How I finally learned mothers and daughters should NEVER be friends
Boundaries: Elizabeth has learned her daughter does not need her to be her best friend
After my mother died, I unearthed a photograph among her papers that I had never seen before. She is 18 or 19 and sitting on the steps of her then home in Devon beside a young man. The wind is blowing through her hair and she is smiling at him.
Clearly, something is going on between them. Looking at her — so young, so carefree — brings a lump to my throat.
But I have no idea who the man is or what he meant to her. Nor, I suspect, if I had asked her when she was alive, would she have told me, except perhaps for some sketchy, impersonal details.
That was not the sort of thing she was in the habit of discussing with her daughter.
You see my mother always took her
role seriously. She never deviated in her care and concern for me, but
she would no more have discussed her love life or her fears and
insecurities than I would have asked for advice on mine. Until her death
aged 86, she was always my mother — never a friend.
can’t remember ever sitting down with her to talk over my struggles at
boarding school, or the pain of my extreme shyness. I knew what her
reply would have been: ‘Just get on with it, darling.’
All through my growing up there were clashes — not being allowed to wear lipstick until I left school at 18; the savage monk’s haircut she made me endure through my teens because it was more practical than the Jean Shrimpton mane I longed for; the 11 o’clock curfew until I was 18, to name but a few — but we understood our respective roles as mother and daughter.
Even after I had left home, first for university and then to begin a career in publishing, she checked regularly to see if I had a warm winter coat, issued dire warnings about the dangers of living in London (a city she viewed as a latter-day Gomorrah, seething with lechers and con-men who would prey on her darling daughter) and made sure, when I bought a decrepit second-hand car, that I had comprehensive insurance.
‘Are you wearing a vest’ was a frequent question. ‘You mustn’t be late for work,’ was a constant adage. Looking back, I am pretty sure she read more than she would let on into my wary, censored replies to her inquiries about whether I was warm enough and when I had last eaten a good meal.
But, whatever her private conclusions, she kept what she viewed as a sensible distance between us.
friends were almost certainly not lying awake at night wondering why she
had not come home until the small hours — but I was'
So, as a result, I never went into detail with her over the disasters in my young life. She never knew that, to save money, I slept on the floor of a male friend’s university digs (which would have shocked her rigid) and developed acute bronchitis (which would have triggered the command to get on the first train home).
I never told her about the time I was chased down a dark street by a potential mugger, or that I had fallen in love with someone who was in love with someone else.
And wild horses would not have dragged out of me the secrets of my frightening overdraft or my first visit to a family planning clinic.
It was clear she would rather not know some things about me and I, thinking her old-fashioned and stuffy, certainly was not going to burden her with the details.
But, occasionally, she would look at me and say: ‘I’m not as stupid as you think I am.’
When my daughter, Ellie, was born in 1983, I swore it would be different. I planned to take her to the hairdresser and allow her to have the cut of her choice, make joint shopping trips to Topshop, to be the repository and keeper of her private thoughts and, if necessary, offer discreet advice on her health and sex.
Mother and daughter, yes. But, as she grew older, also friends.
Doing things differently: Elizabeth vowed when she had daughter Ellie that they would have a closer relationship than she had with her own mum
And we did have fun — skating on Saturday mornings, mad games and treasure hunts on holiday and making popcorn. As she grew older, we bunked up in front of videos and swapped books.
Besotted by the theatre and ballet, we clutched hands through The Woman In Black and wept in unison through Shakespeare In Love and Swan Lake. We nattered endlessly.
It was so very different from the conversations I’d had with own mother, which had tended to be strictly practical and on a need-to-know basis.
I told Ellie about my experiences at university and the early days of writing novels, and how I felt about it all. She confided in me about her friendships and her life at school.
Yet, despite our friendship, there were also surprising frustrations and black spots, which sent up contrary signals. Those trips to the hairdresser and shops were frequently fraught. I heard myself saying, just as my mother would have done: ‘Ellie, that skirt is too short.’ Or: ‘You can’t dye your hair yet.’ And the worst: ‘You are not going out in that.’
'I have learned that my role is to be in the background, never at the front'
There were other giveaways. Ellie’s friends were almost certainly not lying awake at night wondering why she had not come home until the small hours — but I was.
It was then I understood, with a shudder of empathy, why my mother had imposed her curfew all those years ago. Nor did Ellie’s friends prepare lectures on the dangers of drugs, unprotected sex and walking home alone from the Tube late at night.
After she left university, Ellie decided to be an actress. Years ago, before deciding to be a novelist, I had once announced exactly the same ambition to my mother. Time unravelled, and I heard myself responding with more or less the same objection as she had: ‘But you won’t have any money or a pension.’
After university, Ellie lived at home for a brief few months. Then, having made her plans for her adult life, suddenly she was gone to pursue her ambitions as a performer and actress. Just as when her brother, three years her senior, had moved out, the gap she left was enormous.
When I was Ellie’s age, I remember packing my bags and heading for London as fast as I could. My mother was very calm about my departure.
She stepped up the bridge gatherings and threw herself into village life and her charity work. It was the antithesis of what I would ever want for myself.
Balancing act: A close relationship with your children means being there for them – but also knowing when to let go (posed by models)
Only now do I realise that, in her own way, she was wisely ensuring that she re-adapted to a new stage in her life. I have been less far-sighted.
Somehow, I had imagined that the closeness Ellie and I shared during her childhood and teenage years would continue unchanged into her adulthood. I imagined that the long, luxurious mulling over of everyday problems, the regular lunches and the sofa summits in front of the latest DVD would continue.
Of course, I was wrong. The relationship had not soured — no, never that — but unquestionably it had changed. The chatty phone calls diminished — she was often too busy to talk — and, sometimes, I didn’t see her for several weeks.
Seventy-one per cent of women between the ages of 21 and 54 count their mothers among their best friends, a survey found
When Ellie’s first serious love affair broke up, I cried for days. My own friends were concerned.
‘Aren’t you taking this a bit far’ remarked one. I didn’t think so, for I felt her heartbreak as keenly as if it was my own. In fact, I wished it was my own so I could carry it for her.
Every day, I rang Ellie to ask how she was, how it was going, did she want to meet to discuss it
Eventually, she said: ‘Mum, it’s difficult coping with your distress as well as mine.’
She was right — and it was the wake-up call I needed. What that remark told me — and what my mother had instinctively known — is being a friend to my daughter was lovely for me, but it was not, necessarily, in her best interests.
You have only one mother, someone who is there for you come what may. I have learned, though, that my role is to be in the background, never at the front. The best gift I can give to her is to step back and to let her go.
I think my darling, old-fashioned mother knew that all along.
Elizabeth Buchan’s latest novel, Daughters, is published by Penguin, 6.99