Could going to therapy with my mother heal our troubled relationship?
Could going to therapy with my mother heal our troubled relationship
2:05 AM on 26th May 2011
My mother and I are weaving our way through London in a cab. We’re together for the first time since just after Christmas and the taxi driver is making a valiant attempt at small talk.
It’s hard work. For him and for us. But then, for my mother and me, it’s always hard work. We never know how to greet each other, and when we meet, our conversations are strained.
It’s doubly hard work today because we are on our way to our first — and what might be our last — mother-daughter therapy session.
Trying to connect Hazel Davis, who is now expecting a child of her own, has never been close to her mother
I’d heard of this kind of therapy before and wondered if it might help us. Counselling has been on the increase among couples, and children and parents, for many years, with what seem to me to be very positive results. So I couldn’t help thinking it was worth a try, even if we just dipped a toe in the water once.
I first broached the subject of us going to counselling or therapy some years ago. My suggestion met with a non-committal shrug, as has been the case with most of my attempts at a Big Talk with my mother. When I asked her, all those years ago, whether we could sort out our differences, she replied that she didn’t think we had any differences and didn’t know what my problem was.
I didn’t broach the subject again. Instead, we got on with our lives, hundreds of miles apart — her in Kent, me in Yorkshire.
We spoke on the phone occasionally, met a handful of times a year, never fell out but never talked about anything significant, and certainly never confided in each other.
‘I’m not particularly close to my mum,’ was my standard line, ‘It’s fine, really. We just don’t have that sort of relationship,’ was my weary follow-up.
I’m an only child and my dad, with whom I got on well, died six years ago. My mother and I never really ‘fell out’ when I was growing up, but there was never that closeness that other girls described, and I left home when I was 18.
But now, eight months’ pregnant and about to have my own daughter, I find myself unable to tolerate the idea that I might ever be this awkward with my own child.
The state of my relationship with my mother had been bothering me for months until, finally, I decided to suggest once again that we try to do something about it.
Somehow, miraculously, my mother agreed. And so, at the end of a very tense cab journey, we find ourselves sitting in a large, bright-coloured room in Marylebone with a therapist.
We have agreed to a one-off session initially, but I am hopeful that it might mark the beginning of a much longer journey.
Why my mother has agreed to do this now, after all this time, is unclear, but when I feel a list of complaints boiling up in my throat in front of the therapist, I try to remind myself that she has agreed, and that this is a huge — HUGE — step forward.
When we both sit down together, the therapist asks us why we are here. She correctly identifies the principal problem between us to be one of communication. She then invites each of us to say what we think the problem is.
Troubled relationship: Hazel as a baby with her mum
My main beef is my mother’s apparent lack of interest in the imminent arrival of her first and only grandchild, something which has hit home even more since complete strangers have felt the need to tell me how much they bet my mum is beyond excited and how much she will dote on my child.
A relentless Talker Through Of Problems, as well as a professional journalist and amateur psychologist, I feel strangely comfortable being asked awkward questions by the therapist. The journalist in me is used to making people squirm, and the talker in me loves the chance to divulge her inner feelings.
My mother, on the other hand, is palpably uncomfortable. Her arms are firmly folded, and when asked opening questions, she smiles and shrugs.
‘Is this making you uncomfortable’ the therapist asks. ‘No, I’m fine!’ my mother replies defensively, perched on the very edge of her seat.
Eventually the therapist manages to tease out the issues. I am stunned when my mother confesses that she doesn’t share her emotions readily — I never thought I would hear her admit that in a million years.
In a split second, I suddenly see my mother as someone with unexpected self-awareness. It’s just a small glimmer, but it’s there.
When the therapist tries to determine why this is, however, her awareness seems to recede. ‘That’s just how our family is,’ my mother replies.
For whatever reason, she’s right, and this has resulted in an awkward mother-daughter relationship in which neither of us has ever really said what we think.
‘How do you feel about your new grandchild’ the therapist asks.
‘Delighted,’ says my mum.
I have to admit, this is news to me. The day I told her I was pregnant (on Christmas Day, on the phone), she paused, then said woodenly: ‘Oh, I thought you weren’t having any children.’
Our conversations in the months since then have comprised trivial, polite pussy-footing, with the occasional: ‘How are you’ But little more.
I tell my mother this and she looks shocked. ‘But I am pleased!’ she says.
‘SO COULD YOU LET ME KNOW SOMETIMES’ I want to scream.
Worlds apart: Can Mother-daughter therapy sessions aim to help families who don”t know how to communicate (posed by models)
I am surrounded by people wanting to stroke my bump, inquiring about my due date, asking me the gender of the baby, offering to give me things. I actually had to tell my mother when the baby was due because she never asked. When I tackled her about this, she said: ‘But it’s your business.’
Eventually, after some admittedly rather one-sided attacks from me, my mother complains that every time she does ask how I am, I answer in a perfunctory way. This is true. It’s true because that’s how we’ve always been. She doesn’t ask, so I don’t share; I don’t share, so she doesn’t ask.
When I got pregnant, my mother wasn’t one of the first people I told. When she gets news, she tells her next‑door neighbour, not me. It’s how it is.
I am forced to admit that I am possibly as much to blame as she is. I withhold information from her because she doesn’t seem interested. Perhaps she doesn’t allow herself to seem interested because she feels I don’t want to tell her.
We both appear to know this is happening, but clearly this isn’t good enough for the therapist.
‘What do you want your mother to say to you’ she asks me.
‘Er . . . I just want her to take an interest,’ I dither.
‘But I don’t want to be pushy,’ my mother replies.
‘But you’re my MOTHER, you’re meant to be pushy!’
And so on.
Inevitably, the therapist wants to explore the distance between us.
My own theory is that because my mother tragically lost three babies before she had me — she had one miscarriage, and twins who died after being born prematurely — she has been scared of getting too close to someone ever since.
I am alarmed when I hear myself bringing this up, as it’s not something we’ve ever spoken about. As we start to talk about my mother’s experience, it’s amazing to hear her describe what happened.
I always knew there had been those babies before me, but never felt able to ask about them and my mother never volunteered information. She has always said: ‘It’s just not the sort of thing you talk about.’
But today I learn that my mother gave birth to twins, seven months into her pregnancy, who died a day later.
I learn that they died because of heart problems. She talks about how she failed to grieve for them, and explains how she had an inkling that they might die as she was giving birth to them.
Suddenly, I feel I am in a privileged position. Here is this woman about whom I feel I know virtually nothing, answering deeply personal questions about very private chapters of her life. She seems willing to answer any questions I have, as a result of which I feel slightly light-headed and immensely liberated.
Finally, I can ask things I have been longing to know since I got pregnant but which, for some strange reason, I have been unable to.
‘How long were you in labour with me’ (Two-and-a-half hours.) ‘What was your pregnancy like’ (Easy.) ‘Did you breast-feed’ (Yes.) ‘How long for’ (Nearly three months.) ‘What sort of a baby was I’ (Angelic.)
To other women, this is probably routine information; ordinary things they already know. But, to us, somehow taboo.
‘Something I’ve noticed since you’ve both been talking,’ the therapist observes, ‘is that you are both completely devoid of emotion.’
I bristle. What I am always crying at films and hugging my friends.
‘With each other,’ she corrects me. ‘Look at what you’ve been talking about, yet both of you have shown no hint of emotion, while I’ve been sitting here welling up.’
She’s right. Somehow my mother and I are in a relationship where even a flicker of feeling might be dangerous.
I realise I have felt no real emotion while we have been talking through these issues, yet I can’t read about a baby dying without having a sobbing fit, I can’t listen to a love song without breaking out the tissues and I am ridiculously soppy about animals.
But here is my own mother talking about the most heartbreaking thing a woman could ever endure, and we are both dry-eyed and matter-of-fact.
The therapist asks us: ‘Are you scared’ ‘Yes,’ I admit. ‘No,’ says my mother. ‘It’s just not what we do in our family.’
‘I think you are scared,’ says the therapist, to my relief. ‘Scared of showing your true feelings.’
There is a long silence, during which none of us knows what to say.
Eventually, the therapist turns to me and asks: ‘What would you like to tell your daughter about her grandmother’
This question stumps me. What’s the honest answer
I am uncharacteristically silent as I contemplate the question. I’d like to be able to tell her what her grandmother is like, what her passions are, what sort of person she is.
But I say: ‘I don’t really know anything about her.’
I know little anecdotes from her school days, I know about her daily diet and routines, but I know nothing about what she’s like as a person.’
But then, I think, she doesn’t know me either.
In a fit of boldness, I ask: ‘What are my passions, Mum’
She answers honestly: ‘I don’t know.’
Our session is finishing before we can even begin to explore this. For me, the two hours have flown by. I am only just starting and feel I could talk all day.
‘Would you do this again’ I ask my mother in front of the counsellor.
‘I don’t know,’ she replies.
Afterwards we go for a coffee, and I feel that things between us are different. They’re not as they should be, but they are different to how they were. I feel able to say what I think more freely, while Mum seems somehow warmer and more willing to talk about my pregnancy and the baby.
She has to get a bus and I have to get the Tube, so we hug goodbye — a slightly more expressive hug than ever before — and we part on terms that are almost warm.
The next day I text her. ‘How do you feel xxx’ I ask.
‘OK,’ she replies, no kisses.
But instead of taking that personally, deleting the text, then bitching to my partner about her indifference, I reply teasingly: ‘Don’t go overboard!’
She texts me back: ‘Sorry. Am doing it again. It’s given me food for thought.’
That might seem like a minuscule step for most mothers and daughters, but for us it was a giant leap. Somehow it has made me feel better about my relationship with
Mum and about my own impending motherhood.
It’s only a week since we had that first therapy session. I’ll report back on how things look in a little while.