Waaah! I Can’t Look After Myself!

I can’t, and I don’t seem to want to. For a while perhaps I thought my husband would do that for me. I abdicated that responsibility, if I ever held it. Maybe briefly. Before that it was my dad, I suppose. And before that, I can only assume, my mother, when it was just a case of nappy changing and so on.

My mother was ill after my birth, I don’t know what was wrong but I think she haemorrhaged. Anyway she had to go back to hospital. My grandmother was summoned from Germany. God knows what happened in the interim, given she would have come by train and ferry from Munich which would have been a matter probably of a couple of days all in, minimum.  Family lore has it that she was handed a baby and a copy (in English) of Dr Spock and left to get on with it.  Our dog Boris apparently made short work of the paperback. Yes, my father, having uprooted his bride from Germany to London, where she knew noone and didn’t speak the language, gave her for a Christmas present when she was 7 months pregnant with me, a boxer puppy. And three months after my birth, his two daughters from his first marriage arrived from New York to join the family.

I can hardly imagine that my dad ever changed a single nappy or helped in any very practical way. Au contraire, I have vivid memories of my mother staying up late into the night being barked at by my dad, who was dictating to her letters of complaint and suchlike. He was a difficult man. But you know, he was funny, and clever and hardworking. And if he was far from generous with housekeeping or pocket money, he did at least provide well for us all. Private schools and motoring holidays on the Continent, or trips (by ocean liner) back to New York to visit family.  He worked long hours, and then came home and worked some more, on investments, or home improvements (he was an architect) or suing someone or other (he was a New Yorker).

My mother was a young, inexperienced housewife and mother, far from home, with a baby, a puppy and two stepdaughters and I can imagine she may have felt out of her depth. At one stage, when I was very small, we also had an au pair (coincidentally, a young Persian woman whom Daddy bumped into on a later flight to Tehran when we went to live there). I have no recollection of the au pair, but from what one hears, they can sometimes add to the burden of mothers, with boyfriend problems or homesickness, or being unreliable or slovenly. I don’t know. Apparently my mother then had a number of phantom pregnancies before the birth of my brother when I was almost 5.

As far back as I can remember I knew I must not expect any favouritism from my mother. I must not rub my sisters’ noses in the fact that on the face of it, their Mummy didn’t want them. Though I don’t remember my mother saying so, and I don’t remember my father ever saying a bad word about his first wife, as a small child bursting with love for my perfect Mummy, the fact that my sisters didn’t have a proper mummy of their own was unbearably sad. And so I shared.

When I went to university, my boyfriend was shocked to discover that I didn’t know the Winnie the Pooh books. He read them to me as we lolled lazily in bed in his set of rooms at Balliol.

He was in the year above me and had achieved some small notoriety as one of the gang that had drunkenly started the Pooh-sticks Society and launched it at Fresher’s Week about the time that I met him. I remember them wondering, after loads of people joined, what they were going to do with all the members.

I don’t remember my mother ever reading to me.  n fact, as I discovered when she became a completely doting Omi, she is hopeless at reading stories. I don’t remember bedtimes with stories or kisses. I don’t remember cuddles. I am not saying there were none. But I don’t remember. I do remember going to nursery school and feeling inadequate even then. I enjoyed painting. And I could already read. My mother had taught me using flashcards, which I believe was the new-fangled thing at the time. So she must surely have devoted time and attention to me when I was little. I was bored when I started school. The teachers called my mother in to complain that I spent hours gazing out of the window. ‘Have you asked her what she is doing?’ The teachers apparently though it hilarious that I claimed to be counting birds.

They say one’s intelligence derives from one’s mother. I wonder how rigorous that science was. I was brought up thinking that my dad was terribly clever and my mother was not.

What my mother was, was anxious. Not shrivelled-and-cowering-at-home anxious. She was vivacious, bubbly, extrovert, the life and soul. In those days. She gave dinners and parties, wore fancy dress, was effortlessly glamorous and stylish. Other people’s mummies were frumpy in their thirties and forties, my mum was like a fashion model, without ever seeming bothered about her appearance. She may have been a bit bothered about mine though. I rememer having tantrums at having to wear a dress which (judging by the photos) was impossibly avant garde: brown corduroy A-line with a burgundy paisley design. I wanted pink and frilly I suppose and thought the offending article dowdy.  (She is still bothered by my appearance now. Very.)

But she thought any plane she was on would fall out of the sky and she needed to be drugged to fly. Was it only later that she assumed terrible things would happen? I seem to have caught that from her, again with a delay.

My therapist today pointed out from what I was saying about my mother and her utterly miserable childhood, and about her as a grown woman, that she never acted as though she deserved anything. And as we talked about my mother I realised we were also talking about me. I, too, when asked, say that what I want for my birthday is nothing. I, too, will do things for others but not for myself. We used to say that the joke about Jewish mothers was actually written for my Aryan mother.

‘How many adult children does it take to change a lightbulb?’
‘Oh, don’t mind me, I’ll sit in the dark’.

And that’s what I have done, too. There are no family photos of me. I was always behind the camera. I didn’t buy things for myself all the years that BH was failing to provide (but always about to) because I could carry on wearing the same tatty pants and traggy bums, but the children were growing and needed new shoes (and anyway we had an £8000 a month mortgage and three sets of schoolfees). I used to write lists of things I would buy when the money was there, and then sometimes things would appear that were for me, but not usually, even then, when they were merely pie in the sky. And now, I struggle with the question of whether to go on holiday, if it’s just me and not the kids.

But then, I have been hiding for a long time in plain and ever plainer sight. Don’t look at me, but look at my perfect children and my genius husband. Don’t look at me but look at my beautiful tasteful home and garden. And all the while getting bigger and bigger.



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Florence Feynman

I am a middle aged, middle class woman, thinking.

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