Thrilled to get this piece in THE GUARDIAN. Especially this headline.. LOL
I MOVED NEAR MY MOTHER AND IT SENT ME INTO THERAPY
Saturday 30 April 2016 01.15 E
‘So, I see you bought the low-fat cottage cheese rather than the fat-free,” said Betsy Lerner’s mother, Roz. A chance remark? An aside? An observation? Oh, gentle reader! You either get it or you don’t. This conversation wasn’t about cheese. It wasn’t about calories or flavour or the small print on product packaging. It was about everything that ever happened between Betsy and her mother. It was a hand grenade. No, it was an atom bomb. It was world war three. Because here, according to Betsy, is the translation: are you ever going to be good enough?
That question had been at the heart of Betsy’s relationship with her mother for as long as she could remember. It is at the heart of many mother-daughter relationships. Perhaps it’s especially central to those relationships where the mother is today in her 70s, 80s or 90s and the daughter in her 40, 50s or 60s. Betsy and I are of that daughter generation – both in our early 50s, with mothers in their 70s (mine) and 80s (hers). What’s significant for us, and for our generation, is that our mothers – on the whole – did not do paid work. They belonged to the last cohort of at-home mothers; we were the first who combined raising children with earning money.
Every generation reinvents itself; every generation changes the world – but this was a revolution. It was a cliff edge and when we jumped off it, hoping our parachutes would open, we looked up to see our mothers peering down at us and shaking their heads. They didn’t think we could make this leap because mothering had taken up all of them. How could we possibly give enough to the next generation, if we were working as well?
Yet it was the arrival of that next generation that bump-started many women of our generation into re-examining this most complicated and angst-ridden of all our relationships – the one with our mother. For Betsy, the arrival of her daughter 19 years ago was a marked moment in the journey she documents in her memoir The Bridge Ladies, about her relationship with her mother. “When my mother saw my daughter for the first time, I could see she was truly happy. And there was this angry person inside me thinking, why do I have to have a baby for you to be happy with me?”
But at the same time, says Betsy, “I also felt that she was not wrong.”
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For a long time – maybe always – Betsy’s relationship with her mum had been a battleground. “I used to say that if we went shopping together, the changing room would end up blood-splattered.” When Roz came to her house, Betsy would be “walking towards the front door” and would “see the top of her head, her frizzy hair, through the glass, and think, oh fuck. What is she going to criticise about me today?”
For many years, Betsy did what many women of our generation do to contain their difference with their mothers. She kept Roz at arm’s length: she made weekly, dutiful phone calls, and attempted to stay clear of war zones (such as the fat content of the cottage cheese). But then everything changed: Betsy’s husband got a new job that took them to live back in the part of Connecticut where she was raised and where Roz still lived. “When we moved there, I had to go back into therapy,” Betsy remembers. “I was radioactive around my mother.”
Then something else happened. Roz had an operation and Betsy went to stay with her while she recuperated. Through those days there came to the front door a procession of well-turned-out, silver-haired ladies, each asking how Roz was getting on, and each bearing a casserole or pot supper. These were Roz’s oldest friends, her bridge group: five women who had met each Monday for five decades to play bridge. As a child, Betsy had found them fascinatingly chic; as a teenager, she thought them hopelessly square. As an adult, working hard to carve out her career as a literary agent in New York, they seemed like relics of another age, a time in which ladies had nothing to do but lunch and spend the afternoon snapping down cards around a table.
I asked if I could come to their lunches and bridge games and interview them about their lives
And yet, says Betsy, “The thing I couldn’t help thinking was, who would do this for me when I’m old? I’d be getting a few text messages saying hope you’re better soon … social media is never going to deliver a pot roast.”
It made her think more deeply about Rhoda, Bea, Jackie and Bette who, with Roz, made up the bridge ladies. “I’d always thought there was a good story there – their friendships, their lives, their relationship across 50 years,” Betsy says. “So I thought I’d find out more: I asked if I could come to their lunches and their bridge games and interview them about their lives.”
That was three years ago. And so began a phase of Betsy’s life when, to her surprise, she found herself entering into the world of Roz and the bridge ladies, watching how they interacted, and talking to them about their lives. To some extent, all their stories were Roz’s story, and Betsy interviewed her, too. “They were a very homogenous group. They’d all married men who had wealth or potential, no one moved or got divorced or reinvented themselves.” Much of the connection between them was understood, rather than explored or raked over. One of Betsy’s sisters, Barbara, had died as a young child. “Her death was never once mentioned at that bridge table, even though they all knew, every one of them; and they have all had their sorrows. We, our generation, we think they talk too little. They think we talk too much.”
Betsy Lerner on her wedding day with her mother, Roz.
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Betsy Lerner on her wedding day with her mother, Roz.
As she spent time with Roz and her friends, even learning to play bridge, Betsy realised what she was really hoping for was a better understanding of, and a more meaningful relationship with, her mother. What she also came to understand was that age-old truth so many of us fight against, but all have to eventually accept: we cannot change others – only ourselves. “All my adult life, shrinks have said to me, she’s not going to change. And I used to think: you’re so wrong. But today I know that’s true: we have to change if we want that relationship.”
Is it that simple? If we want to cultivate a better relationship with our mother, we must enter – and truly understand – her world? When you boil Betsy’s book down, that’s about it. But don’t mistake simplicity for ease. You have to be in a certain place yourself, as a daughter, she feels, to be able to do it. “I couldn’t have done this if I hadn’t felt secure in myself.”
Getting to understand the real Roz was a painful, humbling experience for Betsy. “In the past I’d dismissed her. I’d been really mean to her. I felt she was phoney, unreal. I thought she cared only about the status quo, and about how I looked.”
But underneath Roz’s veneer there lurked a sensitive, caring spirit that understood what matters most – even if it wasn’t what she shared easily.
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“One day, she had an insight that took my breath away,” remembers Betsy. “I always thought I got my depression from her, but she was depressed postnatally and then it was over. With me, it’s different: I always have the shadow. She said to me: ‘I’ve always understood there was that undertone with you.’ I realised how brilliantly that described me – because I can have the most wonderful time, but still retain somewhere inside this deep negativity. And I didn’t think anyone knew this. So here was me thinking my mother never knew me and then with that sentence I realised she knew me better than anyone.”
These days, when Roz rings her doorbell, Betsy has a different emotional response to the sight of frizzy hair through the glass. “I see her there and I’m glad. And when she goes away, I’m sad.” Everything is different now and Betsy is so grateful that she managed to transform her understanding of her mother in time.
“I was talking to one of my friends about all this and she broke down and cried, and said: ‘My mother is dead. I’m never going to get this chance.’
“The truth is, I’m not afraid of when my mother dies now because we’ve got to know one another properly.”
In the end, what we want from our mothers – and what they want from us – is acceptance. “Our mothers have been always trying to fix us, which has given us the message that we’re not OK the way we are,” says Betsy. Meanwhile, we daughters have been trying, silently and while screaming inside and crawling up the walls to fix them. Betsy’s book says, stop trying to fix one another. You’re both OK as you are.
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