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My mum loves me, but doesn’t know me. Can I change our relationship?

Posted on Apr 04, 2021

The dilemma I am a 50-year-old gay man. When I was young I was cast in the role of the “good” child – my mother’s antidote to my rebellious siblings. I behaved well, did fine at school and sought my mother’s approval and love. As a result I hid my sexuality. I was left in no doubt from her that being gay was “dirty”. She frequently told me I should not go to her if I had any worries as she would not be able to cope if all her children had problems. I came out to her when I was 19 . She sought to control the narrative, requesting that I didn’t tell anyone until she felt the time was right. Relieved, as she told me she still loved me, I complied.

I don’t know if my mother’s love for me was conditional, because I didn’t test it. I recognise that she worked extremely hard with four young children and a husband setting up a business. I am still bound up in many of the same patterns of behaviour as when I was a child. She just wants to hear I am happy, but doesn’t if I am not . I smile, regardless of how I am actually feeling. So she doesn’t really know me and loves a vision of me that isn’t who I am. I wonder if I have the right, at this stage in our lives, to change a relationship that she appears content with?

Mariella replies Certainly you have the right. It’s not your responsibility as an adult to be compelled to present a fictional life in order to maintain the status quo with your mum. But, although it may assuage your frustrations to have it out with her, changing the dynamic may create insurmountable problems.

You have reason to feel frustration and anger, having had to compromise your sexuality and curtail your self-expression in order to “protect” your mother. But the consequences of that must surely have ebbed as you grew older and embarked on a life lived on your own terms? Philip Larkin famously wrote, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” but, as we grow older, we can also choose how much we allow their influence to prevail.

The complicated relationship you describe sounds like it’s remained in stasis throughout your life.

It’s worth pondering why it continues to be a preoccupation for you that she confront the “real” you. Could it be that we overload the parental bond with heightened emotional expectations when parents are simply human like the rest of us? Love is a remarkable force, capable of inspiring extraordinary self-sacrifice and delivering untold pain but, for most of us, our lives play out on a more micro-scale than the epic tragedy.

My mother is so far into the grip of debilitating dementia that I’m sadly at liberty to share indiscretions. All my life I’ve waited for just a nod that she noticed my uphill trek as I dragged myself from ignorance to autodidact, from poverty to self-sufficiency, from the smallest life to a sometimes uncomfortably public one. Now it’s too late and she’s barely able to follow her own thoughts let alone look beyond them. So when my brother revealed recently that she has a secret trunk of my press clippings, I was floored. My mother has never mentioned a single article I’ve written, anthology I’ve compiled, programme I’ve made… and yet she’s hoarded my entire career’s worth. I offer you that to highlight how common it is for us to not get everything we want from our parents – and sometimes not to get anything at all.

Your mother has developed a way of coping familiar to many, turning away from emotional challenge rather than exploring her prejudices and feelings. Of course you have the right to drag her from her cosy fictional corner and present the reality of your life and the price you’ve paid for keeping it palatable to her. But to what purpose? I imagine all she wants is to know that you love her and she doesn’t have to worry about you. Her failings are her failings and she’s probably just as aware of them as you are. What you’ll achieve by such confrontation is unlikely to be the denouement you imagine – where she admits that what’s she’s given you has been too little and what she’s expected of you has been too much.

Most animals are happy to raise their young only as long as they are entirely dependent – after which the cut-off is complete. Anyone who’s seen a dog with puppies will have witnessed the brutality of the moment the mother loses interest. We, on the other hand, have evolved into the most demanding species on the planet. We want lifestyle luxuries, emotional understanding, complicated interaction and that most unfulfillable of goals, closure. The most rewarding investment for your energies has to be in your own emotional life right here and now, ensuring that the bad habits you’ve been forced into adopting are not recurring themes in your relationships. Your mother has loved you as best as she is capable of and you are in the majority in finding fault with what you had. But to paraphrase LP Hartley, the past is a foreign country where they did things differently. For most of us the change we can make is in our future.

If you have a dilemma, send a brief email to mariella.frostrup@observer.co.uk. Follow her on Twitter @mariellaf1