The Mother of All Reinventions …
What do you do when your twenty-three-year-old daughter turns to you and says, ‘Stop trying to be such a mother!’ Erm – sorry? But that’s what it says on the tin, last time I looked. It says, ‘Diana Appleyard, mother to a 23-year-old and an 18-year-old.’ A mother is what I have been for the past twenty-three years, twenty-four, if you count gestation. It’s rather hard to stop behaving like a mother. You know – the sort of person who begins every sentence with, ‘Have you got?’ or ‘Why haven’t you?’ I’m sorry, but nagging is my default setting. Actually, I don’t call it nagging. I call it organising the smooth running of their lives and preventing imminent disaster.
But my two daughters now want to lead independent lives. They don’t want someone running after them saying, ‘Have you got your mobile phone? Is it charged? Have you got a coat?’ (Why do young people regard warm clothing as apparel of the devil?) They don’t want a mother who complains bitterly that every single towel in the house is currently lying on their bedroom floors, soaking wet. They don’t want a mother who complains that the tumble drier is clogged up with a hundred black and tan nylon tights, wound inextricably into a tight ball and emitting small electric shocks. It’s the end of the season, and I have been relegated. Relegated to being a bit player in their lives, a backroom, shadowy and preferably silent figure whose sole function should be the nameless handing over of cash.
Only I am not allowed to say that I still support them financially – they both have part-time jobs and this – allegedly – funds the festival-going and trips up and down the country and abroad which are planned for this summer. My credit card is currently lying in a corner sobbing, having paid various online train fares to keep them trundling around Britain and abroad in their ever-moving pack of colourful friends, trailing linen scarves and Absolut Vodka bottles. Honestly, I will need an operational room full of stern-faced men with long sticks, flags and a big map to keep track of both of them this summer. My eldest daughter is coming home soon from university and is looking for a proper job. She won’t stay long, she says, because this isn’t her home anymore. Ouch.
Mostly, they say I must stop telling them how to live their lives because they are GROWN UP. Only you know what – they aren’t really grown up. They aren’t nearly there yet, and I know, in my heart, that if only they listened to my advice they would not make mistakes or wrong decisions. It’s also extremely hard to stop the lifelong habit of interfering. I hear them on the phone, talking to their friends, making plans. ‘Oh no,’I say, forgetting the golden rule of non-mothering. ‘You shouldn’t do that, that’s asking for trouble. And when will you be back?’ Cue glare and muttering, as they abruptly leave the room, their phone clamped to their ear, leaving a swirl of indignant outrage suspended like dust in the air.
I totally understand the mothers who have taken up Facebook stalking their older children. For a start, their lives are so darn interesting compared to ours. All their friends, so beautiful, smooth and young, their lives one long photo opportunity. Every moment of their life is caught on camera. My life is one long ‘get up, have coffee, switch on computer, walk dog, sit in front of computer, go to gym, eat dinner, be in bed by ten.’ Perhaps I am – as charged – attempting to live my life vicariously through theirs, because their lives are much prettier than mine. They have all the possibilities of life. I have all the dull certainties.
So this summer, deep breath, I have to perfect the art of non-parenting parenting. I know they still need me and will ring me in a crisis – I am like an ever-expanding human safety net but must on all accounts be seen but not heard. I have to remember not to plead with them to come home because it is much more fun in our house when they are home. They bring colour, noise and energy. Everything perks up when they breeze in the door, trailing black binbags of grubby and ripped clothing, even the tortoise. I am learning that the arts of non-parenting are very subtle. You have to be cool. You have to appear not to be bothered, or fazed by any plan, however ill-judged or frankly impossible. ‘Oh mum! You’re such a fun sponge!’ You have to resist the urge to burrow into their rooms and give them a good tidy out – ‘so that’s where my navy cashmere sweater went! And why does it have holes in the cuff where they stuck their thumb through it? Why do they do that?’
I tell myself that the next phase of MY independent life is ahead. I am fifty next month. Bloody hell. Fifty – that’s like tweed skirts and tight curly perm old. If the girls are flying the nest then my husband and I need to start feathering a new one. But – I liked being a mum. You know when someone in the street shouts, ‘Mum!’ You automatically turn round and say, ‘Yes, darling?’ I haven’t been a particularly brilliant mum, I don’t think, but I never actually lost a child. These past twenty-three years have genuinely been the happiest time of my life. I know I need to open the window and let them fly, but I can’t bear the thought of cutting that invisible thread that makes me who I am. Without them, I am a colourless amoeba, and it’s going to take me a lot of time to re-form.