is; the one I had with my own mother certainly was. More than twenty years have passed since her death and I can still hear her voice offering me advice and criticism in equal measure.
My mother, Leonie, taught English at London University’s Goldsmith’s College and used often to point out my shortcomings rather than applaud my successes although she would be excessively generous about my achievements behind my back. This was born both out of a fear that I might become smug (a terrible sin in her eyes) and to ward off any evil eye that might punish complacence with failure. It was also, I think, a complex psychological trick whereby if she undersold you, you’d over deliver.
“It’s difficult for children to imagine their mother and father as independent beings outside their role as parents”
My mother was impossible to ignore: vibrant, noisy and colourfully dressed in provocative low-cut tops and artfully slit skirts that revealed her shapely dancer’s legs, she said to people’s faces what others would say only behind their backs. It was often embarrassing to be her child. Her battle cry was “I’m also a person”, as if she were afraid her role as a mother might eclipse her individuality. As a result, she rode roughshod over my boundaries and I frequently felt that I had to fight for my own “personhood” to prevent her from overwhelming me.
My mother was born in a small town in the Karoo in the Western Cape province of South Africa. The youngest child of elderly parents, my mother’s father died when she was five and she lived ever after in a state of constant fear that the worst would happen. Her anxiety made her domineering but it’s a great testament to her self-control that she didn’t prevent me from having an adventurous youth. I lived in Soviet Russia for a year, travelled throughout Mexico, Spain and France on my own and lived in America to do my post-graduate degree.
After she died – suddenly and at the age of 58 – I felt terrible bitterness and rage at her for having left me. I was then a young mother with a baby of my own and was just beginning to understand her better. I’ve since learnt to forgive both her and myself. In a curious way I feel that I have absorbed her within me; she’s become my internal sounding board for the decisions I need to make. The sense she gave me that nothing I ever did was quite good enough has been both a curse and a blessing. It’s made me a compulsive over-achiever, but that’s meant I’ve had an interesting and varied life as a filmmaker, journalist and novelist.
For all the complexities of our relationship, it was a terrible loss when she died. Her death robbed me of the opportunity to heal our relationship, something I have perhaps tried to do since in my own role as a mother. I vowed to be a different sort of mother myself and when my mother’s voice threatens to erupt from my lips, I silence it, sometimes using my fingers to keep my mouth shut.
After she died, I often wished that she had left me a last message to fill the deafening silence she had left, something that would make her voice reverberate beyond the grave. I have wondered about the “person” she was; did she have secrets and if so, would I ever discover them? It’s difficult for children to imagine their mother and father as independent beings outside their role as parents and it’s only when you become a parent yourself that you begin to understand this and realise that they were simply doing the best they could without any real training for the job.
For all my determination to be a different mother to my own children, I choose to tell them many of the things my mother told me: never to settle for second best; to pursue their dreams and be the people they dare to be; to work hard and never give up. A voluble and opinionated woman, there wasn’t much my mother didn’t tell me, save this: how much I’d miss her once she’d gone.
Olivia Lichtenstein’s novel, Things Your Mother Never Told You is published by Orion, £12.99. She’d like to hear the things your mother never told you at www.thingsyourmothernevertoldyou.co.uk