My mum is going home to her country tomorrow. She was here visiting us for three weeks, as she does every summer. She has been visiting for two weeks in the spring and three weeks in the summer ever since my daughter was born. Before I became pregnant I didn’t speak to her for three years. But when I was pregnant and in and out of hospital all the time in the early months I thought I probably ought to let her know about her first grandchild. At first our renewed relationship was marked by a sort of cautious superficial politeness, which I quite enjoyed to be honest. But since I have been living on my own with my daughter, the power balance seems to have shifted slightly and she no longer sees me as someone’s wife, let alone my own person, and I’m back to feeling and being treated (some of the time) like an incapable teenager who doesn’t know how to clean, what to pack for a day out or when to put a jacket on my daughter.
We’ve never had an easy or close relationship, and it’s too long a story to tell here. But what I found really interesting during this visit were the similarities between my mum and me. Not in a good way though. I noticed one day when I wasn’t entirely comfortable with how little attention she was giving my daughter while supposedly playing with her that I often do precisely what annoyed me about my mum’s behaviour: I insist on getting stuff done when it could really wait until daughter is in bed or at her dad’s. I constantly have to prove to myself that I can get things done. I can build a big solid 185 x 185 bookshelf while keeping my daughter busy. I can pack up five years of my life while cooking lunch. It’s not really necessary. Sometimes there is no rush, so I have to remind myself to focus on my daughter instead of rushing ahead with other tasks and sidelining her.
My mum has been a great role model in some respects – from her I learnt how to stay calm in a crisis and that I can rely on myself. But there are also other things I’m determined to do differently: my daughter will have healthy balanced meals, I won’t tell her she has to be a vegetarian, but if she decides to become one on her own, she will still eat healthy balanced meals with all the nutrients a growing person needs so that she doesn’t end up severely anaemic without even realising it. I will try very hard not to talk negatively about anyone’s appearance, or intellect. I tell her every day that I love her, I kiss her and cuddle her. If she ever has a sibling, I will let them develop their own relationship.
Now my maternal grandmother seems to have reached the final few days of her life, and even though my memories of her are entirely positive, I can’t bring myself to visit her for one last time (she has advanced dementia so is highly unlikely to recognise me) or make plans to go to her funeral because doing so would entail a stay with my mum and a lot of time with both her, my sister and my new nephew. After these three weeks I just don’t think I could cope with being forced back into still-too-familiar patterns of behaviour and power struggles. If my mum already feels more entitled to interfere and direct in my house without my husband, I don’t want to imagine what it would be like in her house.
And since my sister is the favoured daughter and her son is only a few weeks old, I think the person who would be most at risk in this melange of emotions and dysfunction is my daughter. Sure, you might say I’ll be there to look out for her needs, and I would, but the way my family works, she would still fall through the cracks, or be painted as too noisy, boisterous and aggressive when she behaves like a toddler rather than a 2-month old. And I can’t risk that even for three days. Perhaps I’ll feel different in a few days once I’ve gone back to my own routine. I think I’d relish the chance to prove to myself that I can do a plane trip with an energetic inquisitive toddler on my own.