Illustration by Josie Moir
I really, really love my Mum, Deborah. She and I have always been alike, but now more than ever we finish each other’s sentences. Talking to her can evoke a similar feeling to reading my own writing from a while ago: as points are being made, I’m thinking what “I” would say next, and in both my own writing and in my Mum’s speech that is exactly what is said next, To understand and be understood by someone is such a warm, safe feeling of human connection. I am incredibly lucky.
Our upbringings had some significant things in common as well as some significant differences. We’re both oldest daughters with two younger siblings, though mine are two sisters and hers are two brothers. We’ve both grown up in Jewish families, although her family attended an orthodox synagogue for lack of a reform option in a very non-Jewish area, and my family goes quite irregularly to a liberal synagogue in what is comparatively quite a Jewish area.
I’ve lived in the same house all my life, but my Mum and her family spent a year in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, when she was 14, which she hated. Despite describing a “very happy and pretty uneventful childhood”, that year was extremely difficult for her, as she was taken away from her comfortable, familiar home with her established friendships and was thrown into a completely foreign environment. Because she was so intelligent, she attended high school instead of being in an age-appropriate year group, and therefore found herself surrounded by 16-year-olds and older when she was just 14. She describes a drama lesson, where two of her classmates performed a scene that involved graphic simulation of sex onstage and feeling like she was absolutely not in the right place.
Like me too, she has always been able to rely on her mother. She synthesised this beautifully: “Every time I have needed her, in my entire life, up to and including now, she has been there for me.” It really is so joyful to see this paradigm of mother and daughter relationships. There’s a photo of me, my mother, my mother’s mother, and my mother’s mother’s mother from when I was about a year old, which visually encapsulates this generational legacy of love, and speaks to the potency of these patterns.
It isn’t impossible, by any means, to change an inveterate pattern within a family, but it’s certainly natural to follow in the footsteps of what came before you, and I feel so lucky to be able to depend on this century-long safety net. There’s something that feels particularly monumental about mothers and daughters, about this chain of solidarity and alliance that stretches back through women over time. We hold such power just by being a part of them.
And my Mum was really pleased to have daughters. Again, I have to concede to her superior phraseology: “Up until recently, I thought why would anyone want a boy, they’re dull and they don’t talk to you and they’re a bit shit.” Lately, however, she’s been thinking slightly differently. She feels very conscious of the responsibility of parents of boys, something which these parents themselves don’t always seem to recognise. She knows that if she had had sons, she could have at least ensured that there were a couple of decent boys in the world.
“There’s nothing I can do to make boys good,” she says. You can’t protect your girls “from other people’s fucking boys.” She recalled a story that I’m not sure she’d ever told me, about looking at my reception class one day, and watching the girls, who were able to line up properly, sit nicely, and follow instructions, whilst the boys hit each other with sticks. She remembers how this moment solidified much of what she had always felt about sexism – that in 20 years time, these boys hitting each other with sticks will be earning more than these girls who are better than them.
As a mother, though, this sense of the injustice of gendered possibilities has not impacted her desire to make us feel able to do whatever it is we want to do. We discussed, like in my conversations with my grandmothers, the changing rhetoric around what was possible for women. In my grandparents’ generation, for women of a certain class, it was unusual as a mother to have a career. For women, there was a decision to be made between the professional and the domestic, with a clear understanding that you could not and should not have both.
My mother’s generation, coming of age in the 80s, was brought up with the modern idea that women could, in fact, have it all. But as my Mum later discovered, there were significant problems with this philosophy. Not only is it extremely exclusive, catering only to those with the privilege to facilitate education, training, and employment while still claiming to speak to the everywoman, but it is also unrealistic. My Mum found out that – even with my Dad as a hugely devoted and involved parent – it was impossible to be a parent in the way she wanted to be, and also continue her career trajectory in the civil service. For the short period in which my Mum did attempt to “have it all”, she instead found herself stretched thin, without the time for anything that wasn’t working or parenting, and completely exhausted.
We talked about how we felt that the narrative around women, working, and parenting had changed for the current generation, and how hopefully, the difference will be in the partners, and the ability to be “explicit upfront that raising children is a joint project”, which, luckily it absolutely has been for my Mum and Dad. While my parents grew up in families where academic achievement was valued very highly, they consciously wanted to signal that there are lots of other things that are important, like kindness, and passion, and being a good person. We reflected on the growing prevalence of this mentality of prioritising happiness, and how by encouraging the pursuit of your own interests, you also encourage the rejection of the “having it all” fallacy.
This feels to my Mum like a crucial difference between my generation and hers – the understanding that passion is powerful and important, and a lessening discomfort about academic people choosing creative or less lucrative paths. We also talked about social media and how it can make life less lonely for marginal people. At my Mum’s secondary school, there was only one other Jewish person. She loved travelling to Israel at 16 and then meeting more Jewish people at university, and finding an additional community amongst them.
Most strikingly, she spoke about the increased emotional literacy (a phrase that we both like a lot) of my generation compared to hers, with my sisters and me educated in a school that emphasised this, enabling us to become capable of and confident in expressing our emotions eloquently. We talked about how when it comes to discussing mental health, she “feels comfortable, with the caveat that [she is] conscious that for other people it can be uncomfortable”, and how this has changed over her lifetime as this conversation has become decreasingly taboo. Over the last couple of years, “we’ve got better as a family at talking about it, and better at hearing others with more empathy and understanding”. Because of this, mental health and mental illness “feel less frightening and unknown and something that happens to other people”, she explained, and I agree.
In regards to her own mental health, she has been generally quite lucky, despite experiencing some very challenging periods. Something that we both can struggle with, but are actively working to improve upon, is having the ability to self-regulate: to think about where a negative feeling has come from, what is at its root, and what is its physical manifestation. She laughed about how “it’s like having a baby and running through options of too hot, too cold, hungry, tired”, and how it’s so basic, but she is “genuinely a beginner having gone through life without much introspection actually”.
In response to this, in absolutely classic form, she made a list. It’s called “Feeling shit list”, and it’s a way of noting down some super simple and usually super effective antidotes, like “going for a walk, hugging a daughter, cold water (showering or swimming in it)”. And whilst this kind of thing is really foundational and rudimentary, it’s a great start on a journey towards identifying, understanding, and verbalising how you feel.
Something that my Mum has always been extremely good at is learning. On top of being absolutely mind-bogglingly intelligent (Oxford-degree-to-scholarship-at-Harvard-to-top-of-her-class-at-London-Business-School intelligent), she is also interested, which is a pretty unbeatable combination. This isn’t something that she only applies to academia, but to everything. I think it would be very easy for an intelligent, astute, educated adult to feel that they didn’t have a lot to learn and become quite stagnant in their thinking. Not for my Mum. She is always growing, always learning, and always expanding her worldview. I am incredibly impressed and inspired by that desire.
As I said at the beginning, my Mum and I have a lot in common. Her brother, my Uncle, wears a slight smile on his face whenever I’m talking to him, and will always say “I’m sorry, but you sound *just* like Deborah”. I can’t express how happy that makes me. I know a lot of people dread turning into their mother, and even resent the implication that they might. I could not be further from that. As time goes on, I feel closer and closer to my Mum and I absolutely love it. I know that I am on my way, but I shall make my wish clear: when I grow up, I would like to be a lot like her.