Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Growing up, moving out

My daughter just turned six. When she's good, she's very very good. And when she's bad, well... But yesterday, as we were ambling home from school, she was good. More than good; she was farsighted, thoughtful, generous, compassionate.

We were walking and talking, when she suddenly leaned into me. 'I love you, Mama,' she said. She went on to say that when she gets older, she might go and live near the beach for a while, or perhaps go away and 'have some adventures'. But, she warned, even after she left she still wanted her father and me to stay in our house 'because we're doing such good things with the garden' - and because after her adventures she'd like to come home and live with us again and look after us in our old age.

Only a month ago we visited my grandparents. They live in another city, so we rarely see them. My grandfather is very frail; my grandmother has advanced Alzheimers, and scarcely moves, let alone speaks. She sits in a dream, flashing out a random smile now and then on a good day, but otherwise completely passive. My daughters watched me feed her with a spoon, and wipe her nose, and clean up her dribble. And my six year old notices and remembers everything.

I found myself wondering, does she mean this? even this? would she really want to feed me and wipe at my snot and dab at my dribble? Even if she imagines a more benign aging process, will she really cook for me one day?

And it raised other memories, painful memories. My mother had a very aggressive form of multiple sclerosis and was quadriplegic for a couple of years before she died. She needed people to brush her hair and clean her teeth, wipe her nose, wash her, dress her, and do everything else. My father and a carer did most of the work, all praise to them.

My mother and I had a fraught relationship; always at war, I had moved out. Even then, we struggled to negotiate the most basic aspects of care. If I came over and brushed her hair, I'd do it too soft or too hard or in some way other wrong. I couldn't even wipe her nose right. I fled to the kitchen and cooked, instead.

When the disease became acute, I suggested that I move home to help out in a bigger way. It seemed the only thing to do. But she, very rightly, refused. We had never got along when she was well; the chances of us negotiating her dependency were close to zilch. More importantly, for her, she believed I had to become fully adult and would be warped by returning home. It was crucial to her that I had space to expand and grow, and she couldn't see that happening under her roof.

My daughter's comment yesterday recalled all this. And it made me wonder, will she and I end up in a fraught relationship, too? She is brittle and fragile, like me, and could easily freeze over for a decade, like me. I already see the shoals ahead. Then again, I have learned some things my mother never knew: that when my daughter's aggressive and rude, pushing me away, the best thing I can do is give her a hug. She thaws every time. Maybe, just maybe we can negotiate a softer, more generous relationship. Maybe she could brush my hair, and I could enjoy it.

We've often made jokes that when she grows up, she and her family can live downstairs and cook for me, and I'll live upstairs and play with all the babies - she says she wants five. And I'm touched by her suggestion, and thrilled that she thinks of me as a person who ages and changes and will one day need care. It means that I'm not just mum to her.

Given all this, if we can find a gentle way to be together, would I want her to look after me? Would I really want my daughter to move back home to cook, clean and attend to my personal needs? And I realise that, at this stage, I wouldn't. No matter how bad things get, and I've sat with my mother through years of pain and suffering so I've a fair idea, I can't imagine I would want my daughter to shrink her life back down to me.

Like my mother, I want my daughter to grow up and out. I want her to explore the world, ever expanding her circles of experience. I want her to go live by her beach, or travel and 'have some adventures'; I want her to form independent relationships and build her own tribe; I want her to move out from under my shadow and grow tall and true. When I enter my doddery old age, I don't want my daughter to be warped, submissive or thwarted by me. I prefer to think of her picking grapes on an Italian hillside, or hiking through the jungle, or sitting on a mountain top, reflecting. And as I sit in my quiet room, I will flick through her postcards and smile.


  1. I have been wondering lately just how one holds two desires.

    First, the desire to continue the story, honouring, celebrating and living out of what has already been. For whatever has transpired, God has been present.

    And second, the desire for a God who interrupts the story, taking it in new and unexpected directions. Enabling a new liberty.

    Your reflection encourages me to hold onto both. Thank you Alison.

  2. this is so beautiful. of course, I have cried through most of it as I was a very independent daughter with an insatiable need to be myself and now have a 14 year old daughter who has the same need. you must publish this stuff. it is really really really good.


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