Tuesday 13 August 2019

The Ghost in the Machine

A couple of times a week I call my mum to have a ‘chat’. For the last year or so this has consisted of one of the carers holding the phone to her ear while I keep up a cheery monologue, switching between German and English. A strange one-sided conversation in which I repeat the same things and make short inane statements about how well and happy we all are. I can do this without even thinking now, chattering away brightly whilst trying to bath my youngest son or make dinner. Yesterday on autopilot I nearly dropped the phone when suddenly as clear as day I hear ‘ Susie?’, and not a hesitant or half spoken slurred old person mumble, but a strong and totally unmistakeably confident and curious voice.


Yes?! Yes, mum, its me!


My mind is racing. She’s there! This is my chance, maybe my last chance, to talk, to converse, with my mother.

Mum! How are you? Are you happy?


Like trying to reach a drowning person or shouting down a well, I try to cram in everything before it’s too late. Just to hold onto the fact she understands me, she is responding, she can hear me through the fog. Maybe She can answer all my questions, give me comfort, listen to my dilemmas and have pride in my achievements.

But it’s already too late. The curtain falls sharply.






Goodbye. Was that me or her? Or us. The line has gone dead.

Monday 19 February 2018

Knowing Me, Knowing You

My mother doesn’t know me any more. I don’t mean she doesn’t recognise me. That already happened a while back.  I mean she doesn’t know she has a daughter anymore.  The concept of daughter has gone.

When she didn’t recognise me anymore (and why would she? Who is this grey haired woman standing in front of her? Not her dark haired little girl) I could at first still say ‘Its me’ to get a smile. And then when that no longer worked, I could talk about Susie. Cheerfully making conversation. Susie. Your Daughter. Your only child. Referring to myself in the 3rd person to see if talking about me connected us. Me sitting right here holding your hand talking about me. The conversation increasingly ridiculous and desperate. You know, Susie!  Your lovely daughter.  Raising a smile for a while. And then.  Susie!  Your daughter! The clever one? The kind one? The one with that awful boyfriend, don’t worry she got rid of him, married now, very nice man. The one with two boys, your grandsons. Isn’t she lovely? Yes, she’s very nice. But she’s very busy, she’s sorry she can’t be here more. She feels guilty, she feels sad, she misses you. I miss you too, sitting here right next to you holding your hand.

My mother doesn’t know me anymore. But she stills knows all the words to ‘Do You Think I am Sexy’ by Rod Stewart.  She went to the ABBA musical Mamma Mia with her carers, and people were videoing her dancing in the aisles.  My mother dancing and laughing. She is still there. The music connecting her to an earlier time before I existed.  Before daughters were a thing. Dancing with her friends in 70’s discos; beautiful, glamorous, young, free. 

Monday 25 January 2016

Good Enough?

I hope my children are nicer to me when I get old than I am to my mum.

I hope they visit me willingly rather than drag their feet.

I hope they don’t roll their eyes when I ask the same question for the 20th time.

I hope they want me to live with them instead of leaving me to be cared for by others.

People say you are so patient, so kind, your mum is so lucky to have you. When I posted my first blog entry I received so many nice comments. They made me squirm because I didn’t feel I deserved them.

I am not always a willing carer, and I am not a perfect daughter.

I do my duty. And I do a lot of it so that other people wont think I am a bad person.

And then I get home and lie awake promising and regretting. Next time I really will be nicer, more patient, kinder. How can I be so furious with the woman who wiped my bum and soothed my nightmares?

She cared for me for years, the least I can do is return the favour.

Turns our caring is a lot like parenting; repetitive, frustrating, boring. And sometimes it’s a blessed relief to pay someone else to do it so you can go to work instead.

But of course it’s also rewarding, human, loving, and often delightfully funny. 

Parenting is a duty that is hard work but also really fulfilling. And you surprise yourself at your own capacity for caring and love. Daughter-ing is a lot like that too.

My favourite parenting theory is that of the 'Good enough parent' (deriving from the work of D. W. Winnicott, in his efforts to provide support for what he called "the sound instincts of normal parents” – thanks wikipedia). It gives me much comfort when I am knee deep in snot and unfinished homework. So I'd like to propose a new concept - the Good Enough Carer. I.e. I may not be perfect, but I am doing my best. And it’s actually ok to sometimes not enjoy it. Or actively resent it. Becoming a parent doesn’t automatically turn you into a saint, and neither does being a carer. She’s still my mum and she still has the capacity to turn me into a moody teenager. But because she’s still my mum, I will do my best to keep being a good enough daughter.

Friday 25 September 2015

Through The Looking Glass

Yesterday my mother didn’t recognise herself in the mirror.

I found her smiling and nodding politely at her reflection. Then she whispered conspiratorially,  ‘Who is that woman?’, as if we were at a drinks party and she had simply forgotten the name of an acquaintance across the room.

Through the looking glass, I look back.

Back to my mother’s mother who also had Alzheimer’s. As a child I was immensely amused, and then strangely frightened, when she would grab me with her bony hands and demand to know who the lady in the mirror was.  ‘She keeps staring at me!’. Very quickly her reflection began to torment her. Why wouldn’t the woman say hello? Why was she so rude and arrogant, refusing to answer any questions?  Who did she think she was?

Who did she think she was?

Back through the looking glass I stand next to my mother and side-by-side we look at our faces together. So similar. ‘You look just like your mother!’. Who doesn’t know what she looks like anymore. So I remind her – that’s you! Oh yes, so it is, she laughs. She has not taken against herself yet.

A reverse Dorian Grey. The lady in the mirror gets older, while she feels younger. Fading memory erasing old age, middle age, parenthood, marriage, travel and leaving only youth.  She just cannot believe the lady staring back at her is her. But she’s so old! I am not that old! I am only 15, or perhaps 20… maybe more.

Cover all the mirrors. Stop all the clocks. Time is reversing.

I stare hard at my refection. Scrutinising my features. Will I ever not know myself? But the harder I stare the more my features recede, and I see my mother staring back at me. But not really staring anymore. Sometimes behind her eyes the intention is gone, she is simply looking. Avoiding my gaze.

I see us all in three dimensions. Looking through the window at the lady outside, checking her reflection in the glass. She cannot see us. We look straight into her eyes. She doesn’t recognise us.

Sunday 15 March 2015

Lets talk about Death

We need to talk about death. More. And getting old. In detail, and with specific requests and wishes made clear. Cheery topics for mother’s day!

But by avoiding these uncomfortable subjects or talking only in vague terms we are storing up trouble and heartache.

My mum always told me 'Push me off a cliff when I go ga-ga!’. Turns out there aren’t that many cliffs in north London. And what exactly did she mean by 'ga-ga'? Then, now and in the future. 

Did she mean she’d rather die than go into an old peoples’ home? Did she mean spend every last penny of my savings on keeping me in my own home? Or did she mean do what you think best? Was she releasing me metaphorically from duty and guilt, or heaping it on my shoulders?

Too late to ask for certain. So this Mother’s Day I am going to make my wishes clear to my nearest and dearest.  Push me under a bus when I go ga-ga. Much easier in London.

Wednesday 11 February 2015

Double whammy

I think a generational care crisis is looming.

As we live longer and have our children later, many are going to be caring for their own ageing parents at the same time as their young infants.

I use my own situation as an example. As an only child of an older divorced mother, I am now caring for her through Alzheimer’s at the same time as having my own young family and returning to work.

I am lucky that my mother can afford good care, but I am still alone in dealing with what all of that entails.  And finding it a particular challenge to balance the (frankly similar) needs of my babies with that of my demented mother.

Take a simple everyday task such as getting dressed. My mother and my son both struggle with buttons and gloves. The difference is that my 5 year old son is learning a new skill, but my 75 year old mum is un-learning everyday skills everyday.

My mother was 39 when she had me – seen as practically geriatric in the 1970’s  - she had a successful career, was having fun, and wanted to delay as long as possible.  She told me she was 29 for years, so I wouldn’t give away her real age away!

By contrast I was actually 29 when I got pregnant, and felt like a gymslip mum in my middle-class NCT class. Everyone else was in their mid to late 30’s with established careers. I felt like I was just starting out. 

In just a generation my mother and I had both stretched the boundaries of our class defined childbearing age. She was at the upper age by far and I was definitely at the lower age.  And in doing so we have created a rather unfortunate double whammy.

There must be many others in similar situations, and as our population ages and live longer, it will only get worse.  Also exacerbated by family break up and fewer siblings in smaller families, which means less people to share the load.

I venture that the burden will fall more heavily on woman- the traditional ‘carers’ - and will have a double impact on career progression. Just as we are sorting out childcare to enable us to go back to work we will have to negotiate  care for our parents. That’s why I support flexible working so strongly – it’s not just parents who have caring responsibilities. Employers should recognise that.  And as a society we need to get better at supporting carers, before the crisis hits.

Thursday 29 January 2015

50 Shades

I did it.  I've gone over to the other side. After years of denial and covert warfare I have finally embraced it. My grey hair. Correction  - white hair.  

Unlike almost all women in their 30’s who moan about a couple of wayward strands, I am totally white.  It runs in my father’s side of the family, who all seem to go salt n’ pepper in their early twenties. And after years of dyeing I’ve given up. I just don’t have the time or the money anymore. My hair grows fast, so after a couple of weeks of fake raven-haired glory the tell tale snow white roots were plain for all to see. Who was I kidding? And it really looked awful. It was actually my vanity, rather than lack of, that clinched it. 

I don’t feel girlish and cute anymore, but I do feel powerful. It’s a statement whether I intend it or not. I get a lot of compliments  - from women. Almost like a respect thing – a ‘well done for you!’ -  although most admit they are still addicted to the dye themselves and wouldn’t dare go the full monty.

Unexpectedly I also get a lot of kudos from the 5 year old girls in my son’s class- ‘You’ve got white hair like Anna!’. Thank god for Frozen, its feminist undertones supporting go-getting school girls and washed-out 35 year old mums alike.

There’s just one thing I’d like to make clear. It’s only the hair on my head that’s white. All my other hair is still naturally black…. for now at least!