I didn't like my daughter. So I left

Of course a mother's not supposed to leave. But what if a child drives her away?
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The Independent Culture
SIMONE PLANT says the briefest "hello" before pointing to a glossy colour portrait of her daughters, Erica, 17, and Arnie, 15. "Aren't they beautiful? I'm so proud of them."

It's just the kind of remark you expect to hear from a loving mother; words that bring indulgent smiles in a culture that still sees maternal devotion as the best nurture our kids can get. But in Simone's case it is not quite like this.

She sits on the sofa of a terraced house in north-west London, where she has lived alone since she moved out of the family home nearly two years ago, leaving her daughters with their father.

"Things were so bad between me and my eldest daughter, Erica, it was untenable for me to go on living in the family." The words come fast: "She used to say, `you're a lousy mother, you're not my mother, you're the wicked stepmother.' We couldn't like each other; we didn't have a loving bond between us." Things became so bad that one of them had to go, she explains, tears filling her eyes: "People judge me for that. Mothers aren't supposed to admit they can't like their children, let alone walk out on them." Her own guilt - particularly as a Jewish mother, she says with the hint of a wry smile - has been as bad as anything: "I didn't want to leave my children. People should understand that, before they judge me a failure as a mother."

It is this sense of injustice, plus the belief that other women share the feelings she has had towards Erica, and may be silenced by the taboo against admitting antipathy towards one's own child, that made her volunteer to talk about her situation. She is one of several mothers appearing in a TV film to be shown this Sunday.

Simone's story deserves to be heard, illuminating as it does the genesis of this ravaged mother-daughter relationship. Married life began in an expensive north London home, with a successful husband and an affluent lifestyle. By contrast, for three weeks after the birth of Erica she was in a locked ward and for a further three in an open ward, but able to see her baby only through a glass screen. She says: "I wasn't allowed any time alone with my baby. And the only time they allowed me to pick her up was when she was crying. All my interactions were with a howling baby." She pauses, and there are tears in her eyes. "So when, as a small child, she cried, it always reminded me of that time. That didn't make things easy for us."

After Erica's birth Simone had been engulfed in the most severe postnatal puerperal psychosis, in which she hallucinated and she lost touch with reality. Her husband, Peter, came to the hospital every day to change, bathe and feed his daughter. She recalls: "I felt so hopeless ... I kept thinking that 16-year-old girls have babies and manage, yet I, at 24, a professional woman, could not."

The bond between Erica and her father became "very close indeed", Simone says: "In due course I felt that the intimacy and closeness I had had with my husband was replaced by what he had with Erica. I was surplus to requirements." Peter was not willing to discuss, let alone empathise with, Simone's difficulties, which escalated steadily. "From the beginning Erica and I had problems. She wouldn't eat solid food, her weight didn't go up as it should have, and I believe the GP related that to my medical history. I had a lot of trouble with the everyday problems motherhood brings." In turn Erica "learnt to press all the right buttons in me, and so I would react and then she could be angry with me." When Erica wanted affection and comfort she turned to her father: "I began to feel I was the cleaning, cooking and taking-to-school person." And when Simone remembers how she failed to value her own mother (who suffered from the same psychosis and subsequent low self-esteem), Simone acknowledges that Erica may have felt the same. By contrast, her father made Erica's eyes light up.

Arnie was born two years after Erica, and Simone remembers a wonderful pregnancy and immediate bonding as the precursor to an easy, loving relationship. The two sisters became very close. Meanwhile, as Erica moved into her teens, Simone and Peter's marriage, which had been difficult for some years, was getting worse. Not surprisingly, with the closeness between Peter and Erica Simone felt blamed; indeed she remembers, when she once talked of asking Peter to leave, how Erica howled: "Don't make me loathe my Daddy."

The conflict between mother and daughter worsened. "She would get very angry indeed at home, and in public she was frequently very rude to me. She slammed doors in my face and hung up the phone on me." Her behaviour was "making my life very difficult indeed, and went far beyond what you expect in a teenager." She is not prepared to say more about this but you get a sense of her desperation as she relates: "I remember screaming at Erica, who considers herself a very religious Jewess, `what about the fifth commandment - honour thy father and mother?' She would just say, `but you're not my mother'."

Perhaps if there had been the chance to bond from the beginning, perhaps if her marriage had been happy and if Peter had understood the difficulties, she could have dealt with the problems, Simone says. But struggling, full of guilt, and "self-esteem that was on the floor", she could not cope. Janet Reibstein, a psychotherapist, has seen the situation in her practice: "When a mother feels so bad about herself that she cannot give her child what is needed, the child may become extremely angry. In this case I suspect the daughter was wanting attention and affection from her mother that she could not get when she was born, but, of course, her behaviour made it impossible. It's a desperately sad situation, but nobody's fault."

Simone feels she did the right thing by leaving. "It was the hardest, most painful thing I've ever done. I didn't want to leave my children, but I felt close to killing myself and I didn't want them to have a gravestone for a mother."

After attending the Outlook Personal Development training in north London for help and support, she is now studying, working hard, and, to her surprise, enjoying doing up her home. There are rooms for the girls if they want to come and stay - or live - and the miracle, Simone says, is that her relationship with Erica has begun to improve. She can now show off the photographs, and Erica has acknowledged: "perhaps we are just too alike". The day after we spoke, Simone rang me to report, in a voice of pure delight, that she had received a call from her daughter in Israel: "You know what she said to me? She told me, `Mummy I love you'. And she said it twice."

`Mothers Accused', Channel 4, Sunday 18 July at 11.35pm

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