My mother, my roommate: What happens when a 23-year-old woman has to share a tiny room – and even a bed – with her mother?
Olivia Gordon hears both sides of the story
Thursday 10 June 2010
When cartoonist Brigitte Sutherland heard that her mother, Catherine Lindsay, needed a place to stay in London, she was happy to put her up in her modest flat. Seven months later, Catherine was still there. It was both the best of times and the worst of times.
Just after my 21st birthday, I left my divorced parents and sister in Sydney, and my job as a graphic designer, to come to London to follow my dream: drawing comics for a living. Eighteen months later, at the end of 2008, Mum, an experienced prop designer, decided to move over as well, in the hope of finding work in London's creative industries (we both have ancestry visas). It had taken me no time to find a job working in a comic shop, so we assumed Mum would easily find work, too.
The plan was that she could crash in my room until she got a job. I was sharing a minute flat with two male, party-loving exchange students in their early twenties, one of whom played rock music really loud around the clock, smoked dope and brought random people home at all hours of the night. We were so close to Euston Station that we constantly heard, "Do-do-do! The next train on platform one will be the..."
It was hardly the ideal place for Mum to stay, but we thought it would only be for a few weeks. We hadn't bargained for the fact that the recession was just hitting, and we had no idea that Mum would have to share my tiny room, and my bed, for seven months.
With no living room in the flat, Mum and I spent all our time there crammed into my minuscule room, which was so small there was only space for my double bed and a thin corridor around it, where I had a little desk to work on my illustrations.
At first it was like a fun holiday. It was a wonderful reunion; we've always been close and I was dying to show Mum London. It was lovely to come home from work to Mum and find she'd done my laundry.
But then the reality set in. Out of dozens of job applications, virtually no one responded to Mum, and then only to tell her the position had been filled. As time went on, she applied for receptionist jobs; secretarial work; temping. Apart from the recession, I think part of the reason Mum didn't get anywhere was ageism. Companies told her they wanted a young graduate, and there she was with grey hair. I felt so sorry for her.
Every day I'd come home from work to find her sitting on my bed, surrounded by my laptop and the papers, with her face in her hands, having spent all day looking fruitlessly for work. In the evenings, we'd chat. I quickly told Mum all the things I hadn't intended to tell her, and got to know her inside out. I learned a lot about the history of her life. We'd cook and watch Mad Men on my laptop, then fall asleep around the same time; luckily neither Mum nor I snore or toss and turn.
But tension grew as the months passed. However well we got along and tried to be sensitive to each other, the space became psychically cramped, charged with Mum's frustration at failing to find work and my need for privacy. If I had a friend over, it would be the three of us sitting on my bed.
Mum tried to be invisible, and went out for walks so I could spend time alone. I stayed out later and later. I would come in from the pub after they kicked me out around midnight and try to quietly climb over Mum's sleeping form in bed. She'd wake up and worriedly ask, "Are you OK? Have you been drinking?" I overheard my flatmates talking about kicking us out, though their irritation at having Mum there was never discussed openly. Mum did the lion's share of the housework. She felt so guilty for taking up my space. I begged her not to; I really wanted her in London.
She considered going home, but we were sure a job was only just around the corner. Poor Mum couldn't complain about my flatmates' parties, which went on until 3am. "They're young, let them have their parties," she'd say, worn out from another sleepless night. Gradually we began to drive each other mad and could barely be around each other. In such a taut atmosphere the littlest things niggled at me, such as the sheer sight of Mum's suitcase. She kept her things as tidily and unobtrusively as possible, but even seeing her hairbrush on my bed irked me. It didn't help that I was struggling with depression. For a time I was prescribed antidepressants which, far from helping, gave me terrible side effects, including horrible mood swings.
When I got home from work, I was just trying to rest from constantly interacting with people, but it came across as cold to someone starved of human contact after spending all day alone. We'd never fought badly before, but one night it all reached boiling point and we had a blazing argument. Mum said she didn't like my distant attitude, and I shouted, "How dare you? I can't stand this." We swore at each other and I walked out, crying. Then Mum called me to say, "I'm so sorry." It still sends shivers down my spine remembering the stress of those months; it was pure cabin fever. I worried this experience would destroy our close friendship – now, much as I loved her, Mum was reduced to just this thing in my space.
Mum had come with savings to pay her way, but around the six-month mark her funds started to run out and things got scary. The worst night of all was when Mum got sick with a vicious cold that left her quaking and feverish. She looked like death; I was terrified and took her to hospital in the middle of the night. They diagnosed a virus; she was totally run-down and exhausted.
I had to go to work, so she looked after herself though she could hardly get out of bed. In the evenings I'd bring her good food and vitamins, and nurse her. It felt like the normal mother-daughter roles had been reversed – which was the last thing Mum wanted.
Finally, after seven months of the hell of unemployment, Mum applied to a company that designs for the Royal Ballet and the National Theatre and, to our joy, got the job. She immediately found a flat for herself and moved out; the day she left, I collapsed onto my bed, spread myself out alone for the first time, and said to myself: "It's over!" I could have been floating on a cloud. But I couldn't face staying in that room. I moved to Bristol and drew a comic about those crazy seven months, and entered it in a competition that invited young artists to express how the credit crunch had affected their lives. I showed my cartoon to Mum, warning her: "I know this is close to the bone." She loved it. We both remember every detail of that prison-like room I drew in the comic.
Looking back, we actually did well in the circumstances; others tell me they wouldn't have lasted a week. It was a test of our bond, and as soon as Mum had moved out and we'd had some time apart, all the tension dissipated. Our friendship has come back closer and stronger than ever. We now understand each other like never before. And we know that whenever we're faced with a challenge, together we'll be strong enough to survive.
Being so close to Brigitte reminded me what it's like to be in your early twenties, finding your way in the world and facing so many career-building and emotional challenges – and then on top of her own struggles, she had me to look after. It was awful sharing that minute space with partying boys, but I tried to get on with them; I virtually locked myself in the room so as not to be a pain. I felt claustrophobic most of the time, but there were also beautiful moments of closeness, as when one February afternoon, Brigitte and I sat on the bed watching snowflakes out of the window. Suddenly our world expanded and seemed infinite.
My tenacity faded as my money started to run out, and Brigitte took me out to see some silly movie. On the way home, I sat down in the gutter and confessed all my fears to her. It was a complete role reversal. She picked me up out of the gutter like a story-book heroine. I wanted it to be the other way around – me helping her. I've always been very independent and hated the idea of being dependent on anyone, let alone my daughter. This was the last thing imaginable to me as a mother.
I used to think Brigitte wasn't very courageous. As a little girl, she was always the first to start screaming at a stub of a toe. But now I saw she'd turned out to be this strong, brave and generous person, picking me up when I was down and giving me pep talks. This new side of Brigitte took me completely by surprise. It's been one of the biggest unexpected gifts of motherhood, to find that your daughter can give you back so much.
Brigitte's cartoon, 'Seven Months', won the comic category in the charity YouthNet's LifeSupport: Change through Art competition, supported by The Citi Foundation. Thesite.org/lifesupport
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