Saturday 18 November 2017

Books: Dissecting the mother of all relationships

Non-fiction: The Daughterhood, Natasha Fennell and Róisín Ingle, Simon and Schuster, pbk, 304 pages, €20.55

Mum's the word: Natasha Fennell with her mother Mary Troy. Photo: Tony Gavin.
Mum's the word: Natasha Fennell with her mother Mary Troy. Photo: Tony Gavin.
The Daughterhood by Natasha Fennell and Roisin Ingle

For Mother's Day, Natasha Fennell explores the unique ties between mum and daughter, quickly realising it's much more complex than she ever could have anticipated.

The adventure that was to become The Daughterhood began when my mother was diagnosed with a progressive illness. I'm very close to her and my whole world came to a standstill when I heard the news.

I had what I call a "bench moment" sitting outside the hospital where she had been diagnosed. In those awful moments, faced with the threat of losing her, I asked myself whether I had been a good enough daughter and, if she did die, how would I cope? I was riddled with guilt, panicking that I hadn't expressed everything she meant to me and terrified that we wouldn't get to do the things we wanted to do together before she died.

I knew I couldn't be the only daughter feeling like this and so I started asking other women about their relationship with their mother. Were they afraid of her dying? Did they feel they were a good enough daughter?

It was clear from their reactions that I had touched a nerve which spurred me on to set up The Daughterhood. So nine daughters, with very different relationships, met at my house in Dublin and sat around my kitchen table to talk about our mothers - the good, the bad and the guilty. We met once a month over a period of six months and committed to doing things with and for our mothers, regardless of the state of our mother-daughter relationships - before it was too late.

We all agreed, it's not easy being a good daughter and the concept of being a 'good daughter' hadn't even occurred to most of us. Up until we started The Daughterhood, not one of us had actually sat down and wondered what we could do to improve the relationships with our mothers. Once we started talking openly about the difficulties we were facing, I could sense the collective release around my kitchen table.

The room was dripping with guilt. We felt guilty because we weren't doing enough for our mothers and guilty that we were talking about our mothers to total strangers.

Everything we are sold about the mother-daughter relationship suggests it should be perfect and we should be best friends. So when we speak badly of our mothers, choose to ignore her phone calls or, even worse, hide behind the sofa when she calls round, guilt automatically follows.

Imagine how this guilt escalates when you simply don't like your mother, as was the case with Anna, the Reluctant Daughter. Of all The Daughterhood stories in the book, Anna's received the least empathy and people were genuinely shocked that she admitted to not liking her.

With the goal of improving our relationship with our mothers, we set ourselves "Motherwork". The first of my tasks, and one that I believe is the most important, was "Get to know her".

What I mean by this is trying to further understand our mothers as women in their own right and view life from their perspective. Many of us think their life began the moment we were born. Having conversations with your mother, asking questions about her life before you existed and exploring their dreams and aspirations can take the relationship to another level.

The Daughterhood has proven to me that even the most difficult mother-daughter relationships can be eased, although not always with a neat, happy ending. Lily, the Daughter of Narcissism, is a good example.

The first night at The Daughterhood meeting, she was certain her story would not end well. She told us how she had not only been rejected by her adoptive mother, but also her birth mother when she tried to find her.

"When your own mother doesn't love you, there is this feeling that you are unlovable," is how Lily put it.

However, through exploring the relationship and trying to understand why her mother behaved the way she did, Lily was able to find peace, all the while acknowledging the relationship was never going to change.

Even with a difficult relationship, especially in her later years, attempting to understand can, at the very least, minimise guilt and regret. If you're lucky, you can be safe in the knowledge that you did your best - and that's all we can do.

When I look back at The Daughterhood now, I realise I was naive. I'm a very practical person, a fixer by nature. I thought I could bring these women round my table and fix whatever mother problems they were having. I quickly learned that the mother-daughter relationship is so much more complex than I ever could have anticipated. It's not about waving a magic wand, it's about making small changes in your day-to-day relationship with her.

Through my participation in The Daughterhood and by talking to hundreds of women about their mothers, I learned that by focusing on this very important relationship, things can change.

We invest so much time obsessing over romantic and work relationships, yet one of the most fundamental and formative relationships in our lives, the one with our mother, doesn't garner the same attention.

If it's a good relationship we think it's OK just to leave it - if it's a bad relationship, we don't want to deal with it. However, if the relationship with your mother is not right, you're not right. My wish for daughters this Mother's Day is that they're more conscious of their relationship with their mother.

Very simple changes and gestures can make all the difference, and for those that just can't bring themselves to do that, I wish for them that they accept the relationships for what they are.

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