Two weeks after my mother’s death, I went to see Richard Linklater’s film ‘Boyhood’ with two close friends. The kind of friends who don’t mind me not talking but slumping down in a cinema with tears periodically streaming down my face, the inevitability of the passage of time playing out in front of us, as the boy in the title grows from a six year old to an eighteen year old.
As the mother of two sons, the film initially made me think about my boys and identify strongly with the protagonist and his mother, as she also ages. Yes, my boy(s) would do or feel that I thought countless times as Mason Junior was by turns shy, charming or reckless. And my heart bled for the character of the mother, especially at the end of the film as her son drove off to college and she was left exhausted in the kitchen, after years of having to cope with managing the day to day, crying ‘I thought there would be more’.
However, when I thought about the film later, I wondered why I hadn’t really considered my daughter during the film. Was it just because the film was mainly about Mason – the others, including his sister, being bit players in his story? Yes, that was probably part of it. But I also wonder if I have also bought into the received wisdom that sons grow up and leave you, but daughters stay with you – as the saying goes, ‘a son is yours until he marries, a daughter’s yours for life’. Was I more affected by the scene of Mason driving happily away in the sunshine to his new life, because I anticipate my sons doing just that, without a backward glance, in a way that my daughter will not? Perhaps it is because I have a teenage son, who I can see engineering his own separation from me already, a developmental stage which my daughter has not yet reached?
Just this week, there was another headline in the newspapers, asserting that you need to have daughters if you expect anybody to look after you in old age. Sons just aren’t going to cut it. I have been asked many times by elderly people in the course of my work whether I have any daughters and when I say yes, one daughter and two sons, they pat my hand and say ‘you needn’t worry then, love, your girl will see you right’.
I sincerely hope that all my children will want to be in close contact with me as they grow up and when they are adults and not merely consider me as a duty to be contacted. I also hope that my daughter in particular seizes every opportunity that comes her way and does not fall prey to any stereotypes about being the ‘caring’ one. Yet, as the mother now to one teenager, with one pre-teen waiting hotly in the wings, I can acknowledge that hoping for enthusiastic continued contact with all my children during the next couple of decades may be unrealistic.
I talked to my teenage son about the film, trying to use it as a device to keep the lines of communication open with him. I explained how the boy in the film grows up and away from his family and how it makes clear that at times he found them embarrassing. Trying to enforce a meaningful conversation on my reluctant son as he sat texting and avoiding eye contact, I stressed that I wanted him to know that I hoped he would always talk to me in private, even if I understood he may start to find it embarrassing to do so in front of others (we have had recent conversations about him only grunting to me when I ask him a question in front of one of his friends). ‘In the future?’ he said, somewhat incredulous – ‘mum, you’ve been overwhelmingly embarrassing for ages already’. Taken aback, I asked for more details. How long had I been embarrassing? ‘As long as I have been aware of the concept of embarrassment’, he answered adding, rather unnecessarily ‘and I think I learned that quite young’. He found me the most embarrassing person in the world, he said. And then, with a flash of the future heart breaker, he stopped texting just long enough to put his hand on mine and say ‘but I love you the best of everyone in the world too’.
After this conversation, I asked my ten year old daughter whether she found me embarrassing. ‘Not really’ she said. ‘Maybe sometimes when you sing, but I don’t really mind’. Undaunted, I asked the same of my eight year old son. ‘Never’ he stated loyally, jumping onto my knee, adding that he loves me so much that he wants to live with me forever. A sliding scale of embarrassment, neatly correlating with the age of the potential embarrassee, it would seem.
I feel confident that my eight year old will not be sitting on my knee asking to live with me forever in five years’ time, but he will still be the same person in five years’ time, just him in his thirteen year old form. One thing I found very moving about ‘Boyhood’ was that it was impossible at the end of the film not to see the face of the six year old boy in the face of the eighteen year old young man – the making manifest in front of our eyes that our experiences and emotions stay with us, even if we choose to put them on the back burner for a while. My older son may tell me that I am overwhelmingly embarrassing now, but when I look at his face, I shall choose to see the toddler who would not leave my side and the nine year old who clutched my hand on the way to school and kissed me goodbye in the playground (in front of his friends). The fact that he would not allow this to happen now as he grows towards independence must not be allowed to negate the fact that it happened and it is part of the fabric of his makeup. It is a part, too, of my experience of mothering him, a bank of goodwill which I sometimes need to draw on to compensate for teenage apathy and antagonism. When my younger son chooses to hurl himself at me and demand kisses and cuddles, I will accept them gladly, because I see that they may not last much longer.
I recall feeling when my children were very small that they were part of me, quite literally part of my flesh. With that visceral sense of belonging, came a sense of ownership. As they grow up, it is a painful realisation that they are not mine at all. Quite obviously, they are their own people and I would be failing as a mother if I could not accept and celebrate that. Whilst I feel so close to them at times that I feel I do know what they are thinking and how they are feeling, I cannot know that for sure and this is increasingly the case. Secrets are starting, doors are shutting, friends are being made without my control or knowledge, texts are being exchanged about my unreasonableness. All as it should be, no doubt. So do I even have the right to write about them? Is it in any way appropriate to appropriate our exchanges for my writing? It is a fine line and one which I am keen not to overstep. I hope I can reflect upon my relationship with them only in so far as I can see the relevance to me as a parent, to inform and validate my own experiences as a mother. Whilst I would have had few qualms about writing about my baby’s first steps, or infant dancing lesson, for example, it is quite another to dare to plunder their lives as they grow up for my own purposes and I am struggling to tread the line sensitively and meaningfully.
There is a scene in Boyhood where Mason’s High School teacher tells him that he is special, that he’s ‘got something’. Then he points out that he has a classroom of students who may also be special and who are definitely more focussed on success. When my mother died recently, it made me feel special, for all the wrong reasons. I feel illuminated by grief, special in my sadness and trauma and alone in the world, as though nobody could be feeling as I did. But then I look around and see many people I know who have also lost a parent and who must therefore also have been through that emotional maelstrom. Each time I gave birth, I felt singled out by the amazing thing that had happened to me – I had done something extraordinary, and survived! Then I looked around at all the other people who have done exactly the same or, heroically, taken the amazing step of adopting a child. The fact that my experiences are not unique should not negate my feelings of uniqueness, in being a mother or in being bereaved, but I hope will allow me to show compassion and understanding to others who are going through the business of living, growing up and dying.