I wish I'd thought of The Daughterhood. This is going to be huge.
So, this book asks a very simple question — how are you going to feel at your mother's funeral?
It's so obvious, but it winds you.
This book names something unbearable, and holds us to the deepest meaning of it. To ask about our mothers is to ask about the nature of love, and our capacity to understand love, whether it was given in our earliest years, or withheld.
The Daughterhood tells the story of what the authors went through, from Natasha Fennell's own realisation that her mother was not immortal, through convening a group of women connected solely through their wish to improve their relationship with their mothers before it was too late, then the Motherwork that each daughter tried to undertake, and finally to epilogues from the authors' wonderful, articulate mothers themselves.
The Daughterhood is unashamedly a self-help group, but is really giving a name to what is already happening out there — daughters who worry about their mothers as they age.
Like the authors, Natasha Fennell and Róisín Ingle, I have found that every time I get together with good girlfriends, talk will, at some stage, turn towards our mothers. This turn in the conversation has been happening regularly, for many of us at least from the time of becoming mothers ourselves, probably before. The ratio of complaint to concern in these conversations has also been shifting for many years.
My friends and I know that we are all representatives of the 'squeezed middle' — middle aged, middle class, middle income, mid-career, usually (but not always) caught painfully between young children and ageing parents. Our conversations have certainly been as much about self-pity as about our mothers. We fret, rant, and talk about ourselves. The actual mother tends to be secondary. Until I read The Daughterhood, I could pretend these were still indulgent moans about bossy mums trying to rule our lives. Now I can't.
Now, in our mid-forties, it is undeniable that our mothers are turning seventy-five or eighty, perhaps starting to suffer from cancer or dementia, losing husbands, their own friends, becoming lonely or fragile. Some of my friends are actually losing mothers. Some of my friends are facing life-threatening illness themselves. Of course. It's life. You can't stop it, can you?
The difference is that it is our lives, our mothers' lives at stake. No more rehearsals, no more luxury of time. This is as real as it gets. Our mothers are going to die. And so, by extension, are we.
What gets trampled in this crazy slide towards an ending is the heart of the relationship. In the practicalities of pills, rushed phone calls and frustration, we lose the opportunity either to have or to mend our Motherbonds. This book allows all that chatter of daily life to fall away, and gives women permission to anchor themselves, by concentrating on their mothers — whatever the state of the relationship.
By giving it a name, the authors of The Daughterhood are also creating rules and boundaries which actively support a project with an aim, rather than wading about in amorphous, rather hopeless feelings. You are given the space to reflect on what you might do yourself. While you read the book, you can think about your mother in a completely new way — with love, without guilt. As the authors tell you how they brought together the Daughterhood, what they set out to do, and what actually happened, you feel part of the group by proxy. You are listening in on all kinds of daughters, and all kinds of maternal relationships, some of them unbearably painful. Not all relationships with mothers can be redeemed, some are dysfunctional and dangerous. They are the saddest of all.
One of the most helpful elements in the book is the creation of a daughterly typology: the Busy Daughter, the Daughter of Madness, the Daughter of Narcissism, the Becoming-My-Mother Daughter, the Grieving-Her-As-She-Lives Daughter, the Dependent Daughter, the Dedicated Daughter, the Reluctant and the Disappointing Daughter. I defy readers not to identify with at least one of those categories, more likely several. Probably there are other categories of daughter, and the book doesn't try to cover everything, just to pinpoint what was driving each of the relationships in the small group which composed this particular Daughterhood.
The point is not that this Motherwork can somehow be finished — a mother's work is never done — but that bringing one's attention to the relationship between daughter and mother itself takes that relationship forward towards an irrevocable turning point, and helps both parties cope with it. Whether this is about practical things like spending more time with one's mother, actually listening to her, or making a decision to cut off from an abusive mother entirely, there is Motherwork that every kind of daughter can do.
The Daughterhood actively and directly shifts the spotlight from us, the daughters, to them, the mothers. It felt like being cradled and urged out of the cradle at one and the same time. This active shift, miraculously, seems to allow both parties to become truly who they are. Who are our mothers in the last years of their lives? What is it like to get older? What would they really like (as opposed to what we think is good for them)? Asking these questions, it turns out, is certainly about honouring our mothers, but underneath it is also about honouring ourselves, we who will be next.