Have you ever considered interviewing your parents about their lives? Adult to adult, face-to-face? Asking about decisions they made, or that were made for them. How they may have felt, for example, about being shoe-horned into conventions of their day whether they liked it or not. Especially our mothers, who perhaps had little choice over how far they got to go with their education, over what profession they went into, if any at all, over who they married. And what about fathers who may have reached adulthood under the weight — the compressive duty — to continue a family tradition, whether they wanted to or not?
What are their most vivid memories of their childhoods?
How were they parented?
What did they want from their lives?
And if they had wants, were they even their own wants? Or someone else’s?
I’ve worked in the factual television industry for many years developing new documentaries. I’ve interviewed many people, from famous psychopath researchers, leading sex change surgeons and very, very rich people to people who make their living selling stuff that fell off the back of a lorry — and they’ve been among the cleverest and kindest. I’ve interviewed homeless alcoholics and drug addicts, aristocrats, a robotics engineer with a terminal illness on a mission to invent his way out of an early death and a retired porn star who once worked as a scientist at the Johnson Space Centre (not joking).
But I will never do a more interesting, more powerful nor more personally transformative interview than with each of my parents. Knowing what I do now, it is impossible for me to hold onto hurt at my mother‘s furious response to my decision to divorce, and total absence of support for the process. Nor can I resent my father for the breakdown in the intimacy in their marriage which so upset my mother and, I would realise, had a profound impact on my life choices as an adult.
The more they spoke, the more I became aware of impressions made on me, on my mindset, on my behaviour formed long before I was born, perhaps before they were born. Ultimately, I came to understand why I sleep-walked into a marriage I did not want.
And why I must forgive myself for walking away from it.
I started interviewing my father over a series of lunches together while he was being treated for prostate cancer. He was having hormone treatment combined with chemotherapy and then a course of radiotherapy and every few weeks, he’d go to meet his consultant to review the cancer’s progress, or regress. I would take time off work to go with him, because I understood what the doctors were saying and knew what questions to ask, whereas my mother felt far less confident interrogating them. Afterwards, we’d take ourselves across the road to a brasserie we’d discovered that my father really enjoyed. It was all dark wood, white linen and bits of brass with seafood and steak and French words on the menu and it is absolutely the antithesis of a hospital ward, so I expect it made him forget. We’d order cold white wine, occasionally champagne and often oysters and get tipsy and he’d come alive and kind of twinkle.
And because it was just us, and tongues were loosened, and because a certain tautness that exists between my parents when they are in a room together was absent, I started using these opportunities to ask my father any questions about him, about his life. So, in a slightly wine-y, windy kind of way, these lunches evolved into interviews. Eventually I asked if I could record and he agreed.
I’d known outlines before — anecdotes, impressions, snapshots, stops along a timeline — but here I was able to shade things in. My father doesn’t deal in the language or temperatures of emotion, so the shading in was words spoken, things thought, paths hesitated over but not taken, the littering of near misses and other possibilities that give a person’s story its punch and poignancy. His words were pregnant with the absence of his descriptions of how he might have felt about things, so there is always a risk that I might fill those absences in with my projections.
My father was a child born in the dying days of the Raj to Edwardian parents in India during World War Two. His father was away in Burma for long stretches without his mother knowing whether he was alive or dead. He eventually came home when the war ended and life continued, but though his parents were good people, they were of their time and could be emotionally aloof, his father in particular. My father was sent to boarding school in England aged 10. For the next four years, he only saw them for a month out of every year, all-too-brief bursts of India’s outsized colour and texture and days packed with ‘outings’. They felt it was for the best for him and his elder sister, and so it was decided.
“Did you mind not seeing your parents?” I asked.
I waited for more, my silence perhaps loudly asking ‘and…?’
“But children get over things like that.”
What did he mean by that?
“Well, they wrote every week, they were good. That was just life and one got on with it,” he replied, not answering the question at all.
It isn’t so much that children get over things like this; I think it’s more that they are good at adapting. Decades later, when I went to boarding school myself aged 11, I found my own ways. For most of my adult life, I thought I remembered taking to it like a duck to water, but about a year ago I found my old school reports from my first school year as a boarder, my parents having moved to Indonesia. ‘Vague’ and ‘a dreamer’ are recurrent phrases. And ‘must try hard to concentrate.’ We were allowed to write a little self-assessment in each report, and my pre-teen self felt that my work was ‘a bit under my top standard because I was worried about my parents.’ There’s a sense of withdrawal, of spending my time adrift in a different reality, hovering between the lines of those first reports.
Back in the 1950s, however, my father’s method was to throw himself into things. There was a constant doing and moving, onwards and upwards, via promotion to Head Boy at his private all-boys prep school and endless sports. Moving on to an exclusive boys’ secondary school, the same his father had attended, he drew the attention of bullies for a while, until he learned to fight back. His assessment of it all, when I asked him about feelings, was ‘it was just life and I got on with it,’ with a shrug. I didn’t feel that he was lying — he had no reason to. It was more that he seemed to have learned to bury emotions where they could not bother him much — what good were they if they could not fly him to India? — so that their ability to rise to the surface, his ability to feel the impact of them — the flipping and gripping — was blunted. There is a sort of buffer between their existence and his perception and, above all, expression of them. I have never heard my father say ‘I feel…’ anything. You could argue that it’s a kind of resilience.
My father continued to follow the route laid down by generations of men before him. Because he wanted to? Hard to be sure. There was a brief flirtation with the idea of going into the perfume industry following a marketing internship after school, something he described as ‘really interesting’. But my grandfather ‘had some old-fashioned ideas’ about the kind of work a man should do, and so he went to Sandhurst Military Academy and became a British Army officer like his father, and grandfather, and great-grandfather. He worked his way up the ranks, one of the boys, big and strong and always active, always teaching new recruits how to sail or taking them skiing. He was living this life and driving a soft top sports car when he met my mother in a bar in London.
I interviewed my mother in one sitting via Zoom during the first lockdown in London, and with little else to do, she was only too happy to sign up.
“What are your most distinct memories of growing up?”
“I hated it; I was so miserable.”
She loved to read and longed to curl up in corners with a book, but that wasn’t allowed because it was idle. Her days were characterised instead by work assigned by her mother. Tasks around the house, or in the very large garden, and to ‘do it properly,’ to ‘not make a mess,’ whether it was sweeping up leaves, polishing or taking something to the compost heap. She lived alongside an understanding that she could never do anything right. Her father, a banker up in London after he returned from the war, was also set to work when he came home, equally under my grandmother’s control and equally incapable of doing things to her satisfaction. My uncle, six years older than my mother and studying for his medical exams, was the only one left alone; he was going to be important and had important things to do.
Aged 14 my mother was sent to a girls’ boarding school a few towns away where she didn’t know anyone and where the other girls laughed at her because she never had the right clothes. They were old and unfashionable and handed to her with ‘this will do, you can just wear that.’ Her school reports were scribbled mainly with B or B+, received not with ‘well done’ but with round after round of ‘you could do better, why don’t you work harder?’ If she went out to a dance and got dressed up in the few clothes she had, she would be waved off at the front door with some variation of ‘you do look a mess, is that the best you can do?’ And so, she understood that she couldn’t look right, either. Day after day after day, she displeased her mother.
“Did you feel upset?”
“No, it wasn’t that it upset me, because I didn’t know any different. And I understood even then that life was tough for her. She’d lost her sister when she was very young, my father went to war just after she’d had her first child, her brother was killed in Burma. But as a child you just went along with what happened to you. It was a different world. We didn’t have emails, social media, not much television. You did what you were told until you got out from under.”
What getting out from under looked like, however, she had no idea. There was no careers advice at school, no Internet of opportunities. Her mother wanted her to go to secretarial college. She did not want to go to secretarial college. But what she wanted did not matter. There was one attempt at intervention, at some kind of ambition for a future for her beyond nurse/teacher/secretary. Her favourite subject was English, and her English teacher approached her parents at a school speech day when she was 16. She spoke of their daughter’s talents and asked if they had thought about what she might do after school. She’s bright. University, perhaps, to study English or law? My grandmother said:
“Oh, I don’t think she wants to do that.”
And my mother’s future was sealed with a curt flick of skirts as my grandmother turned to leave.
A string of typist jobs in London followed before — coming into a little money on her 21st birthday — she booked a one-way ticket on a ship sailing for Australia, determined to travel — to get out from under with the assistance of as many nautical miles as possible. Life in Australia was sunny, smiling, and lived outdoors. Free. There were flatmates, boyfriends, jobs and, eventually, the job that would hold her attention until she married, as an air stewardess. She settled into a life of flying the world throughout the Sixties. Until one evening, back in London in 1969, a friend who knew someone in the Army in a regiment full of men who wanted to meet girls dragged her out to the same bar as my father.
Love & Marriage
Strange to think that on that evening in that bar the possibility of my existence began to swirl like a gathering up of leaves dancing patterns on a breeze.
I asked them both what was said. They both replied:
“If you’re very good, I might take you out to dinner.” My father’s words.
“Appalling,” said my father. “I absolutely regret it.”
“Appalling, really,” my mother said. “I don’t know why I didn’t walk out right then and there.”
She didn’t, though. So, I asked them both what drew them to the other.
“She was full of life. She was interesting and pretty.”
“He was just, um, full of life, back then.” My mother echoed, almost word for word. She had more to say, though. “It wasn’t love at first sight, or anything like that. I was never head over heels in love with him — “
- I kept my facial expression unaltered while this admission — delivered without breaking stride — landed in my heart -
“ — but he had ideas for things to do, he was imaginative, always had a plan. The others all looked up to him and he was always getting them into trouble. Life was interesting, with him. The sports car, the parties, everyone in uniforms and gold braid, and we were always going away to places…”
I arranged some words into: “Was there an expectation to be in love with the person you married back then?”
“I don’t think it was something I really thought about. You noticed what your friends were doing, and it just sort of developed from there.”
Nothing happened very quickly. It went on and off for a bit and then it was more on than off. My father proposed after knowing her for six months, and then was immediately posted to Northern Ireland on a tour of duty. They married on his return. This is what my father described. Yet my mother lived a few potential lifetimes in those five months. She travelled back to Australia, as she often did, in love with so much out there. From the other side of the world, she considered not returning. But in the end, couldn’t bring herself to break the engagement, to hurt my father, to cause ‘awful trouble — you just didn’t do that sort of thing.’ Did she want to get married? Yes. Why?
Because she was 27
and her friends were getting married
and it was the thing to do in your mid-twenties
and planning the wedding was exciting
and the honeymoon to Kenya
and, and, and….
So, these two people, with their stories, exchanged vows and joined their lives under English law. My mother had to give up flying, because she had to follow my father wherever he was posted by the Army. And because women were expected to give up their jobs when they got married, a social convention called the ‘marriage bar’ that was alive and well in the Seventies. My mother had friends who kept quiet about getting married so that they could keep doing the jobs they loved. But she crashed into the tedium and sense of self-worthlessness of joblessness, until she could stand it no longer and picked up ad hoc jobs wherever they were posted to supplement their income and her sanity.
And a decade later, these people became my and my sister’s parents. It is to my mother’s eternal credit that she did not parent us the way she was parented. Her love language is touch, and so our childhoods were filled with affection. I also grew up praised for every achievement, whether a reasonably good school report or a bucketful of pet tadpoles.
But I also grew up assuming it was normal for parents not to touch one another.
To my father, everything concerning his marriage was ‘fine.’ I knew the same would not be true of my mother, a deep feeler. When I was about five years old, she made a decision not to leave our father. Intimacy had died after my younger sister was born, no matter what she tried to do to re-ignite it. My father’s defence mechanism — his emotional buffer — also means that he can struggle to read strong feelings in others when they require some sort of engagement from him, so my mother’s anger and frustration were answered largely with silence, ‘like a brick wall.’ Not because he is callous. He has always passively radiated love for my sister and me, through his constant involvement in our projects and games, his building of things, his fatherly doing, warmth and affection leaking out of his great big hands as they held our tiny ones. But partners have far more complex needs, and he simply had not developed the tools to respond to my mother’s.
“I quite often used to have great scenes, floods of tears. It didn’t make any difference. He just is what he is. But there was nothing I could do because I hadn’t trained for anything, because I hadn’t had that opportunity, so I knew I couldn’t earn my own living, or at least not with any degree of comfort, so it was better to stay put. I decided that, for me, there was more to life than that. If I had hated where I was living, well who knows, but I was having a nice life, abroad, and with you two, so it became a low priority.”
Decades later, I sleep-walked into something very like my parents’ marriage.
My ex-husband and I did fun things, we wanted the same things, for a while. We bought a house and settled down into a comfortable London life. We went out a lot, we went away a lot, there were always plans and ideas. Then intimacy started seeping out through hairline cracks…so I made more plans. There were moments of clarity that pushed through. I would find myself getting dressed up to go to another party and think: Why am I bothering? Nothing will come of it. I’ll see other men looking at me, but not my husband. When we went to bed, there wouldn’t be sex, nor the next day, nor the day after that. Not unless I initiated it, just because if I didn’t, we never would. We would just co-habit. Not without fun and laughter. Just without being lovers, without me being touched intimately. Periodically I would try to talk about it, but it seemed to slide off him. I would reason with myself — sitting in our big house, with all our friends, our holidays planned, our lives interlocked — intimacy is not the only thing, after all.
There was something else at play though. I struggled with a sense of my identity having been subsumed by this marriage. We had become a collective, referred to in the plural. I was his ‘other half,’ my personal and professional lives somehow overshadowed by the role of traditional wife and homemaker that I had walked into because, well…
I had been in a long-term relationship and that’s what people do
and there had been a proposal
and a big ring
and everyone was excited
and there was a wedding to plan
and, and, and…
And a sense of my not-enough-ness that had begun whispering in my ear as I filled out my adulthood now became loud. I yearned for a non-collective, separate, individually accomplished me, and though I couldn’t place where this voice telling me of my inadequacy had sprung from, I sensed I could not do whatever I needed to do to overcome it within the confines of this marriage.
Eventually, one day, repressed desire and opportunity collided, and I became involved with someone else. Where I am fortunate is that I and my ex-husband are of a different generation. When I told him I’d been with another man, we went to therapy and together agreed to let each other go.
But my decision to divorce — rather than stick with the marriage — made my mother rage. It went something like this:
You have a wonderful life-you have everything anyone could possibly want-why would you throw it all away-intimacy isn’t everything-I should know-there are more important things in life….
Her anger was thick and frightening. She could barely look at me, barely be in the same room as me. And that absence of support, as I picked up the pieces of my life, was heart-breaking. But I could not find it within to hold that against her. Why? Because I knew what lay beneath her anger. I came to know her better and better as a person, revelations about her own life seeping out of her wounds along with the hurt at the loss of the kind and well-resourced man she had trusted to take care of her little girl.
Interviewing her meant picking at this wound, but I knew it was an important one to close, which meant a woman-to-woman, not mother-to-daughter, conversation.
“How did the lack of intimacy in your marriage make you feel as a woman?” I asked.
“It destroyed my confidence. I remember thinking, ‘I really can’t be very attractive’.”
“Exactly. You wonder what’s wrong with you. For me, feeling desired is a very important part of my sense of personal power and femininity.”
Nevertheless, she didn’t want me to divorce because she wanted me to have all the material resources I could possibly need to pursue whatever career I wanted in life, the very thing she had been denied. But I decided I couldn’t make the same decision that she had, and I didn’t have children to consider. Intimacy is too important to me, and I was prepared to start over again. But the stark difference is that I had the benefit of a university education behind me, thanks to my parents, and the potential to be well paid in a profession without needing the financial support of a husband. We had been wrangling over my divorce from either side of a startling generation gap, a post-war child born into a society still piecing together the way of life their fathers, uncles and brothers had fought to protect, craving security and certainty; and a millennial with the world at her fingertips who values freedom and fulfilment.
I came to understand through these conversations that the decisions I’ve made have been shaped by social and political forces that were at work on my grandparents’ and parents’ world views decades before I was conceived. We tend to associate the word ‘Trauma’ with exposure to something catastrophic — a war, physical or sexual abuse, a natural disaster. And certainly, studies have indicated that the impacts of the Second World War on bodies and psyches may have reverberated through the generations thanks to the mechanisms of epigenetics, extreme psychological and emotional stress able to bring about physiological changes in the environments of our cells and affect how our genes are expressed — changes that are transmissible to the next generation. But there is such a thing as small ‘t’ trauma, and it too — as so eye-openingly described in the works of Dr Gabor Mate, Bessel Van Der Kolk and Mark Wolynn, inherited family trauma expert and author of It Didn’t Start With You — can time-travel. Removals of choice and agency that mould children to a perceived ideal not their own, by parents doing their best with what they’ve been handed. Expressions on faces, tones of voice, denials of youthful truths. Words unconsciously chosen to frighten, shame or discourage. The daily language of put-downs of my mother’s childhood, which eroded her self-worth, were a war too, simply of a different kind, waged on a different scale. These things also leave imprints, our behavioural adaptations to them perpetuating patterns of parenting, of self-image, of world view along family trees, with the potential to impact the choices made by our children’s children.
I believe that the not-good-enoughness I’ve found so hard to move past in my life was never my reality; it had been my mother’s, a constant lived experience, verbally reinforced at every opportunity. Yet somehow it washed up in me.
I may never pinpoint exactly what it was, but something caused me to lift my eyes from the path ahead and to seek a diversion. To radically change my life. To break a cycle. To heal. It has been hard finding my way to the wholeness I crave, the inner work of finding more of, and breaking free from, those ingrained patterns exhausting. At times, I have not been gentle or kind enough to myself. And no doubt I’ve caused my mother in particular pain, and not just by my past actions; these are difficult conversations to have within a family. But they’ve enabled me to forgive myself for giving up on a marriage entered into for reasons not entirely my own. And the relationships I’ve gained with my parents as people is proving to be worth it.
What did my father say about my divorce? It is one of the few times he articulated something that pulsed brightly with feeling:
“Oh I wasn’t so bothered about the end of the marriage. All I cared about was that you were happy.”