How to respond to that phone call with your mother who is imploding….(WARNING: Open Heart Surgery within!)

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I was talking yesterday with a visitor, about two, possibly conflicting, quotes on my wall….

The kind one above (by Glennon Doyle Melton), and the honest one below, (by Anne Lamott. What a woman!”).

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Soooooo…….where to begin? Friends who have read earlier blogs by me will know that I lost my parents at a very early age…and in a quest for attachment and belonging, and perhaps to stem the unbearable river of loneliness, I went on to have two sons, at far too young an age… and then became a single-parent family.
(Well, it wasn’t a conscious decision to have kids too early!…but the initial falling into bed would have been running away from the Black Hole of utter aloneness, I guess.)

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A few years back, a dear friend told me what a therapist had said to her many years ago, about how single parents (read: single mothers), can often, unconsciously, look to their children for ‘parenting’. Well, that had me crying for three days, because I knew there was truth in that, for me. With no ‘Birth Clan’ of my own, I unwittingly put far too many unconscious expectations on my sons.

(A digression; I have long wondered how it is that children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of Holocaust survivors could now be inflicting genocide on Palestinians in Gaza. Recently, and again in yesterday’s Guardian newspaper, I’ve read of research that posited “….Genetic changes stemming from the trauma suffered by holocaust survivors are capable of being passed on to their children…., the transition of trauma to a child via what is called “epigenetic inheritance, can effect the genes of your children and possibly even grandchildren. Other research showed that girls born to Dutch women who were pregnant during a severe famine at the end of the second world war had an above-average risk of developing schizophrenia.The team were specifically interested in one region of a gene associated with the regulation of stress hormones, which is known to be affected by trauma.  Hmmmm.”).


And a quote from a Philip Larkin poem: “Man hands on misery to man, it deepens like a coastal shelf, get out as early as you can, and don’t have any kids yourself”!

Back to the Meltdown of Mother.

My firstborn son had a grand 50th birthday bash a while back. Had I had an invite to his birthday party, I’m not even sure if I could or would have attended, but I sure as hell would have loved to have been invited!  One friend said “Well, if you were an American Mom, you’d just turn up unannounced!” That was NOT going to happen! Via the ubiquitous nature of Facebook, I happened by chance to see when his celebrations were….and, smothering my disappointment at no invite, I eventually came up with the positive idea that we could meet up days later, when his actual birthday was……it was indeed my ‘Birth Day’ too! Suggesting that, he responded that he and my second born might come to visit me here in Ireland. However, they have very busy lives…I was powerless to suggest dates etc, and so I just had to wait. And Wait.

As a two and a half year old when my mother died, I waited for her to return…a year later my father died, but not understanding death I waited for him also to return, and I waited to see again my three eldest sisters, who had been shipped to relatives in New Zealand…in those days it was not considered wise for them to come to say Goodbye, as that might ‘upset’ my twin and me, and them. Which left a very confused and stressful wee four year old! “They’ve ALL gone….it MUST be my fault….”…….”I must never get angry again, or the sky will fall in!!” AND I had to learn to speak English, instead of Mancunian….I literally lost my authentic voice. It now seems perfectly feasible that stress could have been imprinted in my genes….the auld “Fight or Flight” mechanism… but to compound my fearful suppression of anger, there was a taboo on anger in my adoptive family.

(Suppress your anger, and ye get depression, but that’s another story…and, inevitably, a boring one! Did I mention the resentment? Let’s just not go there!).

Waiting for anything can fill me with dread… as a child I’d get cramps in my calf muscles when waiting to go to the circus…this could go on for days.(“But….It might pack up and leave before we get there!”, and knowing deep down that I really wanted to run away with them). As a supposed adult, waiting can still occaisionally make me feel sick with an inchoate foreboding in the pit of my stomach. 

Back to the story….

My beloved firstborn went to live with his father when he was 12….”Daddy would let me stay up all night! Daddy would buy me this, that and the other! Daddy would do my homework for me!”. And in my people-pleasing way, I let him choose,  rather than fighting to keep him with me. But to me, it was just another rejection and abandonment; and again, “It must be my fault!”.


I do come from another era. Before mobile phones, before email, we would phone landlines, without answer machines, etc. We wrote letters….I can remember the joy of having a Fax machine! Instant Letters! without having to go to the post office! However, as ever, I trailed technologically behind, fax’s went out of use, and mobile phones swept in…now we live in a world of instant messaging, of txt speak, (Gawd’elpus!),  and of the insidious Facebook. Supposedly we are instantly accessible, and yet we are more isolated than ever before. So when my son finally got back to me, he could not know where I was “at” that day, or why I was upset and abreacting…. all he knew was that Mother was in Meltdown…. sobbing rather than angry…and that was distinctly uncomfortable for both of us. “Run! Hide!” …”Get off the phone as soon as!”. “Phew!”.

I wrote a genuinely apologetic email for dumping my distress on him, but no answer came.
And so we come to the title of this piece….When your mother is in meltdown, when she knocks you off your feet with unbridled tears and upset,

Don’t Take It Personally!

Don’t Think You Have To Fix It!

Don’t be Paralysed By Unfounded Guilt!

And Don’t Stick Your Fingers in Your Ears, going LaLaLaLaLa, and hoping she will just Go Away!

Self-justifying is not relevant….guilt is a waste of time,  sympathy is patronising and de-energising…but Empathy is just saying “Hey! I’m SO sorry that you are feeling bad!”.

It really IS that simple!

“Is there anything I can do to help?”….Even had he asked, I’d have been embarrassed to reply with the worn-out old record of: “Phoning and chatting more than 3 times a year would be a good start!” Nobody WANTS to guilt trip their children! (Or do they???…….)

Perhaps I actually DO want to! Suffice to say, he phoned last Christmas Day, just as I was sitting down to a rather meagre roast chicken with my neighbour. (Christmas is always a difficult time for me, as my mother died around Christmas time. Add the manufactured Seasonal and rather ghastly Happy Family Jollities, and the Seasonal Affective Depression that has me like a caged and restless tiger from 1st December to seed-planting time in Spring, and you get a woeful and curmudgeonly Charl. ) I asked him if he could phone back that evening, or the following day, as I would love to have a good chat with him. “Yeah sure…no worries.” Three Months Later…..the phone rang. I pretended that I didn’t know who he was! “I’m sorry…who IS that?”. “Sorry…WHAT was your name again??” Passive Aggressive or what??!! But we had a good laugh.

Coincidentally. with what I call Chance Triumphant, there was another article in yesterday’s Guardian newspaper, under the title “My mother haunts me still”…and the by-line: “It was only after his mother died that Justin Cartwright realised he had never ‘entered fully’ into her life, and that there was so much more he could have done for this lonely and unsettled woman.” Here’s the link…a moving and heart-felt read, that spoke to my heart…. http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/aug/22/justin-cartwright-my-mother-haunts-me-still

I remember telling my other son a few years back that I was concerned for Firstborn, as he was in so little contact that, once I’ve died he may well feel guilty…Second son said “Well, why would that bother You?”  Derrrr??? It’s because I love him, and I don’t want him to feel bad! Hey Ho!

My firstborn thinks I am the same woman as I was when he left home…38 years ago! Practically the Dark Ages! The article by Justin Cartwright reminds me that I would just love the chance for us to get to know each other again….us now, as two adults. He can unwittingly come out with things that leave me open mouthed… thankfully with laughter most of the time, but his assumptions can seem very strange!
It feels really dangerous to post a link to this on Facebook…and anyway, I’ve been out of there since my wifi went down some weeks ago…. I may not be brave enough to do so…..however, as neither of my sons have ever commented on any of my blog posts, I can maybe be brave enough to just Tell My Story, with impugnity! (I so love words…..and impugnity is one of my favourites! I like Swathes of Impugnity!)

It seems self-indulgent to be writing all this….However, stars cannot shine without the darkness…maybe for an artist, manifesting the dark side is a way of exorcising it….We draw and sculpt and dance and write and sing the Dark and the Light of the Soul. We Tell Our Stories. A line from my all-time favourite song springs to mind , from Mary Gauthier, (a Foundling, and a consummate story teller who found her own splendid voice so wonderfully,) :…”We hang in the balance, between hell and hallowed ground, and every single one of us could use some mercy now.”

And another line from Mary Gauthier, the one along the fret board at the bottom of this unfinished drawing:”Like mighty waves rolling forever to shore, my hand will always be reaching for yours.”
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Seeking order from a dishevelled life.

An old friend, Dee, came to help me sort through my chaotic house last week, which was a blessing indeed! I had vowed last year to start sorting through all my shtuff, and she really kickstarted the process….shaming me with ancient foodstuffs in the nether reaches of the fridge, and doing what nobody has achieved before, helping me learn HOW to keep order, in my advancing years!
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The photo on the right is from before her visit…”after” photos may follow….
In the process of sorting, I came across so much stuff from the past, and I want to attempt to make order of all that….photos, letters, writings and drawings….My bi-polar personality veers between abject perfectionism and impatient slapdashery, so to do it chronologically would addle my brain…. it’ll be a jigsaw self portrait.
Almost the beginning.
The next two photos are so poignant for me, I had never seen a picture of me and my sisters all together until I was 52…I’m the wee one second left.Image
This photo was taken around the time our parents died, our mother when I was two and a quarter, and our father a year later. Looking out to sea, as if wondering what the future held.
My three eldest sisters were then shipped off to relatives in NZ, which might as well have been Heaven, for all I understood either. They weren’t even brought to say goodbye to me and my twin as “It would only upset them”.Nowadays there’s far more understanding of what early bereavement can do to children, in those days it was assumed that small children would forget….now it’s recognised that the psychological after effects can last a lifetime.My twin and I were adopted, and we had to learn to speak English, instead of Mancunian! After quite a few carers between my parents dying and our adoption, when someone from ‘home’ came to visit us six months later, I reportedly wrapped myself around my Dad’s knees, and said “They’ve not coom tae tek us back, ‘ave they? “.Learning a new way of speaking, learning new ‘accepted behaviours’, can make one feel an Outsider,  and by internalising that feeling one then unwittingly behaves like an outsider, compounding that identity.
And for all that I’ve always felt like an outsider, I’ve also spent a lifetime trying to belong, with all the fruitless people-pleasing that that entailed, and the resulting resentments when people just weren’t pleased…. it’s perhaps no wonder that I became an artist!
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This second photo…again not seen by me until I was 52, when the youngest of my three sisters who went to NZ came to meet me for the first time.
I’m the serious, (if not pouting!), wee thing being held on the right. When I asked my older sister who the lassie was, it was a mother’s help, who had been with us from before my mother died until after my father died.
Nobody remembers her name, which I regret SO much, only that she was from Ireland.

Which set me thinking….I’ve always been a bit of a nomad, ricocheting up through England, and then to live in Scotland where my birth father originally came from. Was my move to live in Ireland caused by some distant resonance from this lass? Certainly, I will never ‘belong’ here…but in building my own house I do now have roots of a kind. Perhaps this blog stems from a deep craving to be known, to be understood….the quest of an adoptee?None of this is written for sympathy, Heaven forbid! What has happened to me has made me who I am, fascinated by human psychology,  always an outsider, always a champion of outsiders and underdogs, and hopefully an empathetic friend to the unique individuals I’ve met along the way. I’ll finish with a cartoon from Michael Leunig…who speaks to my soul!

the sea inside