Kathryn Flett: "My mother is alive but has been absent for most of my life"

First person: ‘My mother is alive and well, but has been absent for most of my life’

Since Kathryn Flett’s mother left her in the UK with her father when she was a teenager – and returned to her native Australia – their bond has been ‘frustratingly fragile’. Yet the hope of reconciliation remains

Kathryn aged 13 with her mother

Kathryn aged 13 with her mother

When I called my mother on the spur of the moment this morning, I hadn’t spoken to her for the best part of a year. Indeed, the last conversation had ended with her saying, ‘Just forget you have a bloody mother!’ after which I put down the phone. My mother is 73 and I am 48, so, in theory, we could both behave like ‘grown-ups’. However, theory is one thing, practice quite another.

‘Oh, hello daughter!’ my mother said when she answered the phone this morning, as if the previous year hadn’t happened. And she then proceeded to tell me that her last beloved horse (of many) had recently been put down (kidney problems, apparently; he’s buried in the front paddock) so, although very sad, she’s finally dependent-animal-free…apart from a feral tomcat she feeds whenever he turns up.

‘No more horses, no more dogs. I’ve just spent three weeks down on the coast with your Uncle David, which was lovely because I’m free to go off without worrying how everything will get fed!’ said my mother, who has been a widow for over 20 years.

‘Well, maybe you’ll come over here and see us Actually meet your youngest grandson’ (He is six.)

‘I do have a sort of plan, for next year, so you never know!’

Kathryn today

Kathryn today

She’s right about that. I never do. Probably because the ‘south coast’ she referred to is on the edge of the state of Victoria, Australia – a long way from where I live, on the East Sussex south coast.

Anyway, I was sorry to hear about the death of Crystal, son of Don Carlos, the Arab stallion my mother took with her (along with the man who would become my stepfather and – hidden from sight and my knowledge – the cluster of cells that would be my half-brother Jonny, now 31) when she returned to her native Australia in 1980, after 20 years of living in Britain.

At the time (when I was all attitude, hormones and haircuts, about to turn 16), my mother flattered me into thinking I was so grown-up and on top of things that I didn’t really need any hands-on mothering any more, that it was entirely appropriate for me to live with my father (they’d been divorced for seven years by this point). It has been her inability to accept (or, perhaps more accurately, admit) that she was possibly wrong about this that has, over the ensuing 30-odd years, led to numerous breakdowns in communication. Arguably, I (and all teenage girls) needed a mother rather a lot in my teens – but then perhaps we never stop ‘needing’ our mothers, especially when we become mothers ourselves.

However, I have to hand it to Ma – she doesn’t bear a grudge. Indeed, our conversation this morning was as ‘normal’ as any mother-daughter communication can be (‘so, how is your father – behaving himself!’), especially when your relationship is as tenuous as ours has been, conducted in an ad-hoc fashion over a distance of 10,500 miles, with enormous, unfillable gaps – trenches, chasms – in our fundamental understanding of each other’s existence.

I now consider my (funny, stylish, fund-of-fascinating-stories) mother mostly as a series of snapshots, of fond and fading memories. We were very close when I was young; my earliest memories are of the two of us living in Australia for a year when I was three, while my parents had a trial separation. As an only child with a rocky home life (my parents were at each other’s throats, sometimes literally, right up until the point when they finally called it a day when I was nine), I cleaved to her when my father finally left, but it turned out that, aside from being my ‘mother’, she had a life to live and things to do on her own terms, which she proceeded to do with characteristic gusto and guts.

Kathryn with her mother, 1964

Kathryn with her mother, 1964

Having made a classic childhood error of mistaking her for a fully formed pedestal-dwelling grown-up simply because she was my mother, it took me years to learn (despite compelling evidence) that so many adults are merely children trapped in big bodies; that some people’s preoccupation with their own lives (and apparent disengagement from their children’s) isn’t born of malice but is a form of arrested emotional development, possibly as a result of equally troubled childhoods. As an alleged grown-up myself, I can state unequivocally that I love both my parents very much, accept them for who they are…and freely admit that I occasionally wish they were capable of being entirely different (to be fair I suspect they’d say the same of me). Either way, as they are now in their 70s and I am knocking on 50, this really is as good as it’s going to get. Maybe.

My first novel will be published next month and, until recently, whenever anybody asked me what it was about, I’d say something along the lines of, ‘It’s a love triangle, told from three different first-person perspectives.’ But I’ve since come up with a different answer, which surprised me even as I said, ‘It’s about absent mothers.’

Becoming a mother in my 30s exacerbated the gulf between us. On a practical level she just wasn’t there and on an emotional level…well, she wasn’t there either

It’s a peculiar thing to be a woman with a mother who has been alive and well for the whole of your adult life yet almost entirely absent. I don’t have any friends in a similar position and therefore no points of reference. However, this present-yet-absent conundrum is at the core of whoever it is I am and stretches back, umbilically, to childhood. My mother and I are (as indeed are all mothers and their children) connected by something very visceral yet also ethereal, frustratingly fragile…but also unbreakable. And even if she can’t admit it, I think my mother feels her version of this painful disconnected-connected mother-daughter bond too, in her own way. Why else that furious ‘just forget you have a bloody mother!’ As if that were even possible.

Becoming a mother for the first time in my late 30s (and again in my early 40s) exacerbated the gulf between us. While I had a renewed respect for (and understanding of) the messy business of motherhood, on a practical level she just wasn’t there and on an emotional level…well, she wasn’t there either. My mother did visit when my eldest son was a few months old and I recall finding myself desperate for any scraps of maternal wisdom she cared to throw my way. I vividly recall peering at my inconsolably sobbing small son writhing in his cot when he was overdue his afternoon nap.

Kathryn with her sons, now aged six and nine. The youngest has yet to meet his maternal grandmother

Kathryn with her sons, now aged six and nine. The youngest has yet to meet his maternal grandmother

‘Why’s he crying He should be so tired!’

‘It’s precisely because he’s tired,’ said my mother. ‘Don’t pick him up, let him cry it out and I guarantee he’ll be asleep in no time.’ Within five minutes the sobs subsided and he slept for two hours. This was, I think, the only parenting advice I ever received from my mother and the thrill of her being absolutely right has stayed with me for a decade. How many other times might she have been right, I wonder And what must it be like to be a new mother and have this wisdom on tap – not to mention the calibre of ‘grandmotherliness’ so many women take for granted Because no matter how well-intentioned the ‘other’ grandma may be, unless you are unusually close (or they are enormously involved) a ‘helpful’ observation can so easily be spun as a criticism simply on the grounds that the unbreakable connection isn’t there. While a mother-in-(or-out-of)-law’s umbilical cord stretches through the ether and connects to your children’s father, it doesn’t ever stretch quite as far as you.

Sometimes the pain of missing – even mourning – my still-living mother has been so great I would have preferred it if she were dead, if only so that the mourning could be ‘genuine’ and I would be allowed to indulge it. Though I have female friends whose mothers really are dead and who have been quick to point out (in no uncertain terms) that they would swap their situation for mine in the proverbial heartbeat.

So all I know, at nearly 50, is that while my mother is still alive and well, even from a distance of thousands of miles, the possibility of speaking truths and working towards reconciliation can never be entirely ruled out, even if both of us sometimes find it easier to bridge the gulf by small talk. When I look back it is extraordinary how much of the past 32 years have been spent on the phone to my mother discussing the profound differences between weather patterns in southeastern Australia and southeastern England…even as I recognise that the bloody weather – the endless cycle of droughts and floods on both sides – is also an elaborate metaphor for other, more challenging events that continue to separate and divide us.

Separate Lives by Kathryn Flett will by published on 5 July by Quercus, price 7.99. To order a copy for 7.49, with free p&p, contact the you bookshop on 0843 382 1111 or visit you-bookshop.co.uk