Exploring relationships between mothers and daughters
The Daughterhood: The Good, The Bad and The Guilty of Mother-Daughter Relationships, by Natasha Fennell and Roisin Ingle, Simon & Schuster, tpbk, £12.99
Life expectancy has doubled in the last century. Now there's a First World Problem, if ever there was one. It does have unforeseen consequences, though.
"We twenty first century daughters are spending longer with our mothers than any other daughters in history," observes Natasha Fennell at the start of this new book. Should that be a cause for celebration or dread?
Natasha's epiphany came when her mother contracted a progressive illness. Forced to confront the possibility she might soon lose this "vivacious and fearless" woman, Fennell, who runs a communications consultancy in Dublin, wondered what regrets she'd have when her mother died, and began to ask other women the same question.
Had they been good daughters? What could they do to put things right before it was too late? "Here's what I found from talking to daughters: we are mad about our mothers. Mad with our mothers. And in many cases, we are driven mad by the guilt that our mother-daughter relationships just aren't good enough."
She decided to write a book called Ten Things To Do With Your Mother Before She Dies, and enlisted the journalist Roisin Ingle as a collaborator. Ingle used her weekend column to invite interested women to attend a monthly get together known as The Daughterhood. Seven members were at that first meeting, rising to nine. With characteristically wry self-deprecation, they all think of it as like Alcoholics Anonymous, except with wine. Lots of wine. They have to get the courage to open up in front of strangers from somewhere. It's their experiences which form the core of this book.
There's Sophie, who can't help comparing her close, loving relationship with her own daughter to the distant and difficult one she's endured with her mother. Lily, whose mother suffers from narcissistic personality disorder and who fears becoming a mother herself in case she makes the same mistakes. Cathy, who suspects she already has turned into her mother.
Then there's the woman who hides and pretends to be out when her mother calls. They each get their own chapter and story arc. Disappointing Daughter, meet Reluctant Daughter. It's not about making the square peg of an idealised version of the mother-daughter relationship fit into the round hole of real life. Imperfect will do. Even downright hostility.
"The Hallmark crowd don't make Mother's Day cards for daughters who don't get on with their mothers," goes one quip. "But daughters who don't like their mothers still send them."
It's undoubtedly a brilliant concept. There are plenty of books chiding women for their failures as mothers, and promising to fix them if they follow some approved programme of self-improvement, and very few exploring what it means to be a good daughter, or why you should even try.
Some of the answers may come across as a little pat to Irish ears. The mantras smack more of California than Cabra or Cavan. "Listen more. Bite your tongue. Travel with her. Stop being her doctor. That sort of thing." With characteristic wryness, they call this the Motherwork. It's homework, but with mothers. The totality of the message is probably summed up in the first of those ten things to do before she dies: "Get To Know Her."
The authors compare the relationship between mothers and daughters to a love affair. It starts with adoration, on both sides. Resentment can set in somewhere along the way, rebellion too. Survive that phase and, ideally, it ends with acceptance of the other person as an individual in her own right.
The Daughterhood isn't naïve enough to pretend it always works out that way, thankfully. "It's also about acknowledging there might not be anything to do, apart from accepting that the relationship is as far away from the Hollywood version of mother-daughter relationships as it's possible to be."
Lily is blunter still: "Don't feel guilty. If you've done everything to be a good daughter, then you have been a good daughter. You've just been unfortunate not to have the mother you deserve… It is her loss."
If there's a fault with this book - aside from the failure to provide a heading to each co-author's contributions, meaning they keep having to reintroduce themselves as "I, Natasha" and "I, Roisin", which is seriously irritating after a while - it's that these women do seem to be drawn from quite a narrow range of backgrounds.
They're all fearsomely articulate and middle class. Not all women are fortunate enough to be ready to write and speak at length about their feelings. The experiences of less eloquent women deserve documenting too.
There's no doubt, nonetheless, that this is a subject which will fascinate huge numbers of potential readers struggling with the same frustrations. Because if one thing comes through most strongly from these pages, it's that the judgement of mothers remains crucial to women's self-esteem.
Even when they're adults with children and lives of their own, women still feel wounded by a mother's criticism, even if it's only passing disapproval of the length of a child's hair, and simultaneously buoyed by her praise.
For that alone, The Daughterhood would make a perfect choice for book clubs. Just make sure to get in plenty of wine first.
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350