The elusive mother

By Caitlin Kelly


I loved this recent, powerful post by fellow journalist/blogger candidkay:

Those of you who told your mother all your secrets–and reveled in stories of her youthful escapades before you came along–will not understand what I’m about to write.

I didn’t really know my mother.

I was born to her and lived with her for many years but I was not privy to her essence. By the time I came along, I think it was long buried under disappointment, sadness and a sense of propriety.

I was born to her in her early forties, the last of six daughters. She was, by her own admission, more interested in her career by then than in birthing more children.

Of course she loved me. She loved all of us.

But I was always stymied by her lack of disclosure. I knew only about the “safe” stuff. Her parents losing their house during the Depression. Living on her grandparents’ farm. Editor of the school newspaper. Navy nurse during WWII.

I could piece together a patchwork quilt of her life but it was quite threadbare.

This rang so true for me.

Earlier this year, I pitched a story to a major women’s magazine about how women with distant or elusive mothers find other women, throughout our lives, who nurture us — whether friends, neighbors, a professor, a co-worker or boss — instead.

Then the editor asked me to write, instead, about my own relationship with my mother.

I couldn’t.

In some ways, I didn’t want to, as she is still alive and the story is complicated. I chose to leave her care at the age of 14 and moved in with my father; between the ages of eight and 13, I had only lived at home with her for two years, most of my time spent in boarding school and summer camp.

But also for the same reason as candidkay.

I just don’t know enough.

My mother and I — her only child — haven’t spoken in three years, nor have I seen her, as she lives in a city that takes me an entire day to fly there. We exchange no cards or flowers or emails.

She is in a nursing home, a sad ending for a woman with brains, beauty, a huge sense of adventure and the private means to enjoy all of these.

A photo taken when my mother was food editor of  a national magazine; me on the right
A photo taken when my mother was food editor of a national magazine; me on the right

But I know little of her life and she rarely offers details.

I keep putting off a trip out there, for several reasons. But I know one of them: my fantasy that we’ll suddenly get close, after all these years, is unlikely and quite sure to end in my disappointment.

Like candidkay I became a journalist, and, like her — like many journalists do — I have made my living for decades asking total strangers extremely detailed and intimate questions, about money and sex and death and struggle and family.

And they answer me.

So I finally realized, it’s her, not me.

Do you know your mother (well)?

Do your children know you?

44 thoughts on “The elusive mother

  1. Thank you for the reference to my blog, first. I truly appreciate it and your being a faithful reader. Second, the nursing home was my mother’s biggest fear. She chose not to have a surgery that would save her life so she could avoid that fate–and I can’t say I blame her. I’m sorry your mother is meeting with that end. And third, that fantasy? It reared it’s head even as my mother died. And it quickly disappeared as I realized death only makes more acute what already is. I hope you’re able to put that dream in it’s rightful place so you can have peace.

    1. My mother has so many medical issues to face right now, and she had already survived multiple cancers as it is. She was always the most ferociously independent woman I’ve ever known. But there was no way she could continue to live alone, nor can anyone but the wealthy afford a live-in nurse.


  2. I really relate to this. My mom is probably ashamed of many things in her past, so I never felt as though I could really talk to her. She never let me in, so I shut her out as well. But now that I live on the other side of the globe from her, I find that it’s easier to talk to her about things because even if she judges me, she has no hand in what I do. Being removed from her makes it easier to reveal things about myself, and then she feels that she can open up to me. Lovely post.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts…you often feel it’s “just you”. I have never lived physically close to my mother — always thousands of miles away. Ironically, the one year we were closest was the year I was 25 when I lived in Paris and she lived in England.

      I’m glad you and your mom are finding ways to communicate, regardless of the distance (likely because of it!)

  3. I gauge my relationships with people on how many of their life stories I’ve heard, and how deeply they are told to me.

    I was brought up on my father’s stories. I’ve heard most of them too many times to count, and some of them are lodged so deep in my head I sometimes have to remember I was never there! I’ll be the first to say I don’t know my mother well. My mother, like a lot of Asian mothers, is reticent, mindful of propriety, so all of the human errors and consequences that make a story a story, she prefers not to bring up. So, no stories.

    I should note that I’ve always gotten along with my Mum. For a mother whose only child (and a daughter at that, oh the shame) turned out to be an Asian parent’s nightmare, she’s managed to retain a remarkable sense of humour about it all.

    It’s been 8 months since my father died and in that time our relationship has changed, and will probably continue to change – we’re getting to know each other better, and I’m finding we have more in common than I thought.

    Maybe I’ll hear those stories one day after all.

    1. I dreamed vividly last night about my late step-mother (which I never do) — also someone who never discussed her past or her history before we met (I knew her after I turned 12, so that’s a lot of years of silence.)

      I’m sorry about your father — but glad you got to know him so well. There’s a lot I don’t know about mine, but I have also heard a fair number of his stories, which helps.

  4. my mother passed away a couple of summers ago. she had a hard time functioning as a mother and i can’t say that she ever revealed enough about herself for me to understand why and what her motivations were. our relationship was pretty bad until the end, but with the onset of her dementia, she actually lost some of her anger and fear. as for my own 3 daughters, we’ve grown up together, been through a lot together and they know me as well as anyone on earth. i’ve made a point of trying to be a different kind of mother from the way my own was. i completely understand your reasons, where your mother is concerned and each person has to make her/his own decision on how to deal with a challenging parent.

    1. It’s a great testament to you that you were brave enough to become a mother and have such a nice relationship with your daughters. I know my mother’s mother was a monster to her (although very kind to me.) It has to come from somewhere.

  5. Steve

    I’ve told my sons on numerous occasions that the first break in life is who you’re born to. I was ever really close to my father until probably the last 10 years of his life. I found him to be an overbearing tyrant and saw no reason to repair a relationship that was broken beyond repair. Now he’s gone and I must say that I miss the wisdom he imparted to me. For better or worse I realize that the person I am was molded by the essence that was him. Good and bad. I think a lot of who I am is because I had a good example of what NOT to be and I trust that my children can look at the man I am and do the same as they raise their own children. None of us are perfect, we all have spots. I encourage you to take the time to visit your Mom and do your best to try to repair or at least justify your relationship,with her. It is NEVER too late until she takes her last breath. Even if things don’t work out you will know you tried. My guess is she already is aware of her failures as a mother and a person and seeks reconciliation with you as well. Being a parent is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Some people really stink at it. You will never be sorry for the attempt but you will suffer for the rest of your life with guilt if you don’t. Steve

  6. My mother grew up in Germany as a teenager during WWII and the experience caused her to lock up many memories. She would suffer nightmares if prodded about sharing her earlier life. Finally at sixty, she sat down and wrote out her memoir. It explained a lot about her personality. I’ve been editing it off and on over the years in hopes of getting it published. Her insights of the war are fascinating. I’ve had a couple of editors interested, but I can’t get anymore info out of Mom since she doesn’t want to revisit the past anymore and at nearly ninety her memory is getting a bit fuzzy. She’s given me the authority to do what I need to with her memoirs. I will probably end up doing the Rose Wilder treatment.

  7. Your proposal shares some similarities to a proposal I recently made for a master’s thesis. I have found that distant or inaccessible mothers are not rare, but rather quite common. It is interesting to me how their daughters find one another and create their own family community from among such pseudo-orphans. I am collecting poems and prose from small Canadian presses right now, to explore varieties of motherhood. I’m intending to do a critical reading of the work and blending it with literary theory so I can discuss the many ways that mothers exist, beyond the binaries of angel/whore that has traditionally occupied literature for so long. An additional aspect that I hope to explore is the current trends and work of feminist theory, to see what changes have occurred during this last generation and after 1970s feminism. Please let me know if you have the opportunity to write the pitch you’ve described. I’d love to read it.

  8. Tough subject. I tend to agree with Steve, “I encourage you to take the time to visit your Mom and do your best to try to repair or at least justify your relationship,with her. It is NEVER too late until she takes her last breath. Even if things don’t work out you will know you tried.”

    A friend of mine never knew his father and only recently started to look for him. When he finally found out where he lived, he also discovered that the man had died just the week before. It was so sad. Who knows what would have happened had he reached out to him? I find it tragic that he waited so long to try (for fear of rejection), and now he’ll never know. Once the person is gone, that’s it. My friend will never have any closure with his father. But you can still have closure with your mother — and by closure I don’t necessarily mean “happy ending.” It’s worth the risk/effort in my opinion.

      1. Oh, I know… it’s a very difficult, complicated and scary call (hope my comment didn’t make it sound like I think otherwise). I would just hate to see what happened to my friend happen to anyone else I care about. If you were to go and asked me to join you, I would do so and support you every step of the way. That’s what friends are for! 🙂 xo

  9. I have been fortunate to have a great mother. We are close and I know she had an unfortunate childhood, whose details I don’t feel comfortable mentioning… But to make up for her childhood/teen years she has made sure, even gone without, to make sure my sister and I had/have great ones. Thank you for sharing, as always, it’s a pleasure to hear about your experiences.

  10. I knew her well enough to well imagine what she might be thinking as she gazed out the kitchen window. We often shared our dreams upon awakening; that offered me many good gilmpses, a bit scary. She was an inveterate oral storyteller and thus shared with a captive audience the truth of her days as well as her view of life. She was a fine family manager, a creative talent, a caring but stern elementary teacher, an adventuresome soul and a whole booster club for my father’s career. But did I feel she was really there for me when most needed? Not often. Perhaps this story is telling: “I hope he loves me” I told her (as she helped me get dressed for prom in a gorgeous dress she made me) when speaking of my date and first heart throb. “You must become the sort of girl he loves, then,” she replied. So did I know the true person she was or who she became to live a good life with my successful father? Did her words mean she felt I had to change in order to be well loved? Did we, then, know each other? Perhaps not very well. Did I love her? Dearly.
    Great post.

  11. Rich

    I think that in many ways poignant events that we experience as children shape us in some form or fashion into whom we are today. My mother is a wonderful woman in every way that matters; growing we had lived with her parents. Her mother had lived a hard life, was very old school in many ways. I remember weeks of silence where no one talked with one another, I remember always a wall between her mother and myself. There were moments of clarity and vulnerability sure, but more often than not they were few and far between. Before I began reading these blog posts, I very much enjoyed my blissful denial of things…these posts are wonderful…..

    1. Thanks for this…What a house you grew up in. I’m fascinated (clearly!) by how our childhoods — as you say — shape us, no matter how much we struggle to individuate. I can’t imagine (coming from all-talk-all-the-time) a silent home. I would have found that terrifying, waiting for someone to explode…but that might be my projection. 🙂

      Denial gets us through a lot!

  12. In answer to your two questions: On both counts “Yes”. I know my mother who is close to me as I was to hers (my beloved grandmother) as well as we can ever expect to know anyone. Though geographically apart we speak on the phone for hours every week, she sends me letters. What I’ll do one day (she is 81), without hearing that voice and her sharp as a razor observations, I do not know. In short, and forgive me the language: It’ll be shite.

    My son? “I can read you like an open book, Mama”, he said to me not that long ago. Indeed. And he does. Some pages of that book are glued together but that’s because I believe there are certain things we shouldn’t burden our children with. Too much information is just that: Too much information.

    I am so very sorry to hear about your relationship with your mother. To me the mother child/child mother bond is not only the strongest of all relationships we have. It’s almost holy. I’d strongly urge you – and, yes, it will be painful, drain you, possibly not fulfilling your dream – to see your mother. Hold her hand. Wipe her brow. Or just be there – even if only looking out of the window, with your back to her, wondering at the futility of it all.

    Caitlin, we may be as old as we are: We still run back home – in hope of being comforted. Piecing some of your narrative over time together I am beginning to understand where your steely brittleness comes from.



    1. Lucky you!

      Thanks for the kind words.

      I have told here a small amount of it. The rest may, or may not, end up in a book sometime. It’s been far more complicated than I would have wished.

  13. Although I often speak and visit my mother, I don’t know her very well. The same goes for my father. I’ve never asked them detailed and intimate questions, like I would do with every people I interview as a journalist. I guess it’s because I don’t want to be curious with my parents. I find this inappropriate. I can’t explain why.

    1. I get it. I suspect, as I do, you know they are unlikely to be forthcoming. It does feel weird to grill one’s parents. But I am still very curious anyway…it’s our history!

      Thank you for sharing this.

  14. I know my Mother well and she knows me, the good the bad and the ugly. She is 81 years old. I’ve often dreaded telling her about situations, afraid of her reply and EVERY time she has blown my mind with her open mindedness and nonjudgmental views?! (Irish catholic through and through.) I’ve had to ask for help financially and emotionally and she has always said yes. An unconditional YES. Tears well my eyes at this moment so thank you. My sad truth is I don’t show up for her, not in the hallmark way. I’m not 1/4 of the mother to my sons as she is to me. She is the salt of the earth, meekest and humble person I know. Yet she is fierce in hard times and the strongest wan I know. She has certainly been tested… To the extreme.

  15. I definitely relate to this post. I haven’t spoken with my mom in 5 years. As I’m sure you know, it comes up more in day-to-day life than I would like. People always ask things like “What did your mom think about that?” and I always wonder what age I have to be where that stops.

  16. Good post! Very thought provoking. My mother was not a communicator either but I never gave it any thought because I grew up with the admonition that talking about oneself was egoistic.

  17. Isn’t it good to have others give voice to things we think? I find things in your posts (and what you collect from others) speaks volumes.

    My mother was very open about some things and a total enigma about others. It was only by accident that we found out (after I was married) that most of what we “knew” as kids was made up. Turns out my brothers each had different fathers, my third brother died before we went to live in Hawaii not after, and so on.

    My eldest brother never did find out who his father was, and for medical reasons really needs that history.

    My mom passed away young so all information is gone. Her family never divulged anything either. So we are left wondering who was this person? Which stories are true, which are fiction?

    Would I rather have known distance or a close relationship with a ghost? I don’t know… Both are ultimately un satisfying when we yearn for bonds of affection.

    Thanks for adding your perspective to the questions, as always.

    1. Wow. That is a lot to face! My father has four kids, one of whom we didn’t know existed until she was in her 20s, so I have some notion of what it’s like to have a very unusual family. I still haven’t met her, and dread the day as, by all accounts, she’s weird — and she’s in his will. It all makes for a great novel, but very challenging to actually live it and try to process it all.

      Not sure if you’d enjoy it (dark stuff) but Edward St. Aubyn’s books (thinly disguised about twisted aristo life in the UK) rang uncomfortably true for me in some places.

      1. Hmmm, twisted and dark? Could be just the ticket! I’ll check into it. Thanks for the tip.

        Seriously though, when I read “Prince of Tides” I identified with parts of that and it was one of the first times I found someone telling my dysfunction in a way that was acceptable (?). So one never knows where we will find kindred spirits.

        Thanks again!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s