What must it feel like to have your mother still alive when you’re 81 years old? What must it feel like when your mother dies when you’re 81? That’s what’s happened to Rupert Murdoch, whose mother, the great academic, philanthropist and general member of the Great and the Good, died this week, at the ripe old age of 103.
Normally, when a parent dies, children feel at first like orphans. Suddenly, they’re in the front line. When the signal comes for “over the top!”, they’re the ones who’ve got to charge. Not only that, but after feeling bereft initially, they often start to flourish at last. Finally, they can be themselves.
While a parent was alive, they may have felt themselves to be growing under the all-encompassing branches of some giant rhododendron – a beautiful and lovely bush, but not a plant that gives much space to those growing underneath it. When a parent dies, the child can, although it mourns, at last start to flourish and be themselves. But one doubts, at 81, with a global newspaper and television empire under his belt, that Rupert Murdoch is only now suddenly to start feeling like a grown-up.
If his mother had been ailing, then one might expect that a son would slowly slide into adulthood. The roles would become reversed and he’d take over, if there was no father present, as chief carer in the family, taking power of attorney, making the hospital appointments and so on. But as far as one can gather, Dame Elisabeth Murdoch was fully in charges of her marbles right up to the time of her death.
And anyway, is this role-reversal scenario ever really true? One likes to think so, and it seems logical, but some men I’ve spoken to whose mothers are still alive at a great age still sound like angry little boys when it comes to their mums. They may be retired from commanding jobs, entirely in charge of managing the family finances, including their mothers’, but au fond they still feel furious that their mother isn’t looking after them. Perhaps it’s something about sons that, until their parents die, they remain little boys. After all, we hear the phrase “all men are little boys” far more often than “all women are little girls”.
It’s not so much that boys mature into fully fledged grown-ups when their mothers grow old and frail – more that they stay little boys while their mothers become more self-absorbed and concerned about their own, rather than their sons’, well-being. And you hear much more of men living with their mothers as they age than women with their fathers. A certain dubiousness attaches to such a tendency: Jimmy Savile kept all his late mother’s clothes in her room, which he maintained as a kind of shrine to her, referring to her as “The Duchess”. And then there is the Norman Bates character in Psycho...
Boys have a different relationship with their mothers than girls do. They are often intensely attached when young, and it’s not uncommon for a small boy to announce that when he grows up, he’s going to marry his mother. It’s when a boy starts to change into an adult that he has to repress the natural feelings of closeness, pushing their mothers away when their mums want to kiss and cuddle them, becoming super-private and insisting on shutting the bathroom door when they’re washing and so on. They’re also far more embarrassed than girls when their mothers show any sign of sexuality – dancing, wearing short skirts, mad hats and so on. It’s probably because they feel so very close to their mothers that they have to fight down any kind of incestuous feelings.
While girls become – as they grow older – friends with their mothers, and boys friends with their fathers, the relationship doesn’t seem to work so often the other way, between sons and mothers and fathers and daughters. And yet it seems as if mothers are always at the hidden centres of boys’ lives. When it comes to the crunch, mothers are what it’s all about. On the battlefields of the First World War, the constant cry from dying soldiers was for “Mother!” or “Mum!”.
It’s said that a mother’s role is to be the nurturing home-keeper, the one who keeps her children well-protected and shields them from dangers. Fathers, on the other hand, are around to lead children, particularly boys, away from the home and into the outside world. Corny as it may sounds, it’s the mother who stays at home and cooks the tea while the father takes the boy fishing.
So what will Rupert Murdoch feel now that his mother has died? It’s a bit late for him to flourish and become his own man because surely he already has. Does he feel like Prince Charles must – always a person in waiting, never able to come into his own until his mother croaks? It must be something of a surprise, when you’re quite so old as Rupert Murdoch, to enter a new stage of your life as someone at the top of the family heap.
Murdoch may be too old to do anything but sink into the role. But if he’s going to live as long as his mother, then he’s got another 22 years left. Perhaps now, at last, he can, freed of the parental bonds, take a new direction. One can’t imagine what, but it’ll be interesting to observe a new Rupert, if there is one waiting in the wings.
Virginia Ironside is the author of ‘No! I Don’t Need Reading Glasses! – Growing Older Disgracefully’