Western society venerates the supposedly automatic love of mother for child; religion, psychology and dopey Hallmark cards all pay tribute to that sacrosanct bond. But, in reality, even the best adjusted of women can find motherhood traumatic, let alone those who are psychologically illsuited to the role.
I was born too early, a mere nine months after the wedding. Moreover, my parents valued only male progeny. So, that was two strikes against me. Back then, there was no talk of "bonding"; babies lived by a rigid schedule. They were left to cry - "It exercises the lungs" - and excessive physical contact with the mother was discouraged. This may have suited my mother, who was far too nervous and highly strung to be able to handle a baby. She could, and did, employ full-time childcare but was still apparently unable to cope. I was placed in care, in a faraway children's home, at about a year old. Presumably my mother was suffering from some form of post-partum depression, but neither her nor my father's family countenanced the possibility of mental disturbance - they considered it to be a self- indulgent sham.
This is probably why my removal from the family was somewhat clandestine. Years later, relatives said they would have been only too happy to care for me, but as my parents said that I was sent away for health reasons they felt unable to interfere at the time. I was retrieved 18 months later, after the birth of my twin brothers. I returned sad and disturbed, a chronic nail-biter with a severe stammer and an obsession with death. I refused to acknowledge my mother for many months, but she insisted that children soon forgot things. And so I did - on a conscious level.
Thus, I have no memories of that exile and the whole incident remained a secret until I grew up. When I fell in love for the first time, however, I found I was unable to let my lover out of my sight for a minute without launching into fits of screaming, self-mutilating hysteria. At this point, my psychiatrist uncovered my early history. We were sent away to prep school at a very young age and then on to public schools, so we spent relatively little time at home, especially as we were encouraged to stay with friends during the holidays.
My mother continued to confuse us in every way. She had no interests of any kind; she didn't like entertaining, decorating, clothes or a social life. She didn't enjoy reading, music, art, television, pets or gardening. She didn't go out to work. She had no conversation, no opinions, no humour and no imagination except in an apprehensive sense. What did she do? What did she think? What did she feel? No-one knew. It was as if her entire personality had been surgically extracted at some point. She couldn't play games with children, or read to them, or tell stories. It was impossible to talk to her. Her dialogue was extremely limited and utterly predictable. She lived in a nihilistic world of her own, supported by various obsessive- compulsive rituals and a series of stock responses.
Childish problems were dealt with by the assurance that we'd all be dead soon anyway, and then it wouldn't matter. All illness was caused by lack of sleep. She had no interest in our individual personalities, seeing us only as archetypes or examples of family genetics. She was incapable of providing us with reassurance beyond the oft-reiterated certainty of our demise and subsequent freedom from worry.
As we grew older we gradually became aware of the folie a deux in which my parents were engaged. My father - a very powerful character - encouraged my mother to function appropriately in the domestic arena, which suited him. At home, he covered for her and protected her in every way, so that she could pass for normal. In almost all other aspects of life he undermined her minimal confidence, rendering her effectively a prisoner.
In return, she was so grateful to have been been assigned a persona that made her seem competent and conventional that she ignored my father's less admirable, more sadistic traits and idealised his better attributes to the point of unquestioning worship. Consequently, she lived in denial to the point of delusion, convinced that she and her world were utterly normal and controlled, instead of the opposite. It was very confusing for children.
My mother was the daughter of a minister in the north of Scotland and thus a product of the most dismal, life-denying, body-hating Calvinism. As a quiet, none-too-bright girl in a big family she seemed to have had the most miserable childhood, judging from her few, very vague memories. But any criticism of family, however mild, indicated disloyalty and was not permitted. All childhoods were idyllic, all parents perfect. Families conversed politely upon neutral topics. There was no emotion, no personal remarks and no physical contact whatsoever. My mother had no words for most bodily functions. Tummy, bowels, sex, breasts and menstruation might as well not have existed. She got very angry if we, as children, asked to go to the loo while in a public place.
Unsurprisingly, I was in psychotherapy by the age of 13 and both my brothers were heroin addicts before they were 20. When we tried to tell our mother about our drug problems, she evinced complete disinterest. Similarly, my long mental hospital stays and suicide attempts were also unmentionables. (All my treatment was on the NHS.) She did once say to me, "Of course life is hard. I just make an effort - one has to." She was implying that I didn't. She might have been right. I didn't feel too much like it by then.
My mother didn't mean to be unkind. She was not malign or overtly abusive, unlike her husband. She loved us, in her way, as much as she was capable of doing, I think. Had she been less consumed with terror and anxiety, had she been capable of confiding in anyone or of seeking help, she might have been a very different, much happier person.
As it was, constant, unremitting denial was her only reality. She was a classic example of the wreckage caused by ignorance about emotional and mental illness. She also illustrates the fact that maternal disaster is not necessarily linked to deprivation and poverty. The green poultice conceals a great deal and the suffering camouflaged by money rarely attracts the attention of social work agencies.
But we couldn't resent our mother. She was too slight, ghost-like and pitiful. The damage that she inflicted was inadvertent and doubtless originated in her own childhood. We worried about her all the time and, as children do, we loved her.
I remain in close touch out of concern as she becomes more elderly and disorientated. No-one could abandon someone so vulnerable. But, though I love children myself, the thought of having one provokes the most dreadful anxiety attacks. So I have had to remain childless.Reuse content