I was nearly thirty before I realised what a good job my parents had done. My mum used to say I became a teenager at nine, and I think I stayed that way for twenty years. Among the many horrible things I said about my parents, behind their backs and sometimes to their faces, was that I wished they’d never had kids, especially when they must have known we’d all grow up to have inherited all their worst characteristics and be total headcases. I wasn’t very keen on myself, then, either, and saw this as more proof that they’d done a terrible job and made me into a monster.
I inherited many weaknesses from my parents, and maybe they threw a few extras in there too just for me, but now (now that I’m an actual grown up and not just pretending to be one) I see that I inherited a great many of my favourite strengths from them as well. I was told at the weekend, by a friendly old vicar in Salisbury Cathedral, that growing up a vicar’s daughter is a real blessing. A few years ago, I might have argued with him about that. Growing up in a vicarage is a beautiful and terrifying thing, not least because you always feel that you have to be on your very best behaviour everywhere you go, so as not to let the Parish down. That obviously has an impact on your cognitive behaviour. But really, it is a lovely way to learn about community and social responsibility and charity, among other things. My father is a quite incredible human being, a man of faith as well as intelligence (seemingly so rare these days, if you listen to Richard Dawkins). He is creative and funny and very, very wise. When I was a teenager, I took his quiet acceptance of things as a sign of weakness, now I have nothing but admiration for his endless patience and love.
My mother was the one who got the worst of my teenage bitterness. I speak to women at work with teenage girls, who are at the end of their tether and cry on me about what more they could possibly do, and I think back to some of the things I said and did to my own mother with nothing but shame. I tell these women at work “Don’t worry, she might start talking to you again when she’s about 29” – which doesn’t really have the desired effect. For almost twenty years, I blamed everything that was wrong with my character and my relationships on the image I had of who my mother was, and no one could tell me otherwise. People said wonderful things about my mother to me all the time, speaking glowingly of this other woman they seemed to know, and I’d just looked at them, bewildered, and wonder who they were talking about.
Which makes me laugh now, but is a truly horrible way to think about your mother.
When I was about to turn thirty, I went to visit a counsellor for six months. Really, I was struggling with an increased workload, and the idea of turning thirty without having done very much, but mostly, this counsellor wanted to talk to me about my early childhood. I don’t have much of a memory, but I told her what I could. And, in the course of those conversations, I began to see the mother that everybody else had been talking about for all those years.
An intelligent and beautiful woman with a career, who put it on pause to raise four children and be the vicar’s wife. Who moved towns with her husband’s job having to make new friends every time she started somewhere new. A woman with three children under the age of 5, who got so bored sitting at home in a tiny place in Bedford that she set up a playgroup there from nothing. A woman who moved again with a small baby, and did the same thing somewhere else. A young mother who, finally having all her children at school, decided to change jobs and become a primary school teacher at one of the toughest schools in Oxfordshire. Then got bored and became a lecturer instead. And all the time, my mother was also the wife of the vicar, a job many of them still choose to do full time. And when her children all moved away and she was looking to retire? – then my mum decided to change career path once again and became a vicar, too*. I can’t imagine the kind of drive and determination that it must take to do all of these things to the high standards that she has for herself. I can’t imagine putting anyone, let alone five other people, first in my life and putting my own wants and needs second (or sixth). I can’t imagine how she did what she did and still managed to stay sane at all!
My mum came to visit me this afternoon, to look after me and give me a hug. She talked to me as though I was an adult, because I was finally behaving like one. We walked around Hyde Park and talked about all of the things I might have inherited from her. I talked about teaching, about how difficult I’m finding things, and she listened and she understood. She hugged me and told me she loved me.
In summary, and because I’ve not said it enough (if ever): I have the best mum in the world and I wouldn’t trade her for anyone. She’s also looking very good at the moment, having lost an incredible 2 1/2 stone since last time I saw her. We’ll be swapping clothes next…
*This isn’t a complete CV, I was very young in those days, and may have missed a bit.