Thought that naval officer's rebuke to his children was brutal Try reading my toxic mother's emails!
01:03 GMT, 20 November 2012
01:03 GMT, 20 November 2012
A few hours after the birth of my fourth child, Dolly, I did what any other ecstatic, proud mother would do. I grabbed my smartphone and, while she was sleeping happily, took the opportunity to announce her arrival to all my friends and family.
I sent the photo by email — the first picture taken of Dolly with her siblings, Monty, Flo and Annie, jostling to be close to their tiny new sister, their faces glowing with wonder and joy. Minutes after pressing ‘Send’, I received an email back from my mother, who lives in Canada.
Bearing in mind that this was the message heralding the birth of her fourth grandchild, you might have expected her words to be brimming with congratulations, warmth and pride.
Instead, she wrote: ‘The children all look like Ice Age Neanderthals. They need jolly good haircuts.’
Ice Age Neanderthals: Shona with new born baby Dolly, and Monty, Flo and Annie, in the photo she sent to her mother that provoked a granny's wrath
You might wonder why she chose this particular moment to voice her opinion in such a forthright manner. I wasn’t surprised. Hurt, yes. But surprised, no.
I’ve long since learned to accept that my mother will grab any opportunity she can to make judgments about the way I parent my children and how I conduct my life.
Which is why, last weekend, my heart went out to surgeon’s wife and mother-of-three Emily Crews-Montes, when it was reported in the Mail that her father, Naval Commander Nick Crews, had sent an explosively critical email to her and her two siblings, blasting them for the choices they have made in recent years.
Bemoaning their broken marriages and the effect on his beloved grandchildren, plus — in his view — their abject failure to capitalise on the private education they had all received, Mr Crews, a former nuclear submarine captain, did not hold back.
‘It is obvious that none of you has the faintest notion of the bitter disappointment each of you has in your own way dished out to us,’ he wrote. ‘I have had enough of being forced to live through the never-ending bad dream of my children’s under-achievement and domestic ineptitudes.’
Ouch. I know only too well how Emily must have felt on receiving this scathing email from the father she loves and respects. Because I, too, have been on the receiving end of countless harsh emails from my own mother.
The only thing that surprises me is that Emily has got off scot-free for so long. Over the years, I’ve lost count of the number of messages pinging into my inbox, casting judgment over everything I do.
The fiercely critical letter that naval Commander Nick Crews sent to his three children made the news last Saturday
Emily should count herself lucky that her father waited until she’d reached the grand old age of 40 before firing off his damning salvo.
My mother has never been the kind of granny to keep her opinions to herself. When my two eldest daughters were aged three and one, and I was trying desperately to build a freelance career as a journalist and juggle motherhood, she came for her annual visit.
Rather than empathising with the difficult situation I was in, she opted, characteristically, to cast a critical eye. ‘You’re always on your computer,’ she complained. ‘Why don’t you spend more time playing with the girls’
The answer was that I had a deadline to meet, and had actually kept the girls home from nursery so she could play with them. But there was little point explaining — because, in truth, how can she possibly have any real understanding of what my life is like
Shona's mum, Diane, with daughter Flo, pictured together in 1998
My mother (who is divorced from my father Colin) had one child and a nine-to-five office job in the town in leafy Sussex where we lived. I have four children and a constantly changeable, deadline-driven existence that often sees me finishing off an article at 4 am.
But does my mother give me credit for this Not a chance.
And don’t get her started on my standards of domestic cleanliness. She managed without a cleaner, yet her house was always beautifully tidy. My home has never been tidy. Trying to maintain any sense of order is like trying to stop a tsunami. And, hands up, I struggle to cope without live-in help. For this, my mother has nothing but contempt.
‘You treat your au pairs like skivvies,’ she once told me via email. ‘In fact, why do you need an au pair at all I’m sure if you organised yourself better you could manage fine.’
Another email revisited the subject: ‘On the skivvy front, why don’t you just get one Forget about the au pair market and advertise for someone to come in (at minimum wage or slightly higher) to vacuum/laundry / peel spuds / prepare dinner.
‘The children have to be sat down at the table and spoken to by you both about their own space — eg making beds — and loading the dishwasher and not walking away from dirty plates. Every little bit helps. Lecture over!’
If only it was. Another followed. ‘Every time I come to stay, I scrub your home, cook meals and do your laundry. On my last visit, I spent two hours on my hands and knees in the kitchen cleaning out your cupboards, which were, quite frankly, disgusting. Has your husband never thought of picking up a dishcloth or emptying the tumble dryer’
Her opinions don’t stop at our lack of domestic prowess. Over the years, her emails have expressed disappointment with my husband (‘He never does anything apart from lie on the sofa and watch rugby’); my children (‘They are all spoilt brats with no manners’); my career (‘You make your living by writing rubbish’) and the way I look (‘Why don’t you make more of an effort and put make-up on before doing the school run’).
Her most recent bugbear has been about thank-you letters — or the lack of them. It’s true that she has always been generous in sending presents to the children, and they have always said thank you by phoning her or emailing.
Apparently, this is bad manners. In her world, only a handwritten letter will suffice. No matter that she has never, once, written a thank- you letter to me (or the children). Or, indeed, that Annie, who is 11, is dyslexic and finds it much easier to pick up the phone.
This has taken on such significance to my mother that, at the beginning of last year, she emailed me to say: ‘If your children do not send me handwritten thank-you letters, they will never hear from me again.’
Shona is constantly at the receiving end of criticism from her mother regarding the way she raises her four children
Another message on the subject was equally charming: ‘Courtesy is the most important virtue to get those brats through life, so please instill it in them.’
I have told her to stop sending presents. I just can’t bear the inevitable grief I will get for failing to meet her exacting standards of etiquette.
But still she persists on sending things — and I’m sure it’s just so she can berate me afterwards for how badly brought-up, ungrateful and spoilt her grandchildren are because they have failed to say thank you in the way she wants. Despite her endless criticism, she also claimed, in yet another email, that this was simply a reflection of what a loving, tender-hearted granny she is.
While I have, she says, forgotten everything she has done for me, ‘suffice to say, I love the children — who are all brats in their own respective ways, as were you as a child. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about them’.
Yet, despite these proclamations of devotion, she has also claimed that I am bringing up my children to ‘only take, take and then forget. Think about what I am saying: it is absolutely true. Your beautiful children are selfish — with the possible exception of Annie, from whom I have always experienced warmth and consideration’.
Another topic on which she constantly offers her opinion is how Keith and I manage our finances. ‘How on earth can you begin to justify going to France for New Year and a summer holiday, too’ one email from January 2011 reads.
Shona with Dolly, now three-years-old
‘I am disgusted by your extravagance. You could cut back so much, and if you would like me to assist you in advising how to do this, I would be more than happy to. I don’t think you have any idea!!!’
Keith’s family all live in France: we go there to visit them. I have told her this on countless occasions, but she still sees fit to pass judgment. Just like Commander Crews, my mother’s behaviour is an example of a parent trying to impose their will from afar. Even seemingly affectionate emails end in passive aggressive orders.
Take the following, sent in March last year: ‘I do love you, Shona, and you have caused me so much hurt with your total lack of deference to both me and Colin, which I think we deserve, being your parents.
‘Please think again about shutting me out of your life — if not for anything else but I am the grandmother of your children. (By the way, you should not be telling them anything to influence them about me — it is definitely not appropriate.)’
To be honest, I’ve had a bellyfull of it. I’ve never asked either of my parents for money. I have a loving husband and four beautiful children. What more could they possibly hope for I feel our relationship has reached an impasse. It’s become a battle from which neither of us seems able to extricate ourselves.
It’s terribly sad, and a situation that I feel isn’t helped by the fact that, because my mother lives abroad, we largely conduct our relationship electronically. A passing remark which, face to face, would never have garnered such significance becomes a wounding barb that can linger for days.
I dearly wish I had a better relationship with my mother. I wish my children had a granny who loved them for who they are. But those emails have taught me a lesson. When the day comes that I am a grandmother, I will hold that lovely new arrival in my arms and remember that silence is golden.